Positive Change without Change
A while ago I had a coaching session with a client in a top management position. He asked me to help because he was stressed out and it impacted negatively on his work and on his personal and social life. Although almost unbearable circumstances in the workplace have slightly changed for the better the past six months he was suddenly confronted by a whole new set of problems. Caring for his mother and mother-in-law, both in their eighties, became emotionally more taxing and time wise more consuming. A child had a near death car accident and a sister-in-law’s cancer prognosis has worsened. Worst of all he had made a substantial financial investment that was on the brink of collapsing in a total loss. At work he was only going through the motions and socially he was avoiding people. At work and at home he was angry and caught up in negative thoughts.
Our first session was mostly spent on listening to his story and acknowledging the difficulty of his circumstances. Only the last 20 minutes of a 90 minute coaching session was spent on investigating what the client did that made some days a little better and more bearable than others. Almost no definite answers were offered. I closed the session by suggesting that he tries to notice when his day is a little better and what he has done to accomplish that. I also suggested that he should experiment with doing something different than what he was doing the past few weeks. I left it at that wondering if I was of any help to him.
In the follow up session four weeks later I started by asking what was better. He answered that he was less stressed out and coping better with his adverse circumstances. I asked what he did to accomplish this and it was as if a floodgate opened. He named a list of things amongst which was the following. He has decided and tried hard to be less angry at work and at home. He has taken time out to just relax for a few days at home, sleeping late and just do as little as possible. He has talked about his circumstances with significant others in his life and got some different perspectives.
All of a sudden the client stopped talking for a moment. It was as if a light bulb came to light. With enthusiasm he then stated his surprise that he has changed so much without his circumstances having changed at all. The conversation took at this point a whole new direction.
This has reminded me again about the fact of life that for most of our life we have no choice in what happens with us. Life is forever changing and we have little predictability or control over what will emerge next. However we always have agency on how we will respond. It is vitally important to discover our agency that make some moments of the day better than others. Experimenting with new responses can bring about surprising results. Recognizing that I have agency in all circumstances at work and at home makes me a survivor and winner instead of a victim.
It is just as important that coaches see their clients as experts of their own lives. Asking questions that acknowledge, elicit, amplify and reinforce the client’s agency co-creates positive change even where circumstances don’t change.