by Jon Hill – Corporate Trainer and Executive Coach
During its relatively short life, coaching has struggled for recognition and respect in some circles. For every satisfied client who has achieved long-held ambitions with the help of a coach there is a sceptic who can’t understand why you would want to invite an ‘expert’ in when simple ‘common sense’ has been enough to help them get by in the world…
To a degree I understand this. For all its successes, there has been a lack of robust research to substantiate the overwhelming anecdotal evidence. But the appeal to ‘common sense’ is one that escapes me. The more I work as a coach (and live as a human being) the more I realise that ‘common sense’ is not the most reliable compass to navigate by.
It is often when we are struggling in life that we are bombarded with ‘common sense’ advice. Think positive! Cheer up! Look on the bright side! It is this type of thinking which leads most of us to fall into the same trap when it comes to working towards building happy, fulfilling lives: namely the belief that we need to change the world inside us before we can start to enjoy and engage with the world around us.
As a coach (and human being), one of the most exciting developments of my professional (and personal) life has been the development of a philosophy that has shown me I can live the life that I want and move towards happiness and fulfillment even if I am thinking ‘negatively’ or feeling ‘bad’. It has made an enormous difference in my life and is transforming the landscape of coaching. It may have emerged from the world of psychology, but its now being used in private and workplace coaching all over the world. Evidence indicates that it is effective in multiple areas, from improving performance, job-related satisfaction, innovation and motivation, to increasing resilience and developing transformational leadership behaviours.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (usually abbreviated to ACT, and pronounced ‘act’) is focused on helping people to develop their ‘psychological flexibility’. In other words, to do the stuff that matters and pursue a valued life even in the presence of unpleasant or unwanted thoughts and feelings. ACT focuses on helping people to change their relationships with these internal events so that they no longer act as obstacles to taking action.
As an approach to life and coaching this is revolutionary. We all know that coaching is about taking action, but all too frequently coaches get stuck in the mire of trying to correct or change or control or ‘deal with’ the thoughts and feelings that seem to be keeping their clients stuck. Now, of course, thought-challenging can be extremely effective for some people. But, for others it can actually lead to even further stuckness. When this is the case we as coaches can get bogged down in the business of trying to help the client to change their minds when they are trying to change their lives. And while the two invariably go hand in hand, they don’t necessarily do so in the way that we might presume. As the quote goes, “It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think yourself into a new way of acting”. In other words, it is often the case that the very act of changing your behaviour means a shift in your relationship with the world – one that may well manifest itself in more ‘pleasant’ feelings and more ‘positive’ thoughts; the types of feelings and thoughts that fuel motivation for further action.
The beauty of ACT is that it allows us as coaches to avoid unnecessary debating with clients and rapidly and efficiently direct them towards a more workable and flexible way of responding to their thoughts and feelings. By using ACT, people are transforming their lives for the better by being three things – Open, Aware and Active. We talk about each of these skills in more detail in our book, ACTivate Your Life.
Being Open means learning to respond more effectively to the painful and unpleasant thoughts and feelings that are an inevitable part of the human experience, so that they no longer act as a barrier between you and the things that you value.
Being Aware means easing out of automatic pilot mode and beginning to connect with what is going on around us and inside us right here and now. It means using the skill of mindfulness to notice the small details and beauty around us that we can miss when we’re wrapped up in our busy minds, problem-solving, comparing, judging, criticising and doing all the things that minds are great at! That awareness can also help us to notice the opportunities that may have slipped under our radar – opportunities to know ourselves better, opportunities to do more of the things that make life worth living.
Being Active simply means becoming clear on what matters to us most in life, and then pursuing those things vigorously – living life on purpose, rather than drifting through unconsciously. It’s about knowing the kind of person that you want to be, the kind of life you want to live, and then intentionally taking steps in that direction. More than that, it’s about doing so even when you know that it might be uncomfortable or challenging, and being fully open to and aware of the experience as you go.
As a coach, I love the fact that ACT has a rich and extensive research base demonstrating its effectiveness in an incredibly wide variety of contexts. Its great to be able to point towards evidence to give confidence to clients who may not have experienced coaching before, and to know that there is a robust model to refer back to if in doubt.
Whether they are using it with individual clients in private practice, with senior leaders in business, or in groups, coaches are using ACT to super-charge their practices and equip their clients to get even better results. As a coach you don’t have to become an ACT therapist to take advantage of all of the great stuff it has to offer. You can incorporate elements of it into your existing practice and use it to help you build a coaching model that most fits you and your individual clients.
Whether you are working with individual clients in private practice, with senior leaders in business, or with groups, if you want to learn how to use ACT to super-charge your coaching practice come to the skills workshop Acceptance and Commitment Training for Coaches – Supercharge your coaching practice I’ll be running with Dr Joe Oliver in London on the 24th October.