How to Find a Life Coach (and the questions you need to ask before hiring one)

How to find a life coach? Maybe that should read ‘How to avoid falling over a life coach in the street’. There are numerous training schools, coaches offering services, coaching directories and so-called accrediting bodies. As it is rather a new discipline there is no one ‘governing body’ and no agreed standard for coaching training. In some instances coaching-training providers have set up their own ‘governing bodies’ and approved their own courses! However, I suppose we have to start somewhere and in most cases the real credentials for setting up a coaching training school or organization is that they thought of it first!

This post is not intended as a demolition of the coaching profession. Its aim is to help you make an informed choice and enter into the coaching process with confidence. To this end it includes quite a few questions that you should be asking when looking for a life coach who is experienced, qualified and right for you.

Yes, it’s a long post. There’s a lot to cover and it’s still not exhaustive.

So, before deciding to find a coach the first step is to be clear about the phrase ‘life coach’ means

What is a life coach?

Anyone can call themselves a life coach. It’s a catch-all label not a protected title. Ideally a life coach is a professionally trained practitioner who assists clients to identify and achieve personal (and professional) goals. It is a professional relationship, a partnership where the client brings the agenda and the coach brings the skills and tools to facilitate the process. The aim is for the coach to help you to bring out your strengths, aid insights and help you to meet your goals (in line with your values). It’s often said that if there ain’t goals then it ain’t coaching.

Coaching should always focus on what it is meaningful to the client.  Ideally, the coach should have a set of skills that bring out the your strengths and insights and help you to find your own solutions. The coach brings the agenda. Any tools and techniques should always be meaningful to the client.

How do you know you need to engage a life coach?

What are the issues that caused you to think about hiring a coach? How do you imagine a coach is going to help? What will you be doing with the help of a life coach that you’re not doing now/on your own?

Decide what you need from a coach. If it’s just someone to talk to then it would be cheaper to go out with friends for a coffee.

Is it coaching or counselling that you need?

If the issues have a strong emotional component and are causing you distress so that you wouldn’t feel you could tackle goals, then some form of counselling might be a better first step. Many of the information here is useful in finding a counsellor too. If you are suffering from severe emotional upset then your GP (local doctor) is often a good place to start.

If you feel stuck, or have a sense that you want more out of life or of you have goals you want to achieve then coaching is probably the way forward. Yes, a by-product is that coaching may have a beneficial effect on emotions and on confidence and esteem. However, that should be as the result of working on your goals.

Why bother hiring a life coach at all? What are the benefits?

The coaching process works on the principle that two heads are better than one, mainly because the two heads have different roles in this professional relationship. You provide the agenda and the coach provides the tools and know-how to manage the process. A good coach should ask the right questions to get the best out of you and enable you to reach insights that it may have taken a lot longer on your own. Part of the role of a coach is to hold a mirror up to you. Sometimes a coach will challenge you (in a supportive way). In my practice I help people find solutions that work for them according to their strengths and values. It can be a very life affirming process. My aim is that when you leave the process, you do so feeling empowered and have alternative way of viewing yourself and the world. Clients are often surprised at just how quickly positive changes take place and I never cease to be inspired at what my clients achieve. That’s why it’s so important to get the right coach-client match, and the main reason for this article.

Questions to ask a before engaging a life coach

  • What coaching qualifications do you have?
  • Where did you study for your coaching qualifications?
  • How long did you study?
  • What other qualifications do you have?
  • What did you do before coaching?
  • What is your coaching philosophy and is it grounded in evidence?
  • What do you do to maintain your own professional development?
  • What is the evidence that this coaching approach works? (ask the coach).
  • What ethical framework do you subscribe to?
  • What professional bodies do you belong to?
  • Can I see myself working with this coach?

Beware of new-age and ‘esoteric knowledge’ re-branded as coaching

Some people calling themselves coaches will work in tarot and crystal readings. They may purport to use esoteric tools and techniques. So let’s begin with the most important thing. If it seems glamorous or mysterious or good old-fashioned ‘gobbledygook’ then it more likely serves the interests of the practitioner than it does the needs of client. This does not mean that they appeal to arcane ‘knowledge’ to which you do not have access. If it sounds like a load of old mumbo-jumbo, it’s not coaching. It’s more likely that someone is ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ and use the buzzword of coaching to tap into the growth in coaching and to lend their own practice more credibility. Be clear ‘Tarot coaching’ is not coaching. Coaching is about helping the client tap into their own strengths and abilities. There should be no glamour and mystery! When additional paraphernalia is included this introduces a whole new system of thought that may distort or usurp your own agenda. It’s up to you to work out what the ‘real’ issues are, not the turn of a card!

Coaching training and qualifications

Anyone can call themselves a coach. Being schooled in ‘the university of life’ does not qualify someone to be a life coach. So  as well as asking about qualifications, ask where they trained and then investigate.

