Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Psychological Reasons Why Coaching Works

After 47 years spent trying to help people change I have to conclude that it is a lot harder than it looks. It makes me grimace a little when I see claims from smiling, smartly suited consultants that this training course or that formula will make a difference. Getting people to change, particularly if they are not motivated by some powerful need, is a bit like shifting the Olgas with an ice pick. In fact, I found in my years of being a therapist that even when people are in incredible psychological pain getting them to change can be extremely difficult.

Brain research shows that when people are confronted with change the brain releases chemicals that activate the fight and flight response. It creates anxiety. The same regions in the brain that are activated when we are in physical pain are activated when we see change on the horizon. Habits, on the other hand, are much more indelible since they are energy conserving and make us feel comfortable. It is no wonder change is difficult or even impossible, even in people who are in psychological pain and have every reason to change.

One of the amusing illogical things we humans do (and there are lots of them) is to think that if we tell someone to behave and think differently then that is all that is needed. The parents of children over the age of about 11 are good examples of this belief, as are bosses, teachers and people who run training programs. Psychology 101 tells us that people are more likely to become even more resistant when we tell them to change when they don’t want to, when motivation is low. Our brains are capable of making up all sorts of reasons to reject even good stuff that we hear or see, let along things that are of marginal interest. And please don’t think that logical argument will work either. A lot of change involves emotion and it is probably the main force that will move or not move mountains.

There is pretty convincing evidence that coaching is much more effective than training in changing behavior and it is useful to know why. While a case can be made for the use of training for obtaining knowledge and skills (competencies) there is not much evidence that any significant change in behavior or deep learning occurs beyond that. Change is just too difficult as described above. Mostly, people change as a result of their experience in applying their competence in varying circumstances, where there is a motivation to deal with specific situations or where they are confronted with problems. This is how we really learn.

Like psychotherapy, and I don’t make this comparison lightly, coaching accelerates the likelihood of deep learning and change. It seems to work for three main reasons. The coaching technique or approach appears to have little effectiveness on coaching outcomes. However, there is some good support for cognitive-behavioural techniques that are evidence-based and are used in mainstream psychology. What do seem to create exchange are: the relationship between coach and client; empathic understanding by the coach; and positive expectations.  Like psychotherapy these three factors make up about 80% of the reasons coaching works and about 20% is technique or skilled application.There are several dimensions to these main factors.

The coaching enterprise, if undertaken correctly, involves identifying very specific personal needs, the elaboration of the context and scope of these needs, exploration of problems encountered, discussion about the emotional impact of the issues raised, a sharing of understanding, identification of personal resources, development of an agreed course of action, and follow-up later to refine the action plan.

This process, if done well involves: engagement through effective listening and responding skills, acknowledgement of problems and issues, sharing of experiences, story telling, shared problem solving, a shared journey, acceptance of the other, being supportive, positive reinforcement, optimism, focus, and a relationship where failure is allowed.

Brain research tells us that a positive relationship causes the release of chemicals in the brain such as oxytocin, vasopressin and dopamine that make us feel good. Dopamine increases motivation.

Coupled with a focused program that makes change seem safe, a positive relationship overcomes those nasty chemicals that frighten us from changing and make us revert to habitual behavior. The fact that the client can try out new behaviours in a graded way means that change is much more manageable. Follow-up provides support over a prolonged period of time and difficulties can be overcome as they arise in a safe environment. One of the great strengths of coaching is that the coach can explore with the client why certain tactics or behavior is not working.