Introduction

Coaching is hard.

It’s challenging emotionally and intellectually. It’s challenging behaviorally as well: coaching presents us with difficult choices and tests our alignment with our values.
Coaching is hard no matter what your role is, whether you are a Scrum Master, an Agile Coach, a Change Manager, an Executive Coach, a Life Coach or someone in a leadership position who coaches his/her employees.
Coaching teams has its own added difficulty, we can find ourselves in the middle of difficult interpersonal situations and we have to pay attention to multiple people instead of just one.

In this article we’ll look at the most important skill we need to coach others effectively, the skill upon which all other coaching skills are built.
It’s called Psychological Flexibility and it’s based on the latest research in psychology which provides us with an evidence-based model of how humans function.

We’ve never had a model like this before; previous psychological models were mainly focused on one aspect of life (e.g. team decision making, anxiety, improving sport performance, etc.) and the vast majority of past psychological models were philosophical in nature. It had never been tested scientifically whether they worked in practice or not.

In this article I will introduce you to 4 out of the 6 aspects of Psychological Flexibility through practical examples of problems you may have experienced as a coach. I’ll show you some examples of simple yet counter-intuitive exercises which you can use to develop your own Psychological Flexibility and significantly improve the effectiveness of your coaching. You can also teach these exercises to your coachee, as Psychological Flexibility will help them achieve the behavior change they desire.

Some examples of the benefits of Psychological Flexibility (for coaches):

  • Extend your capability to approach your coachee(s) with empathy and kindness even when you feel angry or had a “bad day”.
  • Remain open and listen for longer and deeper without getting lost in judgments and evaluations even when what you hear evokes strong opinions in you.
  • Extend your capability to be simultaneously aware of what goes on for the coachee and for yourself.
  • Extend your capability to connect to your own emotions and thoughts and become better at connecting to the coachee by doing so.
  • Make it much easier to let go of the attachment to your own agenda in the service of the needs and goals of the coachee.

“Psychological Flexibility is the ability to adapt to a situation with awareness, openness, and focus and to take effective action, guided by your values.”

Dr. Russ Harris

If I’m a coach or facilitator do I need to throw away everything I already know?

No. Psychological Flexibility will combine well with the majority of the knowledge you already have.

There has been a massive amount of research into understanding how human cognition works. Using the findings of this research you can:

  • Select the methods from your existing toolbox that do work.
  • Learn how to amend or evolve the ones that don’t work that well.
  • Learn how to combine separate methods in ways that work.
  • Learn which methods to employ in which situations.
  • Develop new methods.

It’s rare that an existing method is so fundamentally flawed that it can’t be amended and can never work.

Have you encountered any of the following challenges as a coach?

1. The content of the coaching conversation evokes strong evaluations and judgments in you; you struggle to remain neutral and deeply listen.

Coaching situations can evoke strong opinions in the Coach.
E.g. “This is not right.” “He is a bad person.” “He is lying.” “He just doesn’t get it.” “He needs to do x.” “This is not going anywhere.” “This person needs to be fixed.” “I also have an opinion about this topic, let me share it.”, etc.
These thoughts can interfere with our efforts to help the coachee.

Why does this happen?

Our thoughts (the words inside our head) and the things they refer to (e.g. a story, an object, a person) can become stuck together, they can feel as one thing. We then react to words about an event or object as if the event is actually happening or the object is actually present. Think of the word lemon. Now think about cutting the lemon in half and licking it. Do actually think about it. What did you feel? Did it feel similar to licking an actual lemon? But you were only reading words on a screen, weren’t you? This is called Fusion which means melding or blending two things together.

In a state of Fusion, thoughts can feel like reality, the absolute truth or orders we must follow.
This can be very costly in a coaching situation: our thoughts can distract us from listening to the coachee, we can buy into our judgments and harm our relationship with him/her, or we can buy into our thoughts about what the solution to the coachee’s problem is or what the coachee must do.
We can do these even when there is no evidence to support our thoughts or when these thoughts are not useful in helping the coachee achieve his/her goals.

