Words Make Worlds
September 17th, 2023
Welcome to the fifth issue of Words Make Worlds, a newsletter dedicated to the art, science, and craft of the Coaching Leadership Style. Today we’re getting into one of my favorite parts of coaching: optimism.
When I talk with leaders about the idea of optimism as a useful tool for coaching, they usually point out that pretending things are great isn’t going to fix performance problems. Which is true — bypassing reality with magical thinking leads to disappointment, frustration, and resentment. Just ask anyone who has ever delayed having a difficult conversation at work — by the time the talk actually happens considerable damage has been done.
But optimism isn’t about unreasonable hope, it’s about an acceptance of how things are now and a belief that they can be better. It is a perspective, a way of seeing, an orientation towards life that celebrates what an individual or system is doing well , even if what it is doing well happens to be getting in the way of desired outcomes. Optimism is imbued with curiosity and turns its gaze to the future as a place of possibility and action.
Think back to your last year at work. How many times has pointing out what is going wrong — with an individual, project, team, or system — resulted in change? My guess is very few.
Optimism starts with a willingness to accept what is, while simultaneously holding the belief that change is possible and things can get better. Optimism rests in the paradox of change, inviting us to understand that change happens just by paying attention to what is . This grounded acceptance of the present is what distinguishes optimism from wishful thinking.
Optimism is the belief that people are doing the best they can with the resources and awareness they have available to them. And awareness is the entry point for coaching. Coaching increases awareness and resourcefulness in others so that new possibilities can emerge, new paths for action can be taken.
On the other side of optimism is pessimism, a perspective we are biologically hard-wired to inhabit because it keeps us alive. It lives in the narrowing band of fear, looking to the past for clues that can protect us from whatever might threaten us in the present. When pessimism clouds our view, we can only see what is going wrong as we spin in reinforcing negative feedback loops fed by fear. In a world of increasing uncertainty, it can feel like we perpetually live in the constricted, protective domain of pessimism.
But optimism, optimism gives us another choice. One that feels increasingly radical in a polarized world. Joseph Melnick and Sonia Nevis say of optimism:
“Optimism is about having the courage to try things. It is about stepping into something because we hope it will be a good thing, without knowing what will happen. And it is about learning not to stay attached to the negative when things do not turn out in ways we had hoped.”
And this is exactly what coaching is. Raising awareness, taking courageous action, seeing what happens, and reflecting in service of learning from the richness of what we have just experienced. This level of learning isn’t just at a cognitive level, but a level that involves the entirety of our being. Whatever happens, we get curious, accept, learn and grow.
Imagine something is going sideways at work and you know it’s not going well but can’t figure out how to get the results you want. Or maybe you got a negative performance review, or had a big conflict with a colleague at work. And then your boss calls you into a conference room (or Zoom call) and proceeds to tell you all about what a problem this is. What happens as you hear this? You probably make yourself a little smaller (or a little bigger with anger), negative self talk gets louder, you feel sad/mad/frustrated, and you have no idea what to do to make it better. You feel tired and hopeless.
Or, your boss calls you into that Zoom call and you both explore what is going on with non-judgement and acceptance. Your boss listens, asks questions, and then comments on what you are doing really well in the situation. They might say something like, “you are really good at protecting yourself when you feel attacked. Do you know that?” And you might pause for a second and think some kind of trick is afoot, but as your boss encourages you to to examine this piece of feedback and feel the truth of it, your curiosity enters the room. You might say something like, “Yeah, I am really good at that. But it feels like that’s the only way I know how to respond and I can see how it gets in the way of collaboration.”
And right there is the seed that unlocks possibility. Because as soon as you accept this statement of what you are doing well, you get curious about it. Curious enough to see the benefit and also the cost, and wonder about other ways you might approach the situation. And that curiosity, fostered by the presence of optimism, is the gateway to expanding your range of responsiveness in similar situations.
For coaches, optimism is less about what you do and more about how you are. This is a mindset based in the ideas of unconditional positive regard, strengths-based change, and positive psychology. It's not about a set of questions you can ask, but about how you see the world and the inherent capacity you see in others. As you embody optimism, your thinking begins to shift and your actions follow-suit. So this starts with being, percolates into thinking, and finally influences the doing side of leading and coaching.
Practice One: Resentment to Appreciation.
This an individual practice based on the work of John O. Stevens.
- Think of someone at work (or in your life) that you are frustrated with or in some way or another negatively impacted by what they are doing (or not doing).
- Write down a list of your resentments. Begin each sentence with the words “I resent —“ and express clearly and exactly what you resent about this person.
- When that feels complete, stop writing and take a minute to move, stretch, wiggle, or shake it out.
- When you are ready, sit down and resume.
- Go through your list of resentments, one by one. For each one, cross out the word resent and replace it with the word appreciate.
- Go slowly, trying each one on for size. How do you feel as you make the shift? Is there something you actually do appreciate in what you thought you resented?
- If you want, add a few more sentences to elaborate on your appreciation.
- Reflect on your experience in this exercise. What did you notice mentally emotionally, and somatically when you engaged in writing down the resentment list? What shifted as you turned resentments into appreciations? What new insights did you make? What will you do with what you have learned?
Practice Two: Filtered Listening
This practice can be done in a 1:1 conversation or team meeting; any situation where you have the opportunity to be an active listener. If you are doing this in a 1:1 scenario, you may want to let the person you are talking with know you are experimenting with different ways of listening and to not be alarmed if they notice your demeanor change.
- In this exercise you are going to practice with both the pessimistic and optimistic stance.
- As you begin the conversation or meeting, spend the first 5 - 10 minutes listening from a pessimistic stance. Narrow your focus and look for what is wrong, certain that you are seeing more problems than anyone else and that you those around you do not have the capacity to solve them. If you are in a 1:1 conversation, notice the impact the pessimistic stance has on the person you are listening to.
- After 5 - 10 minutes, let go of the pessimistic stance. Give yourself a moment to let it melt out of your body, dissolve from your thoughts, and abdicate your emotions.
- Now step into the optimistic stance. Consider the person or people in front of you and listen with curiosity. Hold the perspective that everyone is doing the best they can with the awareness and resources available to them, and the conviction you know they have the capacity to create change. If you can generate a genuine sense of warmth and positive regard, even better. But don’t try to fake this - others can detect when we are just putting on a show.
- As you listen, see if you can observe what this person or group knows how to do really well, even if it’s something that frustrates or annoys you. How does this serve the person or group? What do you think it is like for them to engage in the world this way?
- Once you have finished this practice, take a few notes about what you noticed from the experience. If the person you were listening to knows you were trying out listening approaches, debrief and see how the experience was for them. What will you do with what you are learning?
Leader as Coach
A quick reminder that Leader as Coach kicks off its fourth cohort on October 2nd! This is a great opportunity for leaders to deepen their coaching skills by putting them into practice in safe learning environment, because the best way to learn to coach is to start coaching.
Happy practicing, and see you in two weeks!