What our clients call "reality" is actually an illusion that is held in place by their beliefs and values about themselves, about others and about the world around them. Someone else standing in their shoes with exactly the same skills and with different beliefs and values would see very different possibilities. Our clients are our clients because their reality is not big enough to include their dreams and desires. Our role as coaches is to assist our clients in expanding their reality.
And what about you as a coach? What reality have you chosen? And does it place limits on your ability to attract clients, to fully express yourself or your ability to work with certain types of clients? Whether we are coaches or clients, it is useful to look at how we or our clients have chosen our current reality and how it potentially limits or empowers each of us.
Each and every one of us forms mental models as to what we believe is real and what is not. These models establish what is possible or not possible for us. For some of us, these mental models severely restrict our potential, enjoyment of life and ability to connect with others. We call these mental models reality and often steadfastly hold on to them even when there is significant evidence to the contrary.
How did these models come to be? As we grow up, we attempt to make sense of the world based on: our interpretation of our experiences, what we are told by others – particularly those in authority or those we respect (parents, teachers, religious leaders) – and what we tell ourselves.
Interpretation of our experiences
As children, we make decisions that will in some way keep us safe – avoid or minimize being abused (physically or verbally) or being abandoned. And often we assume we are the cause of whatever happened – the anguish of our parents, an abusive situation, the untimely death of a loved one – and in so doing, vow at an unconscious level to never do that again. We establish mental models of the world that are intended to protect us from causing such upset in the future. As a result, we put ourselves at the effect of whatever happens and on the path of being a victim.
As children, these mental models may serve us well. Yet, some of us carry these unconscious models into adulthood and wonder why we get the results we do and are not living the life we desire.
Generally, parents or other adults are well-meaning in their disciplining or teaching of children. However the behaviors they select and words they use are often inappropriate and, when interpreted through the eyes and ears of a child, take on a different meaning. Consider the parent who desperately wants to see a child succeed and says, "If you keep acting this way, you will grow up to be no good." This type of motivation may satisfy the parent’s need, however the child may hear and begin to develop a mental model of "I’m no good." It is often said that for every positive comment, children hear ten negative comments. If, as a child, you lived in this type of environment, what mental models did you form about yourself, others and the world around you?
We are talking to ourselves all of the time – often at an unconscious level. For many of us, negative thoughts are far more frequent than positive thoughts. Although each thought by itself is insignificant, these thoughts can build up over time – just like the insignificant, tiny, coral polyps that come together to form massive coral reefs – thus forming barriers to what we truly want and desire in life.
Assisting our clients
As coaches, how do we support our clients (and ourselves) to overcome this conditioning? We begin by creating a space of safety for our clients where they can become consciously aware of their mental models and their origin. We encourage our clients to pay attention to their daily thoughts and judgments about themselves and about others. As they do, we support them in being curious about the underlying beliefs and values they are operating from and explore the possibility that these thoughts, judgments, beliefs and values may be incorrect. We assist our client to explore the positive intention behind their beliefs and values (e.g. safety) and consider if the positive intention is still relevant or if it can be obtained in a different manner – a manner that delivers fewer negative side-effects and more positive benefits.
On a daily basis, they may wish to experiment with new behaviors – not dictated by their old thoughts – and notice the changes they can make in their interpretation of what is and isn’t possible. When implementing new behaviors, they may not always be successful. At these times, remind them of the words of Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the incandescent light bulb and other devices: "I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work."