According to the theory of social constructionism, the language we use, and the conversations we have, shape our social reality.
We make sense of things through conversation with other people. What becomes established as ‘knowledge’ is a broad social agreement created among people through communication.
What are the implications of the Constructionist Principle for coaching?
Most approaches to coaching start from an individualist perspective. For example, think of cognitive behavioural therapy’s emphasis on identifying and challenging the individual’s ‘irrational beliefs’, or the familiar ‘NLP Communication Model’ diagram showing the individual’s perceptions of the outside world being filtered through their belief systems, ‘metaprograms’, etc.
(By the way, even though I qualified as an NLP trainer over a quarter-century ago, I’ve never heard a satisfactory explanation of why it’s called a ‘communication model’ when there’s just one person in the diagram).
In contrast to this individualist focus, the Constructionist Principle recognises that our social reality, including belief systems and the concepts and categories that we use to make sense of things, don’t arise in isolation. They are formed, and constantly renewed and updated, by the conversations we have with other people.
An obvious example would be the way that people’s political views, or belief in conspiracy theories, can rapidly become more extreme if they spend a lot of time in ‘echo chamber’ groups on social media. There is I think some truth in the maxim, most often attributed to Jim Rohn, that “you become the average of the five people you spend the most time with” – although some research suggests that this doesn’t go far enough, and actually we are also somewhat influenced by friends of friends even if we’ve never met them).
So what can one coach achieve in an hour a week, or an hour a month, with a client who’s exposed to the influence of their friends, family, and work colleagues the rest of the time? Actually, quite a lot.
Our beliefs and the way that we see the world are open to change. Yes, we have confirmation bias that downplays any evidence that goes against our current belief systems, but these systems are not locked down solid. Sometimes a new piece of evidence slips through, or we get a ‘lightbulb moment’ that enables us to reframe past events or look at our present situation in a new way.
“Words create worlds”
One of the ways that conversations create and maintain our social reality is by focusing on particular aspects and ignoring others. The more we talk about something, the larger and more significant it grows in our attention. A coach can help their client (or ‘learner’, to use a term from solution-focused practice) by asking different questions that invite the learner to focus their attention in different directions from those encouraged by their regular conversations.
In particular, if we ask about successes, what’s working in the current situation, and what’s gone well in the past, this will likely be something that the learner (and the conversations they usually have) won’t have given much attention to, given the human brain’s tendency to give more weight to negatives than positives.
Conversations about successes and strengths enable us to reconsider our evaluations of ourselves and what we think is possible, to find resources and opportunities in our present situation that we have previously overlooked, and to think more creatively about how to respond to challenges.
We exist in an environment of constraints (things that we can’t do), necessities (things we have to do), and possibilities (options that are open to us). The Constructionist Principle reminds us that a lot of these constraints, necessities, and options are ‘social facts’ – things that are true because our collective belief systems say they are true.
If we shift our conversations to talking about positives, strengths, and opportunities, rather than problems, weaknesses, and threats, the landscape of our social reality starts to shift – even though nothing’s changed in our physical reality. We notice new opportunities that we overlooked previously, think more creatively about overcoming problems, and build our confidence that we can deal with whatever challenges we face – not least because we remember that we’ve dealt with similar challenges in the past.
Soon, of course, physical reality begins to change as well, because we start taking action to change it.
This new direction can start with the coach asking questions about what’s working, when we are at our best, and where we want to be. As Appreciative Inquiry’s originator David Cooperrider says, “We live in the world our questions create.”
If you’d like to learn more about Appreciative Inquiry, join the Practical Appreciative Inquiry facilitator training starting soon, or get the Practical Appreciative Inquiry book, signed by the author (ebook version available here or from Amazon here).