A Coaching Power Tool Created by Heather Tingle
(Transformation Coach, CANADA)
Many people seek out coaching for personal or professional growth, to get out of a place of stasis or sense of feeling stuck. As coaches, it is part of our role to expose and disrupt habitual patterns of thought or behavior that aren’t serving our clients at this time in their lives. Clients are then freed to develop new, more useful patterns, to find new routes around old problems. One habitual pattern of thinking is to be always anticipating – whether it be dangerous, problems or opportunities; and it has been said that the ability to consider and create the future is the human brain’s greatest accomplishment (Gilbert, 2006). Our future-oriented, imaginative brains have allowed us to build bridges, develop new treatments for cancer, and create movies about wars in outer space. Our brains are wired to look for threats, which has historically served us well. But immediate physical threats may be less a part of our daily landscape here, so we have time to look ahead for real or imagined threats – and that has the potential to become detrimental (Grupe& Nitschke, 2013). That future-oriented fear is generally labeled as anxiety and it can range from being a normal human emotion to one that is emotionally overwhelming and physically disabling. For our purposes here we will be looking at the anticipatory-thinking level of anxiety, without delving into disorder-level anxiety. Anxiety and the myriad of emotions related to anticipation can produce roadblocks from distress, create blind spots, and build mountains out of molehills- or the opposite. This is exactly the realm where coaching can be magic. The concept of infusing anticipatory thinking with a counterbalance, a connection with the present, has become a powerful tool in my coaching kit.
What is Anticipatory Thinking?
Anticipatory thinking is thinking ahead. It is mentally preparing for future problems or opportunities, which means that positive, negative, and mixed emotions are engaged as part of that process. Thinking ahead can be quite useful in coaching, when we harness those emotions to motivate, or to clear away obstacles to success, for example. But when a client habitually spends most of their time mentally in the future, they are effectively skipping ahead and guessing: imagining what might be. They can miss signposts with important information, miss noticing successes worthy of acknowledgment, or miss new routes or even more appealing destinations. It is like wearing the fabled seven-league boots.
Just the thought of a future threat can cause physiological stress responses in the body (Kabat-Zinn, 2013); the body can react as if the threat is right there at that moment, but because the threat is in the future the threat doesn’t get resolved. The weight of that threat may be felt like an extra burden and make it more onerous to muster the energy for the next steps. Uncertainty can add fear. Anticipatory thinking uses previous experience – stories and structures developed in the past- to build a future world. Those past structures may not be serving what the client wants to build. It is akin to focusing on the outcome or the completion without considering the process. Anticipatory thinking creates an imaginary “what it is” from “what if?”. Your client could be preparing for a high-altitude mountain climb, packing only snow gear – but then is completely flummoxed when the terrain en route to the mountain is swampy and flat.
What is Connection to the Present?
To be completely in the present might look, to some people, like putting one foot in front of the other, without planning. While there are a time and place for that, most people need to do some planning ahead to help them determine where to put their feet or to feel like they are growing and challenging themselves. So, connecting to the present can be shared attention between future and present – like noticing and pulling weeds as they sprout in the vegetable garden, knowing that it will maximize the health and growth of your future crop.
Having one foot in the present means you keep an open link to what the current signposts are telling you. You can fly ahead into anticipation but use that as a guide, not a rulebook. It is checking the maps on the way to that mountain climb, to possibly avoid the swamp. Some might call this mindfulness, but this term has been so often overused and misunderstood that I’m choosing to call it keeping a connection to the present.
Application and Case Studies
It took me a while to become aware that many of my clients were using anticipatory thinking detrimentally. Gradually I have become aware of themes – for example, when a client is focused on a problem that is months into the future, it might be wise to consider that they’ve lost sight of including the present in their thinking. Your client might give you some clues that they are relying heavily on anticipatory thinking, using phrases like “what if…”, “going to be”, “I’m never going to _”, It always happens when I _”, and even lots of “when” or “ how” spoken with varying levels of desperation. If a client tells you that they are an anxious person, you can bet that their anticipatory thinking skills are particularly engaged.
“M” was planning on going back to work after a life-altering health issue. She sought out coaching because she couldn’t seem to function at her previous level and was feeling stuck. She was mired in a downward spiral of trying harder, feel worse, try harder, feel even worse. Anticipatory thinking here manifested as a grim determination to make things in the future be as they were in the past, completely disregarding the present, where she could barely manage to get dressed without being sidelined by pain. She realized she had tried to skip over grieving the change in her physical and mental functioning, and that she wasn’t noticing what her body needed at this time to continue the healing process.
