A Coaching Power Tool Created by Min Liu
(Cross Culture Coach, Business Coach, CHINA)
Both our thoughts and awareness belong to our mental activities, and they both tie to our emotions. Often times we don’t think too much of them as we go along with our life, especially when the life we are living in is our most comfortable and that we tend to stay in an autopilot mode. As two activities happening in our brain driven by a conscious mind, there is a great deal of resemblance between these two.
By looking at their definitions, we see how they are alike and linked to one another:
“Thoughts: the product of mental activity; that which one thinks;
Awareness: the state or condition of being aware; having knowledge; consciousness;”1
As much as their relevance and similarity, thoughts and awareness do possess a nature and function that is distinguishable. In this power tool, I would like to introduce how the differentiation of our thoughts and awareness can serve our clients the best in the coaching context.
For thoughts and awareness to happen, we need a mind that is able of reasoning. In coaching, such condition is critical. Often it is our thoughts leading to new awareness, that Aha Moment. But the reality is our thoughts can also lead us to the opposite direction, that endless spiral hole seemly to ‘infinitely’ drain our energy.
Daniel Goleman (1995) introduces those thoughts that arouse negative emotions as Toxic Thoughts2. Our thoughts which come from our own opinion or value are powered to shape our mood. As its definition points out, thoughts are a series of outcome or product, because of which, they appear tangible/visible in our mind. Its form of existence is like that of a middle agent, sandwiched between our belief and our feelings; we tend to go oblivious of its origin but almost instantly experience its impact. Thoughts arise regardless of how our moods are and their counter-effect to our emotion is efficient.
Awareness, on the other hand, although also coming from our mind activity, is more knowledge and consciousness oriented. It’s a pathway to forming our thoughts. In Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence, he addresses that self-awareness is the fundamental of human’s emotional intelligence. From such position, we can see that for awareness to occur, it’s not as direct if not simple as how we experience our feelings. Yes, it’s easy for us to be angry, happy or sad but not so for us to gain awareness!
It’s biology! A brain tissue called amygdala, known as part with neurons responding to unpleasant stimuli way more often than to pleasant stimuli.3 It is after amygdala receives information that our prefrontal cortex where controls our logic, language and reasons starts to take in and process the message. In other words, we feel first then we think. In such process, our awareness plays a vital role. If we are able to emphasize our awareness toward our feelings, we will be able to block or at least slow down the toxic thoughts from arising. Awareness helps us stay as neutral emotionally as possible to allow our brain to think with reasoning.
The best way to experience how the emphasis of awareness in a rising situation helps us remove those toxic thoughts is to apply it on our own. Think of a past experience where you feel stressed, perhaps an unpleasant conversation with your spouse or your boss. Recall and relive that moment when you immediately had your guard up. Ask yourself: “How was I feeling at that moment?” The awareness of the feeling is step one. Once we are able to label our feelings, our prefrontal cortex comes into play, and that’s where our logical thinking happens.
If you can’t put a finger on how you feel, give it time to ponder on that moment. Because this might happen! We are able to feel as young as at infant age, way before our cognitive and language capacity being developed. So making the effort to verbalize your feelings is the gateway toward that self-awareness. Once you are aware of your emotions, the chance for you to experience that emotional hijacking drastically reduces. The ability to extract ourselves out from our emotions is the stepping stone toward the thoughts that our energy feeds on instead of drains from.
In the coaching context, we aim for eliciting awareness, new awareness. Awareness can’t be instilled, and it has to arise from the within. We trust our clients who are capable, resourceful and whole individuals to spot new awareness with their existing ones. Good coaches ask thought-provoking questions. They want to explore clients’ awareness, where the client stands on a certain topic, what the clients notice after being mirrored back by the coach who replays what he/she observes, in short, who the client is.
Some applicable questions:
- How sure are you about the situation?
- What difference could it make if you choose to go the other way?
- What your thoughts are in that situation?
- How do these thoughts serve you for the better?
- What’s in the way for you to move forward?
- Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ by Daniel Goleman (1995)
- Juri D. Kropotiov, in Quantitative EEG, Event-Related Potentials and Neurotherapy (2009)