A Coaching Power Tool created by Bianca Vlad
(Life Coach, ROMANIA)
Two of the disciplines that coaching draws from are Positive Psychology and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
From a Positive Psychology standpoint, coaches shift attention from what drives pain to what energizes and moves people into action. The positive psychology framework suggests that a language of strength and vision rather than weakness and pain is the foundation of the coaching conversation. Thus, coaches pay attention to how clients can use their existing strengths to identify their vision of what they want and turn it into reality. Also, the coach will balance the client’s agenda with a larger view of fulfilment that keeps an awareness of the alignment of the client’s vision and values.
Positive psychology doesn’t pretend all people are examples of happiness and equilibrium; too much “positivity” can hurt as well, if it leads to overly optimistic expectations. Positive and negative emotions have different purposes in our lives. Negative ones tend to ensure survival by moving people into action when faced with life-and-death situations. In such a scenario, the individual needs to focus on the problem that must be dealt with quickly. Hence, while negative emotions serve to quickly negotiate critical challenges, positive emotions are interconnected with the competencies that are required most of the time in our lives. Positive emotions boost other psychological functions, like empowering individuals to open up their focus of attention and see the bigger picture. So, the positive emotions are at the core of psychological flourishing and research shows that they have a significant impact on increasing intuition and creativity and widening the scope of attention. They increase our capacity to use different (social, cognitive, and affective) resources.
People also assume that happiness is a response to what happens in life, such as getting a great job or finding a life partner. While obviously big events do have an impact, over time, people tend to return to their preexisting level of happiness (or unhappiness), levelling off after joy and rising up after sorrow. So external factors are not the key to understanding variation in a person’s happiness, but the internal ones are. In other words, it isn’t what happens to people; it’s how they construct and interpret external events, in other words – their thoughts around it. It is clear by now the impact of positive feelings on people’s behaviour – but what is the role of the thoughts behind them?
This is where Cognitive Behavioral Therapy comes into the picture, as CBT’s essential principle states that the way we act is a result of the way we feel, which is in turn, a result of the way we think/interpret a particular situation. Some of the coaching concepts like underlying beliefs, reframing perspective, visualization come from the same school of thought as CBT. It is important to remember that our beliefs are thoughts and ideas that are no longer questioned. Our thoughts influence our feelings and moods, which impact the way we react to different situations. Our thoughts, actions or expectations are a result of our beliefs. So, if our beliefs (and thereby our thoughts) are limiting and negative, particularly about ourselves, we need to be able to challenge these. As difficult as it may seem, we absolutely have control over what we believe and therefore what we think and how we behave or react.
These beliefs are constructed over time, as a result of numerous interactions with parents, teachers, colleagues and friends, society as a whole. They are so profound and old, that the person is not even aware of most of the time. Hence, the person doesn’t necessarily consider them as beliefs, but they become reality. Example of such beliefs: “life is a fight”, “I’m not good enough”, “I need to behave in a good manner with people around me, no matter what I feel”. These beliefs will reflect on a person’s behaviour and will impact the way others will treat and respond to that person. And that’s because these beliefs tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies (“self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behaviour which makes the original false conception come ‘true’. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of terror. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning” – Wikipedia).
These underlying beliefs are also connected with the self-esteem because many of them are founded on the idea that a person’s value depends on external facts (social status, wealth, success, appreciation from people, results, etc). The clients experience lightness (vs significance) at the moment they become aware of the intrinsic value of a human being, value given by the simple fact that the person exists.
To move forward, we need to understand what exactly are the recurrent negative thoughts and how they impact the way we feel about situations, other people and ourselves. Spend some time to reflect upon the way you act in most of the situations in order to raise the awareness of your behavioural patterns. Think about the times when you experienced negative feelings and the times you experienced positive feelings. How are these feelings influencing your behaviour, is it a response or a reaction that they facilitate? What are the consistent thoughts around those situations – are they rather disempowering or empowering? What is the overall frequency or both positive and negative thoughts? What are the underlying beliefs associated with these thoughts? Can you better understand and then challenge your beliefs so that they work in our advantage and not the other way around? It requires effort and time, motivation and discipline, but you can do it. You can look for the positives in yourself and re-enforce these affirmations. Step by step, you can find ways in which you can replace the negative thoughts with positive ones.
Examples of questions:
- If your anger was an excellent fuel to get you moving in this situation, what would be the most effective way to use it to achieve your goal?
- If your fear was just there to make sure you stayed aware of possible risks, how can you use it to proceed safely?
- If you imagined that your sadness was an excellent indicator that it is time you really took care of yourself and of your needs, what do you need to do for yourself, as a high priority?
- How do you sabotage yourself in this situation - and what are the positive thoughts to support you?
- Imagine you’re fully confident in your abilities, what could you do?
- What is an impossible option?
- What is your best possible scenario?
