A Coaching Power Tool Created by Eduardo Mendes
(Executive and Leadership Coach, PORTUGAL)
For every choice, there is a reason.
The choice of this topic is rooted in the truth behind the following expression: “if you want something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t want it, you’ll find an excuse”.
Throughout the years, on various life occasions from personal life to professional life, we have observed this pattern repeating itself over and over again.
So, when having to create a power tool, soon it became evident that the topic would be around this idea. In fact, it also inspired the WILL coaching model, which can be analyzed in articulation with this power tool, and that is deeply anchored in this idea as well. Both pieces – the WILL coaching model and this Will vs Illusion power tool – were designed to work in an intertwined way, as they complement each other in a coherent framework.
What is a will?
If there is a will, you’ll find a way, if there is no will, you will find an excuse. When used in the form of a verb, “will” can be used to express desire, choice, willingness, consent. Interestingly – for what comes later – in negative constructions can mean refusal.
It is therefore very much connected with the concept of motivation. So, both this power tool and the WILL coaching model, are influenced by motivational psychology. This is the body of knowledge dedicated to the study of how biological, psychological, and environmental variables contribute to motivation. That is, what do the body and brain contribute to motivation; what mental processes contribute; and finally, how incentives, goals, and their mental representations motivate individuals.
Throughout the years, several theories were crafted to explain motivation. It started quite basic, with the pioneering studies of William McDougall about instincts in 1908 (Feldman, 2001). However, recent theories have become quite sophisticated, with researches in the field of neurosciences indicating that neurotransmitters, or brain networks, regulate our motivational behavior. It is no surprise that our behavior, such as all other animals, is determined by biochemical reactions in our nervous systems (Deci, 2006).
To put simple, sophisticated animals such as mammals in general, are equipped with neural networks that allow them to experiment with willpower that will ultimately allow them to exhibit self-determined behavior.
Now, these behaviors are chosen and, ultimately, exhibited because there is an expectation upfront for a consequence that will be gratifying for the individual.
Cognitive theory differentiates intrinsic motivation (nonrelated with tangible rewards) from extrinsic motivation (triggered by the promise of a tangible reward). This gets interesting if we think that according to research, we tend to put more effort and be more motivated to act in the presence of intrinsic motivators (Harackiewicz and Elliot, 1993). This being said, if we take on the assumption that both tangible and non-tangible rewards trigger the same biochemical response in one’s nervous systems – which is one of pleasure and gratification via the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin – than one can argue it all really boils down to intrinsic motivation. Therefore, a self-determined behavior is exhibited by a subject based on the expectation of experimenting with an internal state of gratification as a consequence of triggering a chain of certain neurological activity.
In conclusion, we arbitrarily steer our behavior with the expectation of a neurochemical experience that will provide us a sense of pleasure and, therefore, gratification. It is then a matter of what we choose to do according to our upfront calculation of the likelihood of the anticipated positive consequence to happen.
What is an illusion?
The illusion is the first of all pleasures.
Illusion can be generically defined as something that deceives or misleads one intellectually.
If we take upon where we left in the previous section, we choose to always behave in a certain manner based on the expectation of a gratifying result (which we have earlier defined as an intrinsic neurological positive experience). Now the trick may be on the way we calculate upfront the likelihood of the expected outcome between the several alternatives of behaviors we got to choose from at any time. And this is ultimately driven and influenced by our perception of reality, which we will discuss further in the next session where we will talk about the locus of control. For the time being, let’s start by saying that our perception might mislead us intellectually to a point we tell a different version of reality to ourselves. And this is where perception becomes our reality.
Let’s see an example. For sure we have all been acquainted with someone saying something along the lines of “I have tried, but it didn’t work out because of someone else”. Or even staying ahead of the event: “I’ll not do it because it will never work”. In these two examples, there is a common denominator which is the fact that there is no willpower to commit in the pursuit of the designed outcome. The word designed – as opposed to desire – is not by chance. In fact, in both situations, there is a desired outcome, and that’s exactly what the subject will aim for when selecting the forthcoming behavior. It’s just that the desired outcome is different than the designed outcome. And this creates an illusion, a distortion in the way one perceives reality. It ultimately becomes one’s reality because of the narrative one chose to tell himself/herself.
Also, worth noticing is the fact that in both cases there was a calculation of the likelihood of the event – the anticipated gratification – upfront. And this is perhaps the first twist in perception.
Let´s analyze this:
a) When someone says, “I have tried, but it didn’t work out because of someone else”, what is happening is that in the upfront calculation of the probable outcomes, one anticipated a more gratifying experience as a consequence of giving up on the designed outcome. There was no will to pursue the designed path towards the equally designed outcome. The desired outcome got in the way, and this person chose therefore a new desired course of action. There is always a will behind the actions, moving one forward towards an anticipated reward. Is just that the brain created another more appealing narrative. It also distorted reality in a trap we here call an illusion, letting this person believe that he/she still wants the originally designed behavior-outcome binomial. This is an illusion. A distortion in the way we perceive reality, that turns out to be our new reality.
b) When someone says, “I’ll not do it because it will never work”, like in the previous example, there is an upfront calculation of the probable outcomes of several possible behaviors. And in the same way as before, the person chooses, making use of his / her self-determination, to behave according to what he/she thinks will provide greater gratification. Whether because will stimulate more intensely the centers of pleasure in one’s central nervous system, or because the gratification will be more immediate in time or cost-efficient, there is always willpower steaming the person ahead to behave in a given way. It is just that the desired outcome is different than the initially designed outcome. But ultimately it is always a behavior seeking the ultimate goal of providing intrinsic gratification to the limbic system, an ancient part of the brain in evolutionary terms. Therefore, our cortex – a part of the brain, developed more recently in the evolutionary latter in more sophisticated species such as mammals – builds a new narrative to deceive ourselves, giving us the illusion that we still want the designed outcome, but there are some factors (usually external) that make it impossible to attain.
