Author Archives: Aodan Enright

Nearest and latest

As professionals, we like to reassure ourselves with demonstrations of self-determination.

We stand for something. We set goals. We assert our influence. We speak up. We allow our egos to dance.

But we remain social beings. We are wired to take notice of what others are doing and saying. We might prefer to deny our human nature but in doing so we inevitably set ourselves up to struggle.

The person nearest to us has an oversized influence on how we feel and act. The further away we move, the more that influence diminishes.

The latest interaction or update can colour our mood and adjust the direction of what we’re doing. What was essential previously has been relegated to once-important.

No matter how accomplished we may feel we have become, we are influenced by the nearest and latest.

So, we are very much applying our wisdom when we carefully consider to whom we are proximate and to what we give our attention.

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

Do I have to?

Reframing ‘Have to’ as ‘Get to’ is one of the most popular concepts in positive psychology.

You know how it goes. There are times when we’re frustrated that we have to do something. Maybe we don’t want to do it, or would prefer to be doing something else. Maybe we’re just fed up of it?

But when we step back and think about it a little differently i.e. reframe it, then we can shift our relationship with the obligation in question. Replacing have to with get to reminds us of our capability and our privilege, and that we can actually contribute.

So instead, our inner dialogue sounds more like, “I have a job. I get to be of service here. I can make a difference”. Posture, energy and attitude all shift in a better direction.

In recent months though, I’ve observed a fascinating change in the dynamic of ‘get to’ and ‘have to’.

The pandemic has upended many things. There’s been a bunch of tasks that previously we had to do which we no longer have to do, or at least are not permitted to do. Similarly, there are quite a few things that we no longer get to do, or at least can’t fully until restrictions ease.

As the world readjusts to wider interaction, we have a (brief) moment of opportunity to recalibrate our have tos and get tos.

Maybe our list of have tos doesn’t need to be as long? Maybe we get to do more than we feared possible?

Perhaps the old line about death and taxes has more relevance than ever?

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

A to Z of coaching: F – Flexibility

When times are stable, there is a certain value in focusing on keeping things steady, on maintaining the status quo.

Some of us have lived through such eras. Some of us have enjoyed long, unbroken runs of predictable success. Some of us have indulged in the certainty of knowing what was coming next.

But those good runs came to an end, as all streaks inevitably do.

Right now, we’re living through a time of great uncertainty, with the pandemic accelerating other disruptions in the technological, social and environmental domains. It’s not a comfortable time if your primary yearning is for things “to go back to normal”.

While not all of us are in the same boat, and circumstances play a significant part in how well our lives are playing out, it is also true that how we interact with the changing world determines our ease with it.

Psychological rigidity, where we seek to avoid the mental challenges we face, is a poor long-term strategy for handling what comes at us. In the professional context, greater rigidity only ensures that the breadth of what we are capable of contributing will shrink progressively with every new disruption.

The opposite of rigidity, of course, is flexibility. At our best, we are open, compassionate and curious, willing to embrace whatever situations or opportunities that may arise.

Psychological flexibility, as popularly defined in ACT (see below), has three key elements:

  • the ability to feel and think with openness
  • attending voluntarily to your experience of the present moment
  • moving your life in directions that are important to you

Trust me, it’s easier said than done. It’s not just a case of ‘lightening up’ or ‘chilling out’. Developing our flexibility requires hard work, but is an excellent return on invested energy.

Coaching provides a secure environment for the development of psychological flexibility. By opening to what’s really going on, and gently exploring options that are in greater alignment with values and aspirations, we can build our capability to handle whatever arises.

Exercises:

As referenced above, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a highly useful methodology that has evolved in recent years from approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It underpins much of my coaching work and is particularly effective in helping develop psychological flexibility.

Here are two assessments that allow you to see where you are today in regards to psychological flexibility. Both are simple and quick, the first allows a visual representation, the second a brief questionnaire. If the results pique your curiosity, I would advise further research.

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

What if?


Our minds are particularly skilled at generating ‘what if’ type questions.

When we’re tired, or stressed, or over-indulging on our media consumption, we are prone to hearing these kinds of questions in our inner dialogue:

  • What if this pandemic goes on for many years?
  • What if I can’t handle the return to the office?
  • What if I can’t find a better job?
  • What if I can’t regain my fitness?

