Q: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Just one. But the light bulb has to want to change.
I’m not sure where I first heard this joke years ago, but I find myself telling it or thinking of it frequently.
I’m often asked by leader development teams to take on an executive coaching assignment with someone who doesn’t want to be coached.
I tell them this joke, and then I try, sometimes successfully, to politely decline these assignments. Why? Because coaching is about guiding people through change and until someone recognizes the need for change, they are unlikely to be receptive. “I’m fine, thanks,” they are saying or thinking.
We all know this happens frequently in organizations and in life. I’m sure you can think of someone right now who needs change in his or her life, but won’t or can’t, acknowledge it and take action.
Leave your comfort zone
To change, we need to leave our comfort zones. All of our personal growth happens outside of our comfort zones. If it were easy to change, we would all do it right away. We wouldn’t need coaching. We’d see our own blind spots and change.
But it doesn’t work that way. I’ve learned over the years that until someone recognizes the need there will be no movement.
This is true in all aspects of human behavior. We see it all the time, in common areas, like behavior toward others, weight loss, social anxiety, smoking, even smartphone addiction. Until people see the issue and ask for help, they are unlikely to change.
For some people, until they reach rock bottom, they won’t change. Until the pain of staying where they are exceeds the perceived pain, the discomfort, of change, there will be nothing. Unfortunately, the act of “hitting bottom” to motivate change can mean an emotional breakdown, a health scare, a divorce, a bad review, or being fired.
These factors apply to all kinds of feedback. When I say, “coaching” I don’t only mean formally engaging a professional coach. I mean being open to feedback or mentoring, from others. Letting people help us find our blind spots.
This is what the most successful people do all the time. It’s perhaps counter intuitive but the people who are highest achievers are the ones who normally most open to coaching. They see it as necessary for continuous improvement.
This is why the highest-level performers in sports, business and life have coaches who can be neutral observers, ask the right questions and lead them to new results.
If you want to become coachable, or to become better at coaching, here are some ideas:
Start with an open mind
Most of us believe we are open-minded and open to feedback and new perspectives. But the truth is that we are comfortable where we are and only looking for reinforcement of our current beliefs.
The key is to adopt what Zen Buddhists call the “Beginner’s Mind,” a child-like perspective of openness to learning. A classic story is of the Japanese Zen master Nan-in who was visited by a university professor to understand Zen.
Nan-in served him tea. He filled his visitor’s cup and continued to pour as it over flowed. The professor watched the cup with alarm and finally said, “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Recognize your fear
Why are we resistant to coaching? Some believe they know it all; others lack awareness of their blind spots, but I find it more often motivated by fear.
In my experience, most of our resistance to change stems from fear. Fear of the unknown; fear of discomfort; fear of not being good enough; even fear of success. If you dig deep, you’ll find the fear that holds you back from making the changes you know are necessary.
A coach or mentor can help you to identify and overcome that resistance. After all, according to that coaching canard, “FEAR is false evidence appearing real.”
Connect with your purpose
As I’ve written about before reconnecting someone with their purpose can be a powerful tool of engagement. Often a person that really needs to change has lost sight of their “why.”
“Why should I change my way of leading people? To get better results with less stress, or to advance your career. Why should I lose weight? To be around to see your children grandchildren grow up. Why should I find work-life balance? To live a fuller, happier life.”
It’s amazing to see the motivation and energy for behavioral change that can come from a person reconnected to their purpose.
Tweak your habits
When we finally decide to make a change, it’s usually a grand, sweeping declaration, often on New Year’s Day, or a milestone birthday. “I’ll exercise every day for one hour before work!” How long does that last? It varies with people, but I can say that it’s much easier to get a parking space at the gym on the second week of January. ;-)
As I wrote about in Change Your Habit, Change Your Life, if you want real change, you should tweak your habits. Modifying a habit might seem too small, too easy. But science proves that the lasting changes in our lives come from making small changes that are easier to implement.
Consider this small, but powerful example: Replace a soft drink with water at just one meal --say, lunch. With this small change, you will drink approximately forty more gallons of water per year, while not drinking forty gallons of carbonated sugar. You also save up to fifty thousand calories and as much as five hundred dollars. (From Small Change, Little Things Make a Big Difference by Susan and Larry Terkel.)
As you work to improve through coaching, practicing daily is most effective for behavior change. As Daniel Coyle writes in The Little of Talent, 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, With deep practice, small daily practice ‘snacks’ are more effective than once-a-week practice binges. The reason has to do with the way our brains grow -- incrementally, a little each day, even as we sleep.
Daily practice, even for five minutes, nourishes this process, while more occasional practice forces your brain to play catch-up. Or as the music-education pioneer Shinichi Suzuki puts it, "Practice on the days that you eat."
To improve our lives and the lives of those around us, whether at work or at home, we should all be coaches, and coachable. And that takes an open mind and continuous practice.
Okay, that’s it from Coach John. I’m blowing my whistle. Go get back in the game!
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