The standard of tuition and the quality of the content on coaching training courses may vary enormously. Some are based on sound evidence-based principles others follow a more ‘inspirational approach’ sometimes called the ‘make-it-up-as-they-go-along-approach’. So, find out a little about the coaching ‘academies’. Just because they say they are the best and appear in the little shaded area in Google rankings means nothing. You pay to get in that shaded spot.  Check out the coaching academy websites.

‘Proper’ academic educational establishments give you a clue in their web addresses. A web address academic institution is the UK ends in ” .ac.uk “. In the USA, the web addresses end in ” .edu”. If the coaching academy doesn’t have such a web address, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they offer poorer training. See if they are accredited or affiliated to an academic institution. I recommend that you think very carefully before engaging a life coach whose training does not meet these standards. There are many business-oriented training providers without the assurance that the training provided meets an approved standard. If it’s affiliated to an academic institution, it’s more likely that its quality is assured.

And just because a coach has written a book doesn’t override all the above. It’s relatively easy to publish your own e-book these days without the additional input, editorial control, assistance (or hindrance) from anyone else. Of course, the self-published e-book may be an excellent resource, so if you are intrigued check it out first and decide whether there is substance to the approach and whether you think it might work for you.

If the book has published the ‘old-fashioned’ way, there are lots of stages of development with a conventional publisher and a number of editors are involved to produce the finished book. Obviously, a conventional publisher wants to sell books and this affects what they accept. In tough economic times, publishers become a little more conservative in what they commission. It just might be that an author just hit a brick wall and decided to self-publish.

Either way, a book doesn’t override credentials and qualifications.

Different approaches and types of life coaching

There are many different approaches of coaching. I first trained in a cognitive-behavioural approach based on cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and so has a strong evidence-base to support it. After training in some more ‘inspirational’ based approaches, I studied solution-focused therapy which is easily adapted to the coaching setting and again has a wealth of evidence to support it. Things like NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) based courses have become very popular as the training only takes a few weeks. Although the NLP approach borrows heavily from psychology and psychotherapy there is little evidence to support it as a coaching approach. There is no evidence to support its claims of instant transformations. Yes, things can change very quickly especially with a coach who asks the right questions. However, it should be more about tapping into your strengths, abilities and insights rather than ‘re-programming’ you. People are not robots and shouldn’t be treated as such. The glamour of the ‘instant’ approach often has more to do with the coaches reputation that the client’s aspirations.

Go for a coaching approach with a track-record supported by evidence-based research, not one on the say-so of the practitioner.

Modes of coaching

There are a variety of means to deliver coaching so you need to decide what will best suit you. Coaching can be face-to-face at the coach’s practice or private rooms, it can be at your workplace, it can be over the telephone, via Skype of just by email. Of course, it can be any combination of the above.

Decide what would work best for you. If you want face-to-face coaching then it makes sense to look for a coach in your local area to avoid excessive travelling. If you think you might prefer telephone coaching then you can look further afield. The wonders of technology mean that if you have found a coach who you think is right for you  Skype means that geography isn’t important. In my practice, even the clients who prefer telephone or Skype coaching often have a face-to-face session first.

Costs: How much should you expect to pay for life coaching?

There is no recognised agreed ‘average’ amount. The only observation is that coaching tends to be more expensive than counselling. Partly, this is because coaching is more time-limited. As I practice solution-focused brief coaching, I offer coaching for one to ten sessions, with the average being four to six. If the life coaching is more interested in ‘exploring issues’ than working towards your goals, it’s not coaching. It should be relatively brief, and it shouldn’t take weeks to build up to tackling your goals. If you engage me as a coach, expect me to begin working with your goals from the first session.

The cost of coaching also depends on the experience and qualifications of the coach. So newly qualified, less experienced coaches tend to charge less than the highly qualified, experiences, in demand coaches. However, this is not always the case. Just because someone is charging £200 per hour (or more) doesn’t make them ‘one of the best coaches’. Price does not override qualifications, so always check them out using all the above questions.

The average fee for a 50 to 60 minute coaching session is about £50 to £75 ( $75 to $100). Some coaches offer services for £25-£30, others for £150 or more. It’s an idea to fix a budget and approach coaching as a tailor-made, personal or professional development programme. I wouldn’t advise signing up to indefinite monthly payment plans. We all know what happens with the gym membership. If the coach does offer monthly payments, it should be for a fixed total sum. Then you choose if you want to renew.

Life Coaching: What you’re paying for

When engaging a coach, apart from the cost of their training, it is important to consider what is involved in terms of time-cost for the coach. Coaches prepare before handing by re-acquainting themselves with the clients’ notes. Then there’s the actual session of 50-60 minutes. After that, the coach will write-up the client’s notes which may take as long as the coaching session itself. So for each single session the coach may spend at least two hours. Coaching fees reflect this time-cost.

