The Art of Strengths Coaching

C is for Channelling The Creative Mind rather than The Chaotic Mind  

 

People have a great ability to find solutions to challenges. They are more likely to take this step, however, when they channel the creative part of the mind rather than the chaotic part.

This seems obvious. Many outside forces, however, try to cause chaos, anger and fear in people’s minds. These include politicians, the media and sales organisations that try to provoke chaos.

Such forces often use the old method of divide and rule. They also try to convince people that their lives are terrible. Many forces on the web, for example, try to activate the part of the brain that reacts to fear. People can then be tempted to buy what the saviour is offering to quell the tumult. 

Human beings have evolved because they chose to, when appropriate, manage their emotions. They chose to clarify the goals, consider the options and see the possible consequences. They then chose to pursue the route most likely to achieve success.

Individuals can sometimes stray from the using the creative part of their mind. This is especially so when feeling angry, threatened or experiencing a crisis. They may then start swinging between feeling up, down and confused.

People can, however, channel the creative part of their mind to find solutions. Looking back, can you think of a situation when you took this step?

You may have chosen to stay calm during a crisis, clarify your goal and chart the way forward. Alternatively, you may have helped a person or a group of people to find solutions when dealing with a setback, redundancy or crisis.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation when you channleled the creative part of the mind – either within yourself or other people – rather than the chaotic part of the mind.  

Describe the specific things you did to take these steps. 

Describe the specific things that happened as a result of taking these steps.

There are many situations in which it can be helpful to enable people to take these steps. Looking at my own work, this has been helpful when working with people who are feeling chaotic for various reasons.

They may have been:

Recently bereaved … Diagnosed with a threatening illness … Made redundant … Depressed about things happening in the world … Having panic attacks … Working in a dysfunctional organisation … Experiencing another kind of crisis.

Looking at these situations, people often want to feel more in control. Their world has been shaken and they may feel depressed, worried or concerned about the future.

The aim is to create a calming environment in which people can feel at ease and express their emotions. When appropriate, it then to help them to take charge of their lives. Sometimes it involves going through the following steps.

As we know, people who experience a setback often need to time to heal. Bearing this in mind, it is helpful to create the equivalent of a sanctuary.

Different people choose different kinds of sanctuaries. They may rest, sleep, write, listen to music, see a counsellor or whatever. People begin to heal and regain their strength.

Sanctuaries are great, but there comes a time to move on, otherwise the muscles atrophy. People focus on what they can control and start shaping their future. They set short-term goals, work hard and get a success. Feeling more confident, they take the next step in their life or work.

Looking at my own work, frequently it has been possible to create a sanctuary in which people can feel calmer and begin shaping their lives. On some occasions, however, this has been more difficult.

This has particularly been the case, for example, when running workshops for groups of angry workers who feel their jobs are threatened. After awhile, however, it has been possible to help them to channel their emotions into shaping their futures.

Different people can be helped to find different creative ways to take this step. After creating the environment in which people feel safe, it is then possible to help them to work through the following steps. Let’s look at one example.

Sally: Choosing To
Take Control Of Her Life

Sally is somebody I was asked to see ten years ago. A high flyer, she was suddenly experiencing panic attacks. She had undergone medical tests, of course, but these did not reveal any abnormalities.

Her employers were worried. Sally had been a top performer for several years and, 6 months previously, had been promoted to a key role. Apparently there were changes happening in her personal life, but the details were sketchy. Her employers asked if I would be willing to meet her.

My first question was obviously: “Did she want to meet?” Within 24 hours I got an email from Sally herself, saying she would like to meet for an informal chat. We arranged to meet one week later in London.

Sally began the session by providing some background. She explained:

Most of my life I have been used to being successful, but recently things have been going wrong. At school I got good grades, was good at sport and ran for the county. University was fine. I knew how to pass exams and got a good degree.

Moving into work, I started in sales, climbed the ladder and moved over into operations. I got the reputation for turning around difficult teams and also launching new projects.

