Research Paper By Mark Johnson
(Spiritual Coach, USA)
A Brief Examination of How a Buddhist Approach Can Enhance Kindness Priming in Coaching
This paper will examine how the Pygmalion Effect, or affect priming, can be accentuated in the coaching process when the coach has an extensive Buddhist grounding in theory and practice, and applies this experience to their coaching. Affect priming as a catalytic process, mediating by coaching, is discussed, and educational and psychological research is cited. Cultural references are also provided in order to set a context and analogical understanding.
The idea that the coach can spark the Pygmalion Effect is considered, and the cardinal features of affect priming, especially kindness priming, are then seen in the light of the Buddhist principles of embodied wisdom and loving kindness. The experience of being taught, guided, or coached, whether it is in the classroom by a teacher, in a professional setting by a qualified therapist, counselor, or coach, or in the student-guru context of the Buddhist tradition, are all similar in that the very subtle process of human growth and development is mediated by the warmth, wisdom, and skillful means of the facilitator.
Introduction: Cultural Memes for Kindness Priming
The story of Pygmalion falling in love with the beautiful statue he created is from the Roman poet, Ovid, and is told in his narrative poem, Metamorphoses. George Bernard Shaw, drawing on a body of contemporary theatre that used a similar storyline, and inspired by the classic myth, wrote his play, Pygmalion, in the early 20th century. At one level Shaw, as always, satirizes the English educated classes. But at another level, he asserts the oneness of human beings, regardless of what class they come from, and their ability to change and evolve. This play later became the great Broadway musical, My Fair Lady, the movie of the same name, and via these media the ideas forever entered into the popular consciousness of the Western world.
The metamorphosis that takes place in the story line, whether it is the statue coming to life because of the intense love of the sculptor and the kind benevolence of Aphrodite, or the transformation of a working class flower girl to a lady of the genteel class, is at heart a mystery play, a story of magical alchemy, something base becoming something precious and gold. Shaw bedecks the story with all kinds of other elements, comedic, humanistic, satirical, but there is no hiding the truly fascinating and magical process that takes place. For the story of Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion is an analogue for how we all hold the potential to change, if only we receive the true compassion and wisdom of a helper. Our psyches resonate with the universal, archetypal message.
On one side, Eliza has her own innate desire and ability to change. And on the other side, this change is facilitated, or mediated, best when in the presence of a wise, loving kindness. I will argue that the salient qualities of the coach which help catalyze these changes and achievements, that produce the Pygmalion Effect, are wisdom and kindness, and these qualities are especially cultivated in Buddhist practice.
How We Treat Others Reflects Our Level of Kindness, and Helps to Determine Outcomes
In the play, Shaw reveals what he believes to be the source of the magic — the loving kindness of Colonel Pickering who treats her ‘like a lady,’ and all of the fancy elocution lessons of Professor Higgins are really just cosmetic. The movie story, deviating from the play, romanticizes the relationship between Professor Higgins and Eliza, but still emphasizes her realization that she was able to change only because of the example of how the Colonel treated her. Here is how Shaw reveals the secret in Act V:
LIZA (Speaking to Colonel Pickering about Professor Higgins’ treatment of her. . . )
. . . I am not blaming him. It is his way, isn’t it? But it made such a difference to me that you didn’t do it. You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will. 1 Shaw, 1913
In our experience as the play or movie goer, we intuitively know that she is saying the Colonel helped her realize a deeper part of herself because he treated her with kindness and equality, and this helped her find a ‘higher octave’ of her own possibilities. This theme has been repeated in many other stories in our culture, of course, some based on reality, as in Edward James Olmos’ movie, Stand and Deliver, or fictionalized, as in Michael Caine’s Educating Rita.
