Some Thoughts About HOW to Coach Around Trauma

Trauma and Coaching Series Part Three (Click here for Part One and here for Part Two of this series)

Relational trauma tends to create feelings of cognitive dissonance, shame and doubt. Many types of trauma can bypass cognitive functions and lodge in the body, creating implicit memories that are not connected to narrative memory. Even short-term trauma can disrupt memory areas of the brain, creating a sort of protective amnesia where details aren’t remembered or tracked. It’s common for a client to have false self-blaming beliefs and stories about the trauma that they have reinforced by excessive rumination. (It’s interesting to note that when people ruminate and blame themselves it can actually create somewhat of a feeling of control—this happened because I did X, so I won’t ever do X again.) In this post, we’ll look at both what to do and what not to do in coaching.

In general, clients healing from trauma tend to need:

  1. To safely experience their full and complete current emotional state, including body sensations, emotions, thought patterns, etc.

    If the client is stable in their observer mind (see Part Two of this series on WHO to coach), they may find that a trusting coaching relationship is a safe place to explore their current emotional state. Even just talking things through with someone who is fully present and holding space with curiosity can be extremely helpful in the healing/integration process. And because trauma tends to live in the body, using embodiment techniques can help, in the words of embodiment expert Amanda Blake, to “surface the invisibles.” It’s very common for a traumatized client to not know what they don’t know. Their body has been partnering in helping them operate in the world as “fine,” while often still holding their tension, anxiety, anger and fear.

  2. To learn ways to self-regulate their central nervous system as difficult emotions and sensations arise.

    Helping the client exploring sensations within their “window of tolerance” (see Part Two of this series for more on this important concept) is often a good first step in learning to self-regulate. Other techniques such as simple breath work, stress management techniques, and again, embodiment, can also help client become less “at effect” of their emotions and sensations.

  3. To find and reinforce a story that creates an empowering narrative, without doing a “spiritual bypass.”

    Depending on the stage of healing and intensity of trauma, many coaching tools are designed to help clients surface and address limiting or false beliefs and reframe stuck perspectives. The strategy of reframing (sometimes called reappraisal) is one of the most powerful stress reducers we have available, and for clients healing from relational trauma can be a key part of the journey.

  4. And sometimes to explore ways to get their central nervous system more regulated without having to tell the story.

    Sometimes helping clients explore ways to manage stress and discomfort without going into the story is the best strategy for the stage the client is in. A coach can also work with client to explore and move froward in areas of life unrelated to the trauma, gaining confidence and self-esteem in the process.

What NOT to Do

There is a lot we can do in coaching, but perhaps just as importantly, we need to look at what NOT to do:

  1. Push the client outside their window of tolerance during the coaching.
  2. Treat the abuse as a “compatibility” issue, a “bad break-up” or minimize the pathological behavior of the abuser.
  3. Interrupt key features of the healing process by trying to get the survivor to “heal” quickly.
  4. Make the victim responsible for the actions of the abuser.
  5. Mistake the abuser as well-intentioned and communicate this to the survivor.
  6. Refer without being sure referral partner is relational-trauma trained.



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Coaching and Trauma: Three Ways to Look at Who to Coach

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Trauma and Coaching Series Part Two (Click here for Part One of this series)

One way to look at coaching and trauma is to filter based on the topic. Some coaches prefer this approach, deeming certain topics or issues off-limits and the cause for immediate referral. I prefer a view that has more to do with the capacity of the client, the experience of the coach, and the structure of the relationship. My main three screens have become:

A) How much can my client be in what we might call their “observer mind?” Are they able to be curious about their topic or situation or do they become lost in the emotion and overly distressed? This links to something Dr. Dan Siegel calls the “window of tolerance” (from his 1999 book, The Developing Mind). If the client is overly distressed (hyperarousal) or overly shut down (hypoarousal) coming in to coaching, or becomes so during coaching, addressing trauma issues directly may be too much for them (or at this time). It’s difficult to say definitively, but you can take a look at this checklist of things to watch for. If either hyperarousal or hypoarousal is extreme and persistent, coaching may well not be the right thing for the client. You may want to explore with client other modalities and refer them out or work in conjunction (see below) with a therapist or other practitioner.

B) To what degree do I have specialized training in the area? For example, while I have extensive continuing education relating to working with relational trauma, I don’t have any particular experience working with addiction. But that does not necessarily mean addiction is hands-off for every coach. In fact, I met a lovely experienced coach at an ICF conference a few years ago who specialized in coaching people coping with alcoholism. I generally wouldn’t feel equipped to go there (especially at earlier stages of the client’s journey), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t.

C) Am I on my own or part of a team? There are clients where I might not feel comfortable coaching if I am the only resource they have, but might feel just fine about it as part of a team. A certain percentage of my relational trauma coaching clients also have therapists, or have them for the earlier portion of our coaching. We often are working on different topics than what the client is addressing in therapy (although sometimes there is a bit of an overlap). In the case where I am part of a team, I like to have a way to connect with the therapist in case of emergency and an agreement to extend confidentiality if critical for client’s safety.

