A Coaching Power Tool Created by Esther Chandy
(Business and Personal Coach, INDIA)
Nothing exists except atoms and empty space. Everything else is just opinion. Attributed to Democritus, Greek Philosopher
I remember reading Wayne Dyer’s “Your Erroneous Zones” in the 1980s and finally getting it. What makes us react is not external stimuli, it is our thoughts about the external stimuli. In an extreme example he cited, imagine your beloved [insert relative] died a few hours ago and you get the news of his death. You feel miserable. Notice that the actual death took place long ago. It was only your taking note of it that caused you to feel sad. There was a gap between the happening of the death and the occurring of your sorrow. That gap was due to the insertion of Opinion/ Belief. It was annoyingly true. I almost hated Wayne Dyer for stating it so coldly. He invited the reader to restate certain statements that we make without thinking;
Statements Such as Can be re-stated as
You make me sick! I make myself sick
He annoys me My thoughts about him annoy me
It’s a frightening exam I make myself afraid of the exam
You are wonderful I have decided to think of you as wonderful
Fast Forward to Martin Seligman’s Book: “Learned Optimism”
The essence of this book is that the interpretative styles of people determine whether they can be labelled as optimistic or pessimistic.
Why does this matter? It turns out that Optimists do better at school, elections, are more likely to achieve goals, are more likely to spot new opportunities, age better, experience better health and may even live longer.
“Interpretative style” is the causes and reasons assigned as to why a certain event happened in a particular way and this style differs in distinct ways between pessimists and optimists. It hinges around 3 pivotal elements: Permanence, Personalization and Pervasiveness. To discuss these differences would be beyond the scope of this paper but you can access the essence at this link. Regardless of whether you click on that link or not (and I urge you to do so), the base line is that people do not act on facts. They act on beliefs and opinions.
The single thing that MOST gets in the way of people achieving the goals they set for themselves is the beliefs that they hold as truths; the opinions which they mistake as facts. The perniciousness of this is that most people are unaware that the beliefs and opinions they hold are malleable and not absolute immutable fact.
Have you ever told a white lie to someone to get out of trouble? Then you found yourself having to repeat that story to others and over time, it now feels like the truth? It’s the same with beliefs. Once we repeat these over and over again they begin to feel like the immutable truth.
If I could shift the thinking of clients in ONE way, it would be that they gained awareness into this distinction. That they have the power to re-interpret events to empower them rather than disempower.
Beliefs that are confused as facts are only true in their own heads. They can choose the explanations they give to events. The explanations they choose can either empower them or disempower them – so why not choose an empowering one. Facts cannot be changed; Interpretations can.
- Perceived Fact (PF): P is mad at me
Actual Fact (AF): P is not talking to me
Possible Alternative Interpretations (PAI): P was preoccupied with an email she was reading on her phone; Or, P did not see me when I walked into the room; Or P needs to fix her glasses; Or P was worried about something I know nothing about
- PF: I don’t have a head for numbers
AF: I score far below average on Math Tests when compared to others
PAI: I was not given the right tools to learn math when I was in school; Or I failed at one test and after that associated Math with unpleasantness so I usually avoided studying it; Or Just because I am below average at Math now does not mean I cannot study and become good at it if I devoted enough time and energy to it
The most powerful perspective you can apply to any challenging experience is the perspective of DOUBT about what the client thinks of as absolute fact. Doubt as to whether the opinion the client states is in fact the only one or could there be other possible explanations for it that could be EQUALLY true? Is there another way of looking at this situation that still fits the observable facts?
Background: A friend (Sita*50) recently lost her father. She had a mother (Mum, 78 years old) who favored Kumar* (44), her son and the younger brother of Sita.
Sita travelled from Oregon, USA to be with her family for the funeral (in India) and stayed on a couple of weeks after that to help with sorting out family matters. Due to old family dynamics, the same dramas started to play out. K, who had never worked but lived off his mother’s pension, insisted on doing things his way and expected Sita to pay for it. Mum, who was suffering from episodes of dementia still favored Kumar and took his side on all matters.
Sita was especially upset when she set about bringing order to the place (it was a mess, according to her) and arranged for all the funeral formalities (this is India and there are a lot of ceremonies to be performed even after the funeral is over). Sita felt trapped and responsible for her family. After all she was wealthy (compared to her family). Her brother Kumar, had epilepsy. Her mother had dementia. She was old now and even though she was still emotionally abusive to Sita, surely Sita should forgive her and try to make amends for leaving her family and going to live with her husband. Surely she should be helping out.
Sita’s Perspective: She believed the following
- Mum loved Kumar more than Sita
- If Sita could convince Kumar to get a job and stick to it, everything would be ok.
- Kumar is irresponsible and lazy.
Now consider a more empowering perspective or attitude. I asked her the basis of these beliefs. She related incidents. I reflected back her incidents (facts) but not the emotions she felt.
I acknowledged that there was some validity in her beliefs – that it was possible that her interpretation of the facts was correct.
I then suggested alternate explanations for the events she described (after asking permission). I have only listed two of the beliefs Sita had.
PF: Mum loves Kumar more than Sita
AF: Mum kept all the best family crockery for Kumar; never gave any things of sentimental value to Sita; only asked money of Sita; praised Kumar but never Sita.
- Mum was concerned that Kumar did not have enough to get by whereas Sita was wealthy enough to buy several crockery sets
- Mum is guided by traditional Indian values in which the son should inherit everything regardless of her feelings to her daughter
- Mum may know that Sita loves her but does not link giving the crockery to Kumar with love, merely with practical issues (how would Sita transport the crockery all the way to Oregon, where she lives)
PF: Kumar is lazy and irresponsible
AF: Kumar had not held a full time job for the last 20 years (he was now 42)
PAI: Kumar wanted to work but because of a bad episode of epilepsy when he was young, he was afraid to; Or Mum and his extended family had pressured him into staying home to care for his ailing parents; Or Kumar had deep psychological issues that needed to be addressed first.
Now Sita could have held on to the perspectives as if they were facts. These perspectives were just opinions… they may have been true, but then again they may not have been true.
Those perspectives created feelings of inadequacy and anger in her. She was in a repetitive loop of doing more in the hope that this was the solution
By adding other possible explanations, she realized there were many versions and any could be equally true. She understood the difference between facts and her interpretation of it (opinion). In doing so, she chose a more empowering interpretation that set her free from the repetitious disempowering cycle of doing things to please people – and being disappointed when they do not respond in the way she expected.
Self- Application: Whenever I am held back from achieving certain goals, I follow these steps
Step 1: Examine my reasons for being held back.
Step 2: Divide the reasons into a set of facts and a set of opinions (usually, there are a 1-2 facts and the rest are opinions)
Step 3: Ask what interpretation I am giving the facts.
Step 4: Ask what I gain from holding on to this interpretation? Usually, there is some underlying benefit from not doing an action, even though I may claim most earnestly that I want to do it,
Step 5: Ask myself – what opinions would a person who achieves the sought after goal have? What opinions should I have, if I want this goal to become true for me?
Step 6: I “reverse engineer” these beliefs to fit the facts of the past. I use Martin Seligman’s explanatory style of the Optimist to serve me by reinterpreting the facts.
It’s all very methodical and it works very well every time it’s actually used. J But sometimes, I don’t do the process. Why? Because I don’t want to. I’m scared of what I might find out about myself, and that’s ok… For me, or my clients.
As Democritus said:
Nothing exists except atoms and empty space. Everything else is just opinion. Choose opinions, that suit you.
(Democritus would have been a great coach- but that’s my opinion…)