Are you a human being? Yes? Well in that case don’t take this personally but you’re fundamentally flawed. We all are!
As humans, we all assume that we see the world as it really is, and that we see things as they really are. Unfortunately for us this is far from true.
Everything we experience in our lives is experienced through our brains, bodies, minds and our consciousness, and all of these can affect our perception and understanding in ways that we may not even be aware of.
In this blog post we’ll look at some of the naturally occurring limitations of being in one of these human bodies, and what some of the benefits of coaching are in overcoming these.
As human beings, we are constantly bombarded with masses of information through our senses.
This can be overwhelming for our conscious minds, because while our eyes alone receive over 11 million bits of information every single second, our conscious minds can only process around 50 bits of information per second. This may, for example, equate to reading 5 words of 5 letters per second.
Therefore we rely on cognitive shortcuts – ways that our brains can reduce the amount of processing time needed to make sense of the world.
Unfortunately, while these shortcuts are needed for normal functioning in the world, they encourage generalisations that can lead to bias and stereotyping and which can distort how information is interpreted.
Neuroscientists have identified different parts of the brain that are responsible for “in-group vs out-group bias” – the brain’s tendency to view one’s own group more favourably than that of others (e.g. Molenberghs, 2013).
So, left to our own devices, without any bad intent on our parts, we are condemned to naturally occurring and often unconscious bias. This can affect affect every aspect of how we experience our work, lives and our relationships.
While there is no easy solution to this, problem, we can at least be aware of this tendency and mindfully ask ourselves if there may be other interpretations of the data, especially when it comes to key issues around diversity and hiring in the workplace for example.
One of the main benefits of coaching is that coaches are professionally trained to help their clients ensure that assumptions, potential bias and other perspectives are taken into account, and other alternative perspectives considered, when planning potential courses of action.
If we really pay attention to what happens in our minds, we’ll see that we don’t always choose our thoughts. In fact, sometimes it can seem that our minds carry on thinking without us, and that if it was up to us, we wouldn’t even think such thoughts at all!
However, despite this fact, humans have a natural tendency to believe our thoughts unquestioningly. If we think a particular thought, then we believe it must be true. We naturally believe that our thoughts are a reaction to the world around us, but the reality is that our patterns of thinking tend to be much more influenced by our past experience, rather than buy our current one.
As humans, we have to be really careful with this tendency, in order not to just keep repeating familiar thoughts, and the corresponding feelings and ways of being.
When considering a particular issue, it can be useful to ask ourselves whether our thoughts and beliefs would be true for everyone, or whether it might be possible for someone else to see the same situation in a totally different way.
Changing our relationship with “voice inside the head” is a key skill in gaining freedom and choice over our minds and therefore our lives.
The process of coaching can help to both change our relationship to our mind and raise awareness around our habitual thinking patterns, allowing us the chance to increase the quality of our thoughts.
The process of human vision and perception is such that everything we “see” is experienced through our brain’s interpretation of the visual data coming from our eyes.
Scientists have known for some time that it can take 120 milliseconds for information to reach the brain from the eye. However new research from the University of Aberdeen and the University of California in Berkley (Manassi & Whitney, 2022), has shown that human perception may be up to 15 seconds behind real time. It seems that our ability to function normally is based on some kind of visual illusion that smoothes over the incoming visual data to avoid dizziness or nausea.
We never actually see the world directly; we see our mental representation of the world.
Unfortunately our mental representations of the world can be affected by our “inner state” – the prevailing mental and emotional inner weather. When our inner state is calmer we can see things more clearly. When our inner state is more tumultuous, it can be harder to see things clearly and objectively.
We only have to think about our moods and how they affect perception to know how important this is.
When we’re in a bad mood everything can seem bad – the things people do and say around us, as well as everything that happens to us. Our perception literally changes.
By paying attention to our inner state we can become more aware of how our own inner state is affecting what we perceive and how we react to that. As humans we give meaning to the situations we experience, and then we react to the meaning that we’ve given to them.
If we become aware that our inner state is a bit “off”, it may be a better idea to take a some time and use appropriate tools to re-centre ourselves before attempting to carry on with what we’re trying to do.
Other benefits of coaching include helping us learn to manage our inner state more effectively and to increase our awareness as to when things are beginning to go off-track.
Our human brains have a natural tendency to be more emotionally affected by negative events than by positive ones. Psychologists call this “negativity bias”.
Related to this is “loss aversion”, whereby we tend to be twice as affected by the pain of loss than by the pleasure of gaining something.
Back when we were cave dwellers in prehistoric times, this negative bias made sense because of the number of environmental threats that we were faced with consistently.
If something bad happened our very lives could be in danger. In the modern world, missing a bus, for example, doesn’t carry the same danger as coming across a hungry sabre-toothed tiger, but our brains are still wired the same way.
The danger of this “negativity bias” is that we can become too risk-adverse as we are more emotionally effected by loss than gain. This can manifest in individuals, organisations and especially in large corporations. There are countless stories of market-leading corporations (e.g. Kodak, Blockbuster, Nokia etc) that were too risk-adverse to keep up with changing market conditions. In each of these cases, these once-dominant businesses ended up going bankrupt as they lost market share to more agile and forward-thinking companies.