And so, as we think about who to coach and who not to coach, I think we can be more subtle than screening by topic, which is to me very much an oversimplification of the issue. Humans are complex and varied in their ability to face things and change, and coaching is often an extremely helpful modality.

*The International Coach Federation acknowledges that referral to a coach with specialized training can be an alternative to referring to the a therapist in certain circumstances. See https://coachingfederation.org/research/academic-research and scroll to “Referring a Client to Therapy.”

Check out our neuroscience-based trauma coaching certification program: https://www.beaboveleadership.com/neuroscience-coaching-and-relational-trauma/

Ten Reasons Why Coaching May Be Useful in Relational Trauma

Trauma and Coaching Series Part One

What is Trauma?

In general, trauma occurs when a person is overwhelmed by events or circumstances and responds with intense fear, horror, and helplessness. Extreme stress overwhelms the person’s capacity to cope. There is a direct correlation between trauma and physical health conditions such as diabetes, COPD, heart disease, cancer, and high blood pressure.[1]

Relational trauma is an aftereffect of abuse, neglect, and suffering. Those whose are betrayed by people they loved, trusted, or relied on may encounter enormous mental and behavioral health challenges, as they attempt to forge interpersonal connections and cope with life’s many challenges.[2]

Why Focus on Relational Trauma?

At BEabove Leadership, we have chosen to focus on training coaches to work specifically with relational trauma rather than trauma in general for a couple of compelling reasons. One, it is the most pervasive, insidious and under-recognized form of trauma, impacting a stunning number of our coaching clients, and two, it has a set of perpetrator and target behaviors and impacts that are somewhat different than other forms of trauma (such as that experienced in war, famine, or natural disasters).

But before we figure out how to coach people who are experiencing or have experienced relational trauma, it’s important to first be clear on both WHY coaching may be useful in this space. In subsequent posts we’ll look at WHO is appropriate to be coached (and who is not) and HOW and WHEN to use coaching strategies and tools.

Ten Reasons Why Coaching May be Useful in Relational Trauma

  1. It’s all around us. In the United States, 61 percent of men and 51 percent of women report exposure to at least one lifetime traumatic event.[3] Most of these involve some form of relational trauma. Therefore, even the most self-actualized, aware, and even successful client may encounter trauma or have some degree of unresolved relational trauma in their lives.
  2. There are not nearly enough therapists working in this area, and surprisingly, most therapists have not actually received the necessary training to work with relational trauma and abuse unless they pursue advanced education (which all too few have).
  3. Research tracking the effectiveness of nontraditional treatments points to many things coaches do well, as well as areas where coaches have been pioneers (for example, equine-assisted coaching, nature coaching, various forms of energy processing).
  4. Coaching tends to lend itself to integrated modalities, and many coaches are lifelong learners committed to expanding their skillsets. Most coaches feel perfectly comfortable integrating multiple modalities into their work because there is less pressure in the industry to identify as a specific type of coach. Coaches are often less interested in labels and more interested in what works.
  5. The underlying mindset of coaching is that people are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. For appropriate clients, it can be life-changing of be seen and held this way.
  6. Often clients some to coaching with a presenting concern that does not seem like a psychological issue. In other words, they come to coaching for help with something like dating or career change. Then the trauma is unearthed in the coaching and it becomes apparent that the  client can’t move on powerfully unless it is addressed. Depending on the client and whether or not the coach is trauma trained, it may well be appropriate to continue the exploration in the trusting coaching relationship that has already been established.
  7. Coaching is well-suited to help appropriate clients mine the learning from their experiences and take it forward as a reflection of their growth, something that we might think of as Post Traumatic Growth Syndrome
  8. Coaches focus on making things applicable in life. There is a dance between what we call forwarding the action and deepening the learning. Both are critical for effective coaching and can help someone in their process of moving forward.
  9. Coaches can work across state and country boundaries, whereas therapists generally need to be licensed in a specific state or country.
  10. Even the International Coach Federation, in their white paper on when to refer clients to therapy[4] acknowledges that for many issues either a therapist or a coach with specialized training can be effective.

Check out our neuroscience-based trauma coaching certification program: https://www.beaboveleadership.com/neuroscience-coaching-and-relational-trauma/

[1] The National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare

[2] BrightQuest Treatment Centers

[3] SAMHSA-HRSA Center for Integrated Studies

[4] See https://coachingfederation.org/research/academic-research and scroll to “Referring a Client to Therapy.” Note that this paper does not make specific reference to relational trauma (a huge oversight on their part in our opinion).

Concerns About (and Tips for) Speaking About Neuroscience


Many coaches and trainers are finding that they want to bring neuroscience into their practices, either as a way to enroll individuals or organizations or as a methodology in coaching or organizational work. Here’s some important context and background, as well as a few tips for doing this credibly and well.

