“When we are unhappy with how things are turning out, we must change our behavior, for the way things are turning out is a result of the behaviors we are currently using.”
It’s a simple assertion, one that is much simpler said than done. Why? Because we grasp hold of habitual ways of seeing, thinking, and doing with all the tenacity of a true believer. Even when these habits leave us falling short of what we want repeatedly and failing in areas of life that we deeply care about succeeding in, we cannot let go of them … at least that’s the way it seems.
What’s the solution? It involves relational learning, which means learning in a relationship with another person. It’s a relationship within which we are awakened to our habits, presented with opportunities to make informed choices, and learn how to act on them. Now, you might ask, “Is that therapy or is that coaching?” That’s for another day. In either case it’s adaptive development.
Not Another Theory of Change!
No, it’s a theory of learning, which is usually the most adaptive response to change, especially when the change concerns disappointing results. Learning concerns knowledge of (self, others, situation) and knowledge about (matters of fact methods, procedures), as well as skills to act from that knowledge. That is to say, what we’re talking about is the acquisition of accurate and useful knowledge, and relevant and effective skills. They prove to be accurate and effective when put to use in practice - they work!
That sounds so neat and tidy, doesn’t it? But when we’re stuck, and when we’ve tried and tried to solve our problems, to figure things out, to learn, all without success, it does not look or feel very neat and tidy. We’re frustrated, discouraged, and our attitude and energy move in the negative direction. We know at some level it’s not because we’re stupid, but we can’t help feeling less able and smart.
The thing we need to remember – phrased a bit differently than our opening quotation – is that what we have learned is not working. And it’s not simply not working, it is interfering with our ability to learn new ways of functioning. That’s a good definition of “self-limiting.” Therefore, the first thing we must do is to question and unlearn the stuff – thoughts, feelings, patterns of action – that are problematic. And keep in mind, that the learning we seek is situation specific.
Our habits became automatic ways of navigating our social and practical environment because they worked. But what was enough there and then is obviously not the right approach here and now. So, where do we begin this learning process? We begin with a concrete description of a current situation that is not working. The situation that can be described as a “slice of time.”
Tom is having trouble getting things done in his new role as team leader. Here’s the way he describes a specific example: We all arrive in a meeting room for a project review. I try to call the meeting to order and get things going, but others can’t stop their conversations. So, I put my foot down. But then everyone goes quiet and I can’t get people to be really engaged in figuring out the problems we need to solve.
I asked Tom, “How did you interpret this situation as it played out?” His response was kind of rambling: I was pissed off, frustrated. They know me, and they know this is important work, so why don’t they give me a break. I would never have taken this job (promotion) to lead this group if I knew they were going to pull this kind of “stuff” (expletive deleted)!
“So,” I asked, “what did you do?” He responded: It was like pulling teeth, but I just went directly to them with questions about their ideas and recommendations. We came out with something that was okay, but it was much more difficult than it needed to be. Afterward, I asked one of the people, Hallie, “What that was all about?” She said that they got carried away getting caught up on their holiday experiences, and then felt I was really in a bad mood.
“So, Tom, did you get what you wanted?” His face flushed with frustration: Yes and no. That’s not the kind of leader I want to be. And we may have done okay with the work, but I don’t think we’ll do our best work that way. And I don’t like being seen in a negative light, you know, the bad mood thing.
I heard him, what he voiced and the feelings that were not spoken. “Well, how about if we go through this situation again and try to notice how it might work out differently the next time?” No surprise, Tom was all in. And as we processed the situation, we considered different ways we might interpret their behavior, and different actions he might have taken to get what he wanted from the meeting.
We did this in the context of a trusting relationship. I even shared my personal sense of the “serious edge” that he may at times signal with his facial expressions. We discussed how that might arise from his intense worries about “getting it right” and “proving himself.” He discovered that if we could talk about these matters openly, that he could probably express his feeling more openly with his team too.
The role is new. He wants to succeed. He wants to work together with the team as they always have, with some playful back-and-forth, but also with and real sense of pride in getting the job done. And it’s different figuring out how to do that as a leader. That’s what he did. They talked about it. He became less self-conscious about playing his role, calling the meeting to order without getting “cranky.”