This is an illusion. Perhaps as a result of a clash between the modus operandi of two different structures of the brain, one more primitive and the other more sophisticated, that have conflicting needs among themselves (being one to provide pleasure – the limbic system – and the other one to provide sense of purpose in a rational, more logical manner – that being the cerebral cortex).
What is wanting vs illusion?
Is the glass half empty or half full? It depends on how you choose to look at it.
To put simple, it is the mismatch between the choices we make and the narrative we tell ourselves to justify them. But it is worth to stress again at this stage that, in the root cause of any behavior, there is a search for a gratifying experience as a consequence. It is just that we chose sometimes to short-cut the path to the rewarding experience (what we want, and that for which, if there is enough willpower, we will find a way). As a consequence, we tell ourselves a compelling and comprehensive narrative to deceive us, making us believe that we still want the designed outcome, it’s just that something – usually external – got in the way (this is the illusion, followed by the excuse! If you don’t want it, you’ll find an excuse).
There is an obvious connection between how much one is permeable to these short-cuts (illusions) and the default pattern one takes to perceive reality being controlled by oneself or by external factors. We call this locus of control, that can be internal or external.
Internal locus of control is the belief that one can control his / her own life. On the other side of the spectrum, there is the external locus of control, where individuals tend to believe that life is controlled by outside factors that the person cannot influence, or that chance or fate controls their lives.
In a nutshell, the relationship we want to point here is that when someone perceives reality with an external locus of control lenses, he/she will more likely fall into illusion mode. Notwithstanding, when someone perceives reality with an internal locus of control lenses, he/she will likely be true to his / her will.
This concept of locus of control will have continuity in the next session: coaching application.
Willpower is a muscle. The more you use it, the more it will grow.
In coaching, and the WILL coaching model is certainly not an exception, we take an empowering perspective of the client. He/she needs to be fully accountable for his/her change. It is therefore acutely important to assess and work on his/her perception of locus of control.
It is our responsibility as coaches to bring awareness to our clients and to tell them the truth about the underlying motivations and thought patterns beneath their choices and behaviors, as we see them. To mirror those processes to our clients, in the form of objective feedback, is a deserved and meaningful opportunity to grow we can give them.
If we see them heading down the path of illusion, it is up to us to tell them that the way we see it. It is important to stress that this is not about giving the client our opinion, but rather holding ourselves as coaches accountable for providing them a mirror they can reflect upon and gain awareness. It is about challenging them, taking a positive unconditional regard stand, and invite them to explore different perspectives about their own self-told narratives.
This being said, it important for us as coaches to be aware that, when we offer our clients this objective feedback, what we are sharing with our clients is OUR understanding of reality, our OWN narrative to put simply. Because we offer the driving seat to our clients, it is then up to them to take that perspective and build something meaningful and constructive out of it. Up to them to decide if they want to pick it or not.
Relationship with the WILL Coaching Model
The WILL coaching model and this Will vs Illusion power tool were designed to work coherently and in an intertwined way. They fit under the same framework and are both influenced by the same theories, which are motivational and positive psychology. It is underpinned by a system of values and beliefs, where we look at the client as a functionally adequate system, with no psychological distress or need for “repairment”. It looks at the client as a holistic system that has the power to transform itself and evolves to a higher and better state, provided he or she has the will to do that. Being inspired by positive psychology, it analyses and works on human thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, with a focus on strengths instead of weaknesses, building the good in life instead of repairing the bad, and taking the lives of clients up to “great” instead of focusing solely on moving those who are struggling up to “normal” (Peterson, 2008).
Both WILL coaching model, and will vs illusion power tool also fit under the same scientific umbrella, where we see reality as being objectively determined by proved cause-consequence patterns.
It is influenced by objectivity as a philosophical movement, i.e. the belief that there is one single reality independently from individual subjectivity by perception, emotions, or imagination. The word belief is not picked by chance, as we also subscribe to the epistemological views of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, therefore we humbly recognize we take a certain perspective as being the truth only until that paradigm is refuted.
All in all, if we take this perspective as coaches, we are ought to invite the client to take different perspectives in the search for that one that most resembles the objective reality of what is happening, thus avoiding operating in illusion. Then, as clients take the driver seat, it is up to them to choose how they want to operate. In any case, that will be their reality. And, therefore, it will become the objective reality in this multi-dimensional universe.
Deci, Edward L. (2006). Ryan, Richard M. (ed.). The Handbook of Self-Determination Research. University of Rochester Press.
Feldman, Robert S. (2001). Comprehend a Psicologia (5th Ed). McGraw-Hill Portugal.
Harackiewicz, J. M., & Elliot, A. J. (1993). Achievement goals and intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(5), 904–915
Peterson, Cristopher (2008). A Primer in Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press.