  1. Neuroscience is a fairly new and evolving field. The field itself was officially “born” in 1964, with the first freestanding department of neuroscience at the University of California, Irvine (Harvard followed a couple of years later). As technology develops and improves, and as we have more experimental data, things we once thought we “knew” about the brain are becoming more finely tuned and even changing in fundamental ways.
  2. Scientific experiments often have an agenda. Sad to say, because we tend to think of science as the pursuit of pure knowledge and truth. But there are agendas we need to be aware of, and these agendas can create what is known as “the file drawer problem.” That is, research that does not validate what the researchers are looking for ends up in the file drawer. For example, if fifty studies say anti-depressants don’t work any better than placebos, with 10 saying they do, the fifty can end up shelved while the ten get published.
  3. There is a huge “replication issue” in science. The scientific community knows this well, but it is not as well-known by the general population. That is, many new “discoveries” about the brain (and this is true in other areas of science as well) may or may not be able to be replicated by other researchers. And, distressingly, often they simply aren’t. Part of the issue with this is that it is much easier to get funded and published when you are the first to discover something, and harder (and much less sexy) to be the one who says, yeah, she was right or wrong, the brain does/doesn’t work that way. Also see point #2 about the agenda.  
  4. The brain is a system. It’s harder and much more complex to speak about the brain as a system than it is to say this or that area “does” this or that. However, as we learn more and more about how things work, this awareness is becoming more and more core to our understanding. Specific areas of the brain may or may not participate in certain responses, depending on the person and the circumstances.

THEREFORE what do we do?

  1. Use caveats and modifiers in your speech. Practice saying things like:
    • There is some evidence for…..
    • This brain area may participate in…..
    • There are some studies indicating…..
    • This area may be activated when…..
  2. Be suspicious of people who don’t use modifiers when speaking about the brain. Anyone who speaks in absolutes (for example, saying something like “the amygdala is the emotional center of the brain”) may not be up to date on the current research and thinking about the brain. If you have been accustomed to speaking this way, see point #1 above!
  3. If speaking about neuroscience is key in your practice, be sure to stay up to speed on current developments. This means both doing your best to track what is happening in the neuroscience world (this is almost impossible, by the way, because it such an evolving field) and double-checking current research before you speak about or present a key concept.

    Here are some generally accurate and accessible resources you can follow that will help you stay clued in:

Another excellent idea is to use the search engine Google Scholar (https://scholar.google.com) instead of your regular search engine. Google Scholar will pull up the actual research studies rather than popular articles. When exploring these studies, here are a few things to look for:

  • How recent is the study? Generally (but not always) the more contemporary, the better.
  • How many citations? This shows how reputable other researchers find this study. Of course, for newer research, this may be low, so again, this is not an absolute.
  • What are the conclusions—what did the researchers find?
  • If conclusion seems intuitively “off” given other things you know, who were the subjects, how was the research conducted? For example, lots of research is done on undergrads in universities. The brain is still developing at this age, so conclusions may be shaped by this fact without the researchers necessarily acknowledging it. Or the study may be been done on a very small sample or a certain population.

And finally, take everything with a grain of salt. Don’t assume one study or expert’s claim is THE truth in the area. It’s often important for both credibility and true understanding to go layer deeper and search for both validating studies as well as if there is any refutation.


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Join us for our exciting and practical year-long Neuroscience, Consciousness and Transformational Coaching program. Applied neuroscience linked to a powerful model of human effectiveness. Learning groups start in October 2021 and January 2022.

Sharpening Your Knife

I had an interesting realization about my Task Positive Network (TPN) today. This is the network of the brain that is activated when we are actively paying attention, focusing on the task at hand, using short-term memory, and in the present moment. It’s associated with a form of “flow state” and much of the time, we’re happier when we are using this network. It’s anti-correlated with the Default Mode Network (DMN), which, while it can take us into a spiral of rumination and anxiety, also has its own gifts and benefits. One is, as I will explain in more detail below, the ability to give us a sort of mental reboot when we need it. (For more on the two networks, see The Power of Dreaming, the Power of Action, and Putting the Wizards to Work in this blog.)

I was working away on notes for a class I teach to my most advanced students (this month it is all about gender differences in the brain). Pulling things together from a whole slew of scientific articles, and making some sort of sense out of it all is one of the most interesting and cognitively demanding things I do. I love it. Until I don’t. In pondering why this is and what is happening, I came up with a metaphor. For me, using my TPN is like sculpting with a really well-honed knife. It’s so fun carving here and carving there, watching something cool emerge. But at some point, the knife gets dull and I just can’t shape what I want to shape any longer. It doesn’t matter that I have a deadline, it doesn’t matter that I have the time to do it, it doesn’t even matter that I am enjoying the work. I just “can’t even,” as the youngsters say.

