When that brick wall is a mental block – how coaching can help you to grasp the goals you reach for

Pic: Advert for coaching with Dr Gary Wood - What if that brick wall is a mental block?Often our goals are in sight but seem out of reach. It might feel that you take one step towards your goals, and they seem to take a step back. I get many queries from potential clients saying just that. They talk of brick walls and mental blocks and self-sabotage. Sometimes there’s a post-mortem of what they should’ve done. In this blog post, I challenge that goals being ‘out of reach’ is a bad thing. It’s not. It’s how things should be. It’s how coaching works. 

Accepting Things the Way They Are

A few years ago, I took a course in pranayama (breathing yoga) as part of the research for a book. One phrase, from the course, stuck with me: the present moment is inevitable.  As a personal and professional development coach, my first job is to challenge clients to consider that things are as they should be and that this moment is a starting point. The alternative is to indulge in ‘why’ questions, which are abstract, philosophical questions. You can a different answer every time you ask why? And every time, they cause you to look back. Instead, in coaching, I ask lots of concrete ‘how’ questions. They will take you forward. In coaching, the first step is to accept that whatever you’ve done up until now has got you here. It’s just that you now need a different plan to take you further. And that’s what we’ll work on, together.

Our goals ARE out of reach –  at the moment

As the Robert Browing line goes ‘One’s reach should exceed one’s grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ It’s the purpose of coaching to reduce or eliminate the gap between reach and grasp. Goals are supposed to stretch us. The secret is not to set them so far out of reach that we lose hope and motivation. Conversely, if we make them too easy, we’ll tire easily, become bored and give up. Coaching aims to tread that fine line between resolution and resignation. So, if the goal is very grand, we simply break it down into a series of milestone goals that stretch you. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is just to take some action, any action, in the direction of the goal. It doesn’t matter how small that step is. I’ve pretty out the Tanzanian proverb ‘Little by Little, a little becomes a lot‘. The quickest way to change perceptions and attitudes is to take action. By the time you’ve reached the first milestone, your perspective will have changed, and you’ll be better equipped to tackle the next one.

Brick Walls and Mental Blocks

Some people talk of ‘mental blocks’ as if they are physical barriers. They aren’t. Coaching is about working with you to remove attitudes that get in the way of moving forward. It involves challenging negative thoughts and self-talk and looking at alternative metaphors, scripts and ways of describing situations. But it’s also about taking stock of skills and strengths to create a method of working and an action plan that’s tailor-made for you. In coaching, it helps to ‘suspend your disbelief’ and enter into it with an attitude of positive anticipation. Instead of asking will it work’, ask ‘how will it work?’ It’s also about trying things out like personal experiments – testing the water to assess the impact of a small step forward. Ultimately, with any attitude, it’s important to ask ‘How is this taking you forward?’ If it’s not, what attitudes will? Then, try them out and see how they work for you.

Up for a challenge?

Pic: Dr Gary Wood (Line drawing)In coaching, the aim is to help you to reach your goals or get as close to them as is practically possible. I’m Gary Wood. I’ve been coaching students since the mid-90s and private clients since the early-noughties. My coaching training and practices are grounded in evidence-based psychology. My specialism is attitude change – the cornerstone of coaching. I’ve written five books on various aspects of psychology, the most recent is Letters to a New Student on study skills, but has a lot to say about life skills. And as I coach, I love a challenge.

So, get in touch for a chat. 

If you can’t think of anything to write in the message box, just type ‘can we talk?’ and add the best days and times to get in touch.

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Learning Skills as Life Skills (and vice versa)

It’s tempting to view formal education as learning and then everything else that happens afterwards as your ‘real-life’. However, it’s a false dichotomy. We continue to learn throughout our lives, whether or not we want to. Recognizing this can help us to see the connection between learning skills and life skills. How we approach learning informs how we approach life and vice versa.

I was invited to speak at a learning and training event and submitted the title ‘Learning Skills as Life Skills’. The idea is based on my book Letters to a New Student ( Read a sample: UKUSA ). In this post, I offer four main factors that provide a blueprint for lifelong learning. It’s a slight reworking of the book’s structure.

