Realising what is relevant: The essence of coaching?
“Convergence” by Jackson Pollock, 1952
Development is a systematic form of insight John Vervaeke
Coaching is the process of guiding someone through change. This change is often couched in the language of goals, and these goals could be based on many different (and at times competing) domains of life. Goals may be related to performance (e.g. sales targets), skills (e.g. develop public speaking ability), or developmental/lifestyle (e.g. “I want to act with more conviction”), but what is constant is a desire for change. Often when we engage another person to help us with a problem, we are in a state of conflict, a feeling of being lost in a sea of possibility or locked in a prison of maladaptive behaviours. The above painting by Jackson Pollock, literally paints a picture of how many people feel when engaging a coach, there is confusion, noise, ‘stuckness’ – a feeling of being lost. The purpose of a coach is to enable the development of an individual by helping them overcome the internal and external impediments that drive feelings of polarisation and ‘stuckness’. To overcome these feelings a client needs to understand what is relevant to their ultimate aspirations, how goals are framed to achieve this and how to act appropriately. This is an ongoing, dynamic process – with the coach serving as a guide along the journey.
The answer isn’t the answer
This process is not about giving the client the answer. Even if a coach had the answer, by telling someone what to do, it fosters a sense of dependence on the coach’s knowledge, which in any case is abstracted from the clients lived experience. The complexity of most problems faced by coaching clients, precludes the exclusive use of any rule-based, algorithmic-like decision making inherent in being given ‘the answer’. It also potentially reinforces a sense of self-deficiency in the client, by reinforcing a misbelief in their own lack of resources to deal with a problem – the primary reason for why the client sought coaching in the first place. Whilst the client may desire knowledge of how to act, to be shown the way, the job of the coach is to reinforce the client’s own sense of efficacy and capacity for self-leadership. Fundamentally the purpose of the coaching relationship is to help clients catalyse the change they seek by realising what is relevant to the achievement of their goals.
Heuristics, or shortcuts to realising relevance
The nature of the world we live in is incredibly complex and as such the impediments a client faces reflect this reality. We deal with this complexity of everyday life through what psychologists call heuristics; shortcuts for decision making that highlight what is relevant and allow us to act. A significant amount of evidence supports the Dual-Process Theory of Cognition, which holds that there are two ways that our minds process information. The title of Daniel Kahneman’s bestseller “Thinking Fast and Slow”, refers to how the majority our thinking is fast (automatic, intuitive), with the requirement for slow thinking (deliberative, analytical) when a problem requires deeper levels of investigation.
The Dual Process Theory of Reason (Stanovich, 2013)
One of the key mechanisms in our use of heuristics is what psychologists call, attribute substitution. Attribute substitution refers to how our mind replaces a difficult question requiring high cognitive effort with an easier, heuristic answer. An example being, “how likely is it that this new job will provide the happiness I am looking for?”. There are so many unknown variables involved in this question that it is impossible to calculate or deduce the answer to it. Instead, a person may substitute this question with an easier one, “how do I feel about the prospect of the job following the interview?”. The individual has substituted an automatic/intuitive response for the more difficult and possibly unknowable, deliberative/analytic response. They have swapped ‘thinking slow’ for ‘thinking fast’.
Most of the ‘questions’ we face in our day-to-day life are like this, in fact everyday simple actions, if we stopped to analyse every possible step, would make our lives impossible. We would be overwhelmed by all the myriad elements in a problem, lost in a sea of possibility. Heuristics narrow down the questions we need to ask and allow us to find patterns in our environment that are relevant, affording us the opportunity to act. Working with a coach involves wrestling with assumptions. Reflecting on how we have gotten to a certain point and what is needed to achieve future goals is a process of understanding our own use of heuristics and how relevant or irrelevant these might be for our desired future.
The concept of Relevance Realisation and its application for coaching
John Vervaeke‘s, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto, theory of Relevance Realisation refers to a dynamic, self-organising process that is central to decision making. He refers to this concept as a capacity to transform and self-correct decision making through new understandings (realisations) of what is relevant to a person’s goals. An example of relevance realisation in coaching can be seen in the context of an early part of the coaching conversation. A client comes to a coach with a problem and often that problem has been framed in a way the client believes is relevant to the achievement of a goal. Through the initial conversation the coach will ask questions relating to how the goal is framed, how observable it is (i.e., can you track progress), and to what purpose the client wants to achieve this goal.
The purpose of this conversation is to help the client formulate and define the goal in a way that makes it achievable. The initial conversation itself is a way of helping the client develop awareness of what is relevant to them. Realising what is relevant helps the client overcome various impediments to achieving the goal or prompts the client to redefine the goal itself as something more in line with a broader aspiration. For example, the client may come to coaching with a desire for more fulfilling work, this is an admirable aspiration, but it may not be possible to track progress or achievement. The coach’s role is to help the client re-frame this aspiration into more observable goals, enabling the client to develop confidence in their capacity for change as they reach those goals.