That happened to me today about 3 hours in. I was having a blast, so intrigued by what I was reading, making a table to explain things, pulling out interesting points. It was all making sense and I was flying along. And then–my knife was dull. I wanted to keep carving. I really did. I just couldn’t. Nothing was coming together in a way that made sense and I was having trouble holding things in my short-term memory. My TPN was done.

So I watched a silly YouTube video for a while, took a short nap, got something to drink, and wandered aimlessly around my house annoying the cats. That break with nothing particular to focus on activated my DMN, the network that revs up immediately when we stop focusing in the present moment and on the task at hand. I think of it as the knife sharpener, the time out. Stop trying to carve with a dull knife, I told myself, you know that isn’t how you get sharp again. And indeed, this little break sharpened my knife enough to finish the last few pages and wrap it up.

I love neuroscience. Without this understanding of these two networks, I might have tried to push through with my dull knife of a brain (because again, I was enjoying the work) or I might have thought I wasn’t actually smart enough to pull it all together (thus leading to a not very pleasant internal conversation). Instead, the cats got some extra attention and the project ultimately got completed with a nice freshly sharpened knife. (And hey, the knife was even sharp enough to write this blog!)

7 Keys to Neuroplasticity in Coaching

Neuroplasticity–the brain’s ability to grow and change–is fundamental to the power and possibility of coaching. As coaches, we help our clients recognize old, unhelpful patterns and “rewire” our systems for the sort of personal and professional accomplishments, impact and fulfillment they desire. As coaches, there are (at least) seven key things critical for coaching to have a maximum impact. Many of these you may already be doing as a coach, others you may want to bring into a more intentional focus in order to make your coaching even likelier to help your clients grow and change.

1. Relationships

We learn and change best in safe, supportive relationships. Feeling socially connected diminishes stress and can even reduce inflammation, while feeling judged or “less than” others can create fight or flight responses in the brain which inhibit learning. Additionally, when we feel we are being heard and understood, it increases the connective neural fibers in our brains—fibers that are crucial for bringing together disparate areas for increased cognitive function.

2. Personal Relevance

The dragon we know is better than the dragon we don’t know. ~ Chinese Proverb

Learning involves change, and change, by definition, involves risk, so it is always easier to stay where we are than to risk what we don’t know and haven’t yet experienced. All change begins with a desire for something, and this desire must be bigger than the “dragon we don’t know.” Older neural pathways will continue to easily pull us towards old behaviors, beliefs and actions (even if they don’t serve) until the desire for something else becomes strong enough to disrupt the pattern. In coaching, we need to be sure that our clients have a chance to get in touch with (or create) the powerful emotional relevance necessary for learning and change to occur.

3. Novelty

New experiences stimulate neuronal connections. If we don’t know how to do something, the cognitive patterns for it don’t exist in our brains, thus new connections must be made. In order to maintain the benefits, however, these experiences have to increase in challenge in order to create new growth. Additionally, we simply don’t pay attention to things that are boring or to which we are habituated. Parts of the brain are constantly taking in everything in our environments and cuing us to notice that which is new—releasing neurotransmitters in the brain that help us focus.

4. Focus and Attention

The close paying of attention (as in study, meditation and focused attention) increases neurotransmitters, including brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which is necessary for neuronal growth and connections. Designing a distraction-free space for the coaching, encouraging clients to check in with the interoceptive sensations their bodies, and simply asking good, thoughtful powerful questions all contribute to more presence in the coaching. (It’s also interesting to note that many studies have linked traditional meditation practice to differences in cortical thickness and density of gray matter in key areas of the brain.)

5. Practice/Mistakes

A critical part of the learning process is the ability to try, fail, recalibrate and try again. This is literally how the new neural connections we make get either strengthened or pruned. According to Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code, training “at the edge of our abilities” produces results up to 10 times faster than regular practice. That is, making mistakes leads to better skill acquisition. Directly linked to the key of novelty, making mistakes is inherent to increasing the difficulty of the task. As long as we are making mistakes, the task is probably challenging enough.

6. Play, Humor, Movement

The more multi-sensory neural connections we have associated with a behavior or skill, the stronger the “pathway” becomes by engaging more aspects of the brain. For example, when we remember a vacation to the beach, we may access sounds, smells, sights, even the feeling of sand on our toes. This anchors in the experience more strongly than simply seeing a photo of sand and waves. When we are intentionally working to create positive new neural pathways, bolstering this process by bringing in as many of our senses as possible is a fabulous strategy. It is also a place we can tap into the wisdom of the body.

Additionally, in order to make mistakes without perfectionism or shame, we need to step into a place of playfulness and even humor. Being playful puts the brain in an open state for learning. All baby animals and humans learn through play, which allows mistakes to be made (and learned from) in a safe environment.

7. Rest

The brain needs time to process and reflect on learning, and can only take so much stimulation and continue optimal function. Additionally, spacing things out over more than one day allows the integrating and clearing aspects of sleep to be activated. With adequate REM sleep, neural connections are retraced (cementing in important learning), and unnecessary input from the day is cleared, allowing space for new learning.

