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.

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.