A Coaching Power Tool Created by Shreesh Jamdar
(Executive Coach, INDIA)
To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. John Henry Newman
A few months ago, my business required me to travel extensively. The early morning and late evening flights, frequent adjustment to new cities and surroundings and, tiredness by the end of long working days all contributed to my fitness and exercise regimen taking a backseat. I was putting on weight, and the paunch was beginning to show!
At one level, I felt concerned about the situation. Intellectually, I recognized I needed to do something about it. However, my actions were in the exact opposite direction. I would frequently settle down in front of the TV telling myself “I will go for a jog after watching the news channel for a while. Or my self-talk would be “let me plan out work and resources for tomorrow, then I will be free to take a brisk walk later”. A little later, the idea of a jog or brisk walk would be dismissed with the thought “Anyway, its too close to dinner time now so I will start tomorrow”. Clearly, my mind was playing games and making excuses or postponing action “to tomorrow” – and tomorrow did not come.
Fortunately, I spoke to a close friend. He listened to all my reasons for not being able to find the time to exercise. Then he asked softly “So would you like to do something about this?” I replied in the affirmative. He asked me pointed questions around issues like how important it was for me to resume my exercise routine, what I felt I was losing out on because of not exercising regularly and how much time in a day I felt I could reasonably commit everyday to my fitness needs. And before I knew it, he cheerfully said – “So what say we go tomorrow morning for a nice walk or jog to the beach? There is a great new breakfast place there we can go to when we finish.”
“How can I support you in your commitment to your fitness when you are traveling?” He asked. He also suggested I could share “my wins” and exchange in a fun but competitive way, our individual milestones and achievements when we were not in the same city.
Within a few weeks, his enthusiasm, optimistic energy and assertiveness had made the difference, and had eased me into an enjoyable 45 minutes of exercise. I realized that I had simply let inertia and force of habit get the better of me. Heart of hearts, I could not help acknowledging his contribution in holding me accountable and pushing me (however pleasantly) to act on my commitments.
Sheila is in a crucial year of school. A hardworking and sincere student, she had always had an excellent track record. Unfortunately for Sheila, a few months before the final examination, she was very ill and consequently missed almost 6 weeks of school. Always a frail girl, the illness had made her very weak and making up lost ground was taking a lot out of her. Anxious about the impending exams, she was pushing herself hard and worried that she was in fact slipping further behind in her preparations.
One day, her mother walked into Sheila’s room to tell her lunch was ready. She found Sheila lying in bed with tears rolling down from her eyes. Taken aback by the sight, mother walked up to Sheila and putting her arms around Sheila asked “What happened honey? Why are you crying?”
Sheila started sobbing. “Mom, I just can’t seem to manage completing all my assignments and project backlog, and making up the portions for all the classes I have missed. I am slipping way behind on schedules and I am exhausted” cried Sheila.
“I know my child; there is a lot of backlog and making up on class work for you” Mom said. “This illness has created a lot of pressure – and I know you have really been working hard and doing the best you can. Lets see if we can figure out some ways of dealing with the situation. May be taking a bit of a break for a while will also help? Come and have some lunch; I have made some of that pasta you enjoyed so much last week”.
In the afternoon, mother sat with Sheila to jointly take stock of the situation. “Sheila, can you update me first as to which submissions you are comfortable with meeting timelines? Then let’s look at the ones where you feel you are likely to have challenges in meeting timelines. Finally, we will take stock of where you are in terms of preparing for the exams. Once we have a good understanding of what is working fine and where we need to find solutions, we will try and plan out our way forward. Will that help?”
The review helped Sheila recognize that she was more or less on top of her assignments – except the term project on which she was behind schedule. However, Sheila’s major worry was with regard to her Math preparation. Never one of her favorite subjects, missing classes had left her with low confidence in her ability to manage the math syllabus on her own.