All these factors are cumulative in nature. In other words, the more the better. As a coach, please take a moment to celebrate the keys you do well, knowing you are not only doing good coaching, you are having a powerful impact on your client’s brain. And if there are one or two you could make more intentional, you may find your coaching has even more impact!

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Join us for our exciting and practical year-long Neuroscience, Consciousness and Transformational Coaching program. Applied neuroscience linked to a powerful model of human effectiveness. Learning groups start quarterly.

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Some references:

Amanda Blake Your Body is Your Brain, available on Amazon

Meditation and Neuroplasticity: Using Mindfulness to Change the Brain https://goo.gl/yl6YAG

Less Stress, More Social Competence

Neuroscience Backs What Great Leaders Know: To Succeed, Embrace Your Mistakes

http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/10/20/humor-neuroplasticity-and-the-power-to-change-your-mind/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4991054/

How sleep clears the brain. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/how-sleep-clears-brain

Yes, Less IS Indeed More

I recently had a couple of things happen that made me think of the famous Jam Study in consumer marketing. One, I got asked to be part of a 1000 presenter summit. No, I’m not kidding. 1000 presenters. (I declined.) And then I clicked on another summit on a health topic I am interested in and Day One had over 25 presenters and topics. And that was just Day One! Yikes! I really really wanted this information, but just looking at the options made me exhausted. I deleted the email.

As more and more entrepreneurs and organizations jump on the fill-in-the-blank-summit bandwagon, I think they’d do well to consider the Jam Study. If you’re not familiar with the Jam Study, it basically is a strong argument that less is definitely more–at least when it comes to sales. The study, conducted at a Bay-area supermarket in 2000 by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, found that consumers were 10 times more likely to purchase jam on display when the number of jams available was reduced from 24 to 6. Turns out we get overwhelmed by choosing between kiwi-mango and berry-apricot and persimmon-apple etc., no matter how well they may have tested in market research. People just walked away.

There are a few key factors that influence this:

1) If we don’t know what we are comparing. If I have to choose between twenty-five unknown speakers talking on a subject I know little about, it’s like trying to choose between twenty-five new jam flavors. I am honestly stymied. If I know all 25 AND know the subject, it will be easier to make a choice. I’ve tasted the jam.

2) If I want to make an easy, quick choice. Even if I’m familiar with the jam (or speakers, in this case), twenty-five is a lot to sort through (much less 1000!) when I have half an hour to watch a presentation. I kind of want to grab and go and will probably tune out because it’s too darn much work to decide.

3) When I don’t know what I really want. In terms of the health summit, I don’t know enough about the issue to discern if I want the folks that are treating it with neuro-feedback or the ones researching more effective diagnostic testing. Maybe this is on me to educate myself more, but it does point to a barrier for new folks coming into the conversation in any topic area.

4) Guilt. Ok, no big deal if I buy a jar of jam that I end up not eating (and just a reminder, with too many choices, people didn’t). But if I buy a summit with 100-200-1000 speakers and I just don’t get around to watching more than a couple, what a waste. For many people, that’s a stressful and unpleasant feeling. (Some of us actually even feel that way about jam.)

So here’s my advice. If you want to do a summit, more power to you. But curate it. Getting 1000 people to present and market and share with you all their mailing lists may seem like a great way make a lot of money, but is it really the highest quality, does it really serve the consumer, and ultimately, do you sell the most jam? I have also had the absolute privilege of being involved with a number of carefully crafted, well-thought-out, limited summits where the participants aren’t overwhelmed with every choice in the book. Call those the six-jam summits. They are clear, compelling and digestible, and tend to have ongoing growth year over year and loyal, lasting supporters.

If you’d like to know more about the Jam Study itself, you can check out this recent article: https://digitalwellbeing.org/the-jam-study-strikes-back-when-less-choice-does-mean-more-sales/.




Your Brain Remotely

I recently had the chance to speak with Emma El-Karout, the founder One Circle, a community of virtual HR consultants, about the challenges to the brain when working remotely and/or leading remote teams. Here are some ideas that came out of that conversation.

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What’s exciting about remote work in terms of the brain?

Aside from the fact that more remote work does seem to be the wave of the future, there are definitely at least a couple of advantages from a brain perspective. One, the vast creativity of being able to draw on a global pool and the varied perspectives and talents that come with that. And two, the reduction of stress from team members being able to have more control over their work environment (and lack of commute). For example, some of us find noisy co-workers distracting and even stressful, and the ability to work in the quiet of our own homes is a blessed relief. Being able to get more sleep and have more time with family because you have gained hours in your day also tends to reduce stress.

What’s challenging about remote work in terms of the brain?

I think there are some general challenges, communication challenges, and productivity/focus challenges. In this blog, I am going to look at the general challenges with some ideas about what to do–in a later blog I’ll address communication and productivity (in the meantime, I’ll share a link to my blog on why video chat is not the same as real life). Here are a few general issues that seem to be particularly challenging:

1) Lack of informal social time — this relates to connection as well as the “meeting after the meeting.” For remote teams, team time tends to be focused on efficiency and productivity. And this makes sense because when we are not being fed in terms of social connections, we tend to want to be done with things and get off the call or video conference.