On the personal side, I have a 14-year-old daughter, who sometimes seems much older. Her father and I are separated, but we are still good friends.  

My mother died last year. I am close to my father, but he is not well, so I am focusing on his health care. Our family is widespread and has some complicated financial matters that need resolving, so I have taken on this task. I have tended to play the role of big sister in the family.

Pausing for a while, Sally explained the reasons for wanting to meet.

Everything was going fine until 6 months ago, when I got promoted to the role of Operations Director. My manager, who is on the Board, said he was impressed by my energy and saw me as his successor.

At first the job went well, but during the past 3 months things have deteriorated. My manager and I don’t get on. Whilst I knew his reputation as a micro-manager, I thought I could deal with it. I used to love my job, but now being at work feels claustrophobic.  

During the past month I have been feeling ill, though the tests say there is nothing medically wrong. Suddenly I start to sweat and feel panicky. Last week I was travelling to work on the Tube and felt as if I was going to faint.  

Recently I have felt drained. Sundays are spoiled. I now spend several hours preparing for the week ahead, because I don’t want to make any mistakes. I now fear that, for the first time, I will be seen to have failed. 

My main priorities are my daughter and father, but it would be good to feel happier. I have talked with friends and read books about focusing on priorities. But I am open to any ideas.

Looking at Sally’s life, several things stood out. She was used to being successful. She had a pattern of figuring out the rules – whether in school, sports, work or elsewhere – and working hard to reach the goals.

She was self-managing. Sally was used to getting on with things herself – rather than being supervised – and then delivering the goods. She was used to getting positive responses – either from people or by gaining badges of recognition – which reinforced her sense of success.

Sally was now in a situation, however, where she felt supervised. She did not know how to please her boss and felt she was failing. She was also taking on many difficult tasks, such as caring for her father’s health and sorting out the family’s finances, which meant she felt stretched.

She was showing symptoms of feeling out of control, which added to her sense of unease. Bearing this in mind, I invited her to begin by doing a simple exercise on this theme. I asked her the following question.

On a scale 0 – 10, how much do you feel in control of your life and work?

Sally thought for a moment and then gave the following reply.

If I am honest, it varies. At work it is about 3/10. At home it is much greater, around 8/10.

Previously in my work I would have scored at least 8/10. Right now I feel trapped in my job, which probably accounts for why the outlook seems bleak.

People who feel healthy often rate their sense of control as at least 7/10. Anything below that can be a danger signal. Sometimes the rating goes down, for example, after experiencing a setback. People may take time to heal, but they often recover. They re-take charge of their lives and increase their sense of control.

Sally was in a particularly difficult situation at work. She was in a double bind. This is a situation where, whatever a person does, they feel bound to lose.

She could try to do things her manager’s way, but that would feel alien. If she did not adapt, however, she would experience constant criticism. There is often a way out of a double bind, but finding it can take time, creativity and a clear action plan.

Clarity

Looking at Sally’s situation, we agreed on her aims. Bearing in mind the controllables, she listed the following goals in order of priority.

The real results I want to achieve are:

To feel more in control in my work. 

To do my best to improve my relationship with my manager. 

To regain the feeling of doing satisfying work.

Looking at these, I asked Sally to describe what would be happening that would show she had reached the goals. She said:

I would feel in charge of my life. I would be doing work I love, probably with a manager whom I respect, and going home at night feeling satisfied.  

I would have lots of energy to give to other people, such as my daughter and family. I would be able to deal with any problems or feelings of panic that came my way.

Focusing on the benefits of achieving these goals, we looked at the possible ways forwards.

Creativity

Sally had several options, some more attractive than others. So we began exploring the various routes.

When taking this step with a person, it can be important to start with the obvious routes, such as maintaining the status quo. It can be good to get such options on the table, even if these are rejected straight away. Recognising that doing nothing will mean paying a heavy price, for example, can spur a person to proactively seek other alternatives.

Looking ahead, Sally considered the following options.

a) To continue along the present route without changing anything.