Affect Priming Research in Psychology
In psychology, the Pygmalion Effect has come to mean that change can happen from affect priming — that when we receive the stimulus of consistent positive feedback, as in Rosenthal’s 1964 ground-breaking study of teachers believing (falsely) that certain students were highly capable, we seem to rise to the expectations that are being held for us. 2 This phenomenon helps us see why it is important that someone believe in us, especially when we are getting coached, and in the final analysis, it is simply a radical transformation of our mindset that initiates true change. This is perhaps the kind of metamorphosis that Ovid was alluding to — the magical and alchemical transformation that comes when we apply ourselves to our calling, to fulfilling our potential, and when we are treated with love and kindness. . .
Ever since Carl Rogers first identified the elements of successful treatment in Humanistic Psychology, 3 we have known that “unconditional positive regard” is one of the most important features of successful psychotherapy and counseling. Naturally, this was somewhat hard to validate, or even to teach, as these so-called ‘soft skills’ in therapy largely reflect the deeper nature of the person providing the care. As hard as this task was, beginning in the 1960’s many graduate schools training psychotherapists tried to teach their students how to be present, kind, non-judgmental, and so on.
In the 1970’s trans-personal psychology graduate schools, such as Naropa Institute, the California Institute of Integral Studies, and the Institute of Trans-personal Psychology, began to discuss the philosophical aspects of psychology from the spiritual point of view, saying that the development of unconditional positive regard is really a spiritual practice. Learning to be kind, present, and non-judgmental must be engaged in as a process of constant self-observation (or mindfulness) of negative lower ego states, like judgmental thinking, and the evocation of higher spiritual faculties, such as through the practice of compassion, mantra, zhikr, and deity yoga. They also believed that the healing effects of psychology, and the secret to education, was helping the client discover their own, inner and limitless resources. As the founder of CIIS, Haridas Chaudhuri (1977) wrote 4:
The ideal teacher is one who does not dictate to you, but who helps you to realize your own potential.
Similar quotations can be found in abundance from Chogyam Trungpa, the founder of Naropa Institute, and James Fadiman and Robert Frager, the founders of the Institute of Trans-personal Psychology. Fadiman and Frager wrote one of the seminal textbooks in Trans-personal Psychology, Personality and Personal Growth, which repeatedly emphasizes the benefit that psychotherapists can gain from embarking on a genuine spiritual path.
In the 1990’s, the school of Positive Psychology declared itself as a group of clinicians and theorists who were determined to put such humanistic and trans-personal ideas to the test, and demonstrate empirically, in controlled studies, that drawing on the positive, optimistic, and altruistic nature of people was healing and long-lasting in its effects. Such ideas as affect, or kindness priming, gained traction, as possible explanations for the positive results achieved by people being held in high regard and with high expectations.
Kindness priming, a form of affect priming hypothesized by positive psychology, is the notion that acts of kindness may activate associated neural networks in the brain that then predispose the individual to the perception that the world is a kinder place. This experience further sensitizes the individual to other forms of kindness in the world around them.
Kindness priming refers to the observed effect by which individuals who are exposed to an act of kindness — the priming — subsequently notice more of the positive features of the world than they would otherwise. A person receiving a free voucher from a stranger, for example, may become more inclined to perceive the intentions of others around them as good.
It is hypothesized that kindness priming involves the same cognitive circuitry that enables memory priming. By activating neural representations of positive affect, an act of kindness stimulates increased activity in related associative networks. It is therefore more likely that subsequent stimuli will activate these related, positive networks, and so the positive affect continues to be carried forward in a feed forward manner. Additionally, kindness priming has also been shown to inoculate against negative stimuli in the short term, thus temporarily improving an individual’s resilience. From Wikipedia, article on Kindness Priming 5
In an article from the website of The Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life center at UC Berkeley, Bernie Wong writes that a recent study demonstrates teachers can promote kindness in the classroom, and inoculate students from bullying, by having them participate in cooperative, pro-social learning projects.
The results, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, suggest that cooperation begets cooperation: Students who participated in more cooperative learning exercises were more likely than their peers to say they liked cooperating with other students, leading the researchers to conclude that “cooperative experiences promote the development of the personality trait of cooperativeness.”
