Note: This is a guest post by Tim Brownson of A Daring Adventure.
“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” ~ Rudyard Kipling
I was talking with a client recently (let’s call him Dan) when after I asked what stopped him making headway with a certain project. He replied, “I’m no good at the admin side of things.”
A statement like that is always going to have me jumping in with all coaching guns blazing, because if I don’t point out the disempowering nature of it then I would be neglecting my duty of care.
The first reason why I took issue is because it was delivered to me as a fact. Yet I knew full well that Dan was highly intelligent and easily capable of doing the menial admin tasks required to pursue the bigger project.
So first and foremost it was a limiting belief and not a fact per se.
If Dan had said to me, “I can’t run the 100 meters in under 8 seconds wearing flip flops a sombrero and Scuba diving equipment” that would have been cool, because nobody can and as such I’d accept that as a fact and not a limiting belief.
But more crucially than the limiting belief was the fact that the information contained a presupposition. And that presupposition was that nothing would change in the future.
A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy
In this instance as far as his brain was concerned “I can’t” equates to “I can’t and I never will be able to.”
Your brain loves to prove you right. It hates being wrong more than I hate mosquitoes and bananas. Being wrong creates a mini dopamine crash and a short-lived (usually) loss of status. That’s why people will sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to win a petty and meaningless argument.
But your brain also hates trying to hold two contradictory opinions at once because that creates cognitive dissonance which in turn produces feelings almost as severe as being wrong.
Therefore, when Dan said “I’m no good at the admin side of things” he kick-started a chain reaction of events in which his unconscious brain went looking for evidence to support his belief.
The Wrong Way
At that point it would have been virtually useless for me to have said “Of course you can man, even I could do that and I’m an admin neanderthal” because Dan’s brain would have had all the evidence he needed to ‘prove’ me wrong.
Even if I’d have adopted the common coaching approach of undermining the belief with contrary examples of when Dan completed similar tasks, I still doubt it would have worked because he had such a conviction that he was incapable of doing what was necessary.
In situations like this a change of language that removes cognitive dissonance is called for.
I seldom want clients to go into denial and pretend they are good at something they’re not. There are occasions where the “Act as if” frame can be useful, but this isn’t one of them and in this case it would have created such cognitive dissonance that Dan could well have lost faith in me.
A Better Approach
A far more effective approach is a subtle change of language that Dan’s brain wouldn’t rebel against.
As such I said to Dan:
“Do you mean up until now you haven’t been able to do such tasks?”
And before he had time to respond I went on:
“Because you know as well as I do that your brain likes to conserve energy and as such repeats patterns of behavior. You appreciate there’s no real reason why you can’t change those patterns moving forward … if you want to achieve your goals that is.”
Wham! Instant change in attitude and a quantum shift in his thinking endorsed by him giving me the sweetest words a coach can ever hear, “I never thought of it like that.”
There are two reasons that using this type of language is highly useful.
- It pushes the problem into the past where it belongs. We have no way of knowing what the future holds so presuming we will always have the same limitations we have now merely creates a self-fulfilling prophesy.
- It adds the empowering presupposition that things can and probably will change in the future.
It also does one other useful thing, and that is to move the person into a solution focused mindset which is crucial to resolving problems.
Try this out for Yourself
Next time you find yourself saying “I can’t do this or that”, change it to “I haven’t been able to do this or that until now” or “I’ve not quite conquered this or that yet” and see the effect.
The vast majority of people underestimate the power of the language they use and as such pay little or no attention to it. Yet your language is a reflection of your thoughts and it’s your thoughts that dictate the quality of your life.
It’s a simple change to make, albeit not an easy one because it requires patience, mindfulness and persistence. But I’m pretty sure as you read Ken’s blog that you have all those traits and more.
So what do you think? Do you think I’m over playing the power of language or does this make sense to you? Let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer any questions.
Tim Brownson has been a Life Coach and unsticking people since 2005. He is the owner of A Daring Adventure blog where he takes a lighthearted approach to self development and likes nothing better than to challenge accepted ideas on coaching and promote stimulating debate.
Now that you’re done reading Tim’s awesome piece, head over to my dear friend Vidya’s blog, Going A-Musing to read my guest post, The Nuts and Bolts of Happiness and let us know what you think!
Photo by Jon Assink