Delving even deeper, she noticed the effect that structures and beliefs from the past (hard work outside the home = personal value; not working = lazy) were having on her self-image. Those beliefs were leading her to ignore the real-time information from her body, and she was judging her character when her body couldn’t do what her mind wanted it to do. Helpful strategies for her revolved around coming up with her own experiments to notice how her body responded (“What message is your body sending you?”; “What could you experiment with when you notice that coming up?”). She also found it useful to build new visual metaphors for healing. When she noticed her ‘not working=lazy’ belief, the question “How could you reframe that belief to serve your current situation?” led her to develop a ‘not working=working on healing’ visual which she fleshed out with a few personally powerful metaphors. Connecting to her present needs before attending to her future needs was the key to her stepping away from the downward spiral.
“B” came to coaching because his chronic pain led to an angry outburst in a public place. Through coaching, it gradually became evident that his pain would suddenly catch him off guard, which impacted his self-image. He had created the belief that he could not be depended upon to be enough for his wife, which in turn had created a future in his mind where she was going to leave him. His coping mechanism was to focus harder on completing tasks (thereby proving his worth) and didn’t notice the real-time information from his body. He was frustrated and embarrassed when the pain stopped him in his tracks and brought him back briefly to the present. But while dealing with the physical experience he would jump into the future again, projecting the consequences of the pain (which he believed diminished his value) and created a whole lot of imagined future emotional pain as well.
By returning to the present by tuning in regularly to his physical body, he developed more control over his pain by dealing with it sooner, while also finding ways to reconnect to his wife. Questions that helped him develop that awareness included “what is happening when your pain draws a line?”, “What words are you using in your mind?” followed by“what words could serve you better at that moment?” and “who can support you in noticing when your pain needs attention?”. When he balanced out his anticipatory thinking with an awareness of the present, he discovered new coping skills that had not occurred to him before.
“F” had long term chronic pain and then was derailed by a new diagnosis of another chronic condition. Her talk was full of questions like “how will I ever manage?” and “who could ever understand what I’m going through? I don’t want to talk to anyone”. She was socially isolating herself from others because of a belief that people would think she is strange because of the new steps she has to take to protect her health, and that people don’t want to talk to someone with so many problems (anticipating judgment). Coaching gave her permission to explore her own thoughts rather than the imagined future judgments of others (“Let’s imagine we could press mute on what other people might think or say. What would YOUR heart say?”)
She was also standing with both feet planted firmly in the future, trying to figure out how she would deal with the potential complications of her condition that had not any signs of occurring yet or ever. When asked “what is something you can do right now that could help you feel control?”, she decided to research her condition more thoroughly. By consciously harnessing that anticipatory thinking, and giving it a specific job, she gained a sense of reclaiming her power. For her, tracking her healthy steps (connecting her to and acknowledging her power in the present) was her most useful takeaway, which she later built on by developing her own challenges. She quickly became her own coach.
Other Approaches to Consider:
Some other possible questions:
- What are you feeling/noticing right now?
- What do you notice about that trigger?
- How does this (belief, action, thought) impact you?
- What takes up most of your energy/attention?
- How can you reframe these thoughts?
Visualizations: – looking at the big picture (e.g.visualizing looking in the window at someone experiencing what you are experiencing); having client find visual or mental or physical reminders to link them to the present (e.g. reminders in the phone to check in with self, etc)
Observations – noticing and communicating that to the client, for example, if they are talking a lot about the future, especially if it is with a sense of heaviness
Acknowledgment- including acknowledging difficulties and reminding them of new realizations/skills/awareness
Ask the client to devise an experiment – try something different and observe results while suspending judgment and anticipation. This may be less overwhelming than committing to changing action, which can be an assumption of permanence.
Many people do best with a strong goal, and many people need steps to reach that goal which can require purposeful anticipatory thinking. Anticipatory thinking can also build motivation by tapping into the emotions of success or completion, and it can develop an awareness of what needs to be part of an action plan. Nailing down that plan requires anticipatory thinking to deal with challenges and set the client up for success. All this is giving anticipatory thinking a constructive job to do. But when a client is constantly and habitually using anticipatory thinking without purpose or reflection, they can benefit from stepping away and bringing some balance into their thoughts by reconnecting to the present. It can be instructive to have a foot in each world. There is transformative power when a client notices they are too much in the future and can develop cues and strategies to include the present in their plans.
Gilbert DT. (2006). Stumbling on Happiness. Random House: New York.
Grupe, D. & Nitschke, J. (2013). Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: An integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 14(7), 488-501. DOI: 10.1038/nrn3524
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Bantam Books.