A Coaching Power Tool Created by Deborah Roos
(Business Coach, UNITED STATES)
This power tool uses an analogy of a muscle to help shift our thinking around our challenges. When we contractor tightens a muscle, it becomes rigid, inflexible, and tense much like we can feel when faced with a big problem, critical event, or intense relationship. When we release a muscle, it relaxes, softens, and blood flows easily much like we feel when we “let go” of something that has been troubling us.
We have all seen bodybuilders or athletes or perhaps have even caught ourselves “flexing” in the mirror, noticing the skeletal muscles of the person we’re observing. Muscles, user-developed or not, play a critical role for humans as they help us to move. At the most basic level, the brain sends a signal to the desired limb, the associated muscles contract, and voila, movement.
Consider a bicep curl – or the act of lifting a bottle to take a drink. The brain thinks, “Move my arm.” The bicep muscle squeezes as the muscle fibers get shorter and the arm lifts. When the “work” is done (perhaps taking the desired drink), the brain sends another signal to release the muscle, and voila again, the arm floats down, returning the muscle fibers to their original length.
In our daily lives, this contract/release process happens iteratively and without our conscious awareness. Until it doesn’t. Consider a charley horse or a muscle spasm. In this situation, no apparent brain message has been sent, but the muscle contracts anyway, and it contracts hard. So hard, in fact, that even “I’m done” brain messages don’t allow the muscle to let go. It’s as if the muscle has a mind of its own – choke-holding that particular body part (often a calf or a foot), contorting it, creating pain, and causing the owner of the limb to gasp for air. This is a physical contract in its extreme.
While contract happens in our bodies, it also happens to our bodies, to our brains, to our person, sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively. We know it more familiarly as stress – that feeling we have in response or reaction to emotional or physical tension. Many are intimately familiar with “Frankenstein shoulders” that result from the tightness invading the upper back and neck. Others grapple with headaches or migraines. Still others contract in far more subtle ways: raised cholesterol, high blood pressure, elevated cortisol levels.
We can also hear the contract. In its rawest form, the language of the contract can sound sharp and direct, intense and emotional. People in the contract will yell, be sarcastic, cry, shut down, pick fights, etc. Emotionally, we hear things like overwhelm, blame, fear, anger, and the like. Sensationally, we hear the pain of the deliverer. Why? Because the contract is a type of pain – something is hurting the person. Research has shown that the brain processes physical and emotional pain similarly (although not identically), noting an overlap in the neural pathways. Much like a muscle under extreme tension that is flooded with lactic acid, the intellectual contract also burns. (Fisher, 2020)
This burning sensation is an interesting phenomenon. In the muscle, the hot-fire feeling exists to tell us to slow down to prevent overwork and muscle damage. This pain is considered “productive” as it protects us from ourselves. Generally speaking, humans respond to pain – we stop doing what hurts. We put down the weight. We remove our hands from the hot stove. (Roth, 2006)
In contrast, intellectual contract messages are often so subtle that we have learned to ignore the signals, live with – or at least numb — the pain, and press on. Yet we know it’s there, are obsessed by it, and must be desperate to resolve it if the 1.1 billion+ returned items on a recent Google search for “how to manage stress” is any indication of our quest for this holy grail.
While the concept of release may not be the holy grail, it may provide a new perspective that helps us manage the chokehold feeling of contract.
The release does not mean to drop or quit or stop. The release is an action verb that implies work.
Two definitions of release set the stage for this discussion:
- Allow or enable to escape from confinement; set free.
- Allow (something) to move, act, or flow freely. (Lexico)
These definitions’ common themes are what give power to this notion: a) permission and b) freedom.
Looking at permission, a release is first and foremost about the “ability to.” When we consider the muscle analogy, we envision the arm being able to release or extend when its job is finished. Our muscles have unspoken “permission” to return to their normal resting positions when not in use. To be clear, it doesn’t make sense to be “on duty” when a muscle isn’t needed – that would be wasted energy for the body, and our bodies are designed to be as efficient as possible.
Regarding the freedom component, release allows the muscle fibers to move freely back to their original length –they are literally “set free.” When this action occurs, the chemical reactions in the muscles cease as does the resultant pain. Using our charley horse example above, the reverse domino effect happens as well: the pain subsides, the limb returns to its normal position, and the owner returns to an ordinary breathing cycle. The whole being is free.
In an intellectual release, the notions are similar. The intellectual release is about permitting ourselves to experience a contract situation differently. Often, we feel compelled to accept what is – by society, my family obligations, by underlying beliefs, etc. So, the first step in the release is to acknowledge, own, and be willing to do or be different. For many of us – rule followers, those with high responsibility, folks uncomfortable with change – this is a big step in and of itself. But our bodies and minds are designed to be efficient, so It doesn’t make sense to be “on duty” in a way that’s not creating outcomes that we want. Releaseinvites us to consider what permission to be or to do differently means.
