A to Z of coaching: A – Awareness

A – AWARENESS

I’m not sure if I adopted the phrase from a teacher, nor am I sure about the accuracy of the estimated quantity but I often find myself saying to a client, “Raising awareness is half the battle”.

Raising, or expanding, our awareness is an essential component of coaching work. 

At any given time, we have a limited awareness of what’s happening in the world around us. It is impossible to be fully aware or to be up to speed on everything that’s going on – even though we often pursue the fantasy that it is, or should be, achievable.

Awareness is a key element of wisdom. If wisdom is the ability to cope, with effectiveness and ease, with the demands of the world, then awareness allows us to respond more appropriately and to apply our innate wisdom.

Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about how accessing that innate wisdom “rests on our capacity for embodied awareness and on our ability to cultivate our relationship to that awareness”. How do we do that? You may notice the essential elements of mindfulness in the answer: by paying attention in a particular way, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.

We can raise our awareness of our ‘self’, of our thoughts, tendencies and behaviours. We can raise our awareness of our circumstances, the relationships we have with others, and the commitments and responsibilities we have in the world.

We can also raise our awareness of our belief system and that of others, of the ‘programming’ that drives much of our observable behaviour, of our attachment to stories and fictions that guide us in decision-making and value judgments.

The fact that we can raise our awareness should fill you with hope. 

The expansion of awareness is a skill and can be practiced and developed. In fact, it’s very much in our interest to make it a practice, both formally and informally.

When our awareness is low we’re prone to ‘tunnel vision’ missing out on a lot of what’s happening around us. With low awareness, we’re prone to getting stuck more easily. We’re vulnerable to believing in narrow versions of reality which limit our potential contribution and create fantastical heroes and villains in narratives that rarely serve us or others well.

Steven Hayes talks about awareness providing “a foundation to experience life in a more open way”. And that requires a certain amount of courage. Sometimes, in a difficult moment, it feels easier to remain closed to alternatives, even if it prolongs a suffering that feels, at the very least, somewhat comfortable.

Raising our awareness and opening to life more substantially also brings more responsibility as we are faced with new choices. Knowing what we now know today raises the question of whether we should repeat what we did yesterday. Those choices are now for us to make.

Here are three things you can do now to build awareness:

1. Commit to developing and maintaining a mindfulness practice. Most of us are familiar with mindfulness, as referenced above, but yet too many of us haven’t bridged the knowing-doing gap. It’s ok, in fact preferable, to start small and build gradually. Robes and incense are not obligatory! A minute outside with a focus on the breath can go a long way.

2. Accumulate and apply exercises that nudge you out of low awareness patterns. By exposing yourself to challenge, you can help yourself to see a broader picture and a revised perspective of your role in it. Ask disconfirming questions i.e. seek to poke holes in your present perceptions. (If you’d like examples of exercises I use in my coaching work, just reply to this and I’ll gladly share some with you).

3. Open your situation to review by external eyes. We all have biases and blind spots. It helps to have alternative perspectives which stretch us beyond our present ‘limits’ of thinking. This may involve working with a coach, or a peer group, or informally with trusted advisors and friends. This also requires courage and the willingness to invest in yourself, something we are surprisingly reluctant to do.

It all starts with a single breath and a single step forward.

(This is the first in a series of concise articles exploring the discipline of coaching, using the alphabet as a prompt for some key concepts and lesser-known curiosities within the field. Each piece is designed to be helpful in its own right, posing some useful questions that can be applied to everyday challenges).

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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.

 

 

 

Give yourself a break

We only gain real clarity when we’ve traveled a distance away from our everyday activities.

Not only can we gain fresh perspective, but we also begin to feel differently. We begin to realise what we’ve been holding onto or what’s been winding us up.

As we begin to disentangle ourselves from the horrors of the pandemic, we’re going through a similar process. It’s only now, as things change, that we realise just how significant a trauma we’ve been through.

There are many aspects worth acknowledging about this experience but perhaps most important of all is to give ourselves credit for what we have achieved, rather than focusing on what we’ve not done.

It’s time to give yourself a break. 

You’ve done well to get to this point in whatever shape you’re in, even if that doesn’t compare to some ideal you’ve carried along with you. Of course, there are things you want to improve, or rebuild. Isn’t it great to have something to work towards? All in good time.