When we’re rested, or energised, or feeling supported by others, our minds tend to spark questions like these:

  • What if I looked for a promotion?
  • What if I started my own business?
  • What if I moved to a new location?
  • What if I backed my own abilities more?

No matter what our mood, the what-ifs keep coming. The more we chew on them, the faster they come.

What if we realised that these what-ifs are open questions about events that have not yet happened and in many cases are never likely to happen?

What if we remembered that we have the choice to let these questions pass, like clouds moving across a summer sky, or decide to take action where appropriate?

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

A to Z of coaching: E – Emotions

There’s no crying in baseball.

And some suggest there should be no crying in any workplace.

The reality though is that every professional is also a human being. And human beings are messy. If you want access to the genius, to the dedication, to the collaboration and every valuable aspect of a professional’s contribution, then you also need to embrace the full complexity of their humanity.

Human beings experience emotions. Sometimes they are useful for us, other times less so. But in the longer run we do better when we learn how to embrace them, learn how to handle them in different contexts and above all develop the agility to respond to whatever arises.

Emotional Intelligence is a useful construct, and the work pioneered by Dan Goleman and developed by many others has provided opportunities in the workplace to engage with concepts such as self-awareness, empathy and adaptability in a supported way.

Coaching makes room for emotions. It’s not necessary to be emotional in order to make progress but being open and curious as emotions arise allows for a deeper understanding of where we are and what is most important for us.

In the coaching context, it’s also important to hold that space of inquiry rather than looking to move on or avoid the more profound insights that our emotions may be helping us to see.

1. What are you noticing?

It can be helpful to cultivate a habit of noticing as emotions arise. As an example, if you become angry it can be useful to say to yourself, “I’m noticing I’m getting angry”, rather than immediately acting upon that anger or engaging in self-criticism for being angry. This act of noticing also provides some breathing space to allow you to respond to what is arising in a way that’s more aligned with what you value.

2. You *are* that kind of person

“You’re an engineer, you wouldn’t understand”. “You’re a coder, you’re not paid to have feelings”. Sometimes, we utilise stereotypes to exert control over others, or avoid engaging with stuff that feels strange or inconvenient. This can result in some deciding that the business of emotions doesn’t apply to them. But it does. All of us can develop our ‘EQ’, work on our emotional agility and build our confidence to handle the unexpected.

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

A to Z of coaching: D – Decisions

Our path forward is illuminated by the decisions we make. In many ways, we are a product of our choices.

It’s useful to remember that only some of our decisions are conscious. Much of our decision-making happens when we’re running on autopilot or occurs beneath the level of our consciousness. This behaviour is largely driven by habit or by biases of which we have varying levels of awareness.

Perfection in decision making is essentially unattainable. We can’t always rely on making the right call. Realising that can actually free us up to a more open mindset, and allows us to improve, to avoid ‘analysis paralysis’ and the dubious practice of postponing important decisions by days, weeks and even years.

One of our roles as a professional is to pursue mastery in decision making. By resolving to be a life-long student of the topic, we can increase our percentage of successful decisions, gain a deeper understanding of our biases and experiment with technical approaches. We can broaden our perspectives beyond pithy cliches such as ‘Go with your gut!’

Coaching work can be helpful in two domains, firstly by raising awareness of our existing decision making approaches and secondly by giving appropriate space to the exploration of more significant decisions as they arise. In my experience, at least one-third of sessions focus on those types of decisions that can weigh heavily on us, at least until we’ve gained clarity and can then move forward with purpose.

Here are a couple of exercises to get you started on the path to being a better decision maker:

1. Useful techniques

In their book Decisive, one of the best books on decision making in recent years, Chip and Dan Heath identify four ‘villains’ of decision making and suggest approaches to overcome them.

(a) Widen your options. We’re prone to ‘narrow framing’, shrinking the choices available to us. But by seeking alternatives we can open up better outcomes.

(b) Reality-test your assumptions. We tend to be slaves to confirmation bias, seeking out evidence that validates what we already believe. To overcome this, we can adopt an experimental mindset, identifying hypotheses that we can look to prove or disprove.