Four Factors for Lifelong Learning: Attitudes, Wellbeing, Cognition, and Management.

The four factors of attitudes, wellbeing, cognition and management interact with each other. A change in one affects the others.

Pic: Four Factors of Lifelong Learning

Based on Letters to a New Student ( Read a sample: UKUSA )

Attitudes

Attitudes are the cornerstone of how we make sense of the world. In coaching, I use the principlethe viewing influences the doing, and vice versa’.  It’s a key principle in confidence-building.  How we view the world shapes what we do in the world. As coaching is action-led, it’s the doing that builds the confidence. For more on this, see Unlock Your Confidence.

A concept in psychology often relegated to a ‘stress-busting’ technique more accurately offers a philosophy for coping with life. Psychological hardiness is made up of three attitudes – the three Cs. These are control, challenge and commitment.  In short, emphasize what you can control, reframe problems as challenges (or goals) and commit to connecting with other people, and show a curiosity about the world.

Having to study when we’d prefer to be doing something else can lead to feelings of resentment. This attitude makes it more challenging to process and retain information. Learning is inevitable. It’ll happen whether or not we set our own goals. When facing a deadline, often, I’d much prefer to be doing something else. But I remind myself that it’s an opportunity to achieve a personal-first or a personal-best. With students, I ask them to consider how formal learning is a luxury. It’s similar for life-tasks, such as ironing or washing dishes or paperwork. They seem to take longer with feelings of resentment. The secret is to find an attitude that changes the emotional tone. Hence my Zen-Ironing. It’s a nice metaphor for smoothing out the wrinkles of life. Ok, so that might be stretching it. But it works.

Wellbeing

When faced with a demanding goal there’s often a temptation to put wellbeing on hold. The illusion is that if we don’t bother about wellbeing, the time saved can be used on the task. We can then catch-up on wellbeing when the task is over. However, this is stress-based, survival thinking. If we treat self-care as a foundation rather than an add-on, it can have a beneficial effect on mood and cognition. Investing in your wellbeing supports learning (and life). Sleep, diet, exercise, hydration, and relaxation exercises all interact. Together they will aid peak performance so that you make the most of your time add. Neglecting wellbeing means you’ll gain a bit of extra time to use inefficiently. 

Cognition

Often we stumble on to study techniques that work for us. These might be time-consuming, boring and inefficient, but because we have had some degree of success with them, we are reluctant to give them up. However, rather than leading with personalization, it’s crucial to learn basic principles of human psychology, and then put your twist on it. That way, you work with psychology rather than fight it – working smarter, not harder. The three simplest things to implement are:

  1. Work in shorter blocks to give your brain time to digest the information.
  2. Vary your learning techniques to keep it interesting. Boredom is a choice.
  3. To process the material at a deeper level, ask and answer questions rather than rely on rote learning

For more information see Letters to a New Student ( Read a sample: UKUSA ).

Management

Some might find it difficult to ask for help, when studying, or in life. It’s not a weakness or an admission of failure; it’s resource management. Most people like to help, so why deny the opportunity? And, you will get the chance to ‘pay it forward’. Knowing when to ask for help and who to ask are essential learning skills and life skills. Begin by making a list of your go-to people. 

Whether it’s life or learning, time management is essential – plan to do whatever you need to do, and do it. It’s also crucial to plan in the downtime, and most importantly, your wellbeing. What’s not so obvious is managing moods and motivation. It’s not just about aside the time; it’s adopting supportive attitudes and using techniques to get in the mood. And, sometimes that means just getting on with it. Who says we always have to be ‘in the mood’. Do it, and let the mood catch-up!  After a period of writers’ block, I learned that a ten-minute walk first thing in the morning sets me up for the day. I also know that the worst thing for my productivity is switching on the television in the morning for the news. For me, first thing in the morning, no news is good news. 