They decided they would meet the class teacher to apprise her of the situation and request for an extended submission timeframe for the term project. Then they worked out a weekly and daily schedule with milestones that gave Sheila a clear idea of how she was progressing with her preparation. The schedule ensured Sheila could work on Math preparations in smaller but more frequent sessions. This exercise helped Sheila feel more relaxed and less anxious of her exams and submission timelines.
Although the situations above had a positive ending, the initial behavior of both main characters was self-defeating / dysfunctional rather than self-empowering. In both situations, the currently operating circumstances created some sort of challenge – where the person concerned needed to cope with the emerging situation differently than what they were used to.
In Situation 1, excessive travel / fatigue and changes to normal routines disturbed the well- set schedule. Also, there was a battle between desire to rest / watch TV / indulge oneself in some way versus finding the motivation to exercise. In Sheila’s case, sickness and resultant backlogs caused setbacks to a person normally well in control of her academics (as evidenced by her usually top of the class performance). The pressure got to her and disturbed the normal pattern she operated in. This raises a few questions:
- What is it that happens to us whereby we seem sometimes to get stuck in behaviors that are dysfunctional, have negative consequences and prevent us from achieving our goals / potential?
- Life is dynamic and frequently poses challenges. Our ability to respond effectively to changing circumstances and emerging situations seems to be the key. Is it that our beliefs, considerations or safe solutions created in the past drive emotions and consequently lead to behavior that is not in our best interest for new or emerging situations?
- What then can be done to help us deal more effectively with change?
The other interesting aspect in the two situations is that the individuals playing the helping role used very different approaches. My friend largely relied on constructively challenging me and holding me accountable to get me out of my comfort zone of habits and dysfunctional behavior. On my own (before my friend’s intervention) I kept finding reasons to postpone appropriate action. Sheila’s mother on the other hand provided a lot of caring and empathy in helping Sheila work out ways of dealing with her situation. On her own (before her mother’s intervention), Sheila had been pushing herself beyond her physical limits and broke down.
The Comfort, Learning and Panic zone model helps us identify what is at play and how that affects us.
The Comfort Zone is where things are familiar – a safe haven. It is certainly useful as it allows us to fluently operate in known situations. However, our comfort zones at times make us cling to the familiar. They also have the effect of making us operate out of long held beliefs, mindsets and habits. Our past assumptions and beliefs prevent us from living in the “here and now” in a mindful and effective way.
In the Panic Zone, our faculties and capabilities are numbed and / or we are consumed by fear and anxiety. Hence, we are not able to bring forth our best and deploy our abilities effectively to deal with the situation. We react to the situation rather than responding to it. The model postulates that only in the learning zone can we grow, learn and make new discoveries. The Learning zone is a borderline experience (outside, but close to our current comfort zones) where we feel we are exploring the edge of our abilities and our self-perceived limitations.
In the Learning zone, we are mindful and attentive to the nuances of the here and now situation. We are open to the new, flexible and resistances within us are minimal. However, if we are too far out of our comfort zones, we move into the Panic Zone and this too is dysfunctional.
This suggests that to help us develop new capabilities and grow, we need to move (or be moved) out of our comfort zone and into the learning zone. We need to be constructively challenged.
On the other hand if we are gripped by anxiety or fear when impacted by a situation, we may need support (mental, emotional and maybe even physical) to cope with the impact of change. Empathy and supportive behavior can help us transition from panic zone to learning zone.
The British National Health Services defines Constructive Challenge
As a particular kind of interaction or conversation that requires interplay of three types of behaviors. These verbal and non-verbal behaviors are:
- Asking effective (penetrating) questions that either clarify or expose gaps in understanding of an issue
- Actively listening to what is being said and,
- Where necessary, pursuing or asserting a point of view until it has been satisfactorily answered or integrated into what is being discussed.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of and sensitive to the feelings, thoughts and experience of another without having the feelings, thoughts and experience communicated in an objectively explicit manner..
