Core Flexibility in Performance Enhancement
The Power of Emotional Awareness in Behavioral Change
By Steve Whiteford © 2015
I was recently called to coach a young tech professional who was having difficulty changing some detrimental work habits. They were simple patterns like – clocking overtime by working to “perfection” vs. adhering to defined project parameters, not engaging others soon enough when problem solving, general lack of interpersonal skills and a faltering relationship with his manager. Fairly common challenges.
Management had addressed the issues in a practical and straightforward manner, and although the need for behavioral change was logical and clear, the challenges continued. You can tell someone what the apparent problems are, evoke goals, and suggest appropriate behavioral fixes; yet in the blinding light of the
the obvious, the person who is caught in strongly practiced patterns may remain as bewildered as the proverbial deer in the headlights.
When I heard the story, I immediately wondered if the guy was highly independent, committed to his opinions and just savvy enough to pay lip service to the need to improve. On meeting him, it was clear my supposition was wrong and that he was vulnerable, willing and stuck. We again discussed the issues management had presented and then went a little deeper with the obvious prescriptions: Time Management, Working Types (MBTI), Communication Skills coaching, and some in-depth exploration of work tactics and strategies to mine insights for options.
I used the EQ-I 2.0 Emotional Intelligence assessment as one of my coaching tools to provide a deeper perspective and, although many of the points listed above were indicated by the profile, what most caught my attention were the mutually low scores of Emotional Self-Awareness and Flexibility. In spite of his willingness Clark was stuck in behavioral patterns that were triggered by feelings, so he remained inflexible; unable to make progress. Of course! All of our actions are ruled by feelings, though often subtle, obscured by familiarity and protected by identity.
Up to now the approach had been conventional (do-this-get-this), but nothing had really addressed the root tool for Flexibility: Emotional Self-Awareness. So we explored it.
Human beings build our identities by consciously or unconsciously accepting our thoughts and feelings as who we are. Change can be difficult because increasing awareness and making changes in our thoughts and feelings seems like giving up who we are at core. Building Clark’s new pattern for change hinged on awareness.
- Notice when I’m in the “gear” of (overworking/resentment in relationship/social avoidance/unworthiness or fear of incompetence, etc.)
- Check how my body feels when in this gear. This can establish a clear identifier for the gear. Do something to change it: relax, stretch, breathe, take a walk, etc.
- Recognize emotional feelings, feel them physically, accept them – make them OK. Through this practice we can harvest precise and useful information from the feeling. When we relax into feelings with acceptance and gentleness, we move away from our patterns of defense and solidified, habitual conclusions.
- Notice thinking – what am I saying to myself? Choose not to immediately believe the thoughts. This is how we discover habitual conclusions; the voices of defense, insecurity, resentment, annoyance, etc. before we accept them and act on them. Consider countering the thoughts: remember the value of work parameters, acknowledge my expertise, see the good side of an associate, etc. (Commonly known as Cognitive Therapy.)
- Utilize conventional techniques to assist effecting a change: time checks, make a list of discoveries that are outside the project parameters for later discussion, stick to the schedule, try a different action or approach, etc.
It may appear that this approach could take a lot of time, and it often requires some coaching to help someone break through the bubble of “identity” with supportive discernment. But with a little focus and practice (the proverbial 30 to 60 repetitions?) it’s possible to lay the axe at the root of what blocks personal flexibility and productivity. The initial point of awareness may come from any of the first 4 bullets listed.
The key is not to compound any of the feeling/thinking discoveries by believing they are “bad.” As soon as we beat ourselves up, resistance and denial rise and change becomes more difficult. Discoveries are best experienced as workable information about ourselves or the situation. If we don’t make it about us being wrong, we have a broader choice of strategies to experiment with to find a solution. And it’s ironic that the call for coaching often implies we’ve been bad or wrong.
We all have habitual perceptions, behaviors and beliefs that protect us and give us a sense of assurance. It’s interesting that how we psychologically evolve to survive, streamline performance and maintain a sense of security, can be the same psychodynamic system that ultimately inhibits the flexibility of performance to survive and thrive.
For brevity, I do not detail use of the bulleted model for awareness per Clark’s challenges. I trust you can apply the bullets and intuit an initial point of awareness leverage for each of his highlighted behaviors. It’s a great exercise to try yourself. Doing so will give you resonant examples to use when assisting others. Having a coach can ensure that your self-assessments are kind and keep you honest.