In almost every coaching assignment I have entered into, the person who is looking for, or about to receive coaching, turns up with a life challenge that they frame as a problem. It is rare to meet a person who is not listing their life experiences as a series of problems that are standing in the way of something they want or think they want.
Within this framing of problems is a constant tension with the fact of change. (Yes I am stating change as hard fact here which you can test yourself by reflecting on the question “Does anything not change given enough time?”).
Despite the glaring fact that everything changes it never ceases to amaze me at how we try to trick ourselves into lives and behaviours in those lives that try to deny this fact. The degree to which a person clings to the objective of stability ultimately reflects their ability to thrive as a changing human being.
Humans are driven, and have been for recorded time, to reduce unpredictability. Those most successful at surviving unpredictable events would survive better in the gene pool. Another factor influences this as well. If we can reduce unpredictable events, reduce the negative impact on us of events that threaten us, then we can gain the edge in evolutionary survival too.
This makes sense, except there has been a cost which is now becoming apparent. In some ways the willingness to resist the notion of change when planning and developing future activities, that we hope will be beneficial to us, make it more likely we will undertake those activities.
After all, as we know that totally random events can put an end to all plans and thrust us into the present moment where moment to moment survival becomes the main focus, why would we ever start a new project or plan for the future?
So there is an upside to the tendency to ignore the reality of constant change. It helps us get going and moving into action to build a better life, community and society.
But what if the driver of this avoidance of the reality of change is driven by fear? What if we cannot be with uncertainty? What if life events have wounded or traumatised us so we carry emotional scars that bid us to avoid change and risk at all costs? What if we want to constantly seek safety even though we know that there is no such thing as ultimate safety? This will hamper our lives too and this is what I constantly see in people′s approaches to their lives.
Often, individuals with resources and social power will try to create safety and certainty for themselves by pushing people who they have some power over into uncertainty and constant change. Large corporations that are disconnected from local communities do this all the time. The objective of those managing those corporations is to secure their own certainty and buffer to change at a cost to those reliant on them in the workforce for livelihoods and security.
In coaching we need to listen out for what a person′s relationship to change really is. We need to listen intently as often clients will select the change they can countenance and accept and the change they cannot be with emotionally.
Change is of course, exciting. This is the paradox. What we try to control and manage in ways that create the illusion of stability and unchanging continuity is also the place from where we derive the energy of life itself. By trying to remove this uncertainty we end up stifling life energy itself. So we end up feeling life is boring and pine for excitement. This we try to substitute with entertainment.
How many people do you know who are in a change related dilemma? They want to get a promotion at work but are fearful of it. They want to end a relationship but they fear the change it will bring to their lives. How many people do you know who push change down the road, avoiding it as long as they can until life thrusts it upon them often when they are ill prepared for it? How many people do you know who complain that life is empty and boring in some way while they strangle the change out of it?
This issue of change has never been so urgent for us to face as a world society.
We are now experiencing exponential change. Progress has not brought us certainty but now even more uncertainty. Artificial intelligence is substituting us in jobs. Social media is making disruption and change easier for small groups of people. Wealth disparity is driving social disruption. It is becoming harder for us to see what will happen in 5 years time across all kinds of domains.
The big ticket issues of ecological challenges and climate change have removed environmental certainty as never before in recent times and that affects everything and everyone. We all live in this context. If we are coaching people then change is their life. Period.
The only direction to pick is one of engagement. We need to face it head on and start to ask the right questions. Those I think are simple to ask, less simple to answer, of course but we must at least make an attempt.
Here are the powerful questions that can open up the conversation with your clients about change. These questions are more cognitive than emotional.
What is your attitude to change and uncertainty?
Where are your beliefs about change and uncertainty?
How were your attitudes and beliefs formed?
Where did you get them from?
In what ways might have you missed out in life because of these attitudes and beliefs?
What can you learn from the answer to this last question?
In what ways have you thrived and prospered because of change and uncertainty?
The next set of questions are focused around emotions and feelings:
What feelings do you experience when you think about change?
How did you feel the last time a big life change came upon you that you were not expecting?
Last time you made a large change in your life out of choice how did that feel?
These kinds of questions can open up a rich dialogue between you and your client. Many emotions can become involved because we are both stimulated and excited by change as well as being fearful and anxious about them.
What you will find though is that people who thrive are not without the ability to be anxious and fearful about change and uncertainty but who have a willingness to embrace and overcome that for the fulfillment they experience from both accepting it and actively using it.
In our current challenging times, those who embrace change and get involved with it will most likely thrive better than those who hang onto the familiar and hope it all settles down. It won’t. We all will be adjusting ourselves to change and that will most likely mean changing our behaviour. Coaches are in a unique position to help people find the strength and courage to accept change and move to seeing social changes not as a threat but as an opportunity to engage and live.