The world is dynamic and continually evolving. Change in the economy, technology, relationships, aspirations and expectations are a reality. Growth and living to our potential predicates that we evolve in our mindsets and behaviors accordingly.
Constructive challenge and empathy are the twin horses that can take us forward in our journey; by helping us reflect, review and reset our values, philosophies and behavior in tune with the dynamics of life. Empathy alone, will give us understanding and support; it may not effectively help us challenge deeply held old assumptions and underlying beliefs. Challenge without empathy will not relate well with our unique values, personality and circumstances. In tandem they will help us effectively:
a) Assess the facts of the situation and its impact on us.
b) Taking stock of our thoughts, behaviors and actions – are they in tune with our purpose, intent and aspirations?
c) Build awareness – what is happening to me? What is causing emotional turbulence and resistance? Are there irrational or contradictory thoughts present that are not in my best interest?
d) Am I happy with the way things are or do I want to bring about some change? How will it help me?
e) Are there obstacles that are getting in the way of my intent? What will I need to do to bring about effective change?
1. Practice Self-Empathy: Marshall Rosenberg (the psychologist who developed the process called Non-violent Communication) suggests that tuning in, connecting and listening deeply to oneself is particularly helpful when we are experiencing some sort of emotional discomfort. Normally, we tend to avoid connecting with what is going on inside us when there is emotional discomfort.
Rosenberg believes feelings are pointers to our human needs. He suggests getting to the “heart of the matter” can help us know our needs and whether they are being met. We feel certain emotions when our needs are being met and other emotions when they are not being met.
The practice of Self-Empathy involves being present with your self and turning attention inward by asking yourself 4 questions:
- What am I observing? - identify what you are saying to yourself and what thought you are having about yourself.
- What am I feeling? – identify the emotions and feelings, and why they seem to be there.
- What am I needing right now? – connect the feelings to a need or value and ask yourself “What need is not being met?”
- Do I have a request of myself or someone else? – After identifying the unmet need, just be with this need in silence and then ask “Do I have any request of myself or someone else?”.
According to Rosenberg, the self-empathy process directs one’s energies downward from the head (where negative and judgmental thinking resides) down into the heart (where feelings reside) and the belly (where our needs reside). As a result, we are able to find meaningful approaches to address our challenges and gain inner peace and self-compassion.
For example, I find that I tend to be self-critical and berate myself frequently regarding my ability to manage time and my work commitments. Applying self-empathy process looked like this:
Observation: My self-talk is “why do all these projects and assignments always get activated at the same time? I made so much effort to streamline and agree dates with the clients, and now they are again bunched together for execution at the same time.” My thought about myself is “I am pretty useless at managing time and work commitments. Other consultants seem to manage much better than me”.
Feeling: I identified the following feelings – anxiety, frustration, helplessness and anger. These feelings are there because repeated attempts to try and streamline commitments and hence balance workload are not proving successful. Consequently there is pressure and stress once again.
Need: The need that is not getting met is balance between work life, family time and personal space. Also, the need to avoid stress arising from the physical and emotional demands the nature of my work places on me.
Request: When I let this need play around silently within me, my inner self made a request of me. The request was, “why don’t you talk to friends and see how they manage work commitments in similar situations?” A second request was “why not consider taking fewer assignments even if it means reduced income?”
2. Constructively Challenge negative and irrational thoughts, feelings and behaviors: Joseph Campbell in his book “Reflections on the art of living” makes an interesting quote –
Where you stumble, therein lies your treasure. The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for.
Some of our negative reactions and resistance to emerging situations is based on past memories, thoughts and beliefs that are “stuck in time”. In a way, we are also stuck to the beliefs associated with these memories, thoughts and beliefs. Then, the current situation is interpreted according to these old beliefs and fixed ideas.
This leads to exaggerated emotions and reactions that have little relevance to reality. As Henry David Thoreau once said –
I have suffered much in my life. And most of it never happened.
