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What we can learn from repeating the same mistakes

15 March 2019 Anthony Eldridge-Rogers

There usually comes a point in my coaching with someone where they turn up to a coaching session feeling a bit down or angry or shameful or a combination of all three. This comes about because they have found themselves repeating a behaviour or set of behaviours that they have done before and which they had hoped or believed that they would not repeat.

You may have had the experience yourself. I certainly have! In fact I have never met anyone who had not repeated something they did not want to of some kind.

It is rare though to find someone who does not tend to feel bad about repetition that they perceive as one they ought not be making. But that negative response can often get in the way of what repetition can teach us about ourselves and who we are.

So here are the steps that a coach can use to manage such a crisis in a coaching relationship.

1. Process the feelings but don’t try to explain them away or ‘fix’ them

It usually involves difficult feelings when we repeat a behaviour we have stepped away from or decided to not repeat. But we need to talk about these feelings with a view to accepting them rather than trying to explain why we feel them. What usually has happened is that we have identified that we have been unable to keep an agreement with ourselves that we have made. So we feel a variety of things that include feeling out of control, not having dominion over ourselves. It causes anxiety because we fear what this implies. It means too that we sometimes see ourselves as the people we are, as opposed to the person we believe ourselves to be. So when coaching someone going through this there can be many different feelings intermingled.

Guide your client away from rationalisation at this point and stick to just articulating the feelings and helping them dissipate.

2. Don’t get caught up in the blame game

People subtly try to apportion blame for the situation. They will talk about how other influences did not help them and that can sometimes creep over into blame. Don′t get caught by that and steer the coaching onto the facts. Which leads to:

3. Look for the road to the behaviour and the signposts along it

Our lives are a process of decision and steps, choices made in an endless string. Retrace the timeline before the behaviour your client chose that they are regretting. Mark out with them the feelings, the decisions and the choices they made.

Go slowly and take your time. Look for where there were decisions that were familiar responses to situations.

4. Look for the benefits

The motivations are always emotional. We think we make decisions with our heads but we don’t, we make them with our feelings. And the benefits we experience are emotional. So all behaviours have an actual or anticipated emotional outcome. As each choice is made, your clients are looking for emotional benefit. Either to create a feeling or avoid another.

Work with your clients to consider how their feelings are directing and moving them along.

5. Hold a focus on learning

Encourage your client to see the work you are doing as a learning process. Keep bringing their attention to what they are learning and discovering about themselves as they investigate their choices.

6. Create alternative behaviours to replace the unwanted ones

Replay the sequence of events and create clear easy to understand alternative behaviours at significant moments. Keep track of those and make them into a list with your client. This list is the "go-to resource" for them that they can use when they find themselves at the same points in the future (which they will).

7. Create structures to reinforce them

These behaviours can be linked to structures, reminders and visual or other type of clues.

Have your client spend time (sometimes over a few sessions).

In this way by the time you are some way away from the time where they were feeling regret and shame and most likely anger at themselves they will be deep into understanding and insight. That makes the so-called mistake a learning experience. If the process goes well they may well even see it as something that they can feel glad they repeated for all the learning they got from it.

8. Forgive and laugh