This of course happens IRL (In Real Life) as well, but in-person, we generally have even a minute or two to say hi, or “sheesh, what a day,” or ask someone how their weekend was, or provide or get a quick clarification on a memo. We walk down the hallway or ride in an elevator together–and often ideas and information are shared as well as what we might think of as the normal “social grease” of how are you and hey what’s up? And IRL, for most people it doesn’t feel like extra time–I think this may be largely in part because we are often doing something else “productive” while we are connecting. We’re getting coffee, moving from one place to another, making copies, even just waiting for everyone to arrive at the meeting and shuffle their papers. Chatting and being human together doesn’t then feel like an extra task.

ADVICE for LEADERS:

  • Take some of the money you’re saving by having folks work remotely and invest in creating and supporting strategies for informal connection (company parenting groups, game tournaments, etc.) This will not only provide avenues for human connection, it also shows that the company understands this is important, even–and perhaps especially–in a virtual environment.
  • Start all meetings with a check-in that is about the human being, not the human doing. For example, what sort of weather are you today? What is one thing you did this weekend that filled your cup? What’s one non-work thing that is on your mind today? It’s important to know that if you are the leader, you don’t have to fix or change anything–it’s enough that people just get a chance to be there as their full selves.

2) Feeling isolated (this is of course stronger if remote is not the norm in company). We are social, tribal beings by nature. According to anthropologist Jared Diamond, for about 95% of human history we moved and worked in small kin groups. Being so separate is relatively new to us as humans, and much of who were are at our core is modulated by our core need to belong. Loneliness is not just an emotional state, it is actually processed more like hunger–as a biological drive. And while working remotely doesn’t necessarily mean we feel lonely, being physically together can provide some natural protection from it.

ADVICE for LEADERS:

  • Stay tuned in to how your team is doing emotionally. Again, as mentioned above, you need to check in with the human being, not just the human doing. If this is not your skillset, have your company bring in training on coaching skills for managers so you can learn how to do this easily (it’s really not so hard).
  • One way to make personal connection easier with individual team members is to suggest (if possible) that you each go for a walk during a regular touch-base. Being in motion (especially outside) relaxes the brain and it can be easier to both ask and be asked the “how are you really doing?” questions.
  • AND/OR–take some of the money you are saving and make sure your team has coaches. There are so many benefits to coaching in terms of creativity, contribution, etc., and it can also help the person recognize and be proactive about their own needs and emotional state.

3) We’re simply less creative and efficient when we are on our own. Our brains want to conserve energy as much as possible (a biological principle called economy of action). Being with others in person makes our brains process more efficiently. We regulate our own emotions better, get more creative ideas, and generally feel calmer when we are with others (unless, of course, the others are the source of your stress).

ADVICE for LEADERS:

  • Do make time/budget for real-life gatherings. One of my colleagues said that when she worked with remote teams at IBM years ago, they found that one IRL meeting gave them 3-6 months of productive remote work.
  • Since brains process less efficiently, understand that people may have less bandwidth, so keep meetings shorter and encourage personal “reset time.” Emma El-Karout shared with me that her team has a norm of working 90 minutes and then taking 20 off to do something non-work related.
  • Be even more intentional about using “out of the box” creative strategies. For example, ask people to use metaphor, to draw a doodle, to close their eyes, breathe, and say the first image that comes to them. What can happen naturally when we are together may need a bit of priming in the virtual space.

Thanks again to Emma at One Circle for inspiring these thoughts. To see our interview, please check back after June 18.

Top Four Reasons Video Chat is NOT the Same as Real Life

(and is seriously wearing us out)

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Here we are, in the spring of 2020, in an unprecedented time of “social isolation.” Many have turned to Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and other video chatting platforms to connect with individuals and groups. After the initial novelty and even excitement wore off for what seemed like it might be an amazing solution, many of us started realizing that a video-based meeting or training was sometimes waaaaay more exhausting than an in-person one, and a video-based “happy hour” gathering just wasn’t making us feel the connection we are longing for. We started wondering why video connection could feel a bit like eating Doritos instead of a nice full meal. So here are a few reasons why this might be:

1) We are sensual beings. We take in information from ALL our senses. On virtual chats, we have two of our senses activated, sight and sound, but not the others, especially smell and touch. We may not realize it, but smell plays a huge role in our emotional connection and processing. Sometimes we are aware of a certain smell (for example, my dad smoked a pipe when I was very small, and I am generally flooded with a sense of warmth and even connection when I encounter the scent of pipe tobacco), but often it may be smells we aren’t even aware of. Just like we all know “dogs smell fear,” humans have been shown to have a physiological response to the chemicals present in anxiety[1] even if there is no discernable odor.