The pluses would be:

She would continue earning a good salary, have high status in the company and maybe eventually take her boss’s role.

The minuses would be:

She would continue experiencing pain, feel unable to be true to herself and take those feelings home to her loved ones. No matter what she did, she would not please her manager. Eventually this could lead to her resigning from the company.

Attractiveness rating: 3/10

b) To focus on controlling the controllables and behave professionally towards her manager.

The pluses would be:

She could take a pride in choosing to have a positive attitude, behaving professionally and doing her best to perform good work for her colleagues, customers and manager. She would then feel that she had done her best. This approach may or may not work.

The minuses would be:

She would spend lots of time preparing properly, rehearsing meetings with her manager and trying to deliver the goods. Whilst possible to maintain over the short term, eventually this approach would be tiring. Whatever she did, it was likely her manager would find faults.

Attractiveness rating: 5/10 

c) To talk with the manager about how he could encourage her to perform even better in the future.

The pluses would be:

She could prepare a script for a face-to-face meeting with her manager. She could explain how he could enable her to do even better work by giving her feedback in a certain way.

Preparing this script might have benefits for her. It would help to clarify: a) The specific things a manager could do to encourage her to do great work; b) The specific things a manager shouldn’t do. Clarifying this information could be valuable to take into manager relationships in the future.

The minuses would be:

She doubted the manager would change. Taking the risk of sharing these ideas would take a lot of emotional energy. Certainly it might be good to share this information at some point, but she doubted whether it would have the immediate desired effect.

Attractiveness rating: 3/10

d) To move on to another role inside or outside the company.

The pluses would be:

She would escape the present pain and feel relief. Providing she found the right role, she would do satisfying work. She would feel more alive and have more energy to give to her loved ones. There would be a sense of liberation.

The minuses would be:

She might not find the right role. She might also feel that she had given up. Such an interpretation was illogical, because she was in a no-win situation, but it might persist. She might not find a job of equivalent level in either her present or another company. 

Attractiveness rating: 6/10 

Looking at all these options, we began to consider the best parts of each route. This eventually led to exploring a further option.

e) To behave professionally towards her manager and perform superb work for her company – yet also begin to explore other routes where she could do satisfying work.

Sally and I began by considering all the things she could do to behave professionally towards her manager. She planned: 

To prepare properly for meetings with him and rehearse the specific things that might occur in the sessions. 

To stay calm during the meetings and recognise he was not going to change his style. 

To show she understood his picture of success – the specific results he and his bosses required delivering from the department – and to show that she would deliver these targets.

To follow up each meeting with a summary of what she would deliver – plus ask if there were any other points to add – and get some quick successes.

To proactively keep him informed regarding the progress towards achieving the overall goals.

Sally chose to follow these guidelines when interacting with her manager. Whether or not it would work remained to be seen, but at least she would be doing her best. She said later:

I decided to act as if there was a video on me. I aimed to behave in a professional way that was beyond reproach.

She also took steps to spend more time with other people she knew from her time in the company. During the previous decade she had built good relationships with people at all levels, including many of the Directors. Some leaders had also moved on to other companies. She decided:

To spend even more time with the leaders and managers in the company and focus on how her department could help them to achieve success. 

To spend time with other people in the company and, where appropriate, share knowledge they could use to achieve success.

To spend time with specific people who had moved on from the company and, providing they were not working for competitors, share knowledge they could use to achieve success.

Sally’s department played a key role in supporting others. So it made sense to spend time getting even closer to these internal customers, clarifying their needs and helping them to reach their goals.

She loved encouraging people. The Managing Director – her boss’s boss – had asked her to play a key role in the company’s mentoring programmes. So she decided to recommit herself to this work. She always felt inspired after running mentoring sessions for younger people in the business.

She also decided to reconnect with several leaders who had moved on from the business. One had moved to a potential competitor and had asked her to drop by.

Sally considered meeting him simply for a catch up, but to be careful. Some leaders, however, had taken key roles in non-competitive businesses. She planned to meet two of these people in the next month.