And finally, there’s the driver of all peak performance – goal-setting. It shouldn’t get to the point that we feel ‘bludgeoned’ by goal-setting. Goals are a means to an end. They provide the structure and the momentum to keep moving forward. They should stretch you but not overwhelm you. There are many posts on this blog about goal-setting – check them out.

Meaning: The Meta-Principle

The over-arching principle in learning and life is to make it meaningful to you. Use the four basic principles of attitudes, wellbeing, cognition and management, and adapt to your circumstances, strengths and values. 

Summary

So those are the basics of using ‘learning skills as life skills’, and vice versa. To find out more, read the book or drop me a line to find out about academic coaching or life coaching. In the meantime, here’s a summary of the main points:

Pic: Book cover for 'Letters to a New Student' by Dr Gary Wood

  • Frame your experiences with positive mental attitudes.
  • Take care of yourself – Exploit the mind-body connection.
  • Work with cognitive psychology rather than against it.
  • Be proactive – Manage time, moods and motivation.
  • Finally, make it meaningful to you.

About Dr Gary Wood

Pic: Dr Gary Wood (Line drawing)Dr Gary Wood is a Chartered Psychologist, solution-focused life coach, and broadcaster specializing in applied social psychology. He is on the British Psychological Society’s ‘media-friendly psychologists’ list and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Gary has taught psychology in several UK universities and is widely quoted in the media. As a consultant, he works on health and social policy research projects and reports, for government bodies, broadcasting ‘watchdogs’, NHS Trusts, charities, and media companies.

Books by Gary Wood

  • Letters to a New Student (Read a sample or buy: UKUSA ).
  • Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come In. . . Swim Out to Meet It (See UK / USA)
  • Unlock Your Confidence (See UK / USA)

Get in touch to discuss academic coaching or life coaching:

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Why You Shouldn’t Ask ‘Why?’ And What Open Questions You Should Use Instead

Ad for coaching with Dr Gary WoodWe are told that to open up conversations we should use open questions – ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘how’ and ‘why’. The question is, do ‘why’ questions belong in the same category and are they as useful as the others? Are ‘why’ questions really open questions?  ‘Why’ questions are a favourite of parents, teachers and managers but are they effective in delivering the desired results? Do they really help us to find out why? Often people splutter out, in a panic, the first thing that comes to mind. Rarely, if ever, is that information insightful or useful. In his post, I argue (as the title implies) that from a coaching perspective, why-questions won’t take us forward to consider solutions. Here’s why.

Why ‘why’ feels instinctual

All children go through the ‘why phase’. Talking with my three and half year old niece and trying to explain something recently, every level of explanation was met with ‘why?’ We might argue that the question ‘why?’ is hardwired into our psyche. It becomes almost instinctual to ask ‘why’ when we want more information or to discover the motives behind actions. In reality, asking ‘why’ is a habit. It’s easy. That’s why young children use it. They may not have acquired the language to paraphrase. What they mean is ‘I don’t understand, please explain’. With our more sophisticated grasp of language, we don’t need to rely on ‘why’.

We are not always logical so don’t know ‘why’

Book: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary Wood

Read a sample of Unlock your Confidence. See UK or USA.

Managers often use ‘why’ as a coded way to say ‘explain yourself’. It is often ‘finger-pointingly’, accusative and a thinly-veiled put-down. It usually means ‘that was a dumb thing to do’. The ‘why’ question assumes that human beings are totally logical –  like the Vulcans in Star Trek. The problem is, we are not. We often hold competing values and attitudes about ourselves, the world and other people. Sometimes we just do stuff without thinking it through. Sometimes we don’t know why. So when things haven’t gone to plan, just barking ‘why did you do that?’ to someone isn’t likely to yield much useful information. It’s not enlightening it’s disempowering.