What’s more, students who engaged in more frequent cooperative learning were also more likely to report performing kind, helpful—or “pro-social”—behavior toward their classmates. 6
How Does Kindness Priming Translate to Coaching?
Carol Kauffman, the coach, positive psychologist, and researcher at Harvard University, suggests in an interview with Ebbe Lavendt that this sort of kindness priming in coaching may involve the Pygmalion Effect. 7 Briefly, the process of kindness priming, would work like this. . . A client begins to have a relationship with a coach where they begin to feel that this professional does indeed start to care for them, and has their best interests at heart. The client then starts to shift their mindset and can discount (or not dwell on) older, more negative beliefs about the self, and thus focus on achieving their goal(s).
The client starts to feel regarded positively, and without conditions. The coach is paying close attention and summarizing what the client says, so that the client feels heard, an experience often lacking in today’s busy world. The client begins to notice the coach’s personal warmth, humor, and kindness as the coach responds non-judgmentally to the client’s struggles, doubts, reported hits and misses, failures and victories, their dreams and values, and their statements of what is most important in life. The client is encouraged to think about their goals critically, going through an inductive reasoning process, (that is, reasoning through to the consequences of taking different avenues of action).
As the positive feedback cycle continues, the client continues to feel heard and supported as they begin to articulate their goals and vision, and the coach helps them in learning how to align those goals with their core values.
This area of coaching often goes misunderstood, as for many people the statements of what they want to achieve or change in their lives can be exactly where they are the most vulnerable. Individuals with Type A personalities, people who have always been ambitious, successful, and aggressive in their goal setting (the client’s boss, possibly), often fail to appreciate the sensitive nature of the client’s hopes and dreams. When the client is able to bring these forward and be supported, and will be often profoundly grateful that they are not being mocked for over-reaching, or that they are unconsciously provoking jealousy amongst their colleagues or peers.
If the coach is truly in their element, and genuinely is kind, attentive, and non-judgmental, then all of this builds trust. The client begins to be ‘primed’ to see that change is possible, even for them. And because of this trust, the client will then be more receptive to another key element of the coaching process, accountability. When the coach has the client’s trust, and the client is primed to perceive their feedback as positive and encouraging, then they are less likely to feel threatened by being held accountable.
And so the Pygmalion Effect begins to take place: the client feels the kindness, support, and non-judgmental presence of the coach, the coach communicates that they really believe in the client’s abilities and higher nature, this in turn ignites a flame of positive qualities and self-reflections within the client, and this starts the alchemical transformation of the client going from a ‘lower-performing state of being’ to a higher functioning one, from Eliza the flower girl, to Eliza the lady and the new teacher of elocution.
This is spiritual alchemy, the transformation of the ‘baser’ metals of imprisoning mindsets, to the ‘golden’ opening of the mind’s latent higher faculties. The process of change is surprising and unexpected, the change from one ‘state’ to another is permanent, and it follows actual laws of psychological catalysis, where the ‘chemical agent’ of the client’s desire and willingness to change, meets the ‘chemical reagent’ of the goal they aspire to, and the process is mediated by the ‘catalyst’ of the coach’s wisdom and kindness.
Kauffman further observes in an article about coaching and Positive Psychology, that the scientific explanation for how coaching has positive effects on the client can be found in research being done in Positive Psychology itself. 8
How Buddhist Coaching Encourages the Pygmalion Effect
In its simplest terms, Buddhism revolves around an ever-deepening experience of two cardinal principles: wisdom and compassion. Wisdom, in the Buddhist sense, means the gradual unfolding of one’s direct experience with the deepest layers of truth about reality, leading to the practioner’s ultimate realization of their own Buddha nature, or unity with non-dual awareness. Compassion, in this tradition, is the active force that energizes the journey to enlightenment, that one is engaged in this quest not for one’s own personal benefit but in order to benefit all sentient beings. It is my personal belief that all of the authentic wisdom traditions have these same goals, and lead to the same place.
If the coach can bring the highest level possible of these two qualities into the coaching journey, then the client experiences multiple benefits:
- The client’s activation of their own innate abilities and desire for growth is encouraged and stimulated when they are reminded that they can seek to accomplish their goals for the benefit of others, and not just their own personal gain.