The release also asks us to consider what freedom means in relationship to the issue at hand. Perhaps it’s the freedom to – freedom to speak, to express, to act. Perhaps it’s freedom from – freedom from intolerance, from ignorance, from perfection. This knowledge and understanding provide language around the goal we’re seeking to achieve. We’re sure we don’t like what we have, but we can’t quite articulate what we want; in inquiring about it from the vantage point of freedom, the outcome often becomes much clearer.
The intellectual release also has physical manifestations. When we’ve permitted ourselves to change and when we become free of whatever is gripping us, our bodies respond. Our blood chemistry responds positively. Our sleep patterns and quality improve. And most immediately, many of us can take a deep, satisfying breath that causes a chain reaction of relaxing other muscles in the body: shoulders, neck, jaw, etc. That’s the powerful connection of physical and intellectual release. The whole being is free.
Release, therefore, is the permission and ability to be free.
The coaching process itself is a fine example of contract/release in action. Consider the start of a coaching conversation. Clients show up (or become) unsettled either about the day or by the topic they’re bringing to the session. They might talk quickly or squirm uncomfortably in their chairs. Perhaps they struggle to find their words or, conversely, are painfully clear about the challenge. As coaches, we’re aware of tapping feet, flushed faces, accelerated speech patterns, wrinkled brows, emotional tones. There is also the unseen tightening of blood vessels, the elevation of heart rates, the shallowing or holding of breath. Whatever it is, the beginning of a session is almost always about tension; it’s almost always about contractors why would they be in coaching.
Through masterful coaching –presence, powerful questioning, direct communication, creating awareness, etc.–the client’s energy shifts. Great coaches notice this change: speech slows, eye movements change, breathing patterns alter, shoulders slide away from ears, content is lighter and more curious. Through the coaching process, the client has given him- or herself permission to change, and in so doing, sets him- or herself free of the original challenge. This energy shift is release.
Consider the following:
Trina was a young superstar at her workplace. She was well-regarded, highly respected, and, as a result, was tackling assignments beyond her experience and peer group. She was also burned out: crying in meetings, struggling to sleep, and sacrificing self-care for work.
Trina’s success had been due to her advanced project management skills, attention to detail, and relationship-building talents. She prided herself in never producing mediocre deliverables, in dotting every I and crossing every T, and in making sure that nothing fell through the cracks. Her reputation and ultimately her career was riding on it.
Trina was proud of her self-titled perfectionism and stiffened against the fact that those around her did not value this level of quality as evidenced by their behavior. And because they didn’t step up, she had to do more…and more, and more.
Trina’s belief that work has to be perfect and that it is her responsibility alone to complete it is the dual-source of her challenge. These beliefs place enormous pressure on Trina to the point that they affect her behavior (crying) and her physical health (sleeping). The tension she feels is almost palpable.
Understanding our client’s source of pressure, tension and contract serve as a starting point. Once the client understands the source, he or she can take more directed action.
In Trina’s case, and many of our client’s cases, working toward release isn’t the opposite of contract. Rather, it’s more like letting up on a gas pedal, backing off, slowing down. We wouldn’t want our muscles to never contract; we just don’t want them to clench, for it’s in the overtightening that we experience pain and discomfort.
For Trina, perhaps releasing the gas pedal means exploring the continuum of quality. What permission does she need to move away from solo perfection is while maintaining her integrity and high standards? What is it costing her to be stuck in perfection? What expectations does she have for her subordinates in achieving team goals and completing shared work?
By opening up possibilities, we help clients free their minds and often their bodies from the vice-like grip of their coaching challenge. We help them see and feel that there are other options than holding on to something that doesn’t serve them – something that intellectually and possibly physically feels better.
The release is about regaining freedom. And in regaining that freedom, we help clients tap into their pent-up energy and creativity. These attributes become powerful tools for clients as they leave the coaching session to take action on their current challenges and face future challenges. Energy and creativity become the self-perpetuating fuel of freedom and therefore release.
- What situations cause you to experience contract?
- What does it feel like to be in the contract?
- Consider a time when you operated in the contract. What might allow you to shift your perspective to release? What might be different about that experience from this new perspective?
- What might you notice about a client or hear a client say when they’re operating in contract?
- What can you do to help your client shift from contract to release?
- What might you notice about a client or hear them say when they’ve shifted to release?
Fisher, Nichole. (2020). Emotional & Physical Pain Are Almost The Same – To Your Brain
Gerard, Jack. What Happens to Your Muscles When You Lift Weights?
Jay, Andy. Don’t Make This Exercise Mistake.
Kassel, Gabrielle. (2019). What You Should Know About Eccentric, Concentric, and Isometric Exercises
Poliquin Group Editorial Staff. (2017). Ten Things You Must Know About Eccentric Training to Get Better Results.
PT Direct. The Physiology of Skeletal Muscle Contraction.
Roth, Stephen M. (2006). Why Does Lactic Acid Build Up in Muscles? And Why Does it Cause Soreness?
Wheeler, Tyler. (2020). Charley Horse.