Warning signs: Avoiding the pitfalls when looking for a life coach

  • If a coach tells you that they don’t subscribe to any ethical framework, they just do what works: walk away!
  • If a coach dismisses evidence-based knowledge as ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘stuffy’ or claim that their approach is ‘above scientific understanding’: walk away!
  • If a coach has a variety of coaching plans more confusing that energy company tariffs: walk away!
  • If a coach tries to get you to sign up for an indefinite period on direct debit or standing order: walk away!
  • If the coach seems to be evasive, doesn’t seem to want to answer your questions or tells you that you aren’t asking the right questions: walk away!

Approaching the Life Coaching Directories

Many coaches advertise their services on coaching directories and although a listing on these directories is not necessarily an endorsement of the quality of their work, some directories ( but not all) require proof of qualifications. So still be cautious. Still ask all off of the above questions.

Use the coaching directories to see what’s in your area. Read the coaches’ profiles and decide which ones seem to connect with you. Can you imagine working with them? Then irrespective of what they have written on their profiles, do you homework and ask all the above questions.

Don’t just look at the coaches who appear at the top of the listings. Some of the directories charged extra so coaches appear in prime position! So have a good look through all the listings in your area.

Ask about life coaching with Dr Gary WoodHere are some directories to get you started:

(I have taken the liberty of linking to my profile entries. Just hit ‘home’ on the websites to search for other coaches)

What if you need more information on finding a life coach?

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodSo there you have a sound basis on which to engage a life coach, I hope it hasn’t been too bewildering and I hope you are now better informed of some of the pitfalls. If you have any questions:

Check out books by Dr Gary Wood and his recommendations on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

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Treating Low Self Confidence and Low Self Esteem as ‘Self Prejudice’

‘Having a downer on yourself’ means that you put a negative spin on your appearance, abilities and competencies in various situations. It’s essentially a form or prejudice directed towards your self which colours how you view the world, including self-confidence,  and what you do in the world.

Why self prejudice?

What is auto-prejudice?

Reviewing my notes after a session with one coaching client, I saw that I had scribbled ‘prejudice’ in the margin. However it wasn’t in the way that we usually understand the word.  It wasn’t negative attitudes towards a target group. Instead, I noticed a pattern of the deeply ingrained negative attitudes that the client directly towards herself. For this I coined the term auto-prejudice. This is a form of ongoing negative auto-biography, a story that we tell yourself and others about yourself. It frames your life.

Prejudice literally means ‘to pre-judge’, and as with all forms of prejudice , auto-prejudice forms a perceptual filter by which we process all information about ourselves. So the stuff that affirms the negative view is readily accepted while anything that contradicts the negative is either ignored, discounted or explained away. Defining negative attitudes to the self as auto-prejudice opened up a whole body of research that I could bring into my (life) coaching practice. One of the things I’m particularly pleased about in my book Unlock Your Confidence is that I was able to draw on training programmes that address discrimination. The only difference is the target of discrimination is your self.

The Social Psychology of Coaching

My earliest research in social psychology had been in attitudes, stereotypes and the way we view the world. In particular I explored the impact of The Authoritarian Personality by Theodore Adorno and colleagues. The main factor I explored was the concept of Intolerance of Ambiguity (researched by Adorno’s colleague Else Frenkel-Brunswik). To put it simply, some people have a stronger need for certainty and black-and-white thinking than others. For some people it causes distress when things don’t fit into discrete categories. Sometimes this distressed is reduced by denying the grey areas to create cleaner boundaries.

The tendency to make cognitive distortions is a key feature of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT). These are basically logical errors in the interpretation of what life presents us with. Sometimes people select only the evidence they consider relevant, that is consistent with the negative attitude. Sometimes they go beyond the evidence to reach conclusions that are not supported under closer scrutiny. Part of CBT treatment involves a logical disputing by checking the evidence to gain a sense of balance and challenge distorted views of the self and the world.

It’s part of our psychological make-up to think in stereotypes. We can’t process every single bit of information that comes our way. Instead we operate on cognitive economy. Stereotypes create a framework to reduce cognitive overload. The problem is that often they contain false assumptions. Often a stereotype operates a filter that leads us to accept things that confirm the stereotype and reject or modify things that refute it. This is particularly pertinent to self-esteem. Many people are also burdened by a strong cultural mantra that ‘self praise is no praise at all’. So what we have is a strong tendency to evaluate ourselves in a negative way.

What do attitudes and confidence have in common?

Many people declare that they would take more chances in life if only they had the confidence. The implication is confidence precedes action. To a certain degree this is true. The study of attitudes reveals a link between thoughts, feelings and actions. The literal meaning of attitude is ‘fit and ready for action’. So, life-affirming feelings and thoughts are more likely to lead to life-affirming actions. Part of being confident is having the courage to take action. However it’s a circular model. Taking actions can change attitudes (thoughts and feelings). Taking action can build confidence. This is at the heart of the ‘fake it ’til you make it model of confidence. My approach is to take a three-pronged approach to work on thoughts, feelings and actions to build confidence.