- The coach offers their wisdom and patience and trust in the client’s own deeper resources, such as the latent faculties of their Buddha nature.
- The coach helps to create, virtually or in their office, a ‘sacred space’ where change and growth are envisioned, encouraged, and manifested.
- The coach has wisdom by having been through the experience of growth themselves, and the refinement and purification of ethical values.
- The Buddhist-trained coach utilizes skillful means when appropriate, like powerful questions, and has high expectations for the client. They are not shy about holding the client accountable to what they say they are going to do.
- And finally, the Buddhist coach has cultivated this warmth, compassion, and loving kindness through years of spiritual practice, so they are walking the walk.
It stands to reason that the coach who has actually embodied these qualities of kindness and wisdom represents a certain added value to the coaching process. How much can a coaching school train a student to embody these qualities? This also begs the question, “How does a Buddhist coach come by these qualities, and how will we know if they have actually attained them?”
We can begin by highlighting some of the qualities of the teacher-student relationship in Tibetan Buddhism, and see how they compare and contrast with the coaching relationship. It is commonly found in the Buddhist community that the student learns a great deal about themselves and the dharma from their relationship with their teacher. And the most important, salient core principles of Vajrayana Buddhism are the cultivation of wisdom and compassion.
So if we are looking for qualities of wisdom and compassion in a Buddhist coach, then the first place to start by asking about their relationship with their teacher. Here are some of the characteristics of the unique education that a Buddhist has in the Vajrayana tradition when working with a master:
- One of the hallmarks of the relationship is that the teacher does not focus on or call much attention to the student’s lower ego, his or her personal suffering, and negative passions. The teacher manifests what is known as vajra mind, or pure vision, an ability to see all people without judgment. For the student, this can be an wonderful experience.
- This is wonderful because we are our most vulnerable selves when we are asking for help and guidance on the spiritual path — precisely because our psyches know that it is the most important and difficult work we have to do. Buddhists and other wisdom traditions say that our greatest responsibility in life, our greatest goal, is to take advantage of our precious human rebirth, and find the internal resources and love to be able to help all sentient beings.
- The teacher tries to always hold the cardinal principle in mind that the student has a Buddha nature, and that this is perfect and simply needs to be awakened. The doctrine in Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions of the tathagartagarbha holds that all human beings already possess the state of being the Buddha within them, they are simply asleep to that inner nature. This forms the basis for the Buddhist teacher holding high expectations of the student, for they know that holding the student accountable to their hidden and latent mental and spiritual faculties will help awaken this Buddha nature. The teacher believes that their student can break through their unhealthy core beliefs and mindsets.
- Even when the teacher needs to give the student feedback about their discipline or behavior, they do so in a way that is kind. These moments are typically experienced as palliative and the feedback is an easy, welcome insight that guides us. This is a felt experience, and perhaps the best analogy is when a loving parent corrects a child who is misbehaving, and simply points out what is wrong about the behavior, without anger, lecturing, or shaming.
- The teacher models how to live as a high-functioning individual. Whether spoken or unspoken, the student is going to ‘test’ the teacher to see how congruent they are with what they teach. Are they practicing what they preach? In the Buddhist community, especially the highest-regarded teachers, no one ever claims to be perfect, without flaws and in no need of improvement. Teachers are very humble about their accomplishments, and often seek guidance from their own peers and living mentors.
- The teacher also may offer suggestions of skillful means, using what is known in Buddhism as upaya, which could be in the form of teaching stories, tasks assigned, herbal or magical remedies, deity yoga practices, or divinations that may help the student overcome obstacles. When the student receives these blessings they begin to look at the world in a different way. Knowing that there are auguries, and resplendent, divine, invisible beings that can help us — if we have a mature form of faith, and we ourselves are able to visualize the event or good fortune taking place — opens our view of the world into a far more beautiful and ‘magical’ place than we ever imagined.