When I was writing Unlock Your Confidence I carefully worded the prompt questions so that I didn’t ask ‘why’. This mirrors the same approach I use in coaching. A couple of the editors didn’t ask why. They just changed the questions to the snappier ‘why’. To the editors, my questions might have seemed odd or indirect. They were supposed to be. I don’t want people to be transported back to a ‘naughty-schoolchild’ mindset’. Instead, coaching aims to empower people to think about things in different, more productive ways. I want to shake up perceptions and assumptions. ‘Why’ questions won’t do that. They just lock us into the problem whereas instead of focusing on solutions. So if we accept that people don’t always know why, let’s find a way of focusing on what they do know. To do this let’s analyze the keywords for open questions.

‘Who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, and ‘how’

If we examine the other ‘W’ words ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, there’s a common theme. They all relate to something concrete. When constructing experiments we declare the concrete ingredients before describing the ‘how’. We define the apparatus before detailing the method. It’s the same with a recipe. Ingredients before the step-by-step procedure. Okay, you may protest that when you are pressed for time ‘why’ is just damn quicker. The problem is, that ‘why’ never got your caked baked. That’s mainly down to ‘how’. Even if we do manage to get an answer to ‘why’ question, this may inaccurately frame (or bias) subsequent insights from the other open questions. Sometimes the manager won’t even use the ‘why’ information. It’s just left hanging there without resolution. Instead, the manager or teacher will just tell staff what do to right next time, rather than ask them. ‘Why’ questions can really close down learning because they take us backwards. They are past-oriented questions. ‘Why’ tends to be more abstract and ambiguous. It taps into motivations, attitudes and values. ‘Why’ is philosophical. So, when we are pressed for time, do we really want a philosophical discussion? Why would you want to do that?

Can we never use ‘Why’?

My research supervisor early in my career challenged me about my fondness for exclamation marks. I thought it made me sound engaging, dynamic and passionate. He said it was like laughing at my own jokes. ‘Why’ like exclamation marks should be used sparingly – the equivalent of ‘to really make a point’. In coaching, I rarely use it and if I do, I use it more as a device to get a reality check to be able to shift to a different way of thinking about an issue. In any one coaching session with a client, we spend 20% of the time describing the problem and 80% of the time focusing on solutions. To this end, ‘why’ isn’t very useful at all.

What to use instead of ‘why’

In solution-focused skills training instead of ‘why,’ we use ‘how come?’. It’s rather casual and some might argue that it’s a bit ambiguous or clumsy. However, it appeals to the other person’s insights in a non-threatening way. So if someone is considering making a life-change, asking ‘why’ is often a way of communicating disbelief, implying that it’s the wrong decision. However, people become more invested in declensions if they are allowed to think them through and own them. They may come to realize that the time is not right to make a change. However, it will be their decision. They won’t always be wondering ‘what if?’ So instead of ‘why’ you might ask:

  • ‘What is it that attracts you to this option at this time?’
  • ‘How did you arrive at this decision?’
  • ‘Where might you get further information?’
  • ‘Who else might you ask?’
  • ‘What tells you that now is a good time to make this change?’
  • ‘What other options have you explored?’

All of these questions open out the issue in a way that ‘why’ never will. ‘Why’ may reduce people to the appearance of blithering idiots who don’t appear to know their proverbial arses from their elbows. By substituting ‘why’ with the other open questions, you help draw out a person’s inner resources. ‘Why’ may be quick, but the other open questions, especially ‘how’ promote concrete action. ‘Why’ may often trigger a stress response which puts us into a state of survival (the classic ‘fight or flight’ response) where we are only able to access a limited range of cognitive responses, namely those related to survival. ‘How come?’ is a more relaxed approach which is more likely to enable us to evoke a broader range of cognitive and emotional responses on which we can build.

So that is why you should use ‘why’ sparingly and opt for a broadening range of open questions to tap into a richer source of practical information that helps people learn and move forward.

Finally, as if really need to emphasize the point, here’s a scene in the cult 60s TV series The Prisoner (with Patrick McGoohan) where he challenges the Orwellian super-computer. The protagonist inputs his question and you can see the results here. 

To discuss coaching and how to ask better questions, get in touch using the form below.

Updated: 18 October 2019.

