My clients are intelligent. Some have degrees from prestigious universities. Many are well-read. They may have an analytical background and want to know the theory or science behind a model of behavior before they will try it out.
In our coaching conversations, they are able to rattle off tips from books written by leadership, communication, and presentation gurus. Yet, with all of this cognitive insight, they often continue to remain stuck in old habits and continually fall into patterns that do not serve their relationships or their life.
One of my clients , let’s call her Mary, complained about experiencing the same difficulties and tensions with colleagues even though she moved from one firm to another. It reminded me of the lyrics of Neil Gaiman’s song “wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” Exploring her frustrations it became clear that she had an intellectual knowledge of why things weren’t working for her. However, this was insufficient to implement the changes she wanted to achieve.
I have found that with some clients, having an intellectual understanding of a situation actually becomes an excuse, a way to “circle the wagons” so that we can avoid getting to the real issue (and if I’m frank, it’s something I do when I’m not really committed to changing my thinking and behaviours).
Seeing the Signs
As I observe my clients, they usually give some signal that points to an underlying issue or blind spot. For example, they talk about wanting to introduce new initiatives, while their breathing becomes shallow and they slump in their chair. Or, perhaps as they articulate a desire to lead their team, their tone of voice changes and their skin becomes flushed. Such signals pique my curiosity and inform the questions I ask them.
Mary had an impeccable CV. However, she complained that she wasn’t receiving the respect and title that befitted her qualifications and experience. She expected that her colleague would report to her since she believed he had inferior qualifications and experience. Instead, he reported directly to her boss, cutting her out from the reporting line. She complained that he talked over her at meetings and that her boss favored him.
Underlying Moods and Emotions
Mary has a small stature, a thin voice, and looks much younger than her age. As she told her story, her shoulders dropped, her chest became concave, and her voice became shrill. She thought she had exhausted all the ways she could to change the interactions with her boss and colleague. She felt she was a victim and had been betrayed by her boss.
On the face of it, her small stature might account for how she was treated by her colleagues. Yet, I know several women who are petite, have gravitas and command respect. Their mood is one of ambition. As one said to me, “You don’t see obstacles unless you look for them.”
As we continued to explore, it became more evident that Mary’s mood of resentment impacted her internal chatter, her tone of voice, and her behaviour. She dismissed her colleague because in her opinion he wasn’t entitled to respect. In meetings, she either shouted at her colleagues to get her point across or became resigned and didn’t bother to speak up.
Mary hadn’t connected how the tensions with her boss and colleague were connected to her mood of resentment and her own sense of entitlement. In her eyes, she should have been given a superior title to her colleague. She should have been shown the respect she was due given her greater experience and qualifications, and they should have listened to her perspectives in the meetings. She didn’t take into account their perspectives and reasons for how they treated her, and therefore, couldn’t see the possibility of a different outcome.
Mary was also surprised to recognise how habitual her negative responses had become and how easily she was triggered. The more we explored, the more evident it became that this was a recurring pattern for her that preceded this job.
Shifting from Unhelpful Moods and Emotions
To find an antidote to her resentment, Mary reflected on what would shift her to a mood of acceptance and to a different interpretation of what had been going on.
For example, she considered:
- What had been clearly stated in her job title and description? (What were the facts of her job and position?)
- What assumptions had she made?
- Had she explicitly shared her assumptions?
- Could her colleague’s interactions mirror her own lack of respect for him?
- What had been her tone when making her complaints? Were these constructive or petulant?
- If she “walked a mile in his shoes” what alternative interpretation could she see?
- How would she feel if she forgave her boss and colleague for their poor treatment of her?
- How would she feel if she forgave herself for being dismissive of them?
As Mary reflected on her answers, she moved to a mood of acceptance. She acknowledged her own role in the negative dynamic with her colleagues. This shift from a victim to an agent was powerful. It opened up new ways of responding to her work situation and to life itself.
Is there a place where you are feeling stuck despite your intellectual understanding?
I invite you to consider:
- Which mood or emotion are you in regarding your circumstance?
- How does this mood or emotion frame how you interpret and engage in the situation?
- What is the impact and cost of this emotional state?
- Is there an emotion that you believe could serve you in this situation?
- What practices would you need to engage in to cultivate this emotional learning?
If you would like to have a conversation about recurring patterns of thinking and behaviour that are getting in the way of how you collaborate with your team members or are working against your promotion to a more senior level contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or +44 (0) 7952 068133.[This is an edited version of an article I wrote for Newfield Network where I trained in Ontological Coaching.]