My job as a coach to help clients reassess the stereotypes they hold about themselves. This is achieved by a logical, rational approach to help you to reassess the data they use to form and maintain your negative attitudes. Auto-prejudice will sift the evidence to find things to maintain the negative view and convince you that ‘if you don’t try then you can’t fail‘. Auto-prejudice focuses on the problem so that the problem just gets bigger and bigger. Coaching provides the antidote by exploring solutions.

Solution Focused Coaching

In a typical coaching session I will spend 20% of the time with you exploring the problem and 80% of the time exploring solutions. When I was undergoing my coaching training during a coaching session my coach I got locked into describing a problem in the finest of detail. After a while my coach asked quite bluntly ‘where are we going with all this?’ At least that is how I heard it. However, it gave me the jolt I needed to switch to solution thinking. It’s clear the coaching works better if the coach and the client work together. There is little point if the client’s aim is to convince the coach that ‘life is crap and all action is futile’. My own softer version of the intervention is ‘I’ve got a really clear idea of the problem and what you want to move away from. What’s less clear is what you want to move towards? Perhaps we could spend some time on that?’ A simpler intervention is ‘So what do you want instead?’ For me coaching is about helping people engage with a different view of themselves in the world. It is also the main aim of this blog and my books.

Putting pen to paper and putting things into practice

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodUnlock Your Confidence is my attempt to bring together my academic background with my coaching and teaching practice. It’s my personal and professional journey in confidence building. I often say that it took me longer to live it than it did to write it. It’s also a very collaborative affair. I love the idea that the reader continues to write where the author left off. I’m aware that some people like to adopt a more analytical approach and so I have included material that I wouldn’t necessarily bring into a coaching session such as defense mechanisms and elements of Transactional Analysis.  The aim is take things a bit further than the average self-help book. So what I’ve attempted to do is to distill the essence of theories and concepts to generate new insights that will inspire you to action. In this way, the book maintains the 80:20 rule. It’s still mostly concerned with tackling auto-prejudice and entertaining solutions rather than incubating problems. What is explicit throughout the book is the use of solution-focused language. The aim is that by repetition you will learn and embrace an alternative way of viewing the world and your place in it.  As you challenge your own self-limiting attitudes there is always a knock on effect. So the book also provides a blue-print for passing on these insights to others. It’s what I call Confidence Karma. You gain confidence by building it in others.

A key theme in the book and in my coaching approach is ‘Little by little, a little becomes a lot’. So if you have enjoyed reading this blog post please share it with friends and colleagues on your social networks. 

Follow on post: Adapting Prejudice Reduction Plans from Social Psychology to Build Confidence

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Body Language for Confidence?

True inner confidence

I’m often asked the question ‘how can I use body language to more appear confident’. This is based on the ‘fake it until you make it’ approach to confidence building. It’s what comes of watching too many reality TV shows where the phoney ‘put on a show’ approach prevails. This is anything but real! Confident people aren’t those who walk into a room and say ‘look at me, look at me’. Confidence is about being comfortable in your own skin and that doesn’t have to be loud and ‘in your face’. True inner confidence is a quiet confidence. Outer displays of brash bravado are primarily based on deceit.

The Opposite of Stress

The ‘fake it to make it’ approach is about creating a false display to mask feelings of anxiety and stress. This is nothing but a cover up! Stress triggers the fight or flight response and narrows our focus to physical and mental (cognitive) processes associated with survival. Putting on a show is a survival strategy. It’s a subtle way of putting up a fight. Inner confidence comes from a different place, that is, the breadth of emotions and experience than are more than just mere survival. To tap into the breadth of human experience, we need the opposite of mere survival and stress. That is, we need to tap into the emotional, physical and mental state in which you will flourish.

Relax and Use Your Strengths

In my confidence building workshops I ask people when they feel most confident. invariably the answers reveal two themes: (i) when doing something relaxing (ii) when using skills and strengths. So rather than consider fake, up-tight, survival driven displays, instead consider what it feels like in your body to be relaxed and ‘laid-back’. Top athletes begin by controlling their own stress/relaxation response. That’s the basis of elite performance. It’s also the basis of true confidence.

Get in Touch With Your Body

The ‘fake it’ approach is about covering up how you truly feel. This is rather like dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause. Instead we need to take a deeper (longer term) view, such as taking yoga or Pilates classes, going to the gym, meditation, dance or Zumba classes. Try out a range of things to find something you enjoy. Try acting or improvisation classes. All of these activities will get you more in touch with your body and your feelings. People often say they ‘feel good about themselves’ after these activities. That’s confidence! All of these activities will all help to improve good posture which has positive impact of your general health. Get outside regularly for walks. Research has shown the regular walks in nature boost self-esteem.

