I learn a lot from my clients.
After a session, I review my notes; I think of the path taken and of the many paths not taken; I think about what I said, and I think about what the client said; and new insights, new perspectives emerge.
These reflections are very useful to improve my game.
Sometimes, they offer very interesting insights into how the mind works, how change happens, how people think.
A recent coaching session with a new client led me to musings about language and change.
After getting his authorization and changing a few details to protect my client’s privacy, here it goes:
“Philosophy [and coaching] is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language” – Wittgenstein, #109, Philosophical Investigations
1 – After the initial banter, I ask the client what he would like to work on. He states that “his problem is that he is not able to say no”.
According to protocol, I inquired about what he wants instead and what would be different then for him if he learns to say no to people.
As a reply, the client starts telling his own story: a self-made man, an entrepreneur and a local politician. He tells his story with pride. It seems clear that he has no problem being assertive or saying no. His narrative has epic tones.
So here is the first lesson I was reminded of: the “problem” is often a belief that has been formed by a process of generalization, deletion and distortion.
What fascinates me, again and again, is the richness of the world that is hidden behind such blanket statements offered by clients.
2 – I follow up with the proper questions, and the “problem” transforms itself into just a part of a complex puzzle of relationships, situations and interactions in the life of the coachee. It feels like seeing a black and white snapshot first becoming a color picture, then becoming a clip, then a movie, with the camera rolling from different spots, offering different views and perspectives. My friend Peter Szabo has a nice metaphor for this: it is like tapping somebody on the shoulder, and saying: I see it [the problem]. And look at what is there [pointing in another direction, then another, then another]! The client now starts to see that he can say no, and he can do that very forcefully, too! However, he feels he cannot say no to his own managers, otherwise they would “leave”. By finding exceptions, and following up on that, the frame expands (as my friend Robert Dilts would say): it is not a one-shot interaction! The managers’ requests are embedded in a web of interactions, where there are, as the client starts to see, many signs of loyalty on their part. The client gets to the idea that he can say no to some requests, explaining the why, and IN THE CONTEXT of a conversation where other positive things are highlighted. He can say yes and he can say no and he can say maybe and he can laugh and he can ask questions…
To get to that idea, the client has to battle the “problem-frame” that was kept alive by his own choice of words: “it is because I am afraid of loss”; “I have always been like that, even as a child”; “In my family…”. The past. The personality. The theories. All bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language. It is as if everything else disappears, all the good things, all the achievements, and the problem becomes a huge idol that dominates the landscape of the client’s perceptions. As if the client is hypnotized by this problem. I, the coach, can feel the pressure to solve the problem! Like a vortex that sucks your attention and your energies: “I can’t say no”. The mantra, the belief. Quick, quick, let’s solve it, let’s dig deeper, let’s be enchanted by complexity and emotions and history!
4 – This client tells me he has undergone psychoanalysis. I was impressed by how well he learned that language game. He elaborates on his difficulties about accepting “loss”. He talks about “mourning” and “transference”. He tries again and again to “bait me”: he mentions his family dynamics, his childhood, how his company is like his family and he is “spoiling” his employees.
I say that he tried to “bait me” because every time he mentioned something like that, he would stare at the ground. Then he would sneak a peek at me, to see my reactions. I responded following protocol: I complimented him on his level of introspection; I invited him to build on that by asking about behaviors, third party observations and actual conversations while keeping everything in the present.
I am sure that a practitioner of a different school would have followed up on that, on “the cause”. I am sure there was a world to be discovered (or created?) there. Had I followed a NLP strategy, I would have worked on the client’s belief, on how to change it: using sleight of mouth techniques (Dilts), probably.
I stayed true to a Solution-Focused approach.
And within a solution-focused conversation, the client comes up with a brilliant idea.
He now knows that he knows how to say no. He is now able to consider different scenarios because he is in a positive mood, seeing his abilities and being complimented all the time. He also sees that people do not leave him if he says no and that a request is part of a web of interactions and a specific context. Exploring exceptions, he now sees that he is able to “say no” effectively and convincingly when his “businessman” identity is triggered, when the conversation is focused on performance indicators and cost-effectiveness analyses and business strategies. So, here is his solution: create a procedure for authorizing new benefits, incentives, pay raises or changes in the allocation of projects. The procedure includes filling out a form; it includes a holding period; each request is to be audited by the CFO. Quite a change for someone used to rewarding his employees on the spot–i.e., quite a change from over-relying on instincts and bowing to requests based on fear rather than on business sense!
Still, a simple solution.
We did not need to “dig deep” and talk about the past, about the unconscious, about projections, about family dynamics, about the fear of loss and of death…
we did not need to find the “cause” in the psyche…
we did not develop the generalization “I can’t say no” into a theory of personality, a trait of the client or a fact he has to explain and deal with.
we stayed on the surface.
we de-constructed the generalization “I can’t say no”: What happens when you say no? What is different? What else? What do you say? What do others say? Where? When?…
“what we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use” – Wittgenstein, #116, Philosophical Investigations.