(c) Attain distance before deciding. We’re emotional beings and often short-term emotions play a stronger role in decision making than our rational minds might want to admit. It’s very useful to shift perspective and move away from in-the-moment feelings.

(d) Prepare to be wrong. We’re so over-confident in our predictions about the future. But it’s more useful for us to prepare for unexpected outcomes.

2. A decision inventory

It can be very useful to give yourself some time and a blank page to ‘dump’ from your mind all of the decisions that are relevant for you now. Use these questions to get started:  What decisions do I need to take? What am I putting off? Do I really need someone else’s input or am I just avoiding action? What’s coming up that I need to prepare for? What needs to change in my immediate environment?

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

A to Z of coaching: C – Compassion

Given the choice of picking a word beginning with ‘c’, most coaches wouldn’t pick compassion.

More conventional choices would include change, or confidence, or competencies. For the same reason that many leaders adjust their facial expression when they talk about ’soft skills’, compassion is still seen as unsafe ground where the messiness of feelings could derail the project plan.

From my professional experience, I’ve discovered compassion to be a foundational element in coaching. And it’s likely to become more easily understood as coaching continues its evolution from an industrial to a humanistic paradigm.

Much of our coaching work is focused on improvement. And that often means getting clearer on things that could be better in some way. If the work isn’t grounded in compassion then there’s a risk of developing a harshness of tone, or of weaponising self-criticism as a means to make progress.

Finding fault with what you’re doing or ‘beating yourself up’ is exhausting. If it gives a sense of reward in the moment, that utility is fleeting. Coaching without compassion is unsustainable.

When we allow ourselves to work on improving our situation, we’re revealing that we truly care about ourselves and the world immediately around us. As we do so, we also learn that when it comes to caring it’s better when we go ‘all in’ and open ourselves to a mindset of compassion.

My favourite quotation on this topic comes from the meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein.

Compassion is the motivation to alleviate suffering, to alleviate harm.

When it’s developed, it opens us to whatever suffering is in front of us and it overcomes the arising of indifference and inaction.

Joseph helps us realise that compassion is an antidote to avoidance, a very common starting point for much of our professional struggle. Developing our ability to be compassionate allows us to sit more easily with our reality, allowing us to gain the kind of clarity that enables us to act more appropriately.

Rather than being the opposite of being ‘a tough guy’, being compassionate requires courage. And sometimes that is uncomfortable.

Compassion is worth practicing, and here are a couple of useful exercises to apply to yourself.

1. To whom are you speaking?

I sometimes ask my coaching clients how they would speak to their best friend, a beloved sibling or even their own child if they found themselves in the same situation. This often leads to an emotional moment. Why wouldn’t you speak to yourself in the same way?

2. Improving your inner dialogue

If you’ve realised that your self-talk tends to be negative and likely interfering with your ability to perform, how do you address that? Two phases: initially, work on just noticing. Catch yourself using particular words or concepts. Develop a radar-like scanning ability. Once your awareness is raised, then experiment with adjusting your language. Try flipping some of the ‘shoulds’ into ‘I get to…’ or reframe some criticism into “Ok, that’s useful, now I can…..”. All while developing your self-compassion.

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

 

The full story

What you see on someone’s CV isn’t the full story.

Nor will you find the full story on LinkedIn profiles, in PR pieces or on the ‘About page’.

Every professional leaves an imprint, which can develop into a legacy. Sometimes this is dominated by achievements and tangible outputs but more often it’s a mix of feelings engendered and example set.

We’re remembered not so much by what we did but by how we did it.

Some apparently unaccomplished people have a profoundly positive impact on others. Their full story is much more significant than the headlines, or lack thereof, might suggest.

Some acclaimed people who gain high status and dominant roles do so by trampling over others, through manipulation or the exercising of power. Their full story is better known by those who are closest. And it’s rarely positive, even if some tolerate it as they benefit indirectly.

What’s your full story? Are you proud of it? Does it align with the impact you want to have on the world and how you want to be remembered?

It’s possible that you don’t have full awareness of that story or of your impact on others. And while some are prone to delusion, or avoid the painful truth, many of us aren’t comfortable acknowledging that we might deserve more credit than we give ourselves.