But for now, it’s time to celebrate the fact you’ve made it this far. Time to ignore the inner critic for a while. Time to release that tight grip on so many things.

Go on, give yourself a break.

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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.

Am I non-essential?

The pandemic era has brought along a new classification: the essential worker.

It’s nice to be deemed essential, isn’t it? It feels good when you’re invited to step up and contribute. And we puff out our chests even more when others are asked to stand back to allow us through.

But what are we to make of the fact that most professionals are deemed to be non-essential by the administrators of pandemic management?

Are we not as important as we previously thought? Were our notions of grandeur based on a different set of values? Have we suffered some ego damage?

Pre-Covid, the concept of value was dominant: how much value can we create, where do we add value etc. For many, this is still the most useful compass by which to guide our professional contributions. Others might focus on status, prestige or just money.

In coaching sessions, I’ve noticed a growing trend of questioning of commitment to present roles, even to specific professions. Aside from the massive disruption to routines and established behaviours and practices, the pandemic has also shaken up prevalent beliefs. What was previously unthinkable is now deemed to be inevitable.

So, our contracts with the working world are open to re-negotiation. Should we be guided by the classification of essential, or maybe how best we can add value? What compass, or set of values, should guide our course now?

There’s no uniformly right answer here. The only thing that’s universally true is that it’s in your interest to gain clarity on what’s important for you now.

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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.

Mind the gap

We rarely perform at our very best.

For most of us, most of the time, there’s a gap between how we act in a given moment and how we might act if we were able to fully apply our accumulated wisdom.

Occasional underperformance is normal, but we do need to avoid sustained periods of lower-than-acceptable (by our own standards, at the very least) performance.

When we arrive at sub-par performance, it is often due to losing sight of that gap between actual and possible. As strange as it might sound, we often forget just how capable we are.

There are many possible reasons behind a widening gap and our blindness to it, most notably slippage in useful habits, environmental limitations and unhelpful influence from our closest interactions.

When we get wrapped up in the prevailing narrative, the drama of the latest crisis, or the emotional power plays of colleagues and clients, our awareness of the very existence of a performance gap is significantly reduced.

Our duty then is to mind the gap; to remain mindful of who we are and who we can be, to honour the wisdom we have been given and to act to close the gap as best we can.

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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.

How to get unstuck

As our lives have grown more complicated, it’s become almost impossible for us to keep on top of everything. The more responsibilities we have, the more difficult it becomes for each area to be running smoothly.

Getting stuck along the way is inevitable. But being stuck isn’t an occasional event. It’s a process that can feed on itself and without intervention, it gets worse. When we continually see no evidence of progress, resistance to action just strengthens.

To be stuck is to be human.

It’s not overly helpful to beat ourselves up about being stuck. Systems that we’ve had little control over often prevent us from making progress. Cultural forces within organisations can work against us too.

Thankfully, it is possible to get unstuck and even if we can’t immediately wave a magic wand to make things as we would want them to be, it is within our control to move in the right direction.

Here are four steps, conveniently alliterative, to getting unstuck:

Awareness: Where am I stuck? What hasn’t happened that needs to happen? What’s gnawing away at me? Where do I need help? (Knowing the answers to these questions allows us to see more clearly)

Assessment: What have I learned? What requires immediate action? What patterns am I noticing? What is most urgent? (Lessons learned now can help us avoid getting stuck as easily next time)

Assistance: Who can help me with this? Who would be better than me to do this? Who else needs to be involved? (Remember that most people appreciate being asked to contribute. In this Covid age, most of us are stuck somewhere. Let’s make shame a pre-Covid thing!)

Action: What am I committing to do and when? What else needs to happen? How am I rewarding myself when I do it? (Start small. Be very specific. Don’t over-commit. Get ready for a surprisingly pleasant change in mood and energy).

Move through the 4As. Notice what you’re learning. Enjoy the feeling of not being stuck.

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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.

Just because you can…

For professionals like us, the idea of more is often overrated.

It doesn’t take a lot for ‘more’ to become ‘too much’.

When you go through a period of restriction, where so much of the range of possible human experience is denied, it’s understandable to want to jump back head-first into a world of plenty.

