Some life-changing revelations from training as a coach.
If life is just a series of connected moments, then the quality of our attention in any single moment can help determine the quality of our life. ‘The American Zen teacher David Loy characterises an unenlightened existence (samsara) as simply the state in which one’s attention becomes ‘trapped’ as it grasps from one thing to another, always looking for the next thing to latch on to. Nirvana, for Loy, is simply a free and open attention that is completely liberated from such fixations.’
Constant distraction is hell, whereas complete focus on the present moment is nirvana. That’s a pretty powerful claim. It’s the kind of idea that makes you want to switch off your iPhone and ruthlessly maximise every moment of your waking life.
That drive to find what makes a moment perfect led me to become very interested in the concept of ‘flow’. Flow describes those moments of optimal human experience when you’re completely focused on the present moment; ‘in the zone’. If flow is experiencing the best ‘now’, is finding your flow the answer to living your best life?
After I became a father there was something about flow-seeking that didn’t sit very well with me, even if I couldn’t quite articulate it. Essentially, the more extreme kinds of flow can be a very selfish pursuit, culminating in the kind of behavior you see in BASE jumpers and wingsuit skydivers; risking their lives in pursuit of ever-higher highs. Experiences as narcotics.
I recently listened to one of Jordan Peterson’s always electrifying podcasts, this one on Cain and Abel. In it Peterson talks a lot about the nature of sacrifice. Sacrifice is a simple concept with profound implications; the understanding that the future can be bargained with. We forego something of value today in order to thrive in future. ‘People watched the successful succeed and the unsuccessful fail for thousands and thousands of years. We thought it over, and drew a conclusion: The successful among us sacrifice. The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future.’ Sacrifice delays gratification rather than seeking to optimize every moment. Of course sacrifice and flow are not mutually exclusive; exercise for example. But the parable of Cain & Abel also articulates that some kinds of sacrifices are preferred by God, in a way that is often frustrating and opaque to us mortals. Maybe if there’s a hierarchy of sacrifice, there’s also a hierarchy of flow.
If attention is our most valuable asset in determining the quality of our life, what happens when we sacrifice it for others? That would surely make it one of the ultimate sacrifices we can make. Is this not the point of prayer? To voluntarily choose to spend our time and attention focused on God. This is also what being a new father means to me, to try to better sacrifice my most valuable asset, time and attention, to my child.
So far I don’t think this is a very controversial conclusion; pay more attention to your kids, pay more attention to what you’re doing. But what if there was something more profound going on here? What if human attention is intrinsically healing?
The NYT recently wrote a fascinating article titled ‘what if the Placebo effect isn’t a trick?’ It cited a story of IBS sufferers being given an acupuncture treatment. ‘In one, acupuncturists went through all the motions of treatment, but used a device that only appeared to insert a needle. Subjects in a second group also got sham acupuncture, but delivered with more elaborate doctor-patient interaction than the first group received. A third group was given no treatment at all. At the end of the trial, both treatment groups improved more than the no-treatment group, and the “high interaction” group did best of all.’
The study found that: ‘the strength of the treatment varied with the quality and quantity of interaction between the healer and the patient — the drama, in other words’. Their fascinating conclusion was that ‘the placebo effect is a biological response to an act of caring; that somehow the encounter itself calls forth healing and that the more intense and focused it is, the more healing it evokes.’
The power of human attention to heal IN ITSELF has been a mainstay of coaching, therapy, confession and relationships since the beginning of human history. But what’s interesting is it doesn’t seem to matter that much what discipline is used, as long as it’s warm, accepting and engaged. Carl Rogers was an American psychologist and among the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology. In his book, On Becoming A Person, he wrote that ‘The self-awareness and human presence of the therapist is more important than the therapist’s technical training.’
When change does happen in the crucible of a coaching relationship, it’s much more about accountability and consistency through failures. The relationship between two people does the work. As Rogers puts it, ‘If I can provide a certain type of relationship, the other person will discover within himself the capacity to use that relationship for growth, and change and personal development will occur.’ But I think it’s also about something deeper; speaking the truth about yourself in the presence of another, and having it heard, produces positive change. I don’t know why, I hope to find out one day.
One of the most interesting things I’ve learned in training to be a coach is that advice is remarkably poor at eliciting enduring change. If you’re talking too much, you’re probably doing it wrong. Just look at the internet; it’s absolutely choked with advice. The entire self-help genre presupposes all we needed was the knowledge that by eating less and exercising more we would imminently earn our six-packs. Instead the impulse for change seems to need to originate from your own mouth, your own self. Until you say it and understand it, the process cannot start. Again, I’m not sure why, but I’ve seen it happen repeatedly, including with myself.
It’s also not the coach’s job to fix, but to help someone find within themselves what they already have. To ‘become the individual they truly are’. Maybe that’s part of the reason advice is so useless; on some level the coachee already knows what they need to do, it’s the self-awareness and robust support mechanism to do it that they lack. By bringing advice into the conversation we also smuggle in our own agendas, and our agendas may not be consistent with the emerging truth in someone else. Instead the coach acts more as a mirror for the self as it unfolds.
Thus more information is rarely the answer. Especially when we don’t even know what the right question is. As Pablo Picasso put it ‘Computers are useless- they can give only answers’. Do we always know ourselves well enough to know why we keep failing to change? Google suddenly becomes useless if we don’t know what to type into the search bar. But a really good listener dynamically responds to the flow of conversation in order to ask their next question, rather than thinking up something smart-sounding while the other person is talking. They can therefore listen for clues that the person speaking cannot always hear themselves.
It was through my coaching training that I learned about a listening superpower: ASK “WHAT” QUESTIONS. If your next question starts with the word “what” it is nigh-on impossible to indulge the natural urge to take the conversation back to yourself. “What is that like?”, “What does that mean?”, simple questions that allow for free elaboration and signal curiosity. It also forces the other person deeper into their own thoughts and motivations, and surprisingly quickly.
To return to flow for a second; deep conversation is also extremely flow-generating. If there is a hierarchy of flow, I would argue that this is near the top. So it’s possible to have your cake and eat it in that respect; ‘perfect’ moments and self-sacrifice. Heaven is other people.
To quickly sum up, sacrificing our time & attention for others might well be one of the best things we can do. The ideal kind of attention is warm, engaged and truthful. Properly used, this skill might literally somehow heal the person we are listening to, and even allow them to manifest their latent potential.
This sounds to me like a superpower worth cultivating.
My personal coaching philosophy and website can be found at Personal Best NYC: https://www.personalbestnyc.com/