Isn’t that full story worth knowing?

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

A to Z of coaching: B – Beliefs

There’s a prevailing school of thought in the world that beliefs are a source of strength and comfort. “I have my beliefs!”, someone will declare with some defiance and assuredness.

That may work well for some but based on my professional experience, beliefs are more often the cause of underperformance, even leading to unnecessary suffering and stress.

Let’s explore why.

One of my favourite stories from the world of sports psychology is a suggestion that Jack Nicklaus once proffered that it was easier for him to win a major tournament than a regular tour event. On the surface, that makes no sense. The world’s top players assemble for the majors. You have to be the best golfer in the world that week.

Jack’s reasoning, though, was revealing. He had observed over the years that on regular tour events, a large number of players teed up believing they had a chance of winning. When it came to the majors though, only a fraction of that number had that belief. So from Jack’s perspective, he had less competition on the biggest stage.

Jack knew he could win. That was based on experience, and confidence built over a stellar career. And he had learned that the game wasn’t just about the technicalities of the swing, or the accuracy of the putts. The mental component was significant and his capability to master that was one of the reasons why no one has won more.

Ultimately, Jack’s story is about self-limiting beliefs. The players who arrived telling themselves stories that the majors are the ultimate test or that’s it going to take something unprecedented from them to compete, they are limiting their sense of possibility before a single ball is hit.

We have many beliefs about ourselves. Most of these are relevant to our professional performance. Some of these beliefs can be useful, or even helpful in a given moment. Others, though, are self-limiting.

It’s part of our job as a professional to know the difference.

There is a lot to be gained from interrogating our beliefs. We typically underestimate the impact of our beliefs on how we perform. By raising our awareness (much of our beliefs are usually below our level of conscious awareness), we can go deeper and ask some insight-generating questions: Is this belief evidence-based? How well does this belief serve me? From where did I pick up this belief?

Here are a couple of exercises that will help you make progress:

1. Monitor your shoulds

When we use the word ‘should’, we’re typically building upon an existing belief. The basic construct is, “I should do this because I believe something needs to be different”. So raising your awareness of the use of ‘should’ in thought or speech will help you gain visibility to your most active beliefs. Initially, just catch yourself using ‘should’. Develop the habit of noticing and over time, you’ll begin to spot trends and gain a deeper understanding of where the compulsion is coming from.

2. Make your beliefs visible

Capture as many beliefs as you can and make them visible. The simplest way to do this is to fill a page with beliefs, without filtering too much and then later transfer each belief to a sticky note. Examples might be, “I work best alone”, “I’m not good at sales”, “I don’t have the experience for that” etc. An exercise like this can be surprisingly emotional, so give yourself the space and time to do it properly.

Once you have plenty of sticky notes, you can then begin to sort them along specific spectra such as Useful <—> Not Useful or Evidence-based <—> Not evidence-based. The practice of doing this will help reveal a lot about the motivation behind much of your behaviour. It’s perfectly ok to crumple up a sticky note and throw it in the recycling bin if you’re ready to leave any belief behind. That choice is always there for us.

Working with your beliefs will inevitably improve your professional performance, unless of course you believe it won’t. 😀

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

School’s out for summer

There’s no feeling like it. The end of the school year. The summer opening up in front of you with boundless possibility. It even has a theme song.

It’s a magical moment. And it’s one that we all can relate to and remember with real joy.

There’s also a lesson in it for us as professionals. We often experience a similar euphoria at the start of a new project or venture that offers a prospect of unlimited upside. We’re giddy with possibility, suspending our usual concerns and worries.

But like all feelings, it begins to fade. That doesn’t mean it isn’t valid, or we should dismiss it. It just means we need to put it in its due perspective.

When we’re in that blissful moment of expansion, there’s a risk that we behave as if the normal laws of physics no longer apply to us. And the painful reality is that decisions taken while high often bring about the harshest consequences.

Ultimately this is a reminder that narrow-frame thinking can happen as much with an expanded mindset as it can with a contracted one. It’s useful to embrace the positive feelings while also doing what’s required to ensure our projects are staying on track.

School’s out for summer. Inhale that feeling. And get ready for autumn too.

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.