Research Paper By Emanuela Maria Elly Goerick
(Life Coach, SWITZERLAND)
Always believe that something wonderful is about to happen. Dr. Sukhraj Dhillon
Since I started mentor coaching and peer coaching, I became aware that underlying beliefs are omnipresent. There was hardly a session that was not in some way related to an underlying, dysfunctional belief of the coachee. No matter the topic – i.e. related to academic achievements, relationships, career advancement, or collaboration problems – underlying beliefs were so frequent, that I started to ask myself whether the dysfunctional nature of an underlying belief was a condition for any healthy, generally functional person to look for a coach. I, hence, decided to write my research paper about the one topic that I felt was most frequent in my sessions and most crucial to tackle to ensure long-term sustainable success in my coaching.
Facts about underlying beliefs
Underlying, limiting beliefs are beliefs we have about ourselves that are untrue and dysfunctional. They are subconscious, which means we may not be aware of them and how they affect our daily lives. As Gerald Zaltman`s research has shown, about 95% of all thoughts, emotions, and learning occur in our subconscious mind. So far so good, this would not be a problem. The problem starts with – what I would call – a vicious cycle of the underlying belief: We take actions based on our beliefs, and those actions then create evidence that makes our beliefs seem to be true. In her TEDx speech in 2015, Dr. Irum Tahir presents her research on underlying beliefs and points out the fact that most underlying beliefs are developed during our childhood, from age 0 to 6. For Joseph O’Connor and John Seymor, underlying beliefs can come from many sources, such as upbringing, modeling of significant others, past traumas, and repetitive experiences. This is why they are so omnipresent! As professional coach Valerie Greene points out in her presentation about the anxious attachment style: nearly every one of us has underlying, limiting beliefs. She gives the example of regular childhood experiences. As children, when we encounter unpleasant, discouraging behavior from our caretakers we have two ways to interpret those: we (a) believe something is wrong with these caretakers (in which case we might die!), or we (b) believe the problem is with us, that we are the reason for their dysfunctional speech or actions. Valerie Greene argues that we usually assume that something is wrong with us (option (b)), which means we will survive in the current moment and may be able to overcome the problem later in our life. In such a usual case, an underlying, dysfunctional belief is formed. And, as long as we believe our stressful, dysfunctional believes, we will suffer.
How to detect underlying, dysfunctional beliefs?
Given their unconscious nature, it is sometimes hard to detect what is actually limiting us in reaching our goals. Coachees may attribute shortcomings to outside conditions or assume an inherent personal weakness is a basis for them not reaching their goals. We simply do not question what we believe is true! We would not ask ourselves: why are we able to breathe? We take it as a given that we are breathing and we are not interested in the physical functioning of our lungs and throat, until we may suffer from an asthma attack. Underlying, limiting believes are so deeply rooted in our cognition and behavior that we will oftentimes need the help of an external human being to reflect on the structure of our (dysfunctional) belief system.
However, why is it important to detect the underlying belief? Why can we not just train a coachee in a new behavior pattern, provide them with strategic advice, and send them home to implement it? It is important to address the underlying belief, because coachees may not encounter stable, long-term results if they only learn new behavior. Changing the underlying belief will help them to create a new mind map and anchor the new behavior in a strong base of a new, more functional belief system that is conducive for them reaching their life goal. In the following paragraphs I will present 2 concepts of contemporary practitioners on how to detect underlying dysfunctional beliefs in a coaching context:
2.a Morty Lefkoe`s approach
For MortyLefkoe, the best technique for detecting underlying beliefs is to request the coachee to notice what they are thinking and feeling as the problem occurs. For example, if the overall problem is social anxiety – not feeling comfortable with people in social situations –then, when meeting someone at a party they might notice themselves thinking: I don’t feel comfortable when people are putting their attention on me. Two beliefs that would “go with” those thoughts are: Something bad will happen if people put their attention on me and I’m not good enough. Tasking a coachee to note their body feeling and their attributions at the moment, will help them to dig deeper and to detect which thinking pattern is behind their unwanted behavior, in this case, social anxiety.
2.b Dr. Patrick Keelan`s approach (Cognitive Behavior Theory-based)
For Dr. Keelan, there are three ways to detect an underlying dysfunctional belief. The first way is to notice themes in a coachee`s thinking, especially any absolutistic negative ways of thinking about other people, the world in general, or themselves. These thinking patterns would manifest themselves in a client`s interpretation of the facts that they are presenting, not in the facts itself. Given that underlying beliefs are associated with strong emotion, underlying beliefs may also be present when the coachee is experiencing strong emotional reactions that seem out of proportion when they are presenting their facts and story. Finally, another sign that an underlying belief may be present is when the coachee is having difficulty in accepting or believing positive information or evidence about others, the world, or themselves.