And of course, we are probably more aware that we long to touch each other. Touch is another powerful way we communicate—and again, we are often not even aware that (or how much) we are doing so.[2] We touch to emphasize a point, to offer comfort, to say hello. And in doing so, we pick up and transmit emotional states. In fact, according to the Psychology Today article cited below, “touch may in fact be more versatile than voice, facial expression, and other modalities for expressing emotion.”

So in essence, video chatting cuts us off from two key ways we process our connection and knowledge of each other. That tends to make our brains feel less at ease, as they work harder to help us feel like we get what’s going on, which is of course, also more tiring.

2) The technology used in video platforms creates a somewhat artificial and distorted world. How many of us have struggled with where to look when we are on a call? It feels sort of odd to look at the camera, but that is the only way others feel like you are looking at them. If you DO try to look at the other person, it looks to them like you are looking somewhere else. However we do it, the felt sense of making eye contact is simply impossible. Information from another person’s eyes is dominantly processed in our right hemispheres, which is a part of the brain critical for a felt sense of empathy, creating meaning, and many of the ways we emotionally connect with each other and the world. Because this is so critical for understanding, our brains feel like we should be able to have it and we keep trying to find it. It’s like running a constant error message. Again, exhausting.

According to Why Zoom is Terrible (NYT, April 29, 2020) [3] the other distortions are “the way the video images are digitally encoded and decoded, altered and adjusted, patched and synthesized (which) introduces all kinds of artifacts: blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness and out-of-sync audio. These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble subtle social cues. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why.”

3) We are primed to make ourselves the primary focus of attention. Who hasn’t said to themselves or another lately that they aren’t used to looking at themselves so dammed much? And yet, it is hard to pull our eyes away from that image. This is probably NOT that we are all becoming terrible narcissists, but more related to our fundamental “prime directive” of survival. In the hierarchy of attention, we simply tend to think about ourselves first.[4] This is a key way we stay safe and make sure we survive. When faced with images of ourselves it is difficult for our brains to pull away and focus attention somewhere else. There is a twofold impact on our energy to this – one is that it simply takes more energy to put our attention somewhere else when our own moving image is in front of us. The other is that when we do have our attention on ourselves, we are also primed to assess and want to correct, which results in a sort of multi-tasking during a meeting or gathering. (“Why did I wear that shirt? Man, I look tired. What the heck is my hair doing? etc.) Keeping our focus and attention on what is going on and NOT our own assessment of ourselves takes extra energy.

4) It just honestly takes more focus. In a normal meeting or gathering, nobody stares at each other intently for an hour or more. Our minds wander, we look around the room, in social situations we break off for tête-à-têtes or into smaller sub-groups. (For example, I recently did a virtual Easter gathering with my extended family, and there we all were, taking turns talking. This would never happen in real life. We tend to peel off into smaller groups based on interest. The three family computer geeks often put their heads together, speaking their own language, I like to hang out with my nieces talking fashion or getting updated on their lives, the older folks talk politics or current events.) Video platforms keep us more in present focus, especially when we are on camera. This is, in and of itself, not a bad thing, it just gets tiring to keep our focus brain network online without a break. I’m not taking about checking your phone while you’re in a meeting, but for all the reasons mentioned above, we are less relaxed because additional channels for processing information and emotions are not available.

So what do we do? Here are a few of my thoughts on the matter:

  • It’s not the same and that’s ok. I think the overall answer is not to expect that video chatting will be the same as being in person. It’s not. It’s not as fulfilling. Think of it as a snack, not a meal. Nothing wrong with Doritos, you just can’t live on them. So this is a time we need to find all the other ways we can to fill our tanks.
  • Limit the number of people in social video gatherings. In contrast to the large family Easter event, I have a regular weekly chat with four other wonderful women in Los Angeles, even though I live in Santa Fe. (I sometimes call it the New Mexico-California Friendship Exchange.) With five people, we can actually talk and hear from each other. I look forward to these evenings and value that the five of us have gotten even closer in this time.
  • Just use the phone, especially one to one. On the phone, our voices are in each other’s ears, which feels more intimate. Our visual field is not concerned with ourselves, and we can go into more of a soft-focus visual state which is less exhausting.
  • Don’t do back to back video meetings if you can help it, and pay attention to how many you can manage in a day. My exhaustion rate is about 3 hours MAX, and I can’t do that every day. Take video-free days if you can for recovery.
  • Don’t be hard on yourself. It IS more tiring to work and connect this way. You’re not a weenie or a slacker. Your brain is responding as best you can to an extraordinary situation, and in addition to the extra effort and attention video calls demand, there are many other stresses having an impact. Be kind to yourself and others. This is hard.

Oh, and you might want to hide your own image on the video chat!

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[1] See https://www.livescience.com/24578-humans-smell-fear.html for an example of one study. There have been many additional studies (on humans) looking at the smell of fear, disgust, and other emotions.

