From Seeing to Doing

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Seeing is often used as a metaphor for understanding things, and for seeing the purpose and means of instrumental action. It’s also used to signify insight into oneself (self-awareness) and discovering the unseen forces that can block our growth and development.

Observational Learning & Insight

We have all learned from watching others, our parents and teachers, and later, after entering the workforce, we learn from the modeling and mentoring of more experienced others. That’s what we might call observational learning, learning from seeing what others do, their overt, task-oriented execution of skilled actions.

But it’s a different matter to learn from the seeing which occurs through insight into our own mental, emotional, and behavioral tendencies. This insight is gleaned in conversation, moments of private reflection, and especially in developmental dialogue with a professional helper. It may arise from our joint interpretation of assessment results in a coaching relationship.

This latter form of seeing is often more difficult to translate into action. Insight consists of a significant emotional experience – the wow factor – as well as a rational-semantic translation of this felt wow into conceptual understanding, which registers as important and practically relevant. Translating this seeing into doing implies change. It’s a process, not a moment.

The Depth of Change

Many kinds of skilled action acquired through observational learning lay just below the surface, less embedded in deeper structures of self, identity, and values. They concern matters of efficiency and effectiveness in execution. They seldom challenge the imperatives and “oughts” we acquired very early in life. We let go of these old ways and acquire new ones with greater ease.

And as these overt actions yield improvement, they are quickly reinforced. But it’s different with basic personality tendencies and the motivations that drive us to compensate for long-standing fears and/or feelings of inadequacy. Even with a positive sense of self, there may be interpersonal tendencies that hinder our readiness to handle conflict or express warmth.

But the deeper structures are not fixed in concrete. They are malleable, but loosening the grip of habits and the anxiety of letting them go doesn’t happen so quickly. It’s because they felt so necessary for so long to our safety, success, and acceptance by others. We form beliefs about these tendencies. Their felt truth and validity carry more consequential implications.

Each of these beliefs – e.g., that conflict is dangerous, that it may risk alienating others, and that it must be avoided – is embedded in a larger network of beliefs: “Intelligent people are composed, reasonable. Expressing anger means I’m an out-of-control person. And if I challenge a person’s emotionally charged assertions, it will only escalate into angry emotions and bad things will happen.”  

Most of these beliefs that constrain our freedom of action and inhibit our readiness to experiment with new behaviors are not inherently false or invalid. But they were formulated in the all-or-none form that characterizes the mind of the child – because that’s when we learned them. The felt consequences of violating them seemed so harsh that we granted them unquestioned authority.

Such imperatives, which operate with the rigidity and force characteristic of fight-or-flight reactions, also operate unconsciously, automatically. So, we must raise awareness of them to weaken their grip on us. But we must also have good reason to alter these beliefs, and we must have the assurance that when we do so we will be safe and that they will prove helpful.

Increasing Our Self-Efficacy to Act

Creating that readiness to act, self- efficacy, is one of the most important aims of developmental coaching. It implies changes in our beliefs: 1) that there is a viable solution strategy; 2) that it has been shown to deliver results; 3) that it is something I can learn with help; and 4) that I can hone this skill by experimenting gradually, starting with low-risk situations before trying higher-risk situations.

Yes, we must deconstruct the issues and do a good deal of game-planning. But that’s what good coaching accomplishes. Whether it’s done one-on-one or in a team development mode, patient persistence is the key. The coachee/s, determine the pace. The coach prevents them from becoming complacent while recognizing and respecting your felt readiness.