In order to counter this inbuilt negativity it’s important to inject some positivity and to make an effort to think about potential upside and gain also.
A study by Kiken and Shook (2011) found that the practice of “mindfulness” (paying attention to one’s experience in the present moment) can help increase positivity and reduce negative bias.
Coaching can help focus thoughts and intentions on positive outcomes and can help with applying the principles of mindfulness in practical and useful ways.
The process of human learning and development is one that generally leads from a state of incompetence, discomfort, and even fear, to a state of mastery where we can perform new skills and abilities with relative ease.
Once we attain some level of mastery we can find ourselves back in a “comfort zone” that is larger than the one before. And so the cycle of development continues.
As human beings, we may instinctively understand the need to step outside our comfort zones in order to grow, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier to do so in the short-term, where feelings of discomfort may lead to avoidance and procrastination.
Coaching can help by providing unconditional support, helping to overcome assumptions and beliefs and by speeding up learning and development so that some level of mastery can be achieved more quickly.
The modern world is moving and changing faster than at any time in human history.
There are more and more apps and devices vying for our attention and attempting to suck us into infinite loops of posts, videos and other social media content.
Psychologically it’s becoming harder and harder to generate the good quality focused attention necessary for effective and creative work.
It’s also more difficult to take time to think clearly and creatively about our work and how to solve the problems that we encounter.
One of the benefits of coaching is that coaches are trained to create a psychological space with the undistracted focused attention of both coach and client. This makes it much easier to keep focused, especially on difficult topics that may be otherwise avoided.
The coach is also trained to focus their client focused on potential new ideas and perspectives and in developing bespoke strategies for working more effectively and with more concentration and creativity.
As the author Cal Newport says in his book says in his book, “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”:
“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.”
If we’re not careful, our reactions, thoughts, and therefore our emotions and our ways of being, will tend to keep repeating our conditioning from the past. And if we don’t make a conscious effort to do something differently, then we’re likely to carry on having these same repetitive and predictable experiences.
We tend to know how a situation will affect us and then we’re not surprised when we have the predictable reaction. We believe that we are being affected by that situation in a particular way, but really it’s our conditioning looking for ways to express itself.
It can be very helpful therefore to become aware of our patterns of reaction and then decide if we’re happy with them or whether we may like to be able to respond in a different manner.
Coaching provides a space to explore habitual ways of being and provides an opportunity to choose and indeed practice preferable ways of responding. Then when we are faced with a familiar situation, we will have more time and space to choose our desired response, rather than blindly following our reactions which we didn’t even choose in the first place.
It’s always easier to give other people advice than ourselves, because we can see from our different perspective how the other person is stuck. The other person may believe all their doubts and limiting thoughts (unfortunately these are common to all humans), and may therefore be anxious about how to move forward.
And, of course, the more anxious and stressed we become, the less able we are to see clearly and objectively, and the more stuck we become. With increased stress, our blood flow slows, our field of vision narrows, our muscles tense, and our minds can spin out of control. Contrary to more traditional approaches stress is now understood to be the enemy of high-performance.
Coaching can help with situations where we’re stuck because the coach can have a completely independent and objective perspective. Coaches are trained to gently pull apart erroneous beliefs, allowing for new ways of seeing a situation. This can instantly reduce stress, increase energy and enthusiasm and allow a person to chose a new perspective from a larger number of better quality options.
As human beings, the most effective help we can receive is from people who are completely objective, and who don’t have a personal or emotional steak in what is being discussed. However, this can be difficult to find for most people. Generally, we don’t have many opportunities in life to talk at length about what’s on our minds with people who are completely objective and prepared to listen actively and attentively.
While talking to a friend or family member may make us feel better temporarily, it’s unlikely to be as effective as talking to a trained, professional coach for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the people that we’re likely to be talking to – friends, family members, or co-workers, are likely to have a preferred outcome or agenda for us. It’s almost impossible for them to be completely unbiased and objective.
The people we’re talking to are unlikely to be offering very high quality listening either. Rather than listening clearly and calmly reflecting back what we say in a neutral manner for our own benefit, their minds are likely to be busy generating solutions to our problems and thinking about the next thing they want to say.
The problem is that they’re likely more concerned with offering us solutions than helping to generate the awareness and news ways of thinking that will allow us to see things differently and therefore do things differently.
Most coaching training programs teach that it’s really best not to coach friends and family for this reason. It’s very hard to maintain objective neutrality and the words of both parties will be interpreted through the lens of their collective past.
Another one of the major benefits of coaching is that coaches are trained to provide extremely high-quality active listening. This neutral focus and attention makes it much easier for us to be understood and facilitated in the most effective way possible.
All these factors that we’ve just looked at mean that it can be very difficult for us to change by ourselves. If it was enough to want to change, or to read a self-help book or magazine article, we’d all have got over all our issues many years ago!
While all of us humans are completely unique, we are all limited by these naturally-occurring limitations of being human.
The process of coaching is one of transformation. It’s the process of actually internalising new ways of being, seeing, and doing. Coaching can change everything from how we react in different situations to how we actually perceive the world.
By consciously raising our awareness of what we don’t want and what we do want, we’re lessening the grip of our automatic reactions from the past and allowing us to move towards consciously chosen responses and ways of being.
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