But to do so indiscriminately might disregard the wisdom we’ve developed about constraints; rather than being merely limiting, constraints can be quite useful.

Startup founders are often reminded that new ventures “don’t starve, they drown” i.e. it’s not the lack of opportunity that’s fatal, but the inability to choose wisely and decisively between possible areas of growth. It’s true for us all. Our resources, while special, are finite.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

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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’s useful now?

In times of transition, we tread a delicate path between the enthusiasm of adventure and the anxiety of uncertainty.

When things are changing, often faster than we realise, we do have a tendency to overthink. Our balance between rumination and action can tip inwards.

We seem to be living through such a time where second-guessing and if-onlying are popular indulgences.

The problem with doing too much mental excavation is that it’s draining and rarely solves the challenge we seek to address. Building our awareness of our behaviours, and also our patterns of thought, is valuable work though and doesn’t require archaeological digging to unlock apparently elusive treasures of insight.

A helpful question to keep our awareness building on track is to ask, “What’s useful now?”  It challenges us to place our learning in context and to embrace our need to move forward.

As you reflect on your challenges for the week ahead, ask that question. And from there, take the next step.

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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.

Vaccines and self-worth

A curious phenomenon has played out in recent months in relation to COVID vaccines.

Most of the public discourse has focused on problems. There isn’t enough supply. Roll-out should be faster. Side-effects are worrying.

I had a moment of clarity when I got a WhatsApp message from someone that lamented, “these vaccines are a dead loss”. In that over-reaction, a human tendency was laid bare.

In the prevailing emotion of the moment, we lose sight of the bigger picture.

Perhaps it’s easier to focus on a missed deadline rather than open ourselves to the awesome manifestation of human ingenuity behind the vaccine development.

The same phenomenon is in play with our professional self-worth.

We often fixate on an error, or some criticism. We obsess over a bad day, or a sub-par piece of work. And when we do, we lose sight of just how capable we are.

When we lose context, we can become derailed. And it’s so much harder for us to do our best work.

Vaccines are amazing. You are amazing. It’s worth remembering.

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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.

My relationship with my work

Composite: Alamy/Guardian Design Team

Last summer, as we emerged from months of lockdown, I wrote about how the terms of our contract with the working world had changed. That piece generated a lot of conversation. And for some, it was the catalyst for some useful adjustment.

A year on, similar questions are just as relevant.

The nature of our relationship with work has been challenged. For some, this time has created opportunity and revealed a path to greater success and fulfilment. For many others though, it’s created angst, uncertainty and a questioning of previous assumptions.

This shows up individually but there are also trends emerging at the collective level. A piece in the Guardian this week highlighted many of them. It’s worth a read. (There may well be an agenda behind the framing of some of the issues, an agenda that might be different to yours, but airing these questions is worthwhile).

Some aspects of our world of work now appear to be unsustainable. You may well benefit from an open-minded evaluation of how aligned your work is with what you believe to be most valuable. If it turns out the alignment is still strong, it will be worth the check.

Perhaps as importantly, it may serve you to reflect on those you manage, on those you hire, collaborate with and depend upon. How has their relationship with their work changed and how can you be supportive as they navigate to a new equilibrium?

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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.

 

Breaking the cycle

It’s easy to get caught up in a behavioural loop. Before long, a loop can evolve into a rut. And ruts take a bit of work to escape.

Like many mammals, homo sapiens (that’s me and you) are ‘creatures of habit’. Without this capability to flip into autopilot, each day would be overwhelming in its complexity.

As we know though, not all of our habits serve us well. Every behaviour that is now habitual began as a useful action. But we’re continually changing, as is the world around us. Some of our habits don’t evolve gracefully to meet our present needs.

Every professional needs to develop mastery of their own habits.

It’s part of our role to build awareness of how we behave, how we notice and how we respond. Without that awareness, and the subsequent capability to adjust course, our output is like an untethered boat on a choppy sea.

Emerging, as we hopefully are, from a constrained pandemic era is revealing that some of our habitual professional practice has hardened into ruts. This shouldn’t become another reason to judge ourselves harshly but more usefully is an honest acknowledgement of a human response to an overload of uncomfortable change.

Climbing out of ruts means behavioural change. That means taking a different action. And that means breaking the cycle.

You already know how to do this. You may even want to start today.

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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.