A Coaching Power Tool By Lichenyang Zhou, Intimate Relationship Coach, CHINA
Learned Helplessness vs. Control
There seems to be a really bad car accident which is causing the traffic jam that you are in right now. You have to make it to the airport within the next 30 minutes, or you will miss your plane. However, the taxi is not moving at all and it doesn’t seem like you will make it in time.
You have spent the entire day sitting in front of your desk trying to write your next play. Inspiration just refuses to hit you and you continue to stare at a blank screen. It is already almost dinner time, and you look back and realize that you have wasted another day.
The government has put the entire city under lockdown, and you are not allowed to even step out of your apartment room. It is very sunny outside, but you cannot go out even for five minutes, and you miss your dogs terribly. They have been sent to a boarding facility prior to lockdown, so at least they could roam outside in freedom.
In situations like this, you could easily fall into the trap of feeling helpless. Bad things are happening out of your control, and it seems very little could be done to prevent it from happening, or you’ve already tried many ways to make it different, but nothing has worked.
What do you do in a situation like this?
The proposed coaching power tool, Helplessness vs. Control, deals directly with these situations, to empower the clients in the above three situations to feel calmer and at ease.
When negative events occur and the individual feels a sense of helplessness, how can we, as coaches, shift their perspective to center around a sense of control? The below article will examine first the definition of helplessness and control and then dive into two critical psychological concepts of this coaching model: Learned Helplessness and Locus of Control. Following that will be a discussion of the Power Tool itself, and how to utilize this power tool within the coaching context. The article will wrap up with a case study and recommended coaching questions.
What Is Helplessness vs. Control
What is helplessness?
Helplessness refers to the belief that nothing can be done by oneself in the event of a bad situation. (Wallston, 2001).
We have all experienced helplessness, and it possibly could be one of the worst feelings out there. Helplessness is crippling, as it takes the action away from us, causing us to worry, stress, and become anxious in the midst of non-action. When feeling helpless, we do not make any effort to change the situation because of the perceived lack of impact from such effort.
What does it feel like?
“I feel useless.”
“No matter what I do, it won’t matter.”
“There is nothing I can do to make it better.”
Psychologist Martin Seligman conducted the famous (yet now probably viewed as unethical) research on dogs. They were exposed to electric shocks, and one group of dogs could stop the electric shocks by pressing a lever, whereas the levers in the other group of dogs did nothing. Later, both groups of dogs were put in a room where they could jump over a small partition to escape the shocks. They found that dogs in the formal group of dogs, the ones who had control in the previous scenario, easily escaped the shocks by jumping over, whereas the latter group of dogs, even though they could just as easily jump over, did not, and instead they just continued to suffer from the shocks and whimpered. (Seligman, 1972)
It could be understood that continued exposure to negative events and unsuccessful outcomes that are out of their control can lead to an individual acquiring a sense of helplessness even when they actually have control.
What is control?
Control refers to the belief that one has the capability to affect what is happening and what will happen. (Wallston, 2001)
Being in control creates a sense of empowerment. When we are in control, we believe what we do actually matters, and it carries a sense of motivation and meaning to our actions. This is why the feeling of being in control enables the individual to embark on the action. As opposed to the helplessness that causes wondering and delay, a feeling of being in control enables and activates.
What does it feel like?
“There are things I can do to make a change.”
“My actions carry meaning.”
“What I do makes a difference.”
Locus of Control
Julian Rotter first constructed the internal vs. external locus of control model to present a spectrum running through two opposing core beliefs, whether we perceive what happens to us to be within our own control (internal locus of control), or due to fate and other random factors (external locus of control). (Rotter, 1966).
A great amount of research has been conducted since, and psychologists found some interesting correlations between locus of control and mental health. With people are more of an external locus of control inclination, meaning they tend to attribute the outcome of events in their lives to random external factors like luck or fate, they are more prone to stress and even clinical depression (Benassi, Sweeney, and Dufour, 1988).
When we believe that it is our own action, rather than some uncontrollable random factors, that makes a difference in the outcome, the world falls back into an orderly place that aligns with our beliefs, with us being in the center of it to make a change. It is a powerful and positive place that inspires action and effort.
