Coaching for Flow: facilitating flow in the client’s everyday experience
The second type of interventions mentioned above, i.e. those attempting to assist individuals in finding flow (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002), can be applied to the coaching process. This could be called coaching for flow, aiming at transforming the everyday experience of the client by increasing the frequency of flow experiences. This is another objective at which the “flow enhancing model of coaching” of Wesson & Boniwell (2007) aims.
In the previous sections the elements boosting and characterizing flow have been described in detail. In this section the same elements will be presented from a coaching process perspective, providing examples on how coaches can use these elements to foster flow in the client’s everyday experience.
With reference to the conditions of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002; Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh, Nakamura, 2005), below are provided some examples on how the coach can support clients to find their own-way to access flow.
- Clear set of goals.
Supporting the client in setting clear goals is an integral part of coaching (Wesson & Boniwell, 2007). Different models can be adopted to facilitate this process, such as SMART or GROW models. Setting clear goals support the client in conceptualizing and facing the challenge, committing themselves to the task at their best (Wesson & Boniwell, 2007).
With no clear goals, it is not possible for the client to elicit the experience of flow, as there is no clear direction in which to channel attention.
According to Wesson & Boniwell (2007), "flow theory implies that clients are happiest setting which they feel are just slightly beyond their capabilities". This, and the element described below, accompany the client along a growth process.
- Balance between perceived challenges and perceived skills.
The optimal match between perceived challenges and skills is crucial for the optimal experience.
According to the original model of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002), described in Figure 1, three regions of experience are identified:
- anxiety, when perceived action opportunities (challenges) are higher than action capabilities (skills);
- boredom, when perceived action opportunities are lower than skills;
- flow, when there is perfect balance between perceived challenges and skills. The more the individual activates skills and improves in the action performed, the more it is necessary to increase the bar of challenges to keep the individual in the flow, thus creating opportunities for growth and self-development.
Figure 1: The original model of Flow State
The coach can help the client to understand these mechanisms and find his/her way to reach conditions of flow, limiting anxiety and boredom.
To coach for flow, the coach can support the client in either increasing skill level, if the client is, for instance, in a condition of anxiety, or to increase the level of challenge, if the client is in a condition of boredom (Kauffman, 2006). The coaching process supporting the client to move from anxiety to flow can consist in helping clients reduce challenge by breaking the task into smaller pieces, and building up skills until the client feels ready to manage the task or situation (Kaufman 2004 b). On the contrary, if the client is experiencing boredom, the coach can help the client in identifying ways to increase the level of complexity and to enlarge the vision of the client on the project or task at hand (Kaufmann 2004 b). In both situations, the coaching process assists the client in increasing his or her skills and in further growing and developing, in addition to enhancing the quality of the client’s experience.
Britton (2008) explains how she uses the flow diagram reported below (Figure 2) as “a visual aid in job coaching discussions between employees and supervisors”. When people are in boredom and anxiety states in working environments, they start to be disengaged and search for satisfaction elsewhere. A supervisor can work with the employee to understand where he/she is in the visual proposed, and work with the employee to understand how to change things to reach a condition of flow (Britton, 2008).
Figure 2: Flow channel
- Immediate and unambiguous feedback.
When an individual is experiencing flow, attention is focused and there is a good level of awareness on how the person is performing. Thus, it is important that “any feedback given by the coach is accurate and can be challenged” (Wesson & Boniwell, 2007). Feedback maintains the individual “centered in reality” (Kaufman, 2006).
Kaufmann (2006) highlights that feedback isn’t necessarily external, as inner clarity seems crucial. With this respect, Wesson & Boniwell (2007), in their the “flow enhancing model of coaching”, suggest a series of interventions to deepen the self-knowledge of the client, such as noting thoughts in a logbook while performing the activity and reflecting about these later on, or adopting thinking tools such as Mind mapping (Buzan & Buzan, 2003) and Ishikawa fishbone diagrams (Cameron, 2001). Wesson & Boniwell (2007) suggest “by reflecting on activities in this way it is possible to consolidate emerging ideas and consider new ways forward”.
With reference to the characteristics of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002; Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh, Nakamura, 2005), below are reported examples of interventions that the coach can adopt.
- Intense and focused concentration on the activity in the present moment
In order to enter and remain in the flow state, it is essential to be completely focused on the task at hand, leaving no room for the intrusion of other thoughts or worries. Csikszentmihalyi (2008) highlights that most jobs and home life in general lack the pressing demands of flow experiences, making concentration rare.
The coach can help the client to identify the triggers and conditions for the client to enter in a space of full concentration. In addition to that, the coach can support the client to identify in advance potential worries, if any, and work with the client to rebalance, if necessary, perceived skills and challenges, as described in detail below.
- Merging of action and awareness.
According to Kauffman (2006, 2005 b), a coach can support the client in managing the “dialectical tension between transcending the moment and also being completely aware of and flexibly responding to new information coming at the periphery”. She takes the example of blinders, that come and go as needed. A coach can help the client to open up to understand what’s happening, and then refocus at the action at hand.
- Loss of reflective self-consciousness.
According to Kauffman (2006), a coach can help a client with exercises to increase mindful focus on the present and detach from the outcome.
- A sense of control, described as a sense that, in principle, it is possible to deal with the situation, being able to respond to whatever happens next (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).
Kauffman (2006) identifies two classes of elements, i.e. those we can control and those we can not. Based on this distinction, the coach helps the client to focus on the elements the client can control, defocusing on the others. With this respect, the author quotes one of her mottos: “I’m not in control of my destiny, but I’m in control of my probabilities”.
- Distortion of the sense of time, referred to as distortion of temporal experience.
Kauffmann (2006) refers to “time transformation” and states that this element is hard to coach in a direct way. She suggests laser-like visualization techniques to help client build the perception skill. Another way is to have clients intensively evoke past flow experiences to possibly make it easier for them to replicate and elicit this state experience.
- The activity is intrinsically rewarding.
The coach can help the client to understand the intrinsic motivation which makes the activity at hand enjoyable. In case the client can not find easily an intrinsic motivation, the coach can help the client identify aspects of the challenge that are intrinsically rewarding. According to Davies (2009) people are more likely to be intrinsically motivated and to maintain intrinsic motivation when the task fulfils three of the basic psychological needs, thought to be essential to human motivation and growth, i.e. autonomy, relatedness, and competence.
The research conducted suggests that there are many potential applications of the flow theory to coaching, both in coaching conversations and in the coaching process, to increase the frequency of positive flow experiences in clients’ lives. Further research on flow application to coaching is needed. One possible area of further development could be analyzing the phenomenon of “social flow” and its potential application to group and team coaching.
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