In a successful engagement this process continues throughout the lifetime of the coaching conversation and flows through into the everyday life of the client. A developmental coaching conversation will work with the client in a process of unfolding realisations that build on one another, however it will also work to break down or reframe patterns of thinking that are no longer relevant, and which act as impediments to change.
The Shadow of Heuristics: When relevance realisation goes awry
Our effective use of heuristics is predicated on our accurate mapping of patterns we can see in the environment and how well those patterns map onto the reality of what is happening. As discussed, the mental shortcuts we use to make decisions are essentially shortcuts to realising what is relevant so we can act. However, these shortcuts whilst efficient can also lead to biased or deluded thinking by mis-framing something as relevant when it is in fact irrelevant. Misplaced realisation of what is relevant can lead to vicious loops of thinking that are deluded and detrimental to the achievement of goals and to the process of change itself.
Vervaeke emphasises that otherwise intelligent people act irrationally due to a misuse of automatic thinking (thinking fast) in the place of more deliberate analysis (thinking slow) or vice versa. Vervaeke suggests that what is missing in these situations is a way of thinking that can reflect on the relationship between the automatic, fast thinking and the deliberate, slow thinking so that use of each is properly managed. He goes on to say that self-deception is about being locked into a feedback loop that maintains and reinforces the incorrect framing of problems and situations, and subsequently the misjudgement of what kind of thinking needs to be applied to a particular situation.
We can often see it in ourselves and others that maladaptive patterns of behaviour continue to repeat, despite our best efforts to change. If the way we are framing the problem hasn’t shifted, then it is likely that the changes we make are only going to lead to manifestations of similar problems, albeit in different forms. What is required is a re-framing of our experience, something that requires the cultivation of our capacity to reflect on our thinking, something referred to as meta-cognition.
Meta-cognition and self-awareness
The capacity of reflecting on our thinking is referred to as meta-cognition in cognitive science. This capacity is also commonly known as self-awareness. Self-transformation, often the reason for why someone employs a coach, is predicated on self-awareness; a clarity of thinking that enables someone to see through the illusions created by their own framing. The road to self-awareness, and subsequently self-transformation is paved with insights into the nature of our problems.
The coach’s role is to act like a mirror for the client, enabling them to develop greater insight into their own thought patterns, and enhance their realisation of what is relevant to their goals. This mirror works via the coach’s reflecting back the client’s words or actions in the context of a specific impediment or issue, as well as through the interpretations of the coach. The value of these interpretations isn’t necessarily their accuracy (although accuracy is helpful) but rather the reflection of the client’s thoughts and actions as a means of helping a client see into their own cognitive processes (perception, attention, thought, knowledge, memory). Having the client either recognise and/or reject and re-affirm a more relevant interpretation is an expression of insight that helps develop the client’s own capacity for further insights and self-awareness. In this way coaching can be looked at as a “mindfulness for two”. The client is being mindful of what they are feeling/saying and the coach is mindfully tracking and reflecting this back to the client, with the client re-defining or re-articulating a more accurate description as required.
Impediments and Insight
The impediments that a client faces are the result of fixed and rigid patterns of behaviour, what psychoanalysts call defence mechanisms. These defence’s whilst being valuable in the past, a classic example being workaholism, have now become a barrier to the client living in a way that aligns with new aspirations for life. Insight in a coaching conversation can help a client not only reframe what is relevant for a new direction in life, but also develop a kind of intelligent ignorance to the many irrelevant facts that cause confusion or internal conflict. This process is one the Psychoanalyst and Professor of Psychology, Robert Kramer refers to as “Learning and Unlearning”, something we do each day, but which is accelerated in the coaching conversation.
However, momentary insight isn’t enough to facilitate transformation. A singular insight is like a reassuring conversation with a friend, a sugar hit to our sense of self-worth or confidence. Without a sustained shift in framing or attitude the ‘hit’ from these insights gradually fades. As the quote from John Vervaeke at the start of this article states: “development is a systematic form of insight”. This means that sustained transformation is reliant on insight into the entire system of cognition (perception, attention, thought, knowledge, memory), not just isolated parts, although this process may start with the isolated parts.
Bringing it all together
As much as it is possible to understand ourselves and live more alignment with our values we need to realise what is relevant. Realising relevance requires the self-awareness inherent in reflecting on our thinking and the accurate framing of our problems. Coaching is one avenue that can help an individual enhance their self-awareness by acting as a mirror to their perception, attention, thought, knowledge, and memory. By doing this systematically through integrative practices with the coach, clients can develop a muscle of understanding that allows them to act in a more aligned way in service of their goals and aspirations. Self-awareness, systematic insight and action aligned to what is relevant enables the small and big changes that catalyse transformation and lasting change.
Originally published in my LinkedIn Newsletter https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/coaching-converging-relevance-andrew-white/?trackingId=bAfuFDk%2BSSOGl9V0ft%2FXGA%3D%3D