Research Paper By Damon Poole
(Business Coach, UNITED STATES)
How we interact with the world, and the results from those interactions depend on the experiences we have, how we interpret those experiences, how we feel about those interpretations, and the actions we take in response. In a very large client engagement with many coaches and lots of complexity, there was a crisis every week and it was causing me a lot of stress. As a result, it was affecting my interactions with others and things weren’t going the way I was hoping. I explained to another coach, “Here, just like clockwork, there is a new crisis every week.” And the coach then asked me, “So, there is a new crisis every week. What might you do about that?” I responded with exasperation, “That’s my point, I don’t know. There’s a new crisis every week. I don’t know what it will be, but I know I can expect one.”
And just like that, it hit me. There’s a new crisis every week. Every week one would come up, and every week, we’d collectively get through it together. So, what was I stressed out about? The coach’s question had helped me to switch from one way of interpreting events to another. The stress evaporated. There are several models for “rewiring” ourselves to respond more effectively to circumstances. We’ll look at three here.
The Ladder of Inference
The “ladder of inference” model was created by Chris Argyris and looks like the following diagram.
The “self-coaching” model created by Brook Castillo is based on the following diagram.
The ABCDEF model of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) was created by Albert Ellis. It consists of six parts:
A – The adversity (or activating event)
B – The developed belief in the person of the Adversity (or activating event)
C – The consequences of that person’s Beliefs i.e., B
D – The person’s disputes of A, B, and C. In latter thought
E – The effective new philosophy or belief that develops in that person through the occurrence of D in their minds of A and B
F – The developed feelings of one’s self either at the point and after point C or at a point after point E.
Although CBT comes from therapy, it has also been used extensively in coaching.
For this paper, I focus on the activating event, the belief associated with the activating event, the consequences, the disputes, and the new belief. Another way to think of these that is consistent with the other models is circumstances, beliefs, actions, reflection, new beliefs, behaviors, or actions.
The commonality of the Models
Each of the models looks at how our thought process moves through a series of stages from what we experience to how we feel and think about it, to how we react, and the results our reactions bring us. Each of the models also includes a reflecting ( or challenging) component that results in potentially beneficial changes at one of the stages. By reflecting on each stage of that process and considering how to interpret circumstances differently, feel or think differently about that interpretation, and behave differently in reaction to those feelings and thoughts, it is possible to obtain better results.
Adapting the Models for Regular Use in Coaching
The three models described above can each be used as tools to help people move forward in how they think about themselves and their circumstances. While they are useful tools to know and use, they are awkward to use in a typical Agile Coaching situation. To that end, I have created a set of five “coaching triggers” which can be used piecemeal as the situation arises. Each trigger is a set of circumstances to notice and powerful questions to use when that circumstance or circumstances arise. The triggers are based on 5 areas of commonality in the models: interpreting events, mental models, patterns of behavior, self-reflection, and learning and applying new skills and behaviors.
Coaching Trigger: Re-Interpreting
When the coachee describes a situation, they may include some interpretation. The interpretation may interfere with his ability to consider all possible actions. Bringing awareness to the coachee that their description of the situation is one possible interpretation and that other interpretations may serve him may open up additional possibilities that the coachee was not previously considering.
When you sense the coachee’s interpretation of events is an obstacle, consider asking, from a perspective of curiosity, “what other ways do you see to describe what happened?”
Coaching Trigger: Re-evaluating
To cope with the complexities of day to day life, we create and use simplified mental models of the world. We create mental models for a wide variety of things: ourselves, other people, concepts, how things work, and how we think about situations.
Some mental models are simple, such as the labels (aka adjectives) we apply to people such as “helpful” or “stubborn.” We also employ mental models when we use the words “is,” “our,” or “like.” For instance, “this is a Kanban team.” While the “Kanban team” is a useful mental model, it may be inaccurate or simplification of what is going on.
Analogies and metaphors are also mental models. They are ways to describe a complex set of circumstances using concepts we are already familiar with. We say things like: “I feel surrounded” or “I just can’t get a touchdown.”