Fusion happens without us recognizing it, the recognition always comes with a delay.

What’s the solution?

It’s possible to learn to relate to our thoughts in a new way where they have much less impact or influence over us. This is called Defusion: separating our thoughts from what they refer to, it’s the opposite of Fusion.

As we defuse unhelpful thoughts, such as about what the coachee must do, or self-limiting beliefs about what’s possible and what’s not, they will have much less influence over our behaviour.
Defusion also makes our thoughts lose their ability to disturb, worry or stress us and we will be less likely to become distracted by them.

Demonstration: try out this Defusion technique

There are over a hundred Defusion exercises; some work better for some people than others but the following one tends to function well in most cases.

Take a minute to bring into your mind the three most dominant judgmental or stressful thoughts that you have regarding yourself or your client(s). E.g. “I’m not experienced enough for this task.”, “You are wrong thinking this.”, “We have to push through this problem today or else …”

Write down each of them in large, clear writing on a separate piece of paper or a sticky note. Put these notes approximately one meter away from you, affix them to the wall, your desk or monitor. Make sure the text is easily legible from this distance and that you can read it without moving your head.
You may not want you client to see these, so if you are in an open office with them, then do this exercise at home where only you can see these thoughts.

Leave them there for the next week and stop at least three times every day to read them. While you are reading these negative thoughts, notice that you are here and they are there.

See what happens to your behaviour and well-being during and after this week. (Please note: we are not trying to change the thought here, we are trying to reduce its impact on your behaviour.)

You can repeat this exercise later in your head, while you are with a client: when a difficult thought comes up, just imagine that it’s written on a billboard placed approximately 1.5 meters away from you and you are looking at it.

2. You struggle to simultaneously monitor both your own emotions and thoughts and those of the coachee. You disappear into your thoughts, you find yourself at another place or time.

Without being connected to our own emotions and thoughts we cannot fully connect to the coachee and we cannot help him/her.

We can spend much of our time dwelling on the past or disappearing into our worries about the future.
“Will we get stuck again like last time?” “What’s the next thing to do after this session?” “Will (s)he be able to do this?”

This process is also built into human cognition, it’s normal. However, it can become so extensive that we can struggle to focus on and engage with whatever we are doing or experiencing.
This can reduce our capability to be present with our clients, listen to them and ask powerful questions.

What’s the solution?

Psychological Flexibility involves learning a skill that helps us stay in touch with the present moment and focus on what’s important. We call this “Flexible Attention to the Present Moment”. These exercises are similar to traditional mindfulness exercises, except we now know which of those work, which don’t and how to employ them.

Practice this exercise for 5-10 minutes every day to improve your focus, performance and well-being

Find a quiet place for 5 minutes.

  • Close your eyes and focus on a single, stable bodily sensation in your body, e.g. the pressure in your back as the chair holds you (if you are sitting).
  • Try to close out all other sensations and focus only on this one for a couple of seconds.
  • Then shift your focus and focus on all bodily sensations at once: your arms, legs, belly, chest, back, shoulders, neck, head, face, etc. Do this for a few seconds.
  • Repeat this cycle for 5 minutes (i.e. focus on a single sensation again and then on all of them).
  • If you find yourself disappearing to your thoughts and not doing the exercise at any point, then just gently come back and continue the exercise. This is normal.

If you find the previous exercise too difficult, then do the following exercise for 5-10 minutes to warm up. This is a body scanning exercise: slowly notice each and every sensation in your body part-by-part. Start with your toes, continue with your lower legs, upper legs, fingers, hands, lower arms, upper arms, shoulders, belly, chest, back, neck, head and face.
What sensations do you notice? E.g. cold, warm, pressure, pain, tension, etc. Are there any areas which are colder or warmer than other areas? Are there areas where there is more or less pressure than elsewhere?

The key for this exercise to work is to do it regularly (e.g. at least once each and every day).

