Catalysis: An acceleration of the rate of a process or reaction, brought about by a catalyst, usually present in small managed quantities and unaffected at the end of the reaction. A catalyst permits reactions or processes to take place more effectively or under milder conditions than would otherwise be possible. - Catalysis.org
At some level self-coaching is all about change. Changing how we spend our time so we're more fulfilled, and changing our behavior so we're more effective. Doing more of what's working in our lives, and doing less of--or stopping entirely--what's not working. We may even want to change the direction of our lives in a more comprehensive way, and all large changes result from a series of smaller ones.
Catalysts alter the rate of change in a reaction, and the catalysts in a self-coaching process are 1) the ongoing conversations with ourselves we've set in motion through self-engagement, 2) the goals that we’ve identified and clarified for ourselves, and 3) the heightened perception of our in-the-moment responses and the fuller understanding of ourselves we've obtained through increased self-awareness. Note that each of these elements has a social component as well: By inviting the people who matter to us into these ongoing conversations, we enrich the dialogue; by sharing our goals with them, we increase our level of commitment; and by asking for their feedback, we see ourselves from their perspective and understand ourselves in new ways.
All of these catalysts can serve to make change easier--they can increase our willingness to change, or they can lower our resistance to change. Catalysts also change the conditions under which change is possible--we don’t need to wait until we're under duress or facing difficulties that might force change upon us. We can act sooner, at the moment of our own choosing, "under milder conditions."
The changes that occur in a self-coaching process take the form of an endless series of pivotal moments when we intervene and take action (or choose NOT to act). On occasion these interventions are Large, Dramatic Gestures, but far more often they're small, quotidian steps--little things we do on a daily basis, or even many times a day, to nudge ourselves in the direction of our goals.
A concept I find particularly useful in this context is Kurt Lewin and Edgar Schein's 3-stage change process (which I've discussed a number of times on this site.) In this model we start in a "frozen" state, automatically following our existing behavioral patterns; we "unfreeze" under the appropriate conditions, and our patterns are altered; and we then "refreeze" and enter a new state of automaticity.
Self-coaching first involves becoming aware of our automatic behavior patterns and seeing all those moments when we choose not to intervene--when we simply obey our impulses to do (or NOT do) something. With the support of the catalysts noted above--and the people who've been a part of our self-coaching process--this awareness allows us to then consciously intervene and make different choices. We can take action, when previously we would have sat back. Or we can sit back, when previously we would have taken action. These interventions take the form of momentary, tactical acts of what we might call self-regulation, and taken as a whole they comprise a larger, strategic process of self-management.
A timely example of this process at work: While I was writing this post Amy and I got into a fight--the details are beyond irrelevant, as they usually are, but suffice to say it was my fault initially, and then we each made it worse. As John Gottman's research makes clear, couples in successful long-term relationships continue to fight, and what's critical is that they learn how to fight effectively--they can fully express anger and frustration, but even in the heat of the moment, they're able to manage themselves, de-escalate the conflict, and eventually bring the fight to a close.
Amy and I have had plenty of practice over the course of our 26 years together, and in this fight what allowed us to turn the tide, recover and re-connect with each other was our respective ability to intervene in our automatic behaviors. At critical moments, we both felt tempted to say something that we knew would have made things worse--and yet would have felt SO good to say. But we didn't just give voice to those thoughts and feelings, nor did we stifle them entirely--we worked hard to find a way to express them that did some justice to our perspective while minimizing their potential to further inflame the other. At other moments I just wanted to disengage--a common ploy that Gottman calls "stonewalling," which allows one party in a conflict to feel less stressed while tending to increase the stress of the other party--but I resisted that impulse and stayed present. And finally, eventually, we talked ourselves off the ledge and even had a conversation to assess how and why things went wrong.
I'm not holding up my marriage or myself as a paragon of perfection here--there's plenty I can do to be a better husband and a better person, and I know that what I learned in this experience won't prevent our next fight from happening. But it's a meaningful example to me of self-intervention at both a tactical and a strategic level. In the moment, both Amy and I intervened with ourselves on multiple occasions to tactically self-regulate--in this case, to resist impulses to say or do things which sprang from automatic behavior patterns and yet which would have been counterproductive. And I believe that intervening repeatedly over time allows us to strategically self-manage: to change our patterns, to identify and adopt new, more effective behaviors, and ultimately to internalize these patterns so that future interventions require less effort or conscious intent.
A closing thought: By choosing to illustrate this process with an example of an unwanted conflict, I don't want to give the impression that self-intervention is only about resisting automatic impulses and NOT doing something. On many occasions it's just the opposite--we need to overcome our inertia, get off our asses and DO something. More on that in a future post.
For an overview of my self-coaching framework, see A Self-Coaching Guide for Leaders at All Levels.
For all my posts on this topic, see my Self-Coaching category.
Photo by christian.senger. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.