Practise deep breathing techniques which help to oxygenate the blood and keep hydrated. Football trainers teach that even if we are dehydrated by a few per cent, it can adversely affect cognitive functioning, that is how we process information. On top of these take a hobby or spend time practising your existing skills (playing to your strengths). Do something you are good at and relish the time you spend doing it.

Body Language Will Take Care of Itself

Decide which of these suggestions you try.  It’s important to give them a good chance to work so try things out as personal experiments for a month or two. It needs something that you do regularly and frequently. At the end of the trial period review the impact on you and your life. When you hit on the thing that’s right for you, the confident body language will take care of itself. As a bonus, you’ll also probably feel a lot fitter too!

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Building Your Assertiveness: Having Fun With Cold-Callers

It seems that nowadays we can’t walk down the street without someone with a clipboard wanting ‘just a minute’ of our time. My approach is quite simple. I just state ‘Sorry I don’t conduct any business in the street’. I extend this to people knocking on my door (‘Sorry I don’t do business on the doorstep’). However, for telephone cold-callers I adopt a slightly different strategy. In my coaching practice I encourage clients to seek out opportunities to develop life skills such as assertiveness and self-confidence. Rather than an annoyance, cold-callers offer such an opportunity.

Despite registering with the telephone preference service I still get unwanted calls. Surveys and market research is not covered (honoured) by this opt out. Of course, it should, morally speaking. Any reputable company would make the assumption that if people have taken the time to register with the service then it’s likely they don’t want to be bothered wasting time on surveys. One of my first approaches was to discuss my fees with them. This doesn’t work. Unless of course you follow up with a letter in writing to let the company know that you will charge an administration fee for future calls. You are then within your rights to send them an invoice and if its not paid, you can proceed through the small claims court. However, I digress.

Recently, I tried out a new approach which proved to be great fun. I’d decided the next time I was cold-called I was going to take the opportunity to sell my own services of coaching, training, broadcasting, writing and research. So I prepared a brief spiel and waited for the inevitable call.

The call came and was from someone purporting to be from the National Accident Helpline (NAH). In the past I have reported such calls and found that it’s common for dodgy companies to impersonate the NAH. The real NAH does abide by the telephone preference service. So I began:

Me: ‘Thank you very much for your call. It is coaching, training or research that you are interested in?’

Cold-caller: ‘Sorry?’

Me: ‘How exactly can I help you?’

Cold-caller: ‘I’m calling from the National Accident Helpline’ (lie)

Me: ‘Splendid. So is it coaching within your organization, training, researcher or perhaps you’d like me to front a media campaign’.

Cold-caller: ‘Sorry. Who are you calling from?’

Me: ‘Actually you called me and I’m trying to establish which of my services are of interest to you’.

Cold-caller: ‘Sorry. What company are you from again?’

Me: ‘Well you called me. So which of my services interest you?’

No doubt we could have continued along these lines for longer but I’d run run out of script. Next time I will run through a description of each of my services.

The value of this type of opportunity is that you have a captive audience. It’s up to you to take control of the situation and have fun with it. If you don’t have a service to promote then perhaps you could pretend to have a sofa for sale and describe it in great detail. Ask the caller what they look for in a sofa. If they are not interested then try to sell them something else. The value of this is that you get to role play for free and will probably have a good laugh too.

Speaking in public is one of the most feared challenges, so cold-callers offer a great opportunity to practice those skills too. Assertiveness and confidence are built in small steps and start with a state of relaxation. Find other opportunities in life to develop people skills, such as small-talk at the supermarket or at the bus-stop. Losing your temper or being rude is not assertiveness, it’s aggression. Just have fun with it.

I’m now looking forward to the next opportunity to practice my sales pitch and who knows I may try to sell my old chaise longue.

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How to Guide Your Decision Making With Your Value System

Faced with innumerable decisions we need a system to filter out the ‘wheat from the chaff’. What’s most important to you and what can you let go? Fortunately, you already have such a system. It’s called your value system. Each of us live by a set of principles shaped by our society and culture but with our own particular spin. Our values help us to focus on the essentials. Life is a bit like a supermarket. There are the budget supermarkets that have just one of everything on the shelves and there are the major supermarkets that have ten of everything on the shelf? Do we really need to choose between ten brands of ketchup when the contents are pretty much the same? The Pareto Principle states that 20% of our efforts yield 80% of the results. If we focus on the core 20% we get more time to relax, provided of course you don’t agonize over the choices for a relaxing activity.

When I work with (life) coaching clients we focus on core values and how goals support these. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who knows me that curiosity and learning are amongst my top values. Equality and ethics are also important to me. That’s how I got to slim down my list of shopping brands. There are just some that I refuse to buy because of what I consider to be their company’s unethical practices. So take a while to consider what  are your top ten values, the guiding principles in your life. When you have made a list of ten, cross out the bottom five and concentrate on the top five. When faced with decisions and goals, ask yourself: ‘Will doing this support my values?’ Obviously there will be exceptions. Any system needs to be flexible. However it will give you a focus if you stick to these core values 80% of the time.