We use mental models to make our lives easier, but sometimes mental models outlive their usefulness. Other times we forget to update our mental model as the circumstances change.
When you sense a mental model is hindering the coachee, explore switching mental models to see if that uncovers any new possibilities. Make sure alternative mental models are suggested by the coachee, not the coach.
Here are some examples of questions to ask that can help a coachee explore different mental models:
“How would you describe your perspective on this?”
“What is a different perspective that you could take on this?”
“What are some other perspectives on the situation?”
“Think of another person involved in this. What do you suppose their perspective on this might be?”
In summary, re-evaluating has four parts:
- Noticing a mental model that may need re-evaluating
- Bringing the mental model to the coachee’s attention
- Asking the coachee to suggest an alternative mental model
- Exploring how the new mental model may help with the current topic
Some mental models are firmly established and hard to change. In our experience, people from many mental models as they are learning about Agile and the people on their team. This coaching trigger can be particularly effective with these recently formed mental models. Using it can acquaint people with the practice of regularly revisiting and re-evaluating mental models.
There is much to learn about the role of mental models in how people operate. If you are interested in learning more, a good place to start is “Clean Language.” Clean Language deeply explores the use of metaphors and using people’s own words and is highly valued by many in the Agile Coaching community. We recommend the book “Clean Language – Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds” by Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees.
Coaching Trigger: Re-Patterning
Most of us have a daily routine. Some routines are more structured than others. An alarm wakes us up in the morning, we get ready for the day, we check our schedules, attend meetings, eat our meals, spend some time relaxing, then do it all again. Not everybody has a highly structured daily routine, but most people have some kind of routine. Our routines give us structure and help us succeed.
Routines and habits are patterns. There are many kinds of patterns. Regularly scheduled events are patterns. There are patterns in how we behave in our relationships. There are patterns based on where we live and work.
Some routines and habits positively influence our lives, others hold us back Routines and habits can make it particularly difficult to make a change. Until we change the routines and habits associated with a change we want to make, they will impede our progress.
The first step to forming new routines and habits is to be aware of existing ones. That is where coaching questions can help. Here are some examples:
“What habits or routines do you have that might be a factor here?”
“What are the circumstances surrounding this?”
“What assumptions might you have that are relevant here?”
“What personal rules or beliefs might be involved here?”
Coaching Trigger: Reflection
Changing our perception of the world or changing our behavior to overcome an obstacle involves an investment of time to consider unfamiliar perspectives think about trying new behaviors. We have found that many people, especially when looking for help, are not accustomed to pausing in the middle of a conversation to take a few moments for reflection. Consequently, some coachees unintentionally miss opportunities to gain new insights that enable their progress.
When asking a question that you feel will benefit from the coachee taking a moment to stop and think, and he immediately responds with something like “I don’t know”, consider inviting the coachee to invest in taking that extra time. A little reflection at the moment may open up new possibilities during your conversation or lead to more reflection later.
“No rush. Take a moment or two to reflect. What comes to mind?”
Coaching Trigger: Self-Improvement
When the coachee struggles with unfamiliar situations, help the coachee explore what skills are needed to address whatever issue they are dealing with. This may remind the coachee that he has the skills and experience, surface new skills, and experience that are needed, or encourage thinking about who else might be able to help. For example, the coachee may be missing the ability to engage in a difficult conversation or explain the value of an approach that he would like the team to take. Here are some questions which are not about the coachee personally that may stimulate their thinking:
“What do you wish was different about the situation?”
“Imagine somebody came along and made this happen. What sort of person might that be?”
“Imagine a different person were in your shoes, what might they do?”
If they come up with ideas that might require them to do things differently, you can try following up with a question like:
“What might you do differently to get <the desired outcome>?”
“What sort of person is needed to solve this?”
“What would it take for you to be that person?”
“Who would you need to be to solve this?”
“The Ladder of Inference”, Chris Argyris
“The Self Coaching Model Guide”, Brook Castillo
“Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy”, Albert Ellis