- If you really dared to formulate your deepest hopes, what would you say?
As coaches, we need to address these negative thoughts and empower our clients to shift their perspective and look at the situation from a new, positive angle. Here are a few steps by step techniques to help clients move into the new direction.
A. Identify negative thoughts:
- Ask the client to describe the situation that makes them unhappy. If difficult to identify the cause, they can describe what they were doing when the negative feeling appeared. Question: “What do you feel when facing this type of situation?”
- The client puts down on paper the negative mood they experience (“sad”, “frustrated”, “guilty”, “anxious”, “angry”, etc.). Question: “On a scale from 1 to 10, how intensive is that feeling?”
- Use questioning as a tool for the client to identify the negative thoughts that are associated with the respective feelings. Invite them to put the automatic negative thoughts on paper and analyze how realistic they are – only by verbalizing, he/she might discover that some of them are cognitive biases and not helping them to achieve their goals. Also, this exercise helps the client to differentiate between feelings and thoughts generating them.
- I will not deliver a good presentation. I will be anxious and I might get stuck. This is a very common cognitive bias called future prediction
- she listens to me because she is polite, but she doesn’t care too much – example of mind-reading cognitive bias
- I knew this would happen: things always end badly – this is an overgeneralization
- if I don’t take this exam, I’m a loser – all or nothing thinking bias, etc.
Examples of questions to support the client in identifying negative thinking:
- When you feel this (anxious or depressed or sad or angry) what is going through your mind?
- Did you really identify the issue that bothers you?
- Do you really want to revise your feelings towards that situation?
- Is this conviction true in all cases?
- Does your view on this situation cover all aspects of the problem?
- How does feeling stressed about this future event serve you?
Sometimes, a client might want to feel anxious in order to maintain everything under control. By imagining different outcomes of a future situation and being overly vigilant, the feeling of control increases. On the long term though, this extra tension increases anxiety and stress, so a productive solution to break this pattern might be breathing and relaxation exercises with the client.
B. Validate the “evidence” and explore alternative positive thoughts
After the client writes down the negative thoughts, invite them to look for proofs (“When you say you never do things properly, what are the facts you rely on?” or “What is one example of an activity you do successfully?”)
Here are some techniques that are useful in the validating phase and exploring alternative positive thoughts generating an empowering perspective:
1. Similar situation: because in general people tend to be more exigent with themselves than with other people, a good Question to support a shift in perspective might be: “What would you say to a friend in a similar situation?”
2. Experimental technique: eg: the client (ICA student) thinks they don’t have something meaningful to share with the community, so avoids posting comments at the forum. Then ask him if he’s open to a challenge – do an experiment by posting one comment and checking the responses or feedback from colleagues; this way he realizes that his ideas are actually meaningful for several members in the community of students.
- What are the facts that support this statement?
3. “Grey thinking”: useful to counteract “all or nothing” / “black or white” thinking patterns common for perfectionists. Eg: “if I don’t finish all my assignments for ICA in time, I’m a loser and that will make me feel bad about myself”. This thinking style generates anxiety and frustration. An option could be asking the client to create a list of all projects finished successfully and then to assess how being a loser idea connects with these successful projects. Also, some questions that might help in such a scenario:
- Is this black or white or are there any shades of grey there?
- What other options you might consider here?
- Is this each and every time true?
4. Interview method: eg client is unhappy with the fact that from time to time he has a quarrel with his wife because he thinks happy couples never fight. Challenge the client to ask his friends or acquaintances if they experience similar situations in their lives; he might discover that quarrels in a couple can be very common actually
5. Reduction to absurdity method: eg – client made a mistake in a particular situation; now they are experiencing disappointment and label themselves as “stupid”. Coach asks: “How would you define a stupid person?” Client: “a stupid person is the one who did a stupid mistake”. Coach: “how many people who did not do any stupid mistakes in their lives do you know?” Client: “everyone makes at least a stupid mistake in their lives”, which means in conclusion that all people are stupid. In this case, there is no sense in calling yourself stupid, since all people are so and there is no difference between me and the other people. If the client insists by saying they do mistakes more frequently than others, the coach will invite them to explore: “more frequent than whom?” “More frequent compared to what percentage of the overall population?”; “Who says so?”
6. The semantic method: applicable for clients who use categorical statements like: “should”, “must” that can be replaced by “it is better for me to..”, “it is nice to have…”, “it would be more convenient if…” eg: the client is afraid of public speaking; moreover, he says that he should be more confident and this thought increases, even more, the anxiety and guilt feeling. Question: “Who says you should not be afraid to speak in front of the audience?” or “What is the worst-case scenario?” The client might come to the awareness that their worst possible scenario is already at hand and that things can only get better. By considering really “negative” options, new positive or constructive strategies suddenly come to mind.
