Coaching with Compassion – how to get real change

Boyatzis' Intentional Change Theory
Boyatzis' Intentional Change Theory

Back to speakers from the Harvard Coaching Conference!

I wish I’d had a video camera to capture the energy and positivity of Dr. Richard Boyatzis. At one point, he was literally crawling across the stage to illustrate how, if we don’t follow our passions, life can drag us down. At least, that’s how I remember it – his actual point may have been somewhat different. His energy was so contagious, and the laughter was so loud, it was hard to keep listening to the surface of his words. You may forget what people say, but you’ll never forget how they make you feel – and Boyatzis made us feel hopeful, joyful and alive.

Boyatzis is best-known (in my books anyhow) for his wonderful¬†Intentional¬†Change Theory. I use this model on my own website to help explain what I do as a coach, but the implications are further-reaching than that. I won’t use this space to explain his model (illustration above) but I do want to share some of what Boyatzis discussed on “coaching with compassion”.

Mirror neurons have had a lot of good press lately – the idea being that emotions are contagious and that we respond with lightning speeds to the emotions that others feel, even if they aren’t explicitly displayed. Emotions leak out of us, and people around us pick that up. This happens in coaching all the time. It is why coaches must be fully present for their clients, because the client will “know” if you are not genuinely there. It is why coaches need to be mindful that they don’t get “trapped” in the stickiness with their clients, because as humans, it is all too easy for us to do this. And it is why,when a client has a break-through insight, it is delightful and energizing for the coach as well. We feel with the client – true empathy – when the client shouts Eureka!

This all happens so quickly it is below the conscious level. We are talking milliseconds.

So then how do we use this to get real change in our own lives and those of our clients? Boyatzis says we need a positive emotional attractor.

People get moved to action through emotion; we use logic and rationalization afterwards to convince ourselves that it’s a good idea. But the initial impetus comes from an emotional appeal. (This is extremely well illustrated in the Heath brothers’ book Switch.)

Boyatzis says that the change process is non-linear and discontinuous, which makes it difficult to sustain and motivate. With the positive emotional attractor – things like your future best self, strengths, a focus on the future, hope, optimism, learning agenda (as opposed to outcome goals) – you are more open and able to contemplate in a creative ways how to bridge the gaps that lie between you now and you in the ideal future.

However, you cannot eliminate the negative emotional attractors. That serves as a “wake-up call” that alerts you to the possibility of change. But the positive emotional attractors will keep you going. One question that Boyatzis asked is “What do you look forward to joyfully trying?” That expression of “joy” speaks to me of the fun of experimentation – the enjoyment of trying something new. It isn’t about failure and it isn’t about getting it right on the first try. It is about having fun along the way and enjoying the process. This, I propose, is often overlooked in the change journey, especially in the workplace and in Corporate North America.

You can’t change only from a positive place, and you can’t change only from a negative place. Boyatzis’ research and modelling shows that you need to switch back and forth – and I suspect that the “proper” ratio would align nicely with Barbara Fredrickson’s work with Marcial Losada…

How do we use this to coach with compassion?

First of all, if someone is having a high intensity negative affect experience, you need to meet them there. We learn this in coach training – start where the client is. Being all chipper and positive with someone who’s in a blue funk will not be compassionate and it will not be effective. Meet the client where the client is – emotionally.

Then, coach them into a lower negative intensity. It is when the negative intensity is lower that they may be ready for a switch to a lower intensity of positive affect. And then, you can coach them into a higher intensity of positive affect, which will enable positive change. Seems easy, but the process, being discontinuous and non-linear, requires skill, intuition and – of course – compassion. The art, heart and science of coaching all meet here.

A key element of positive emotional attractors is “hope” – and this feeds directly into the ideal self that the client constructs. Building on hope, as well as the image of a desired future and the client’s core identity, will inspire. And the coach needs to feel inspired too – there’s that emotional contagion again.

I think I could have listened to Boyatzis for days. I have not even begun to scratch the surface of what he shared, and I know that was only a superficial look at his life’s work.

Happy to discuss further. Please use the comment space below (on the LVS Consulting website) to ask any further questions on the model and Boyatzis’ talk!

Lisa Sansom

Lisa Sansom has her MBA from the Rotman School of Management, and over two decades of experience in teaching and training. Her years of work in the organizational development field have included projects on change management, employee engagement, leadership development, team coaching and employer of choice strategies.

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