One of my favourite aspects of coaching psychology is the area of beliefs. I am fascinated by the concept of how several beliefs can cluster together around a core belief that seems to sit at the top of a hierarchy and yet is often hidden, nestled amongst those other supporting beliefs that seem almost to be seeking to hide and protect the central stem of that particular belief system. So often, the work can focus on changing some of those peripheral, supporting beliefs and yet this invariably leads only to short term change, because the core belief stays intact and ultimately reinforces the habitual thinking, feeling and behaviour.
Whilst working with clients, exploring how they interact with their values and beliefs, many of them have unpacked and discovered what they have found to be unhelpful, yet well used strategies. However, when we begin to co-create a different, more effective strategy, a strikingly powerful reframe can emerge and a different strategy can be designed for longer term change and growth.
To introduce this process, I refer initially to work undertaken by psychologists such as Viktor Frankl, who desribed the concept of stimulus and response and the idea that our moment of choice lies within the gap in between those two elements.
Take for example a person who discovers what happens when faced with two potentially conflicting beliefs. For example: “It’s important to focus on my own wellbeing” and “I have to be the one to ‘save the day’ at work because that’s how I know I’m valued”. Independently, these two beliefs can function quite freely, however when one of them comes up against the other…there is a stimulus.
A default strategy presents itself, applied so rapidly it can go quite un-noticed. When it becomes ‘clear’ that both of these beliefs cannot be honoured and fulfilled at the same time, a competition is created. Which one of them will win? This will depend upon which one of them is higher up the hierarchy of beliefs and a win-lose situation emerges where the outcome is an either…or… Part of the speed of reaction is actually driven by that hierarchy, as the ‘higher belief’ is so invested in keeping its position of ‘power’ that an emotional reaction is triggered and a decision made swiftly in order to take action to return to a place of being ‘OK’. What happens in this rapid, default strategy, is that the ‘higher’ belief proposes (quite strongly perhaps) lots of reasons why that belief must be honoured. So strong is the reaction, the person acts almost spontaneously. With the hundreds, even thousands of beliefs we hold about just about anything and everything, this rapid decision-making process is going all day, every day as we navigate life.
When the gap of choice between stimulus and response is filled in this way, it can even feel as though it is no choice at all, as the force of rapid rationalisation takes over. In the short-term, this may feel like a good outcome, because the immediate situation has a solution and a part of us may feel satisfied, however the likelihood is that the same dilemma may surface again…and again, as the belief that lost the competition is left unattended, ignored and even neglected.
However, through coaching, we invite clients to take a little more time considering and exploring that gap. In doing so, they have the opportunity to respond instead of reacting. The exploration enables the client to recognise the reaction and the rationalisation for what they are, it becomes conscious. Once that strategy is recognised, reflection can begin which is facilitated by some helpful, powerful coaching questions. Through the process of reflection, the person can re-evaluate their situation and their associated beliefs that surround it. They have the opportunity to consider different perspectives, different or amended beliefs. They have the opportunity to consider and try out different decisions and choices and the impact they might have. This process of re-evaluation and meaning making underpins the ability to make new choices that are more likely to result in a longer term and more congruent reconciliation of beliefs, values, feelings and ultimately actions.
This process aligns closely with Kolb’s learning cycle and how we grow through the process of reflection and meaning making.
This process also underpins the shift from only focusing on the topic to coaching the person; from a transactional process, resulting in a short-term solution to a transformational shift which promotes growth and potential. This principle is underscored in the intention of Competency 8: Facilitates Client Growth in the updated ICF Core Competency model.