Coaching with and for courage

Do you know the two ways of translating vulnerability in sign language? One is two bent fingers resting in the palm of the other hand – signalling ‘weak in the knees’ and the other one is two hands opening your chest – signalling ‘opening of the heart’. This instantly had an impact on me when I came across it in a short video from Brene Brown, American professor, known in particular for her research on shame, vulnerability, and leadership. While being vulnerable is most often associated with being weak, she says that ”to be vulnerable is our greatest measure of courage”. You may wonder how this relates to coaching. The answer is simple: it takes courage to face what is required in order to have an impact, both as a coach or as a coaching client.

In a coaching session and in any meaningful conversation, we can tap into the key elements that drive our clients’ courage and subsequent impact by creating psychological safety. The energy we bring through our mindset has a major impact on the other person.

As coaches, we learn to fully trust that our clients are creative, resourceful and whole and we enter any coaching session with genuine curiosity in service of the client. However, it takes two to tango. So, we also need to actively support our clients to trust themselves and the impact they can have on their life and their environment. 

Connecting to the why

Building on the safe space created, we can start to connect them to their motivation and resources.

Through our mindset and the quality of our presence as coaches, we can mirror, share observations and use reflective inquiry (ask reflective questions that evoke awareness) to ultimately connect the client to what they truly wish to accomplish and their superpowers. What is really important for our client? Who are they becoming by bringing this objective to life? Who else are they having an impact on?

Once that motivation is clear for them, I believe at least a third of the process is completed. The second part is finding the how and the third is developing a sustainable system for the client to bring their objective to life.

Finding the how requires both the coach and the client to see themselves as a whole. That means the good, the bad and the ugly. Checking what is competing with the client’s objective can significantly increase the effectiveness and impact of the session.

As Joseph O’Connor says, neuroplasticity is great (knowing that the brain has a capacity to change and grow at any age). However, there is also a dark side to it! Whatever we keep repeating to ourselves creates stronger connections in the brain. And the brain does not discriminate: whether you keep telling yourself that you can do it or on the contrary, that you are not good enough. Which means that, in order to have sustainable impact, we need to bring awareness to our mental habits and to focus on consolidating the ones that are serving rather than blocking.

And it takes vulnerability and courage to get in contact with that, both for the coach and for the coaching client. Hence, the need for safe space and acknowledgement of the efforts involved in the process.

Mental habit check: here’s a simple technique inspired by Rational Behavioural Therapy, that you can use for yourself when in doubt (about the client, about yourself as a coach, etc.). It also works in general for testing if certain beliefs are limiting or not. Use the fingers from your hand to anchor the questions:

  1. Thumb – Is this thought or belief always true?
  2. Index finger – Is this thought or belief supporting me to reach my objectives?
  3. Middle finger – Is this thought or belief helping me to solve conflicts and avoid mistakes?
  4. Ring finger – Is this thought or belief helping me feel the way that I want to feel?
  5. Little finger – Is this thought or belief protecting my health and life?

If the answer to at least 3 of those questions is NO, then this is a limiting thought or belief. 

Once that is out in the open, the invitation is to explore how it negatively impacts the client. And then, what would be a more supporting belief or thought? What would it sound like? Imagine how you would feel and behave differently with the new thought. What would become possible? 

With a coach by your side, this exploration of the resources can be even more impactful, because, together, we may discover more than on our own. And here comes Brene Brown again who says that we tend to see the courage in others and the weakness in ourselves. Having by our side someone who truly believes in us helps us to better connect to our strengths and resources. 

Developing a sustainable approach to implementation

So, the coaching session ends in a way that feels empowering to the coaching client. Great! What more can you wish for? The problem that invariably shows up is the way clients manage stress, fears and doubts, beyond the coaching session. Neuroscience has demonstrated that our prefrontal cortex (area of the brain responsible for self-control, willpower, creativity)  goes offline when we are stressed. That means limited access to resources when we need them the most.

So, how to change our brain activation in a sustainable way? 

The simple way

Something handy is to take small steps to support the development of sustainable habits. 

Let me give you a seemingly minor example of my own: I’m not the most organised person by nature so, in order to keep my desk clean, I started by creating the daily habit of choosing the right place for one object a day, not more; for example, the first day, I took a paperclip and decided where paperclips should stay. The following morning, I chose where to keep my pens, then my post-its and so on. It took less than a month until I was proud of my desk appearance and I could always find the things I needed. And while, on a daily basis, it didn’t seem like I was achieving a lot, that simple commitment was easy to implement and it formed the basis of a frame of mind. I then started applying this principle in other areas of the house without it becoming an overwhelming task. And by including my family members in this practice, I rarely have the case now where someone doesn’t know where to find something.

In coaching, if the client is stuck during the process, we can ask what would be a simple step they could take today in support of their objective so that they can start to see a glimpse of hope.

We can also invite them, after the coaching session, to reflect on a simple question each morning (when they brush their teeth or have their coffee) for example: what is one quality or skill of mine that I am proud of? Or, if they want to improve a work relationship, what is one thing they appreciate about a certain colleague? And maybe keep a record of the responses.

The cool thing about this is that our brain cannot help answering a question. So, even if an answer doesn’t show up today, when we keep asking that question, our brain will start looking for what it needs to answer. By the time two weeks of practice have passed, the client (or yourself) may end up with more answers than expected.

To give you an additional bit of the neuroscience behind that, by engaging in these small actions, thoughts or questions, we’re bypassing the fears and doubts that may show up in relation to a big goal. The bigger the objective, the bigger the stress and the likelihood of activating our fears. By taking small actions, there is little risk, little exposure to failure and by doing them repeatedly, we’re building supporting neural pathways that can last beyond the initial objective.

Deeper impact work

Another way to sustainably support our coaching clients in the long run is to help them identify how they are sabotaging themselves and how they can turn that around.

Neuroplasticity is again key in shifting the balance of power. The breakthrough contribution of Positive Intelligence research brings forth how we can rewire the brain at the root level rather than treating symptoms. Basically, this research has revealed that there are only 10 negative response factors (10 Saboteurs) and only 5 positive response factors (5 Sage powers). And that we can learn to change our brain-activation from Saboteur brain (survival, fear-driven, negative emotions) to Sage brain (clear, calm, positive emotions). A place to start is to take the free Saboteur Assessment from Positive Intelligence.

Facing those Saboteurs takes courage and building the Sage muscle requires commitment. I went through this process myself as well as with coaching clients: it is NOT a walk in the park. Having a coach by your side can keep you motivated and accelerate your progress. Once you build that foundation and quiet the part that sabotages you, the impact becomes visible in so many ways but, most importantly, you will feel the difference.

As Joseph Campbell said “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek”.

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