Another tool I use is the ‘Absolutely Yes or No Rule’. This will help to maintain your focus. If when faced with a choice if the answer is not ‘absolutely yes’ then it is automatically ‘no’. This is particularly useful if you find it hard to say ‘no’ to people. However make sure you don’t say ‘no’ just because you find the task a little daunting. Instead ask: ‘Is this a new experience?’ ‘Will I learn anything new from it?’ Again be flexible and stick to the rule a least 80% of the time.

If you sit quietly for a moment and bring your attention fully back into the room you will begin to notice sights, sounds and sensations that you routinely blank out. This is because we cannot possibly pay attention to every tiny bit of information that comes our way. Therefore our attention is selective. We focus on the important stuff and blank out the noise. Using our value system can help us to do that when faced with too many decisions and a limited amount of time. So what are your values in life and how will you let them lead your decision making?

(In conversation with Annie Othen, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 4/1/13)

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Use Your Diary as a Reminder of Strengths and Opportunities Throughout the Year

Although I use my ‘phone and computer diaries for basic reminders, I still use a paper-based desk diary. Maybe it’s because there are more mechanical and cognitive processes involved in writing in a diary that I find it helps to make information more memorable. I still use good old-fashioned handwriting to help me to remember lectures and talks too.

So if you were ‘lucky’ enough to get a paper-based diary as a gift make use of it by making it your strengths and gratitude diary. Whenever you get an opportunity to use your skills and strengths, write it in your diary. When something positive happens, write it in your diary. When you get the chance for a random act of kindness, write it in your diary. Do this throughout the year so that at the end of the year you get to really take stock of the good things in your life.

It’s easy to remember the ‘bad stuff’ and culturally we often say that ‘bad news comes in threes’. This sets up the expectation to look for the negative. There is no standard multi-pack for good news, so using your diary can help to balance the negative filters. This also helps to increase optimism. Also, taking stock of your strengths and skills can help to boost self confidence and esteem. 

Use the diary technique in conjunction with my gratitude and anticipation experiment (with a free PDF). It’s a standard exercise I use in coaching and training to acknowledge the ‘good stuff’ and help retune our filters to positive opportunities.

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End of the World or Second Chance?

According to some ‘popular’ interpretations of ancient Mayan prophecy, the world should have ended today. Alternatively this day has ushered in a new age of enlightenment. Many people are probably so sick of hearing about the end of the world that they wished it was, just so the ‘end-of-timers’ would just shut the ‘hell’ up.

In less than two weeks we may have set new year’s resolutions and already broken them. It seems we like to make grand gestures on significant dates. So, let’s work on the hypothesis that we are entering a new age of enlightenment, only we don’t have t wait for it to come to us. I’ve already been pondering what I can do differently in the coming year and the things I do well that I can do more of.

Use this ‘un-momentous’ occasion to review your strengths, values and goals including things you have been putting off, things that you have’always wanted to do’, but never seem to make the time. Part of my job as a programme co-ordinator on a psychology course meant that I had to interview prospective candidates. The question I found most useful was ‘What are you going to give up (sacrifice) to attend this course?’ It took most people by surprise as they had perhaps figured that they would squeeze it in amongst other commitments. The problem with that approach is that you ‘spread yourself too thinly’. Giving up stuff can be a positive thing. Many of the prospective candidates would be busy, mature-aged students. The one thing they had all given up was the attitude that they were not ‘student-material’. They had let go of something negative and entertained the possibility that they just might ‘do good’ second time around.

Working with these students proved inspirational and a turning point in my career. I recognized that I would need a few extra confidence building skills and that’s how I began coaching (life coaching). I went off and did some coaching training. I brought these skills back to the class room and ran extra-curricular personal development courses that formed the basis of my book, Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It. In order to attend these courses, the students sacrificed a few weekends but hopefully gained a lot more. To complete essays they probably had to sacrifice a few evening’s television, but the sense of achievement they gained was far greater.

So what can you give up in your life to make way for something you’ve always wanted to do? Have you longed to return to learning, or learn a new language or just get out more and reconnect with people? It’s often said that when staring death in the face we don’t regret the things we have done but the things we haven’t done.

So today, as we have all collectively faced up to the end of the world, what would have been your deepest regrets? More importantly, what are you going to start doing about it today? Start by sacrificing the attitude that you can’t do it or you haven’t got the time. Make way for new attitudes. Reaffirm your values in life, that which you stand for in life, and take action.

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Avoiding Negative People or Changing Your Attitude?

I saw a postcard circulating on the internet that read:

‘Avoid negative people for they are the great destroyers of self-confidence and self esteem. Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you’.

I have no issue with the second statement but do take exception to the first.