Sometimes it is useful to challenge such irrational thoughts and feelings. Finding such underlying thought patterns in an objective way, and then “seeing the light of reality” can unfetter us from their effect. Then the beliefs, decisions and mindsets can be changed more easily.
The Thought, Feeling & Action Model (TFA) helps to identify what is happening to us, and provides directions on strategies we can employ to help ourselves. According to Peter McWilliams, in any situation, we have a thought pyramid consisting of three factors – Thought, Feelings and Action. The three must work together to produce a positive outcome. They must (all three) also be congruent with the “here and now” dynamics of the present situation. If these two conditions are not met, the outcome is negative, dysfunctional or does not materialize.
Applying the TFA Model to our Situation I:
My situation was that I needed to find a way to incorporate a fitness and exercise regimen in the changed circumstances. My thoughts however were “I am tired and I need time to prepare for tomorrow’s program”. Reflecting on my feelings, I found I was feeling lazy and lethargic. My action was to switch on the TV and watch the news. Clearly, the desired outcome was not achieved.
The TFA Model can support me in reflecting upon my thoughts and feelings – are they aligned with my objective? If I can work with my thoughts and feelings and Situation Thoughts Actions Feelings modify / change them to be more in tune with my objective, I am likely to achieve a positive outcome.
For example, Constructively Challenging the thought “I do not have time to go for a walk as I need time to prepare for tomorrow’s program” through realistic assessment of facts (time at disposal) can help me break through the inertia and take more positive action.
Definitions of coaching frequently emphasize aspects like “transporting a valued person from where they are to where they want to be” and “helping the client achieve their goals, aspirations and potential”.
There is then a tacit expectation that coaching deliver clear outcomes that make a real difference; a presumption that people approach a coach because they feel that on their own, they would not be able to achieve effective outcomes and results.
Clearly, there must be some blockages and challenges a person is experiencing that s/he does not feel confident in dealing with independently. There are myriad possible causes. Broadly speaking though, they are of two kinds; internal to the person (such as self limiting or dysfunctional beliefs) or due to external circumstances that pose some difficulties and challenges that trigger lack of confidence, uncertainty, concerns and anxieties.
Empathy and constructive challenge are crucial capabilities in a coach’s repertoire. Judiciously choosing when and how we use them, the depth (and breadth) of exploration of underlying issues / new perspectives we can offer to the client will make all the difference.
The Role of Empathy in Coaching: Empathy has several powerful positive effects for the client and the coaching process.
a) Coaching is client centered: The client’s agenda, context, values and styles are all unique and subjective. The solutions that will “fit” are also very individual and context specific. As coaches, our ability to suspend our values / style / approach and truly open ourselves to see / feel from the client’s point of view is crucial. This authenticates the client and legitimizes – “its okay to be who I am and to have the problem I have.”
b) Active Listening and Mirroring: Sometimes clients experience confusion and emotional “noise”. Their current situation may challenge “who they are”. Very important relationships may be at stake. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to maintain balance and there is attendant lack of clarity. Active listening, paraphrasing and “mirroring back” thoughts and emotions can help the client “see things as they really are” and make up their minds how they wish to deal with issues involved.
c) Rapport: Linder-Pelz (meta-coach and author of the book “From Fear to Courage”) defines rapport as “the unconscious sharing of patterns of thinking, feeling and speaking. It is vital in all coaching methodologies. When people are in rapport, they respond more easily to each other”. As rapport increases, the client relaxes and opens up as s/he experiences a “safe haven” in the presence of the coach. The client becomes more comfortable in exploring and thinking through issues in-depth. Meaningful conversations ensue leading to more effective coaching process and outcomes.
d) Encouraging “Self-Empathy”: As we saw in the self-application section, self-empathy helps people to deal with underlying (unconscious / subconscious) thoughts and feelings. A kind of catharsis is experienced. This helps to strengthen intent and solutions are based on deeper inner wisdom. What the client needs to do becomes very clear and “desirable” thereby promoting real change.