She and I began exploring how she could do satisfying work. Looking back at the times she had done fulfilling work – both in her business and sporting career – a clear pattern emerged. The kind of project in which she excelled was one where:

She was doing something she strongly believed in – such as launching a new way of delivering customer service, developing a new business or helping others to succeed. 

She was playing to her strengths. She was good at orchestrating self-motivated people to work towards delivering a crystal-clear goal by a certain deadline. This also involved delivering some kind of performance, such as presenting to a company-wide conference or publicly launching a new product.

She was working for a manager who gave her some ownership in clarifying the ‘What’, but gave her freedom – within parameters – regarding the ‘How’. She could have a dialogue with the manager without him putting on his Mr Fix-It hat. She had the autonomy and authority required to reach the goal.

She was able to organise her time in blocks. This meant she could manage her workload properly, concentrate fully on achieving the goals and avoid meaningless meetings. She was also able to spend quality time with her daughter.

She stretched herself to reach the goal, but was doing this in an area that played to her strengths. She ensured that she and other people worked hard, reached the goal and rose to the occasion to deliver some kind of performance. 

Bearing these answers in mind, I invited Sally to complete the following exercise devoted to clarifying her perfect role. This invited her to identify the kind of project, people and place she would find stimulating. We then moved on to exploring how she could find or create such a project.

Completing this exercise led to Sally taking active steps to seek out her next role. These steps were part of her action plan, which we will cover later. Before then, however, there was one other topic to explore.

Changing Sequences

Sally had been having panic attacks. The root problem, she felt, was that previously she had felt restricted at work, which led to a feeling of claustrophobia.

She wanted to escape and breathe easily. After discussing her career options, she felt more able to take control and shape her future. Nevertheless, she explained:

It would still be good to have a back-up plan, just in case I get these panic feelings again.

Sally wanted to remain calm, especially when encountering the first warning signs. So how to tackle this challenge? We explored ways to deal with such situations.

People have deeply rooted patterns and get into the habit of following certain sequences. These can result in successful or unsuccessful outcomes.

Recognising and changing these sequences can help people to get better outcomes. They can manage pressures, give up an addiction, be more successful or whatever.

Looking at when she had felt panic, Sally explained that it often involved the following sequence.

She began worrying about the things that could go wrong at work that day. 

She felt her hands getting sweaty, her arms tingling and a heavy weight on her shoulders. 

She felt locked in, had difficulty in breathing and began to feel dizzy.

She tried to think of something pleasant, such as being with her daughter, and eventually managed to recover her composure. 

People can follow positive or negative sequences that lead to certain outcomes. They go ‘A, B, C …’ and follow a sequence that means they find themselves at … ‘Z’.

Some people follow positive sequences that enable them to achieve success. Some follow negative sequences that cause problems.

People who want to break a harmful addiction, for example, recognise the potential warning signs. They then interrupt the negative sequence by doing something different.

Some people choose, for example, to break it by doing something physically different. They meditate, go for a walk, listen to music or do whatever they find works.

Some channel their thoughts by focusing on positive emotions. Some replace the negative addiction with a positive one, such as running. This enables them to take control of the situation.

Sally was already focusing on positive things by thinking of her daughter. But she took this step when well into the panic attack. Her first reaction was often to try to fight the attack, but that did not help.

So we explored how she could move into the calm mode much earlier. After some discussion she settled on the following plans.

One way could be for me to carry my iPod and listen to my favourite music. There are certain kinds of music that make me feel calm. I could listen to these when travelling.

Unfortunately this would not be practical in meetings. So then, if I start getting the warning signs, I can immediately switch to thinking of the good things in my life.

I am blessed with a beautiful daughter, lovely friends and many other things. So I can start a more positive train of thought by focusing on these, rather than worrying about other issues.

People who choose to become healthy, rather than maintain unhealthy habits, often take this step. They choose to move into a positive sequence that brings positive outcomes, rather than follow a negative sequence. Such an approach eventually becomes second nature and enables them to stay healthy.

