23 May 2018
Being in the midst of large-scale social changes – our polarising responses to climate change, the abandoning of traditional political power bases, our confusion over whether AI is bringing long term social betterment or chaos – can be disorienting and exciting, full of danger and full of possibilities.
Our response is dependent on our state of mind.
What, then, determines our state of mind? As we repeatedly think, feel, behave and interpret in the same ways each day, the shape of our brains is literally being sculpted by these habits. As the brain tissue changes in response to habitual thought patterns, the habits of thought and action become stronger. And as habits become stronger, our blind spots become larger and harder to discover.
Blind spots come from our unexamined assumptions which are kept in place by our habits of thinking. If we clearly saw the blind spot our assumptions would change, and we would think and behave differently. But the nature of a blind spot is that we don’t know what it looks like, and we don’t know how to look for it. In our completely oblivious way of seeing the world we say things like: “We’ve always done it like that. There’s no reason to change. We’re doing well.”
If we are to see clearly what is happening around us we need to be aware of our mental and emotional habits, which lead to our patterns of interpreting and behaving. We need to be able to step back from these habits and turn our attention to how we can engage most effectively with what is happening around us. This produces what we call a ‘neurological shift’ – a fundamentally new, more effective way of creating into our changing environment.
To understand what we mean by a neurological shift let’s look briefly at how neurons work. You may well have heard the phrase ‘neurons that fire together, wire together.’ This means that repeated neural firing – for example, when we practice a tennis stroke, or think in the same way again and again – leads to the strengthening of existing synaptic connections and the creation of new ones. Repeated experiences also stimulate the production of what is called myelin – a coating around the fibres that take information from neurons to other neurons, muscles, and glands. More myelin can lead to as much as a hundred-fold increase in the speed of information moving down a neuron’s length. The process of neurons firing and wiring is the raw material of brain plasticity – the ways the brain changes itself through repeated experience.
New experiences, bringing our attention to a familiar problem in a new way, responding to a challenge in an open and curious fashion, playful creativity, and open-heartedness all help create new neural pathways and cause us to see our world in a new light. This, in turn, helps us see our blind spots even if it’s uncomfortable to do so.
This is where really great coaching can help.
Great coaching is transformational – it produces neurological shifts that make us go “oh wow, I never looked at it like that before!” It spurs us to be more creative, to re-think old assumptions, to challenge ourselves and others to step-up. And it gives us the courage to face-down the stale expectations of others.
Here are the main elements of great coaching:
Great coaching for the coachee is hard work, as well as being playful and fun. It liberates energy and is, by its nature, creative. Having gone on the coaching journey, we are not - cannot be - the same person we were before the coaching started. We have an expanded set of understandings, options, thinking patterns and behavioural choices. More of the world is available to us.
- It is systemic. It recognises that an individual is a multicoloured complex mix of their history, current reality, hopes and dreams, as well as the pulls and tugs of their social environment and their personality traits. The more a system has the focussed light of genuine curiosity shone upon it, the more likely a deeper and more lasting neurological shift occurs in the individual and the system. Group coaching with a leadership team is an example of an action targeted towards a group neurological shift.
- It shows us our blind spots. Through clear sighted questioning that cuts through excuses and self-delusion, great coaching pursues a way of seeing the world that is clearer and enriched with possibility.
- It pays attention to emotions, as well as thoughts. Emotions are the engine of human endeavour, focussing our energy into the shape created by our thinking. We care, we enjoy; we get frustrated, angry, happy, and joyful. Great coaching harnesses our emotional energies in a way that helps us understand what is going on, decide what to do, and then act in accordance with our insight.
- It includes the whole person. We consist of many parts or roles – partner, child, parent, lover, leader, manager – the list is endless. Great coaching creates room for all members of our internal orchestra to contribute. Our music is all the poorer if only half the instruments are playing, or are refusing to co-operate.
That’s what a neurological shift does.