Firstly, what exactly are negative people? Is this negativity a fixed state? If so, what a depressing view of humanity. It’s more accurate to refer to use the phrase ‘people holding negative attitudes’. It also offers the possibility that attitudes may change. However we can take this further. Using this absolutist mindset is not psychologically healthy in which we posit black and white categories of ‘positive people’ and ‘negative people’. In fact, in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT),  the ‘black and white mindset’ is seen as something the needs to change. Many of the CBT techniques are aimed at ‘logically disputing’ the results of black and white thinking.

As a coach, many of my clients hold negative attitudes which are usually directed towards themselves. So, as a coach, should I avoid such people? Instead should I surround myself with ‘positive people’? Working with people with negative attitudes is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work as a coach and as a teacher. Such clients bring out the best in me and I can clearly see that I have made a difference in people’s lives.

Going back to the idea of all-pervading negativity, are there really people who are absolutely negative about absolutely everything, all of the time? Of course not. Admittedly, people can get into a negative cycle but I have yet to encounter people for whom this is all encompassing. My coaching practice is heavily influenced by solution-focused therapy skills. As with CBT, I work with clients to explore the exceptions. I will ‘look for what sparkles’ in someone’s life rather than consign them to the scrap heap. Admittedly this is not the easiest route but it is infinitely more rewarding. My coaching practice is also significantly informed by my psychological training. My PhD was in attitudes and ‘black and white thinking’. I very much view coaching as process to facilitate attitude change.

The assumption in the self-help quote above is that ‘negative people’ destroy self confidence and self esteem.  However, there is another saying offering a different perspective: ‘Difficult people are our teachers’. Many people tell stories of triumph over adversity and overcoming obstacles. Sometimes ‘difficult people’ test us. It’s not necessarily a reason to avoid them. Obstacles can strengthen our resolve. There is also the question of perception. Sometimes ‘negative people’ and ‘difficult people’ are those who don’t agree with us. Of course, it’s different when faced with bullies and those who seek to put us down. However is total avoidance necessarily the right strategy? Will avoidance preserve confidence and esteem? Surely habitually using avoidance over assertiveness could actually lead to lower confidence and esteem. Is it really a strategy to run off to people who always tell you what you want to hear? I can think of countless times in my life when ‘difficult people’ brought out the best in me. I’m not alone in that. There isn’t a success story ever written that does not contain an element of triumphing over adversity. Yours will be no different.

The problem with much that is written in self-help circles is that it is simply not thought-through. It bears little relationship to real life or evidence based psychology or models teaching and learning. Much of it is written in an over-generalized style (says he over-generalizing). Often self-help stuff reads like newspaper horoscopes. it’s easy to pick and choose and distort the message to get out of it what you want. Explanations of psychological types can often be used to prevent people from moving on, such as the myth of the addictive personality, the myth of significant gender differences or in this case the myth of toxic people. Surrounding ourselves by supportive people is one thing but what happens when one of those people starts telling you what you want to hear? Do they get labelled ‘toxic’ and are then avoided?

Often it’s not what happens in our lives that counts but how we perceive it and deal with it. The same applies to difficult people. These people may offer you an opportunity to let your positive attitudes shine. The call to avoid people with negative attitudes taps into an emotional-focused coping strategy in life. It’s easier to deal with the emotions than it is to get to the heart of the issues. To avoid ‘negative attitudes’ is a short-term fix. Managing our attitudes towards people with negative attitudes is a longer term solution. Otherwise, you may as well go and live on a desert island.

Often people displaying negative attitudes just want to be seen and heard. It’s better to be a people manager than operate a people-waste disposal system. Managing your perceptions, actions and reactions will help to build your own self-esteem. Avoiding opportunities never will. There are always going to be people that push us to the limit and we feel that if we don’t get away that they will drag us down. I admit that I have met a few people like that in my life. On the odd occasion I did opt for self-preservation but that process took years not at the first hint of ‘trouble’. Giving up on people should be the last resort not our default ‘speed-dial’. Inevitably you will give up on people but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try first. So before you reach for the ‘self-help short cut’, ask yourself if there is not a better lesson in there somewhere than that offered by the ‘inspirational’ self-help postcard approach.

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One’s reach should exceed one’s grasp

One’s reach should exceed one’s grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

One's reach should exceed one's grasp or what's a heaven for? - Robert BrowmingBased* on a quotation by Robert Browning the sentiments expressed are important for personal growth and happiness. Heaven doesn’t necessarily need to have a religious connotation. We can just take it to mean ‘higher purpose’ or ‘fulfilment of values’. As a coach, one of the things I do is to help people complete MBA application forms. For the top business schools, candidates are required to write a number of short essays relating to themselves. Some people are bewildered by the numerous questions and all the nuances of wording. However, invariably when we break it down, there are often three main questions: (i) What are your goals, (ii) What are your values, and (iii) What’s the relationship between your goals and values.

