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Are your clients basing their life on Fear or Hope?

19 September 2019 Anthony Eldridge-Rogers

Are your clients basing their life on Fear or Hope?

I am the first to argue against too much oversimplification. On the other hand, we make many many things way too complex. Fortunately we have naturally evolved ‘rules of thumb’ or intuition (what are fancily called heuristics) to guide us.

When it comes to our lives then there are different ways that we approach life that make the experience of life vastly different as well. As the title of my blog signals, I am concerned here with the overall thinking and emotional direction that people choose to take when they approach life. We can see it as an overall filter through which all events, circumstances, people and filters are passed with consequent behaviours and emotions being the consequences.

“Are they going to steal my motorbike?”

The other evening I had dinner with a friend. He has a quite particular view of his fellow humans’ behaviour which is that he is likely to be ripped off or have his possessions removed from him unless he decides that he is with people or in situations that he trusts. 

He rides an expensive motorbike which he loves. He is very concerned about it being stolen. So much so that he has to park the bike where he can see it through a window in the restaurant. From time to time during the evening I see him peering past my face to the window behind me, to check the bike.

So the context for this matters as well. We are in a rural village in sleepy west of England. We are in a well-off neighbourhood with an almost zero crime rate. His motorbike is insured to the hilt against theft. It also has a tracker system and he has two sophisticated and powerful wheel locks attached to the bike which sound an alarm if anyone tampers with it.

He is wealthy too, so in the event that his bike was stolen he could afford to buy another while waiting for the insurance pay out. This is relevant as it might have been the case that he had saved up all his life for this motorbike and it was a cherished symbol of the fruits of all his labours. However, this is not the case.

Now I am not going to state that he ought not have this view of life and his environment, but I do notice how much this distracts him in public environments and infiltrates his encounters with others he does not know. It also gives him far more work to do. Just securing his bike took him a good 30 minutes after he arrived. Then he brought his valuable bag into the restaurant and placed it at his feet, checking every few minutes it was still there. There was hardly anyone else in the upmarket restaurant. In short, in my view, his behaviour was not consistent with the actual reality of where he was and who he was with.

“We have to balance costs and benefits”

As with all emotional and psychological states, it is a balance between costs and benefits. The issue though is what do we do if the costs largely outweigh the benefits, but we cannot change that balance? That might end up costing us much more than we want.

There are various short hands for this broad dualism. Glass half full or half empty for instance.

What I think coaches or indeed anyone working with another person to support their change process can do is hold a coaching space that brings this broad duality into conscious space of the clients awareness. Once there, the details of their life can be explored through these two broad lenses.

If we think of my friends seemingly default position on the inevitability that people are looking to steal his motorbike, we can place the principle belief he has on a continuum. At one end we can place his belief expressed as ‘everyone and everything is out to take things from me. That includes the possibility that someone wants to take my life from me. At this extreme would you decide that he was probably delusional or suffering from mental health issues? And how would sticking to that belief at that end of the continuum play out in daily life? Trusting no one, would be deeply restrictive to maintaining wellbeing and general health maybe?

At the other end of the continuum is the opposite belief. That everyone is trustworthy, that all environments are safe from other people′s behaviour and that there is no need for any vigilance or attention to security. Would you think that this was a functionally appropriate way to proceed with life?

Where are you on this kind of continuum? Do you veer towards the distrustful end or the opposite?

Both ends provide for difficult functioning. We are not evolved for the levels of stress that may arise from being in these extremes. We are physiologically and biologically disposed to return to some kind of mean, central position. This central position can also be placed on a continuum of rational thought. Our reasoning minds can assess threats in reality and adjust assumptions accordingly.

A world full of Tigers

Imagine that we found ourselves in an environment full of tigers who saw us as their main food. Every time we travelled through that forest or plain we were likely to be approached by  tigers looking to kill and eat us. It would make sense on a rational evaluative level to make the assumption that there was a threat and that all tigers are to be considered a lethal threat. In this way we increase our chances of survival. Those who were best at surviving the tigers would thrive and pass the skills and genes down the line thus reinforcing the attributes needed to survive. 

Imagine then something happens to hugely reduce, to a handful, the tigers in this environment. Suddenly there are not thousands but half a dozen. Imagine that the chances of one finding you or you stumbling across one suddenly become thousands to one. Rationally we would need to shift our belief and profit from the new information. If we did that, we could use the resources we have been expending on avoiding and being vigilant about the tigers on something else that would be to our benefit. Irrationally we would carry on behaving as if there was a great tiger threat. 

This simple way of looking at these two states allows us to then filter all our behaviours through them.

How much time does a client invest their resources, mental, emotional, physical in protecting themselves against almost non-existent threats? Where do they get the data (information) from to actually assess the likelihood of a risk being in existence at all?

How can they know what to adjust and what not to adjust?

It is a trust issue

One way that us humans have managed to survive risk is to have benefited from our willingness (some might say weakness) to trust information given to us from other people quickly and without scrutiny. In a small scale community working together to survive, this was likely a successful strategy. It would make sense to respond right away to the cry ‘There is a tiger coming’ as to question it too long might mean death. This though has, in our modern society, become a liability much of the time. 

Let’s replace our imaginary tigers with people who want to exploit all others who are not in their tribe. A good tactic for them would be to exploit our tendency to believe another human without scrutiny. In that way, they could manipulate others into behaviours based on reliance on that information. We see that now in our media where media controllers with their own agendas promote information that is either untrue or distorted in order to manipulate others.

Where we get our information from matters more than I can state. Basing our beliefs on information that is inaccurate or designed to manipulate us is to be resisted.

“We cannot consider ourselves free people unless we have personal scrutiny of vital information”.

As we all travel through these turbulent times, our attention to information and the beliefs it supports matters more than ever.

There is a practical reason too. We are psychologically and biologically unable to persist with panic or stress driven behaviours without breaking down. We evolved for a sprint away from a tiger, not a 30 mile run. We can fight but not for long. We can run fast but not for long. Both of those behaviours exhaust us quickly. Once exhausted we are less able to resist other factors that affect us. We are less able to reason clearly, less able to have time to reflect and plan together clearly. That leads to worse decision making.

What is required is balance. We need to be able to live lives in the experience of other states of being. When we engage with the other emotions, trust, joy, love, excitement and so one we receive a wellbeing boost. The best way to do that is to be actively involved in creating our lives from what we want to experience and what we want to contribute.  This is the run towards motivational direction. What we are building for the future is as important as what we are trying to avoid or combat in the present. They are linked of course, but we can ask just how much time we spend on either side of those two approaches. Our civilisation shows us many examples of individuals living lives of purpose and meaning that have left legacies of value to us all.

Coaching conversations with a client will reveal how they have configured their lives through their beliefs. If they are experiencing much anxiety and fear, then you will want to introduce other ways of perceiving the world and their life events and decisions so that they may explore their own sense of balance. 

As coaches we cannot tell anyone how they arrive at balance and what that looks like. What we can do though is bring these broad approaches and continuums to the coaching conversation and, if our clients want, explore them courageously with them.

Courage is needed for it will help them resist the familiar which is what change is partly about. People become habituated to ways of looking and it causes some dissonance when they step away from them or consider changing them. Often these beliefs feel like that are part of our core identity. Who we like to think we are. Changing our mind often seems like a failure. This is why we like to stick to flat earth’ beliefs even when presented with new information.

So persistence by you the coach and your client is needed. The benefits are overwhelming for the individual as well as for those around them.

As we face huge challenges, we need to respond not just from what the threats are but from what is possible. We need to work for something that we want to help manifest not just against something we are afraid of. That is called hope…..

Good luck.