How to transform underlying limiting beliefs
Now that we know how to detect the underlying limiting beliefs of your coachees, how can we help to transform them to build a new, more functional way of thinking? Below I will present four ways how to transform underlying limiting believes.
3.a Byron Katie`s four questions
Byron Katie’s process is a simple, but highly effective tool for opening the mind and expanding perspective once we have identified an underlying limiting belief. Whenever an underlying limiting belief is detected and verbalized, she suggests to ask four questions:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react when you believe this to be true?
- Who would you be without this belief?
On her website (https://thework.com), Tom Moon gives the example of a client who was left by his partner overnight. Following the process of the four questions, the client was able to see that “I don`t need anything from my previous partner to be happy. It`s believing that I do that is keeping me unhappy.” Tom Moon describes how the four questions can help a coachee to gain control over his thoughts and emotions. By questioning the belief and the causational connections of the belief, any coach can help the coachee to become the owner of his or her thoughts and can choose to change them. Changing the belief will then help the coachee to change a behavioral pattern or to have more functional emotions around the life event that occurred. Just like in the example of the client who was left by his partner.
3.b Cognitive restructuring
Based on the idea that our underlying limiting beliefs are rarely based on facts and evidence but rather on the interpretation of the facts, every collection of facts is framed in a certain way and looked at through a particular perspective. The approach of cognitive restructuring is to look at the same facts through a new perspective and interpret them in a way that can help the coachee to reach his or her goals.
Below are some examples of cognitive restructuring of common limiting beliefs into a broader positive perspective:
“Failure is a learning experience.”
This links with the growth vs fixed mindset Finding ways to interpret a mistake as a learning experience, helps to ease any counterfactual dysfunctional emotion and helps to witch the focus on the focus
“Look at the bigger picture.”
This links to the idea that the coachee is encouraged to zoom out of the immediate situation and look at it from afar. Sometimes, being in the trenches of a specific situation prevents a coachee from seeing other options and possible ways forward.
“Things could be worse.”
This links to the idea of cultivating gratitude for what you have by envisioning that things could actually still be worse. Sheryl Sandberg provides a wonderful example of how she was able to find gratitude even when losing her husband
“Look at it from another person’s perspective.”
This links to the coaching idea of reframing: switching perspectives can yield insights and perspectives we could not have noticed by keeping on our glasses. Actually trying to move into the shoes of another human being and trying to see the situation from their perspective can be very helpful.
In life coaching, we can use cognitive restructuring techniques to help a coachee reframe their experience into a picture that better serves them, without ignoring or immediately changing their reality. In my opinion, it still helps to first go through Byron Katie`s questions and to also check the circles of control of any underlying limiting belief.
3.c Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP)
In NLP the ability to change how we perceive reality is often more valuable than changing the content of our experience of reality. One of NLP`s presumptions is that there is a positive intention motivating every behavior and a context in which every behavior has value. Seeking the positive intention of any behavior can help a coachee to transform an underlying belief.
Questions that are useful to ask when using NLP reframing are:
- “What else could this mean?”
- “In what way, could this be positive or a resource?”
3.d CBT approach – Back from the Bluez
In their module “Core beliefs”, Nathan, Rees, Lim, and Correia present two CBT-based, journaling approaches to challenging underlying limiting beliefs.
The first one is a three-part instruction, detailed below:
- Write down the identified underlying, limiting belief that needs to be challenged.
- Write down 10 experiences, situations that show that this underlying belief is not COMPLETELY true ALL the time.
- Write down a more situationally balanced belief (taking into consideration under which conditions and circumstances this belief was true and not true)
Their second journaling method is detailed below. It is a testing matrix, that guides a coachee to note down their prediction of what they believe will happen in a certain situation. Their prediction will be contrasted to what actually happened, after the fact. The conclusions taken by the coachee will help to formulate a new, more balanced, and constructive core belief.
Both methods require strong supportive guidance from the coach, to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy situation, where the belief would get confirmed by the coachee’s perceptions and interpretations. The focus should be on the active side: If I start believing the more balanced version of my core belief, what things would I be doing? How would I show up in these situations? The change in the behavior will help to anchor the new belief and the switch in focus will help to find new interpretations of any of life`s circumstances.
O’Connor, J. &Semour, J. (1990). Introducing NLP – Psychological skills for understanding and influencing people. Conari Press (Chapter 4)
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New PsychologyofSuccess. Ballantine Books
Covey, S. R. (1992) The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic A Fireside book: Self-Help. Simon and Schuster, Limited.
Nathan, P., Rees, C., Lim, L., & Correia, H. (2003). Back fromtheBluez. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions.