Research Paper By Rachel Loock
(Leadership and Career Coach, UNITED STATES)
Coaching is supported by a wide variety of psychological theories (e.g., cognitive behavioral coaching, positive psychology, etc.), and concepts such as mindfulness, building on one’s strengths, and perspective (e.g., during the coaching process, the coach supports a client in maintaining a healthy perspective and/or in changing from a disempowering perspective to an empowering one). Perspective is so critical to effective coaching that a major portion of the ICA curriculum is devoted to perspective through the power tool class modules and the requirement that coaching students create their own power tool.
My passion for coaching and my coaching approach aligns with these theories and concepts. There is much literature available on these individual theories (e.g., cognitive behavioral coaching and positive psychology) and concepts (e.g., mindfulness, strengths, and perspective). However, my goal was to locate one resource that summarizes and synthesizes these different theories and concepts with practical tools, in an easily accessible format, that coaches can utilize in their work with their clients. The book, Perspective ~ The Calm Within the Storm, is just that resource.
On November 10, 2014, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Robert J. Wicks. Dr. Wicks has helped people take measure of their lives for more than 30 years. He is a faculty member at Loyola University in Maryland. As a renowned speaker and teacher at other universities and professional schools of psychology, medicine, nursing, theology, and social work throughout the world, he has guided students and professionals in discovering how to value their strengths, develop a practice of mindfulness, and take charge of their self-care. In addition to his teaching and speaking engagements, Dr. Wicks has written over 15 books, including, Bounce, Riding the Dragon, and most recently, Perspective ~ The Calm Within the Storm. For more information about Dr. Wicks, including the full list of books he has authored and upcoming speaking engagements, visit his web site at http://www.robertjwicks.com/
To provide a bit of background, I wrote a book review of Perspective ~ The Calm Within the Storm, earlier this year to fulfill my International Coach Academy (ICA) requirement of writing a short review of ideas outside of ICA. Given that much of coaching involves partnering with clients to develop a more healthy perspective and that a major component of the ICA curriculum is focused around changing perspectives via power tools, my discovery of this book and of Dr. Wicks was especially timely and fortuitous as I near the end of the ICA Certified Program.
Interview with Dr. Robert J. Wicks
RL: Welcome Dr. Wicks. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today. As you know, we’re here to talk about your book, Perspective….., and we’ll get to that in a few minutes. In addition to your many speaking engagements and your work as a prolific author, you work with a wide variety of clients, corporate executives, investment specialists, doctors, nurses, military officers, and those in the ministry. Who were the clients you started off with and how did your practice/business evolve from there?
RW: Initially, a it was a garden variety of clients, but what happened was, I went to Hahnemann Medical College for my doctor of psychology degree, so I wound up getting people from the health care profession and then I taught at Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. So I wound up getting social workers. Because I’m a psychologist, I would get younger psychologists and counselors. And then I interacted with religious groups and I wound up dealing with people who were burning out who were ministers, priests, nuns, and anyone in that kind of profession. I was a Marine Corps Officer, so, naturally, anyone who had military connections would feel that I could understand their issues. Because my students came from not simply 50 states, but also 40 countries, I began to receive invitations from international students, not only for mentoring or therapy, but when they returned to their countries, that led to international invitations. Financial grants on top of that allowed me the freedom to go to places that could not afford to bring me, so whether it was South Africa, Budapest, or a place that had limited funds that became possible as well.
RL: So it sounds as if it kind of evolved naturally for you, just in terms of the groups you were already close to and one kind of grew from the other, based on where you were in your career.
RW: Yeah, you know, as a card carrying obsessive compulsive, (laughter from interviewer), I like to have a plan. And then, it just evolved and then I received an invitation to speak on burnout and it came at an interesting point, because I was feeling pretty stressed myself as I was trying to make rounds at the hospital on Sunday, do a rural clinic during the week, doing the practice two evenings a week at Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, teaching full time at the university, and part time else where, so when I started to do that research to give that presentation, I began to feel more energy because it reconnected me with why I did what I did in the first place.
RL: I see….
RW: The writing started in that direction and as a result, there’s a plethora of books, that I’ve written, in addition to Perpspective…, I’ve written Bounce, Living the Resilient Life, The Resilient Clinician, and Overcoming Secondary Stress in Medical and Nursing Practice, and The Inner Life of the Counselor, as well as co-editing a book on renewal. And then, Riding the Dragon, which was a popular book, and which still remains my most popular. Those books also led to further invitations.
RL: I can understand where they would. I hope to be able to read some of those over the holidays. The Perspective book was one that piqued my interest. I heard an interview with you earlier this year about the book that was played on NPR and bought the book and read it. I just really like how you weave together the concepts of cognitive behavioral therapy, positive psychology, strengths-based work, mindfulness, self-efficacy, etc. They all are theories that certainly resonate with me, but what was the impetus or motivation for you to write this book at this point in your career?
RW: Occasionally, words sort of stick to you and certainly ‘resilience’ is one of the words that I’m known for and ‘self-care.’ But I was also known for ‘perspective.’ And essentially, it’s not what we what we face, often, that is the case, but how we face, it, how we see it. This led to a number of things that made me believe that I really needed to center that book, in a way that reflected my thinking that came from working on other books. So for example, one of the chapters in there is a reflection of a book that I co-wrote with Mary Beth Werdel called Primer on Post-Traumatic Growth. Another section of the book reflects the work I’ve done on overcoming the resistance to change. The other things I’ve worked on extensively the whole time, in the whole reflective sense and my other specialty is integrating psychology and spirituality from a world religions perspective. So, this word “perspective” seemed to be almost like the ‘core’ or the ‘Gestalt’ and if I just took the time to bring these ideas together it would be a good thing, so I went ahead and did that.
RL: Yes, and it’s remarkable the way you do it in the book. For new leadership and executive coaches for whom the theories resonate, what suggestions and advice would you provide to them in utilizing the tools and approaches described in the book with the clients and people that they coach?
RW: I think the primary suggestion is to “lean back.” What happens is we can’t step back out of situations as leaders, but we need to lean back when we are feeling overwhelmed by emotion–positive or negative, so we don’t react. Leaders can’t afford to react, but what they need to do is reflect within themselves and with those they lead. To do that, I think, takes a degree of self-regulation and a degree of self-awareness, so that that self-awareness that allows us to see emotions as a waving flags. So in a reflective period, we can look at our cognitions underlying those emotions or ways of thinking, perceiving and understanding the situation, so we can really can get into a schemata or belief, because we often believe that if we do the right thing, that people will appreciate it, or if we do the right thing then people will actually follow what we suggest. It’s crazy thinking!
RL: Laughter, it is!
RW: I mean that’s kind of crazy thinking without reflection. Often times we immediately react and when we do that, out of emotion that is coming out of un-reflected cognitions, it causes us great difficulty. So I wanted people to take the space to reflect, be aware that the waves of normal stress that hit us can be dealt with, to de-brief themselves during the day, and to gain perspective by not only looking at the negative, but as positive psychology teaches us, to look at the other side of the coin as well. And then that helps us to get a balanced picture, not only of the environment, of what we should be grateful for, but also with a balanced picture of ourselves. Just as a practical example, we have somebody who is impulsive, we’re constantly getting complaints from people that she is very impulsive, and she gets herself worked up and says things and causes disruptions. One of the things I will do is say, “You know, I’d like to chat with you about some gifts that you have that nobody else has in the organization. And then I’d like to highlight situations where your gifts become ‘growing edges.’ First the gifts. You’re somebody who is passionate and, there are so many people in the organization, whom you just don’t know if they’re alive or not. You’re passionate and a person of integrity, so you call things as you really see them.” The situation that then becomes problematic, is that, unless you reflect on pacing and making a diagnosis of a situation, then you’ll be guilty of the tyranny of hope, in the sense that you will say or do things that the person you are addressing is not equipped to handle. So that the question for us is, “how do you prune that gift, so you can share it in the way that makes the most sense?” In that kind of intervention, you’re highlighting gifts and a growing edge.
RL: That’s a great way to describe it and that example actually answers my next question, which was describe a tool or intervention that you use that utilizes positive psychology. In the area of leadership and executive coaching where do you see corporate executives and other professionals that you work with get stuck in changing their perspective? Are there some common themes that you tend to see more often than others?
RW: The major theme I see is something that Carl Jung, a famous Swiss psychiatrist, said, “the brighter the light, the deeper the darkness.” I see it in a systemic way in that leaders who have been tremendously successful are unable to recognize when that very success was based on a paradigm that needed to shift, because things were changing. For example, I was great in sending out emails about something, but really now I need to tweet it. Emails are fine, but people are now feeling either overburdened with emails or more in tune with the tweets. How do you get people to change how they do things? People will look you and say, “well, this has worked for many, many years for me.” For example, in terms of universities and how they advertise. For example, some people are very committed to paper. Well, ads are very expensive. But if your group only has so much money, you’re better off advertising electronically. On the other hand, some recruiters don’t realize, what is the age of the population you’re recruiting. If you are aiming for people in their 50s and 60s, you may need to continue using some paper ads. What people need to realize is that the holy grail of what they had that had been successful for them at one phase, they need to grow at the next phase and people are often not willing to see that. You’ll see it too in leadership in universities where you have somebody who is excellent from an undergraduate institution, they know how to set up a quality paradigm and help each department evaluate according to that paradigm. Well, if they move to a more comprehensive university that has both graduate and undergraduate populations, the graduate population will need more creativity. If you try to box them into that paradigm you’re going to crush the graduate programs where the undergraduate program may well succeed.
RL: I agree. We see that here at our university, in looking at the needs of the different populations, whether it is the Executive MBA, undergraduate, etc. and meeting those students exactly where they are.
Back to the theories that you rely on and the approaches that you use most often. Within the ICA Program, there are coaches with all levels of experience, some are changing their niche or moving into a new niche and some are adding on to what they’re already doing. When you first meet a client, can you give me an example of some of the questions that you might ask, or maybe you have a way of screening those questions before they get to you, some of the questions you ask to determine in a discovery session if they’re going to be a good fit for your approach and how you generally work with new clients.
RW: What you want to do is to see how much of their style is ingrained and has been meshed with their personality style. The more ingrained it is, the less open they’ll be. Habit can be very destructive to creativity and growth. I’m also interested in what they feel burdened by, to see how that can be changed to challenge. Because if the existence of what they call a burden is not going to change and if it is immutable, we can either see it as a burden that they have to survive under, or pray that it will go away. Often the focus is external, so then I would determine where the locus of control is in terms of where they see things.
I also try some trial interpretations to see if they’re willing to come back with “well I tried that…” or that sounds good,” so I want to see the level of that resistance to change. That way, I am aware of the pacing or the interacting with them. Those are the kinds of things that I’m interested in when I meet someone. I also am also mindful too of the chemistry between us. That’s very important. The lyrics are important, but the music is important too, the sense of how they feel my presence. Now in some cases, because they know about the books or heard me speak at Harvard, or Hopkins, or this or that, that some of the transference is there and they’re more open. The next thing I try to do is that I try to spend a great deal of energy trying to shift them from the three dark alleys to open them to where they need to go. The three dark alleys for me are: arrogance where they project the blame constantly on others. It’s fun, giving away the blame, but you give away the power. The second one is ignorance and then condemning themselves. So I’m interested in seeing how they move away from guilt –“I’ve done something wrong, “ to shame, “I am someone wrong.” And third, their sense of discouragement, because they want change now. What I try to sell them is sense of intrigue, because it’s actually in the darkness of an organization, a leader, or a person is where wonderful things can happen. In the light, it’s fine when we’re succeeding, but its in the darkness that a team deepens or a person deepens, so I’m interested in them realizing that and also realizing that suffering, pain, discouragement, failure, need not be the last word. It may be the last word in terms of one’s, let’s say, moving up the ladder, but it need not be the last word in terms of their depth as a person and their sense of satisfaction. With post-traumatic growth, for example, it’s after a trauma or after a failure that growth happens in a way that would not have happened, had the negative event not happened in the first place. Also, in some cases, it shifts them to a wider paradigm in which their life turns out to be more meaningful and worthwhile than what it was in the past.
RL: Yes, I agree. I appreciate all of those dark alleys, especially your touching upon, in the darkness is really where the real insight can come from and where the real work can begin. So often there is the tendency to want to gloss over that, so I appreciate you pointing that out. I want to be mindful of your time. If you can suggest one or two takeaways from your book for new leadership or executive coaches, to consider as they begin their coaching practices and journeys, where would start or what would you suggest?
RW: I would suggest three or four things. First, I suggest that they need to find some alone time. By alone time, I mean space with in solitude and have an opportunity to be reflective. When I was up on Capitol Hill working with members of Congress and their Chiefs of Staff, one story I took back with me was a senator was asked, “what is the greatest challenge facing Congress today?” and he replied, “not enough time to think.” We need to find the clumps of alone time that are already in our lives, like before we hop out of bed, when we’re in the shower, driving to work, as we’re taking a walk to our car, or to the bathroom or getting coffee during the day. So first some space is essential and we need to give priority to that space. Now we hesitate to do it. Anne Lamott, an author who is very insightful and funny, once said, “you know, my mind is like a bad neighborhood, I don’t like to go there.” (Laughter).
RL: I love Anne Lamott and have read a number of her books. That’s a great quote!
RW: (Laughter) So I understand that, but I think if we allow that, what happens is when we create that space, we create a vacuum where all that pre-consciousness rises and unexamined thoughts and schemata, so we’re starting to look at negative things, but it moves through us. If we just sit with it and don’t run away, then we can learn a lot from what’s rolling around in our head. The second thing is being aware of the three approaches to ride the waves of normal stress and intense life. One fellow saw one of his colleagues looking really down and he asked him, “Are you okay?” The guy responded, “No, I’m not okay, I’m terrible. And he looked at the guy and he put his hand on his shoulder and said, “brother, courage comes and goes. Hold on for the next supply.”
RL: (Laughter). That’s a great example!
RW: So that would be the second takeaway. The third takeaway I want to mention to you is the debriefing. Having that intrigue about yourself and looking at the object of what happened during the day and the subject of how did I feel about it, so you can see what you’re thinking about so you can examine it. And then the thing that you’ve pointed to is to have a more balanced picture of yourself. Don’t merely appraise things in negative whispers of thunder, instead, really recognize that you’re the one responsible for re-authoring the sense you have of yourself. So you need to need to bring into the forefront, the stories of successes, and joys and activities that you’re proud of so you can look at that. You also need to look at how people are viewing you. Reflect on persons in your life who really reinforce you. They may not be a mentor now, but they still can be a reinforcement in some way. So those are just some of the things that are important. When you mention some of them, people think, well wouldn’t that be nice, you know? Well its not so much nice, it’s necessary, otherwise the only time the person is going to be able to stay in intense positions, is if they do those things. These things help people maximize their resiliency range, as I pointed out in my book, Bounce. The resiliency range is formed by heredity, DNA, and early childhood experiences, but we maximize it by through motivation, knowledge, and, hopefully, wisdom. In conclusion, the one word that is at the heart of all depth, growth, and strength in leadership isn’t a popular word today, but is “humility.” When we take knowledge and add humility we get wisdom. And when we add wisdom to how we reach out to others we get really to the heart of the spirit of life and people have that openness. So we do little or say little, but they take away that spirit. As Maya Angelou stated, “people may forget what you said, but they will never will forget how you made them feel.”
RL: A great note to end on and such a powerful quote for all coaches to heed. Your insights have been so valuable, not only to me, but to my ICA colleagues here in the U.S. and around the world. Thank you so very much for your time, Dr. Wicks.
RW: You’re very welcome!
The book Perspective ~ The Calm Within the Storm is an excellent, comprehensive resource for all coaches, regardless of their coaching niche, experience level and/or previous exposure to the theories and concepts discussed in the book. For new coaches who wish to learn more about the theories and concepts described in the book, it provides an overview of the psychology of mindfulness, gratitude and happiness and how a healthy perspective can help a client achieve their goals. For more experienced coaches, it reviews the key points of the theories and concepts previously referenced, along with providing ideas that can be framed in the form of powerful questions and aiding the client in being accountable in the pursuit of their goals. The author also provides suggestions for further reading on the topics of mindfulness, positive psychology, happiness, gratitude, and overcoming resistance and change at the end of the book.
In addition to the resources provided in the final section of this paper, included below are a few excerpts from the book that provide a brief description of each concept and examples of tools and questions that can be used with clients in a variety of coaching situations. The book includes many such examples. Coaches can integrate these as appropriate with their clients.
“A sense of mindfulness (being in the present with our eye wide open) is essentially quite simple. It is the basis of any meditative or informal, reflective, centering practice that increases our awareness.” (pg. 12). “Any exercise that alerts us to the present moment (e.g., focusing on our breath, listening to ambient sounds in the environment, paying attention to our posture at any given moment, labeling feelings, can all enhance our mindfulness.” (pg. 13). Questions to consider about being more mindful (pgs. 43 & 44):
- Where in your life does quiet time already exist?
- What are your favorite places of solitude?
- Would writing in a journal be a tool that would help increase your mindfulness?
- In what parts of your life is it realistic to create new spaces where you can relax and practice mindful breathing?
- Imagine people in your life that you admire because they are more relaxed and reflective than you are. What are some basic ways to emulate them?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (Coaching)
Recognizing that coaching is not therapy, and therapy is not coaching, there are still a number of tools from the field of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that can be utilized and applied in the coaching relationship. “The major assumption of CBT is that life experiences create core beliefs and that behaviors are determined to a large extent by cognitions. Given this premise, CBT advises that people seeking a healthier perspective should carefully examine their own cognitions for distortions in thinking.” (pg. 52). “Distorted thinking can come in a variety of forms, such as catastrophizing (e.g., assuming the worst will happen), overgeneralizing, jumping to conclusions, all-or-nothing thinking (e.g., if we don’t do it my way, it will be all wrong, etc.) and personalizing (e.g., he didn’t go out to lunch with me because he doesn’t like me, etc.).” (pg. 53).
Coaches work with clients to assist them in developing a higher level of self-awareness, so change becomes readily possible. Specifically the work between coach and client would focus on how “the client responds to an event, the emotional arousal it causes, the resulting behavior, and most importantly, what beliefs and judgments have been made about the event? Using this process, the client can be encouraged to uncover the style of their own thinking process and examine the accuracy of the conclusions they are drawing” (pg. 53) (or the perspective that they hold).
“Utilizing cognitive behavioral therapy (or coaching) as the backdrop, positive psychology helps people discover their signature strengths. Positive psychology focuses on living well and works to expand existing competencies.” (pg. 56).
“There are a number of web sites with online positive psychology surveys (e.g., www.authentichappiness.org). Surveys and resources developed and written by Marcus Buckingham, Donald Clifton, and Gallup help clients identify their strengths by looking at spontaneous reactions, yearnings, rapid learning and satisfaction as possible ways of identifying talent. In other words, what are your gut reactions, what are you drawn to doing, how do you pick up a new skill, and what makes you happy?” (pg. 66). A few questions from the Questionnaire for Self-Reflection on Personal Strengths and Virtues are listed below (pgs. 70 & 61):
- What persons and situations make your life more joyful and meaningful for you?
- What are your particular personal and professional talents?
- What are some of the approaches you use to remove obstacles to your own growth?
- In terms of your own strengths and virtues, what are your illustrations of you at your best as a person?
Perspective ~ The Calm Within the Storm, is a valuable addition to any coach’s tool kit. Based upon the coach’s model and theoretical leanings, some coaches may find the book more useful than others. Coaches who believe in the value of mindfulness, positive psychology, and cognitive behavioral coaching, stand to gain the most from it. However, I do believe there are many tools and questions that can easily be used by any coach, either to create a new coaching model or integrate into an existing model that supports clients in changing their perspective and experiencing personal and/or professional growth. Written in a conversational style, I found the book to be a treasure trove of information. I strongly encourage both new and experienced coaches to read Perspective to improve and enhance their coaching skills.
For more information about the theories and concepts referenced in this interview and throughout Dr. Wicks’ book, visit the web sites listed below.
International Association of Cognitive Behavioral Coaching (IACBC)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Albert Bandura’s Self-Efficacy Theory