- In its most refined stage, the relationship is deepened by the student practicing ‘Guru Yoga,’ which is practice dedicated to merging our minds with the living teacher, and as Sogyal Rinpoche (1992) says, “. . . to merge your mind and heart with your master’s wisdom mind is to merge your mind with the truth and very embodiment of enlightenment.” 10
A coach that has had the benefit of being taught by a dharma teacher, is then able to come from this experience of wisdom and kindness.
Not only will they have worked with a teacher, a Buddhist-trained coach will also have years actually practicing compassion, such as meditations on Avalokitesvara, or White Tara. They will have years of experience finding the way of wisdom in their own lives. One of the first people they practice wisdom and compassion with is themselves. For as we learn to forgive and let go of past hurts, as we learn to understand another person’s karma and the unconscious drives that cause us all to be ignorant, we must include ourselves in this understanding and compassion.
We are our own laboratories for observing, measuring, and experimenting with the causes and cures of suffering. This is, by definition, the path to Buddhahood, for the Buddha himself insisted that we must test everything — any teachings, any person’s wisdom — against our own experience.
This experience of being transformed by the Buddhist path, of being held and seen in a pure way by their own teacher, and then practicing many years themselves, putting their own psyche in the crucible of the dharma, enables a Buddhist coach to then hold the client, to the best of their ability, with a unique set of skills and heart.
If we agree that the Pygmalion Effect is a real phenomenon in coaching, and that it most likely is sparked by kindness priming on the part of the coach, then it follows that someone deeply trained in both the experience of receiving kindness, and then practicing it upon themselves, is very likely going to be able to embody it when coaching clients.
And so the Buddhist coach is going to bring several unique qualities into the coaching relationship, beginning with their own experience of receiving from their teacher, and then practicing unconditional positive regard. A mind of non-judgmental thinking enables them to bring that to the coaching process.
As mentioned above, this coach will have a strong belief in the client’s Buddha nature, a mind capable of tremendous achievement in service to the greater good, which includes the realization of the client’s highest potential, and the necessary acquisition of ‘goods’, such as wealth, happy family, good luck, creative accomplishments, good health, and so on.
A Buddhist coach will trust that the client can handle having high expectations, as long as they are done within the context of mutually-agreed upon goals. This coach believes that the client has faculties of consciousness that are latent and untapped, and which the client may never have surmised.
The Buddhist coach models integrity, wisdom, peak experiences of happiness, health and performance, because they have lived and practiced these ideals, like the Eightfold Path, or the ethical virtues of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, the Bodhisattva Vow, Vajrasattva Purification, or many other exercises which train the mind to become more noble and altruistic.
And finally, the Buddhist coach will rejoice in the journey with the client, help to celebrate their wins and help them learn from their mistakes and obstacles, sharing a world view that embraces all beings, wanting their health and happiness, but at the same time knows that our true and lasting happiness is internal, is available here and now, on this very journey, at this very moment.
Shaw, George Bernard. (1913). Pygmalion. Project Gutenberg E-text of Pygmalion.
Rosenthal, Robert, and Lenore Jacobson. (1968): “Pygmalion in the classroom.” The Urban Review 3, no. 1 16-20.
Rogers, Carl R. (1951). Client-centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Chaudhuri, Haridas. (1978). The Evolution of Integral Consciousness. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books
Kindness priming (psychology). In Wikipedia. Retrieved Aug 12, 2015 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki
Wong, Bernie. (2011). A simple bully buster: cooperative learning. From The Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life Berkeley: University of Berkeley.
Kauffman, Carol. (2011). Positive psychology and coaching; video interview, conducted by Lavendt, E. Copenhagen: Center for Positiv Psykologi.
Kauffman, Carol. (2006). The science at the heart of coaching. In Evidence-Based Coaching Handbook. Editor: Dianne Stober. New jersey: Wiley & Sons.
Linden, Stanton J. (2003). The Alchemy Reader: from Hermes Trimegistus to Isaac Newton. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Rinpoche, Sogyal. (1992). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.