7. Reassignment of responsibility: useful when client tends to frequently take the blame for different issues on their shoulders. The purpose is not for the client to ignore their own contribution to that situation but to objectively assess all factors involved in the outcome. The coach will support the client in exploring all variables of the situation, to define their span of control and how to do it differently in the future.
8. Extreme perspective:
- Imagine you are 100% responsible for this situation, how does it look for you? or the other way around:
- Imagine you have no responsibility in this situation…?; How did you make it happen?
- What is the difference between the two perspectives?
- Which perspective allows you to move further?
9. Cost-Benefit Analysis: useful when clients analyze if to keep a certain belief or decide that the respective belief doesn’t serve them anymore, so they want to change it. Coach invites them to explore different opportunities, analyze the pros and cons of each option and define the key criteria (values, motivation) to be used for decision making. Eg: “I have to get success in life to be a valuable person”. What are the advantages of such a belief? (could be: “I will work better in order to obtain success”, or: “If I know what I want, life will get easier” and “I feel happy when I succeed”). What are the disadvantages? (“I will work hard to maintain my self-esteem and I might get burnout”, “I will be anxious and afraid of failure:, “If I fail, I will feel non-valuable”, “no matter how good I work, there will always be persons who can do it even better”, “I will have less time for other areas of my life, since I will be busy with my work and getting recognized for my results”. The client will decide if it makes sense for them to keep or not the respective belief, but the important fact is they do a conscious choice, aligned with the depending on their own values and needs.
10. Final results analysis: useful in decision-making situations and similar with cost-benefit method, but the focus is not on the emotions generated by the current choice, but on the emotions generated by the final results in the future (eg: “I’m on a diet and a crave for a cake”; the decision is not between eating the cake and not eating it, but between staying in the current phase or have a great body “). An additional tool to support in such cases is the visualization – in this example, invite the client to imagine how they will feel with their ideal body in 3 months from now.
Examples of questions:
- How will you feel once you have completed your actions?
- How will you reward yourself when you complete your actions?
11. Taking away the Problem: useful to help clients focus on fundamental objectives or deeper motivations, rather than waste time solving more superficial issues. The underlying principle is the more one focuses on negative thoughts – issues and problems to solve, the more these seem to appear in order to occupy one’s full time. The more one focuses on motivating projects, ambitions and enlightening experiences, the more these seem to start filling one’s life. It is a matter of choice as to where clients want to put their energy.
- If this problem was solved and behind you, what would you do next?
- If this situation were to disappear out of your life, towards fulfilling what project/purpose would you put all your energy?
C. Evaluate exploration results and share positive thoughts:
invite the client to evaluate if they still consider the initial thoughts as true; usually after phase B, the intensity of negative thoughts decreases and the client feel better. Now the client gives a rational reply to the negative thought they identified in phase A. The alternative positive thoughts are more efficient when they are: phrased by using first person (“I”),
- phrased as positive statements (instead of “I don’t want to get angry next time this happens” – “I will remain calm next time…”; instead of: “I won’t do a similar mistake in the future” – “it is fine for me to do mistakes from time to time”)
- short, simple and direct (“I trust myself” is more efficient than “I have few skills I can count on in different situation”)
- phrased by using present tense, reflecting an ongoing process that already started (eg: “In general, I concentrate very well on what I want”, better to say: “starting from now on, my focus improves”)
- realistic rather than utopic (eg: “I will never get upset when criticized by someone”, better said: “I accept constructive criticism and I use it to learn something out of it”)
Here are the most common negative thoughts associated with disempowering beliefs and the alternative positive thoughts generating an empowering perspective:
- “I’m a victim of circumstances and destiny”. Alternative constructive statement: “I’m responsible for my own destiny, which I control. I cannot control the external events, but I can always control my attitude towards them”
- “Life is tough, I’m on a battlefield”. Alternative constructive statement: “Life is good and fun; it is a journey with ups and downs from which I constantly learn”
- “I’m not good enough” – ‘I’m a unique and valuable person. My needs, thoughts and feelings are as important and worthy as others’”
- “I need to always behave nicely, no matter how I feel” – “It is good for me to simply be myself”
- “If I worry enough, things will get better” – “Stress generated by a problem won’t resolve it, my own action only will do the job”
- “I cannot cope with difficult situations” – “I can confront any situation by taking a step by step approach”
- “Unfamiliar scenarios are threatening” – “I can learn and adapt to new situations, each of them is an opportunity to learn something new”
- What is one area in your life where you’d like to shift from negative thinking to positive thinking?
- What would you do if this apparently difficult problem was really an opportunity to start considering important changes?
- How could you react to this apparently negative situation if it was really a solution to a lot of your problems?
- What must you start changing within yourself to welcome this apparently disruptive event in the positive way it really deserves?
- If this problem was actually an opportunity to grow for you, what would you start changing in yourself?
- How is this problem /person offering you an opportunity to learn something about yourself?