3. You struggle to let go of the attachment to your own agenda in the service of the needs and goals of your client(s).

(E.g. Agile Coaches may build unnecessary dependence on themselves as they solve many of their team’s problems for them.)

We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves, about who we think we are. E.g. “I am smart.”, “I am a coach.”, “I am socially weird.”
We call these self-stories. Our attachment to these self-stories can prevent us from being useful for our clients because we can struggle to do things that contradict these stories, even when doing so would be helpful.

Real world examples:

  • Bob was a senior manager and coach who wanted his team to self-organize, i.e. to decide each day who will work on which task. He thought that this would be a more effective and efficient way of distributing work. Despite his goal, he regularly interrupted the everyday work of his team, essentially preventing them from self-organizing. He thought “I’m a manager. I make decisions about who does what.”
  • Steven was an Agile Coach, he wanted his client team to be self-sufficient but he made himself into a bottleneck by always refining the Product Backlog for them. He thought “I’m an Agile Coach, I’m the best in writing User Stories.” When Steven went on a holiday, neither the team nor the Product Owner knew what to do so they stopped refining their Product Backlog.

Discover your own self-stories

Jot down three self-stories you regularly think about yourself. Actually write them down. These are sentences that start with “I am …” and finish with an evaluative phrase. E.g. “I am smart.”, “I am bad at math”, etc.
Next to each self-story, jot down the thoughts you think and the actions you take (or avoid taking) because of that self-story. Focus on what it costs you to hold onto this self-story.
Here are a few examples:

Self-StoryConsequences (examples of thoughts and actions one may think and take)
“I am special.”“These people are below me, why would I spend time with them?”
“I am smart.”“I really shouldn’t be struggling with this task, I won’t ask for help.”
“I am always right.”“My idea has to win, even if another idea would be more useful for me or my organization.”
If evidence shows that my idea is wrong, I’ll discredit the source.
“I am successful.”“I don’t need to listen to feedback I don’t like. If I fail, it’s someone else’s fault.”
“I am a winner.”“I have to win, even if that means damaging my team, product or organization.”
“I am a manager.”“I have to make this decision even if somebody else could make a better decision because he has more pertinent, current and detailed information available.”
“I am socially weird.”“It’s better to avoid this team lunch, I’d just humiliate myself.”
“I am dumb in math.”“I couldn’t assemble this sheet, it’s better not to try, even if doing it would be extremely helpful for my team.”
“I am a loser.”“It’s better not to aspire to do anything daunting, this way I can protect myself from inevitable failure and disappointment.”

As you can see, positive self-stories can be just as harmful as negative ones.
Self-stories make us rigid: we struggle to do, experience, think or feel things that contradict them. E.g. If I’m smart and I struggle with a complicated task it can feel almost like dying.

Developing Psychological Flexibility involves learning techniques that help us undermine our attachment to our self-stories so that we don’t buy into them and they don’t control what we think and do. We don’t try to change these stories as research shows that makes the problem worse, not better.

Exercises to undermine our attachment to our self-stories

The following exercises build a mental muscle that makes it easier for you to let go of your attachment to your self-stories. Reading these exercises or imagining that you are doing them is like imagining you are going to the gym. It’s exciting but doesn’t change anything. You need to actually practice these regularly to develop the skill necessary to let go of your attachment to your self-stories.

  • Append the phrase “or not” to the end of each and every self-story you wrote down. E.g. “I am smart” turns into “I am smart, or not.” “I am weird” turn into “I am weird, or not.”
    • Spend 30 seconds staring at each of these modified self-stories and read it to yourself.
    • What do you notice?
  • Put each self-story into the following structure (one story at a time):
    • I’m noticing the thought “I am X”. E.g. I’m noticing the thought “I am smart”.
    • I’m not the though “I am X”. E.g. I’m not the thought “I am smart”.
    • I hold the thought “I am X” in awareness. E.g. I hold the thought “I am smart” in awareness.
    • Don’t rush through this exercise, notice what these words mean don’t just say them. You may need to repeat this several times.
  • Read each of your self-stories out loud, one at a time. While you are reading it, notice that you are reading it, notice that you are here and the self-story is there. There is a difference between knowing the colour the word “blue” refers to and actually observing that colour in real-life. I’m asking you to do the latter in this exercise, notice that you are reading.

