In a nutshell, the Anticipatory Principle says that people (and human systems on every scale) move in the direction of their images of the future – and the more positive the image of the future, the more likely it is to lead to positive action in the present.

In one form or another, this is a familiar idea in coaching – from ultra-rational goal-setting and planning to the so-called Law of Attraction’s maxim that “you get what you focus on”.

In contrast to therapy, where traditionally many schools from psychoanalysis to behaviourism have viewed human actions as the result of past events, innate drives, or conditioning, one of the foundations of coaching is the idea that viewing the present in terms of how it relates to a desired future can lead us to take action to improve our performance.

It’s worth noting at this point that positive mental visualisation is very widely and successfully used in sports psychology to help athletes to achieve their potential.

Experienced coaches at this point may be thinking “Fine, now tell us something we don’t know – helping people to clarify their goals and be more effective at achieving them is a vital component of coaching!”

That’s true as far as it goes, but developing images of the desired future in coaching has more to offer than just goal-setting. In their research paper ‘The Neuroscience of Coaching’ (Consulting Psychology Journal Practice and Research 70(1):11-27 March 2018), Richard Boyatzis and Anthony Jack found that a coaching style that activated the brain’s ‘default mode network’ (‘coaching with compassion’) was more effective than a style that activated the ‘task positive network’ by focusing on problems and challenges (‘coaching for compliance’).

The way the researchers activated the default mode network was to explore the test subject’s ideal vision for their work and personal life, 10 to 15 years in the future. This made them more optimistic, motivated, and creative – versus the ‘coaching for compliance’ sessions that made the test subjects more defensive, less motivated, and less open to change. Note that this was about an imagined future vision rather than clearly defined and quantified SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Relevant, and Time-bound) goals.

Having a positive image of our desired future is more like a direction than a goal – and if we are setting a direction we need not be constrained by the ‘Realistic’ or even the ‘Achievable’ elements of SMART goals. Even if we only move 25% of the way towards our positive image, that’s still a 25% improvement on where we started from. And having established our desired direction, we could define SMART goals to help us move towards it.

The Value of ‘Prospection’

In their 2013 paper ‘Navigating Into the Future or Driven by the Past’ (Perspectives on Psychological Science 8(2) 119–141), positive psychology researcher Martin Seligman and his colleagues make a strong case for ‘prospection’, defined as the representation of possible futures, as being essential to effective learning, decision-making, and consciousness itself. They also notice that when people are engaged in imaginitive simulations of the future (‘daydreaming’), this coincides with more activity in the default mode network, and suggest that the brain actively seeks information to help reach desired possible future states – thus making it more likely that these states are reached.

They also speculate that prospection may have helped in the development of language – because we can then share our imagined future representations, allowing more than one mind to process and seek towards them, giving evolutionary benefits:

“Language and culture are multipliers of the effectiveness of prospection given that many minds are so often better than one—creating a wider pool of evidence, shared imagination and examination of alternatives, functional specialization, and coordinated responses.”

‘Towards’ vs ‘Away From’ Motivation

It’s worth mentioning the differences in the effects of motivation towards a positive image of the future, compared with motivation away from unpleasant current situations or possible future problems.

Firstly, away-from motivation is undirected. ‘Away’ is not a specific direction, whereas if you’re moving towards your positive vision of the future and you get knocked off course, you can adjust your direction so that you’re back on track.

Secondly, away-from motivation is inconsistent. Once you’re far enough away from what you’re trying to avoid, your motivation runs out. By constrast, towards motivation remains constant or even increases as you get closer to your desired goal.

Thirdly, and just as important, is the effect on your emotional state. With away-from motivation, you’re only motivated as long as you think about the unpleasant situation that you want to escape from, or the negative outcomes you want to avoid. Thinking about unpleasant things is stressful. With towards motivation, you’re thinking about where you want to be in the future, which tends to lift your spirits, even if your current situation is unpleasant.

We know from Barbara Fredrickson and other researchers that feeling good actually improves our cognitive capabilities – when our mood is positive, we can take in information to reach decisions more quickly, we’re more creative, and we’re more resilient – all of which helps in the coaching process.

So while a little away-from motivation can be useful in giving us the kick-start we need to start taking action to change our situation, for sustained long-term change we need the ‘towards’ motivation that comes from having a positive image of where we want to be.

What do you think about these ideas? How do you use positive images of the future in your coaching or leadership practice? Let us know in the comments below!

If you’d like to get started using Appreciative Inquiry with teams and small groups, check out the Practical Appreciative Inquiry Self-Paced Starter Course.

Applying the Principles of Appreciative Inquiry to Coaching (2): The Anticipatory Principle

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