coaching topics

Control – getting a grip or letting it go

I have at times been called a “control freak”. It’s not been meant as a compliment (though there are some situations where being a control freak is absolutely a good thing – health and safety, etc etc). I had not heard it for a couple of years, but in the last couple of weeks, those I love, with the best of intentions, have let me know that they will be using this term again shortly unless I change my behaviour.

I hate feeling “out of control”. The reasons for this are complex and many, and generally in the realm of therapy rather than coaching, so I’m not going to go into them here. Suffice it to say that when we have such strong feelings about this type of behaviour, it is usually a combination of experience of negative outcomes of being out of control, internalising other people’s opinions and views on “control”, and fear of strong emotions or strong display of emotions.

When I feel things are “out of control” – there is a physical change in me – i don’t breathe properly, and I find it impossible to sit still. My brain function changes – I forget things, I can’t focus. My behaviour changes – I don’t listen as well and I tend to communicate much less well with those around me. My defence mechanisms are well and truly triggered. To try to bring things back “under control” I make endless lists, I take on even more responsibility for more things – because it is “easier and quicker to do it myself” and I hover when other people are doing things to make sure they do it “right”.

In coaching I often use the “Circle of Influence” with clients who are experiencing this type of challenge.

Influence circle

The basic idea is that we all have things we worry about but only some of those things can we influence. And even fewer can we control. We work to assess where all our worries and concerns actually fit in order to reduce overwhelm, “let go” of things that will never come under our control and understand that at best we may be able to influence them, or usefully “get a grip” on things that we are worried about that we can control (hint, there are fewer of these that you think and it’s usually limited to YOUR behaviour, YOUR response, YOUR words, YOUR actions).

What I realised I was doing in the past couple of weeks as a defence method was to try to expand my Circle of Control into things that are, in reality, at best, in my Circle of Influence. For example: I can control whether I order food for delivery – I can’t control exactly when it will arrive or exactly what will be in it (though I can influence this by specifying substitution or not). Obsessing over  delivery times just resulted in frustration when timings slipped due to demand on the suppliers and wasted time that could have been spent doing more fun stuff. Likewise, I can’t actually control how much effort my 10 year old puts into his school work. I can try to influence in a variety of ways, but at the end of the day even if he stays sat at the table, I can’t really control what he writes, unless I do it for him. As an educator I know this behaviour is at best unhelpful.

It is always easier to coach others than to coach yourself but this week I am trying to focus on visualising the circles when I start to feel like the “control freak” is looming. Asking myself whether this is really something I can control, or whether it is something I can at best influence, or whether it is even something I need to be concerned about (I find letting go of things entirely quite difficult) is turning out to be somewhat useful. With practice, I may be able to push the unnecessary control freak away for another few years.

(Interestingly, though I hate feeling out of control, I love rollercoasters. Perhaps this is because my trust in the laws of physics means that I know that from that point of view I am not really out of control bar genuine accidental machine or human failure).


A Coachee's Guide to..., coaching

A Coachee’s Guide to…. Systemic Coaching

Sooner or later, within most of the coaching conversations I have with clients, the influence of things external to them comes up. Either this is the influence of family, friends, work, their physical environment, finances etc on the decisions and thoughts they are having, OR the potential influence of the work they are doing on themselves on others. This usually happens naturally because most people do not exist in a vacuum – even if they feel alone.

This part of coaching has a fancy name – systemic coaching. At it’s simplest, this means paying attention to, and perhaps exploring gently, the “system” around the coachee. Questions such as “Who do you have around you that would support you in what you are trying to do?”   “What or who that is important to you might also be affected by what you have learnt/decided?” A coach might ask these questions in order to allow the coachee to make sure they are prepared for any things that might sway them from their actions, or to encourage the coachee to think about accountability and broader support. We know that the coachee’s progress is in fact more significantly affected by the external environment (including other people) than it is by our skill as a coach! What we have to do is explore that external environment with them and help them develop strategies to face challenges to progress when they occur.

In leadership and work performance coaching, the consideration of “knock on” effects on the wider environment, or the external pressures on a particular individual or decision are essential but can bring additional insight to the coaching process. One client of mine was working on developing his team leadership skills having moved to a position where his team were mostly distributed around the country. Discussing different ways of communicating some information, I asked the questions “How do you want your team to feel when they hear your message?”  and “What do you want them to know when they hear your message?”. My coachee paused and reflected for several minutes (which is always a bit nervewracking to hold silence but I know that this is what works for home) and then came up with answers to the questions and dramatically different ways of communicating his message. Work is ongoing but this more direct “systemic coaching” type question was certainly useful in that situation and I will use those questions again!

Sometimes a coach might use some more formal “systemic coaching” techniques.  These can include “constellation mapping” – using objects to represent the various parts of the “system” that the coachee sits in and moving them around according to the work being done. Identifying your personal “Board of Directors” is a good exercise for individuals – especially those in new roles or those wanting to feel more confident in their lives. Who is your “cheerleader”? Who is your “expert”? It’s a bit like growing a network but the purpose of the network in this case is to support you and your development.

Often I see parallels between my coaching work and my former world of environmental and climate research. With systemic coaching – this is really clear. With the environment, we may come up with a solution to fix one thing e.g.  a dam to provide water for a large city, but if we don’t consider the impact of changing the water course for the surrounding reason, we will end up in trouble of one sort or another. The same is true for most coaching situations.