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is the author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He also offers coaching worldwide through Skype. To get in touch with Gary to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization, use the form below:

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Psychological Hardiness, the Confidence to Embrace Change, and Coaching (with free PDF)

When faced with change, how we cope depends on our psychological hardiness (similar to resilience). Rather than a personality characteristic, it’s more of an explanatory style – a series of attitudes that shape our view of the world. Whereas personality characteristics appear fixed, views can be changed. A core part of the life coaching process (and a key theme in my book Unlock Your Confidence  – see  UK  /  USA ) is to help clients to explore alternative explanations, viewpoints and to change attitudes.

unlock-your-confidence-poster-hardiness-dr-gary-wood-life-coach-birmingham-edinburghThe concept of psychological hardiness was proposed by psychologists Suzanne Kobasa and Salvatore Maddi. It comprises three attitudes – the three Cs: commitment, control, and challenge. Individuals ‘high in hardiness’ are more likely to put stressful life events into perspective and tend to perceive them less of a threat and more of a challenge and as opportunities for personal development. As a consequence, stressful events are less likely to impact negatively on a person’s health. The buffering effect of psychological hardiness on health and well-being has been well researched and has been demonstrated for a variety of occupational groups, from business executives to students including people working in highly stressful conditions such as fire-fighters and people in the military.

The three Cs not only offer a way to cope with the stress change but provide a set of principles to live by. In academic coaching, I begin by exploring a student’s approach to learning, and the three Cs offer a great platform. For more on this, see my book Letters to a New Student (See UK  /  USA).

Let’s consider the three Cs in turn:

  • Commitment is the attitude of taking a genuine interest in other people, having a curiosity about the world and getting involved with people and activities. The opposite of commitment is alienation, which involves cutting yourself off and distancing yourself from other people. (See my blog post on ‘Why building social networks matters‘).
  • Control is the tendency to hold the attitude that control is something that comes from the inside. You focus on what you can control and act as if you can influence the events taking place around you by your own efforts. The opposite of control is powerlessness, which includes the perception that your life is controlled by external forces (fate, government) and that you do not have the means or capabilities to achieve your goals. Our sense of control is often based on perception rather than objective facts. (See my blog post on ‘control-focused coping‘).
  • Challenge is the attitude that change is the norm, as opposed to stability, and that change offers opportunities for personal development rather than threats. The opposite of challenge is security, and the need for everything to stay the familiar and predictable, allowing you to remain in your comfort zone. (See my other blog posts on goal-setting).

Taken together, the three components of psychological hardiness provide the motivation and confidence to look to the future to find meaning in life instead of repeating the past. Often in coaching, we find that small changes can have a big impact. This is one of the basic tenets of the type of solution-focused coaching.

Book: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodBuilding psychological hardiness need not be a mammoth task. It may involve simple ways in which we can reconnect with people or what some people call ‘getting yourself out of the house’. A few minutes engaged in a chat at the bus stop is a lot better than hours at home spent going over our problems. A small change can cause a dramatic shift in perspective.  Just by focusing on the small areas that we have control and exercising that control may lead to fresh insights. Just choosing to break a routine and do something slightly different or in another order can cause a shift. We can build on the smallest of shifts in coaching. The same applies to challenge. We all crave predictability in life, but at the same time, we appreciate the difference a bit of novelty brings. Again, a small ‘shake-up’ may be all that it takes to open up a new perspective.

Ask about coaching with Dr Gary WoodAdopting the three attitudes of hardiness (commitment, control, challenge) has been shown in research to enhance performance and health even in the face of stressful life changes. To choose the unknown future over the familiar past also requires courage. Coaching provides the necessary support and strategy to help you to do just that.

What will you do today that demonstrates the attitudes of commitment, control and challenge? Download the free PDF ‘Hardiness Challenge’ worksheet, and take daily small actions to support the 3Cs of commitment, control and challenge. And, get in touch to tell me how you got on.

To book your free coaching consultation chat get in touch.

Includes free access to an online personal development course with every consultation.

Post updated: 06 November 2019.

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