What happens when clients block self-awareness?

May 4th, 2019

“You can’t handle the truth.” Spoken by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men

Sometimes a person will get a glimpse of insight about themselves. Then, quickly run away from it. Alan did this in a recent coaching session. He is an executive who is working on becoming less harsh and demeaning with staff members who make mistakes or underperform. As we explored possible causes of this behavior, he perked up and mentioned being shamed by his parents and his classmates. Sensing a valuable nugget, I asked him to tell me more about those experiences and how he felt during them. As soon as I asked that, his face tightened up, he looked away from me and said that that wasn’t relevant. And added that, after all, his people deserved his harsh treatment. And that he would appear weak if he didn’t publicly reprimand them.

I have seen a similar response with a few other clients over the years. When a certain topic came up in conversation, their face turned tight or seemingly blank. They looked away. Then, either went silent or changed the subject. In all of these situations, the client’s blocking reaction was quite visible and palpable.  

I have been surprised and befuddled every time it has happened. In the case of Alan, here was a very intelligent and curious person who had just come across a clue that could have deepened his awareness about a cause of his behavior pattern. Then, he quickly dismissed it. Why?

Pain: One cause could be that the topic was very painful. Many psychologists, dating back to Freud, would say that believing it and keeping it in his awareness would just be too painful. Reliving the humiliation, as a grown man, would be more unpleasant and even more personally dangerous, than living with the consequences of being seen as a “mean” leader. So, as if he had touched a hot stove, he pulled away.

Fear: Looking closely at challenging information can be scary. Maybe Alan knew, unconsciously, that integrating this new information might be the key to changing his behavior. And that changing a long-standing pattern might be uncomfortable, frightening, and even dangerous. We are all creatures of habit. So, envisioning the possibility of change might be too scary to even begin, and therefore cause us to resist requests to change.

New story: Another cause could be the existing stories in his mind. Integrating this new information about being humiliated as a youth would require him to change his narrative about himself from a successful executive who rose from humble beginnings through hard work – to someone who was abused and is now passing on that abuse. Embracing this new information would require him to change his story about himself.  And, it could be just be too much to handle. Clients are usually reluctant to consider any information that might negatively alter their life scripts. Allowing negative feelings to enter into their consciousness could temporarily diminish their self-esteem and self-confidence therefore limiting their ability to change. 

Protecting others: He could also be protecting his family and friends.  He was fond of both. So, accepting that he was humiliated by his parents and friends would cause him to change his perception of them from “firm, but fair, good people” to “cruel”. His loyalty to his perceptions of them could be preventing him from accepting this information, even though it could help him make a significant behavior change and enhance his career.

 Unskillful: Turning away could also be caused by lack of skill. As he contemplates reacting differently to underperforming staff, Alan, and others might not know how to respond differently. A leader does need to say something said when underperformance occurs. But Alan might have no idea about how to respond less harshly. After all, his current pattern is a habit that he has been using for decades. So, in the face of this, he ignores, even runs away from the new information.

So, what can a coach do?

The most effective approach approaches to helping a client move past resistance is to act as a mirror; a very attuned, empathic mirror. The coach can begin this process by relaxing themselves in order to observe and listen to the client as closely as possible. This astute observation can include: watching their facial expressions, their skin tone, the dilation of their pupils, the movement of the muscles in their face, neck and torso, changes in their breathing, the posture of their body and any ways that they are moving, such as foot tapping or leg movements. And more. Along with observing, the coach can listen to the words they say with their mind and heart, sensing their client’s underlying meaning. 

As the coach takes all this in, they can be open to the empathic feelings it evokes in them. The coach can scan their own bodies for sensation and emotion.  They can allow their feeling to emerge; recognizing that they are feeling with the client. It is important to relax and let these feelings emerge, and not necessarily try hard to feel. Just be open and be aware. (We have learned that trying to hard actually blocks feeling.) 

Once they sense the client’s feeling, the coach can make a short statement that names the feeling; statements such as: “Confusing, no?“ “That’s pretty sad.” “Seems exciting.” Observations and statements like these can help the client become more aware of their feelings by bringing the feeling from just outside of the their consciousness to the center of their attention. It can deepen their self-awareness and shift the way they are interpreting their situation. If the client can organize the newly mirrored information into a new narrative, it will become their idea rather than the coach’s. (And we know that people are much more motivated to act on their own ideas rather than advice from someone else.) This shift can then lead to thinking, feeling and eventually acting in a different way, a way that will lead to a more satisfying outcome.

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