The more you practice these exercises the easier it will become to notice that you are not the stories about yourself. Your well-being and performance will improve and you’ll become more capable of connecting to your clients and helping them.

4. You try to avoid discussing uncomfortable issues. You try to avoid talking about the elephant in the room with your client(s).

Why do we do this?

Discussing uncomfortable issues occasion difficult emotions in us, that’s why these issues are uncomfortable. There are all sorts of emotions that we may find difficult: fear, shame, anxiety, anger, doubt, etc.

These difficult emotions are natural responses to their corresponding situation: a situation where we feel judged and rejected will lead to shame, hostile colleagues and situations will lead to anxiety, betrayal and backstabbing will lead to anger and disappointment, etc.
These situations are naturally aversive (who wants to get betrayed or rejected?) so we want to avoid them.

Due to an inherent characteristic of how the human mind works, our reactions (emotions) to aversive events can become aversive themselves: we look for ways to avoid, control or suppress fear, anxiety, anger, shame or doubt.

What’s the cost of avoiding our difficult emotions?

Let’s pick anxiety as an example.

  • As we are trying to control the emotion of anxiety we might become anxious about how much anxiety we will feel, which makes us even more anxious.
  • We might decide to avoid or minimize contact with situations that could occasion anxiety even if those situations would be useful in helping our clients. E.g.: We might avoid discussing a serious conflict between two members of a collaborative team, even though we know that discussing conflicts is necessary to resolve them and conflict resolution leads to improved individual well-being, better working relationships and performance.
  • We might end up feeling other, very intense “negative emotions” like sadness, anger or frustration when we get stuck due to an unresolved conflict, another price we pay for avoiding anxiety.

What’s the solution?

Developing Psychological Flexibility involves practicing exercises that enable us to make room for unpleasant emotions instead of trying to suppress them or push them away. This is called “Acceptance” or “Willingness”.

As we open up and make room for these emotions, we will find that they bother us less. It will also become easier to do and say the things necessary to help our clients achieve their goals even if doing so occasion difficult and unpleasant emotions.

Subscribe to my newsletter to learn more about Willingness. I’ll soon run a course on Psychological Flexibility where we will deep dive into what Willingness is, e-mail subscribers get 10% off.

Alternatively you can also read my previous article, which focuses on the emotion of doubt and fear but the exercises described there can be used to aid the acceptance of any emotion.

Evidence Base

The techniques developing Psychological Flexibility belong to a method called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and the unified model of human functioning upon which ACT is built is called Relational Frame Theory.

Don’t let the name deceive you, ACT is used outside of a therapeutic context.

Last time I checked there were more than 400 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) providing evidence that ACT works in a wide range of life areas, including work.
To put the weight of this evidence base into context, most coaching methods only have anecdotal evidence but not a single RCT behind them. Many well known and researched psychological methods have 10-20 RCT to support them.

Details of the RCTs of ACT can be found here.

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In this article I’ve introduced you to some of the aspects of how human cognition works and how you can use this knowledge to improve your coaching.

We have merely scratched the surface though. Soon I’ll run a course where we will cover in detail:

  • How the human mind works and how you can use this knowledge enhance methods you already know.
  • All the 6 aspects of Psychological Flexibility and how they can be used to improve your well-being and coaching effectiveness.
  • Dozens of more exercises tailored to different situations that you can use to develop your Psychological Flexibility skill.
  • Theory and practice of how you can use Psychological Flexibility to improve the effectiveness of your coaching.
  • How Psychological Flexibility can be used directly to help your clients with their desired behaviour change.

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