At the heart of this Browning quotation is the relationship between goals and values. Now happiness may be one of your core values. There’s a strong connection with goals, happiness, and personal growth. Goals need to stretch us. If we make goals too easy, we become bored and lose motivation. If we make them too tough, then we give up and lose confidence. So we need to reach for something we can’t presently grasp but is still within sight. Computer games succeed or fail on this principle. If a game is too easy, it will be cast aside in no time. If it’s too difficult, players simply give up. Getting the balance just right is what makes people coming back to a game. There’s enough progress to maintain motivation.

A common experience of computer game player is becoming so engrossed in a game that we lose all sense of time. In psychological terms this is known as ‘being in flow‘. I’ve mentioned this concept in earlier posts. Coined by the positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, he regards it as a key to happiness. That is, we set goals that stretch us in areas that interest us and usually support our values. Positive psychologist Martin Seligman refers to our strengths as ‘values in action. According to him, this living to our strengths and values leads to Authentic Happiness.

So, the Browning quotation is a useful motto for personal growth. Yes it’s something to be passed on Facebook and Twitter for daily inspiration. It’s also a great principle to live by and work towards.

*Note: The original Browning quotation is ‘Ah! Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ I’ve just de-gendered it.

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Life, Fun, Gratitude and Regret… a call to action

Sometimes life gets us down. We get stuck in a routine, become overwhelmed by circumstances or paralyzed  by fear. We claim not to know what we want except we know that we don’t want more of ‘this’. Knowing that you do not want more of the same is a start. Describing what we want to move away from is the first step in describing what we want to move towards. It also helps to take stock of what we already have. It’s often described in self-help speak as acquiring the attitude of gratitude. Simply be focusing on what we are thankful for (however small), helps to retune our perceptions to potential positive opportunities. It’s become a key strategy in my confidence building approach (See Unlock Your Confidence).

I saw ‘International Fun Smuggler’ Mrs Barbara Nice’s show at Edinburgh Fringe. Mrs Nice takes great delight in celebrating the small things in life (and it’s difficult to come away from her shows feeling anything but uplifted). In the show she also touched on the regrets in life. These provide clues to what we might do to escape ‘more of the same’. Bronnie Ware, palliative nurse recorded the top five regrets of dying patients and at first glance seemed all rather un-sensational. However they provide a recipe for living without regret. Here are our biggest regrets:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

Consider how you allow the expectation of others to limit your choices and perpetuate more of the same. Consider what small thing you could do today that brings you a tiny bit closer to your idea of your true self. It could be starting a new hobby or attending an evening class. Start with a small thing to build your confidence and create momentum. Do it today.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

Consider how you can create a little balance in your life. What do you do to relax? What small things can you let go to make time for yourself? When I run confidence building workshops I ask about the moments when people have more confidence invariably they report times when they are relaxing and having fun. In Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come In…Swim Out to Meet It, I wrote that a melody consists not just of the notes, but also of the rests in between the notes. Taking time out can improve efficiency at work and can have a knock on effect in other areas of your life. What will you do today to create some moments of fun or relaxation?

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

Often bottled up feelings can lead to resentment and bitterness and sometimes people turn those feelings in on themselves. Many people spend years in work meetings saying nothing until one day they speak up. At that time it didn’t matter if anyone else agreed, it was just enough for them to ‘say my piece’. Like anything else, if you have little practice at expressing your feelings (saying your piece) then start small, with something almost inconsequential, as long as it’s a first step. Expressing our feelings will engage others in feedback. Sometimes they will agree and sometimes they won’t. Either way the act of speaking up and dealing with the feedback is a way of building self-esteem. Of course, it can be positive expressions of feelings such as gratitude to another person.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

Sometimes we take friendships for granted and let other aspects of our lives get in the way. The same applies to family members. We just assume that they will always be there. They become part of our ‘psychological furniture’ rather than real people. There have never been so many ways to communicate as there are today. A group text message to all of your contacts is not staying in touch. It’s going through the motions. When looking back over our lives we realize that all the things in life that, at the time, mattered more than people, don’t. Forget Facebook (for a while) and focus on facial expressions and vocal inflections with real people, off line. So who can you reconnect with, voice to voice, face to face?

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Getting the ‘gratitude attitude’ helps to create a foundation for happiness as does making time to have fun. It’s interesting that the regret here is ‘let myself’. This implies that the opportunities were there but not seized. A key way of finding more happiness to set goals that stretch in areas of life that interest us. In his classic book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-sent-me-high) offers a simple message. To be happier we just need to spend more time ‘in flow’. These are the moments when we become so totally engrossed in what we are doing that we lose all sense of time. We set goals to improve our personal best and develop skills, engaging blissfully in the present moment. So what would that be for you? What start can you make today?

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodNothing here requires massive life changes. All that it takes is small affirmative steps. In my coaching practice, the emphasis is on creating small, shifts in perception and action. It has always amazed that clients do far more between coaching sessions that we agreed or that either of us expected. It’s not bungee jumping or fire walking that transform lives, but small steps of persistent action in the desired direction.

What will you do today, to build happiness and regret-proof your life?

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