Helplessness vs. Control Coaching Context
What is interesting in this coaching power tool is that we are not coaching the client to regain control over the objective reality or the negative event that they are experiencing. Rather, we guide the client to focus on their relationship to this negative event. For it may be true or not that there are things within the client’s control to change the outcome of the negative event, but it is always true that it is within the client’s control to change their perspective and mindset associated with the event, and how this negative event affects them emotionally.
As shown in the below diagram:
Steps in shifting focus:
- Dig deeper into the helpless feeling
- Uncover core belief
- Separate identity from the belief
- Define what is within one’s control, and what is not
- Reconstruct control and regain the desired feeling
- Plan following actions
Coaching Application: Helplessness vs. Control A Case Study
A client who looked extremely down, with very low energy, and an obvious level of sadness, entered our session and shared the story of how her current manager did not like her, and despite her trying, she couldn’t seem to change his perception of her. She had worked very hard and demonstrated success over projects that had been assigned to her. However, even when presented with evidence of her capability, the manager simply brushed the excellent results off or set an even higher goal and future expectation for my client.
Step 1: Dig Deeper Into the Helpless Feeling
A strong sense of helplessness surrounded my client. She felt “belittled, ignored, and hurt.” As we dug deeper, the client uncovered that these feelings carried a significant amount of meaning to her, as she derived a sense of achievement and satisfaction from being the “star” and “center of attention,” and her manager’s reaction made her feel the opposite of what she would like to feel.
Step 2: Uncover Core Belief
The client was then presented with the conflicting reality where on one hand she understood that it is impossible to make everyone like her unless she changes who she is, but she didn’t want to change, and on the other hand, the fact that people disliked her even a little bit gave her a strong sense of discomfort.
Core belief: “I could only be confident when all others like me -> when someone dislikes me, I must make them like me to return to the center of the attention and feel confident again”
Step 3: Separate Identity From a Core Belief
From there, the client realized that the foundation was self-acceptance. It is because she had not accepted herself as a capable, confident, worthy person, that she depended on others’ feedback to make her feel capable, confident, and worthy. Without the core belief: “I could only be confident when all others like me,” the client would seek inside herself and find the confidence that lies within, independent from others’ feedback. (Note, this will require a series of coaching sessions than just one.)
Step 4: Define What Is Within One’s Control, and What Is Not
Slowly, the client came to realize that she was never going to be able to change others’ perceptions of her, but what was within her control was to change how others’ perceptions affected her self-confidence and her emotional well-being.
Step 5: Reconstruct Control and Regain the Desired Feeling
The client learned that she was too focused on external helplessness, but forgot that she had internal control. She decided that she wouldn’t “allow” others’ perceptions to get in her way.
Step 6: Plan the Following Actions
From that learning, an action plan was laid out. The client decided to a) assess whether it is objectively true that her manager disliked her, for it could have been her own projection and overthinking b) construct a plan of changing the team if it were true c) in the meantime, continue to take it lightly and focus on the people who she works well with and like her d) cultivate self-acceptance and locate the confidence within
Below are a few helpful questions that support clients in shifting perspective from helplessness to being in control:
- “How does this [negative event] affect you?”
- “How does it [negative event] make you feel?”
- “What is behind these feelings?”
- “What do these feelings mean to you?”
- “Who would you be without these feelings?”
- “Who would you be without this belief?”
- “How would you like to feel?”
- “What is within your own control to make you feel [the desired feeling, use the client’s own words]?”
- “What would you like to do after today’s session?”
- “What / who would support you in carrying out these actions?”
Wallston, (2001) “Control Beliefs: Health Perspectives”. Editor(s): Neil J. Smelser, Paul B. Baltes. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, Pergamon, 2724-2726
Seligman, M. E. (1972). "Learned helplessness". Annual Review of Medicine. 23 (1): 407–412.
Rotter, J. B. (1954).“Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement”. Psychological Monographs, General and Applied80(1), 1–28
Benassi, Victor A; Sweeney, Paul D; Dufour, Charles L (1988). "Is there a relation between locus of control orientation and depression?". Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 97 (3), 357–367