Leaving little to chance, Sally planned to set aside time to mentally rehearse these steps. She wanted to practice her back-up plan before any warning signs appeared. This would enable her to feel more in control and able to deal with the challenges.

Concrete Results

During the session Sally and I had covered many topics. Reviewing the themes, she made concrete action plans:

To stay calm when faced by challenges.

To behave professionally towards her manager. 

To begin searching for a role where she could do satisfying work. 

Sally felt able to behave professionally towards her manager. She was more excited, however, about embarking on finding more satisfying work. She said:

Whilst I can do my best, there are limits to how I can expect my manager to behave. Previously I believed that, if I did certain things, he would change. This may still happen, but I am not counting on it. All I can do is behave in a professional way. 

Looking ahead, I feel good about reconnecting with lots of people inside and outside the company. There are some Department Heads, for example, who I need to get alongside.

Previously I have put so much time into dealing with my manager that I have neglected going out to other key people. I have always enjoyed clarifying people’s aims and helping them to succeed.  

This is something I can do with the stakeholders and make sure we deliver tangible results. I can also devote time to mentoring younger people in the business.

Looking outside the business, there are several people I can contact. This is something I can get into the habit of doing and maybe meet two people a month. 

I can start by meeting those who have contacted me, but then set up times to meet others who have moved on from the business. It will be good to get out into the real world again.

Sally also planned to resume running. Always driven by targets, she aimed to run several half marathons to raise £5,000. This would help to fund community programmes run by her local athletics club.

She would also coach young athletes who were committed to improving. This led to her saying:

My diary looks pretty full. I am not going to get much time to panic. It will be fun meeting with colleagues, the people who have moved on and the young athletes.

 Sally and I continued meeting over the next two years. She carried out her plan:

To prepare properly for meetings with her manager.

To proactively keep him informed about the progress towards achieving the agreed goals.

To be super professional with everybody in the company and deliver positive results.

The real eye-opener for her, however, came from going out to meet people in other companies. She said later:

I found it exciting to meet former colleagues. The surprising thing for me was the common problems they faced. I soon found myself sharing ideas they could use to organise their systems and improve customer service.

Sally maintained the discipline of meeting people in other companies. This eventually led to one of her former managers – somebody she respected – inviting her to take the role of Customer Services Director. After some soul searching, but not too much, she took the role.

Six months after moving on from her company she received a telephone call from them. Apparently her former boss had left the business, although the reasons why were not specified. Would she be interested in taking his role? She said:

Maybe it was the wrong thing to do, but I turned down the offer. I am happy in my new position, particularly working close to the Managing Director.  

He is supportive and, providing I deliver the results, encourages me to manage things in my own way. This enables me to doing fulfilling things in my professional and personal life.

Looking back, she mentioned one concept that stood out from our first session. Sally said:

The biggest realisation for me was that I was in a double bind. Whatever I did, I was bound to lose.  

Previously I had felt crazy and believed everything was my fault. Yes, I could do better, but it was actually a no win situation. Recognising this lifted a burden from my shoulders.

She continued to care for her father’s health which, she said, taught her about the important things in life. Resuming running, mentoring young people and taking care of the family finances proved satisfying. She also enjoyed being mother to her daughter, who was spending her last year at home before going to university.

Sally felt more alive and, whilst ready with her back-up plan, was still waiting to deal with any panic attacks. In a perverse way, she might even welcome such warning signs. She could then show how much she had learned about taking charge of her life.

—————–

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, can you think of a situation in which you would like to channel the creative mind within yourself or other people?

You may want to take the next step in your career, manage a transition or deal with a potentially chaotic situation. Alternatively, you may want to help a person or a group of people to find solutions to a challenge they may face.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future when you may want to channel the creative part of the mind – either within yourself or other people – rather than the chaotic part of the mind.  

Describe the specific things you can do to take these steps.

Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of taking these steps.

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