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201303/the-power-touch

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/29/sunday-review/zoom-video-conference.html?smid=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR36bmNXk-JWHRJadfkPaDGv8hVSL9w4Qy9wC0vkvNRjIrztttSaLRLQa9Y

[4] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/experimentations/201801/why-are-you-always-thinking-about-yourself

 

Top Ten Reasons You (and Your Organization) Need Coaching More Than Ever Right Now

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By Ann Betz and William Arruda

My friend, business genius William Arruda and I sat down recently to talk about why coaching matters so much–even, perhaps MORE–during this Covid-19 crisis. Here are the top ten reasons we came up with:

  1. Many tools and techniques of professional coaching are scientifically proven to reduce stress. When we are stressed, it is much more difficult to have empathy, think creatively, control impulses, and make effective plans. When stress is reduced through coaching, people have more access to creativity, empathy, and resilience, all of which are critical right now.
  2. Coaching helps people process what is going on. This is an unprecedented time—the very fact that we have little to compare it to makes it exceptionally difficult to process and make sense of. Without processing during the time we are in the experience, we run a high probability of either crashing when it is over, or sublimating our worry, fear and stress into health issues, low energy, and other negative impacts. When we notice and allow our true feelings and concerns, we move the energy through and stay steadier and more able to cope both during and after. Many people need the support of coaching in order to do this effectively.
  3. Coaching helps people find their own resilience and capacity, even when we can’t change the external landscape. Any coach worth their salt knows to focus on the client, not the issue. When people are what we might call, “returned to themselves” through coaching, they see more possibility and find more internal resilience. This restores some sense of control in what feels like an uncontrollable world.
  4. The small amount invested in coaching during a crisis will pay off in terms of larger gains. The companies and individuals that will get through this time are those that maintain a fair amount of calm center, limit the toxic impact of stress, are flexible and agile, and truly “think outside the box.” Given the impact of the circumstances we find ourselves in, it is highly unlikely that people will find their way there without the kind of support coaching provides.
  5. Giving managers and leaders coaching provides a noticeable ripple effect. Research shows that leaders have a potent impact on the “weather” of their organization. When they are calm, emotionally regulated, thoughtful, and patient, those around them feel more able to respond more thoughtfully as well. (Same is true for parents and children.)
  6. This will most likely lead to permanent changes for individuals and orgs. We know coaching is one of the most effective ways to help people navigate change. We’re not going back to “business as usual” after this. Coaching helps us know and express our own needs, desires and boundaries as things change so we can be active “co-creators” in what is to come.
  7. It is more critical than ever to retain and develop top talent. We’re going to need extraordinary thinking and performance to help any enterprise—whether it is a business, a school, or even a family—get through this. As things are pointing to different structures in how we do business, all enterprises are going to need to rely more on multiple layers of leadership. Coaching helps develop people’s leadership strengths and confidence, and is also a proven retention strategy.
  8. Coaches help people get unstuck and move out of fixed patterns or mindsets. Surviving and thriving in this time requires an adaptable brain that can respond with flexibility and creativity, while still being thoughtful and applying logic. Coaching helps people identify limiting beliefs and move into more open and responsive mindsets.
  9. People are thinking about purpose and meaning as a result of this crisis. Without support in terms of surfacing and focusing on questions of meaning, life purpose, and important values, all too often the things we learn in crisis are lost. Coaching can help us powerfully reflect on what we are learning about ourselves.
  10. People will be using this opportunity to make major life and work changes and will need a coach to help navigate this change. Our old patterns and habits are well-wired into our brains. Making real change is disruptive to the system, and we need support to make major changes. Coaching is all about the reflection-action-reflection cycle of learning. A coach helps us identify what we want, try some things to put it into action, reflect on what we learned, and then continue this positive cycle as we move into new ways of being and therefore new results in our lives.

 

Ann Betz consults on the science of coaching for the ICF education department, and served as provocateur for the online learning ICF Advance in 2018 and will again in 2020. She is the author of This Is Your Brain on Coaching, the science of the ICF competencies, and has been a professional coach since 2001. She is the co-founder of BEabove Leadership, offering advanced coach training on neuroscience for the experienced and curious coach. She is a sought-after international speaker on the intersection of neuroscience, coaching, and human development, and works with many global brands and coaching organizations.

William Arruda is an entrepreneur, motivational speaker and the world’s leading authority on the topic of personal branding. He’s the bestselling author of the definitive books on the topic: Career Distinction and Ditch. Dare. Do! His latest book, Digital YOU helps readers translate their real-world brands for the virtual world. William is the CEO (Chief Encouragement Officer) of Reach Personal Branding and the co-founder of CareerBlast.TV – a personal and digital branding video learning platform for innovative organizations. His products have been used by over a million people across the globe. William is honored to work with many of the world’s most revered brands, including 20% of the Fortune 100. He regularly shares his thoughts on workplace trends and branding in his Forbes column. In 2015, he was awarded the ICF Chair’s Award for his contributions to the field of coaching.