“Positive questions lead to positive change”

The Paradox of Change

Think about a time when change has been forced on you. Particularly if the change came as a shock, the chances are that you didn’t enjoy it much. Maybe, looking back, you wish you had responded differently (which, if you think about it, means you’ve learned something useful from the experience). Maybe your immediate response came from a knee-jerk reaction, or even panic.

On the whole, people don’t like change when it’s imposed upon them. They resist – whether actively, passively by dragging their feet, or unconsciously, through making mistakes and self-sabotage. At best, people do the minimum to get by, tick the relevant boxes, and cover themselves. They won’t bring the whole of themselves to the task, or apply ‘discretionary effort’ that goes above and beyond the job description to reach a result that is exceptional rather than just acceptable.

Imposed change feels different to changes that you initiate yourself. Getting married, accepting an offer of a new job, or moving to a new town or country are all to an extent a leap into the unknown, but we can generally feel optimistic and in control about changes like this because we have initiated them.

The changes that we don’t choose – your employer is taken over and you have to reapply for your job, new regulations impose a heavy burden of paperwork on your business for no apparent return, or pandemic restrictions mean your community is locked down for weeks – can feel stressful and scary. This can also apply with unforeseen consequences of the changes that we have chosen – living with someone can be a big adjustment after being single, raising your game after that longed-for promotion turns out to be harder than you thought, or finding your place in a new community isn’t as easy as we expected.

This is all the more true in the 21st Century, where an increasingly VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) environment provides a constant ‘background’ level of unspecified threat.

When we feel under threat, or when we have tough targets to hit, we may not be at our best. To paraphrase neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux in his book The Emotional Brain, ‘strong emotions make us stupid’. When we’re stressed or feeling threatened, we tend to make bad decisions.

Additionally, challenges and threats activate the brain’s ‘Task Positive Network’ (or ‘analytic network’ as researcher Richard Boyatzis has it in the book Helping People Change). When this network is activated, we are focused on our target or on threat avoidance, and we feel strongly motivated to get things done. The downside is that we are less able to see the situation in different ways, less trusting of other people, and less open to new ideas from others.

Handling change successfully requires us to act differently, and learn new ways of doing things – unfortunately, the very flexibility we need is reduced by an active Task Positive network. The paradox of change is this: the greater the change, the less capable we are of handling it.

Positive Emotions Help Us Handle Change

This is why we need positive emotions to handle change successfully. Researchers such as Alice Isen at Cornell University, and Barbara Fredrickson at the Universities of Michigan and North Carolina, found that positive emotions help us to integrate information more quickly, think more creatively, and see the big picture rather than focusing on smaller details. Feeling better isn’t just a nice experience, it actually improves our cognitive abilities.

The evolutionary benefits of negative emotions like fear and anger are clear. They act as immediate warning signals of threats, or if our boundaries are transgressed. Fredrickson’s ‘Broaden-and-Build’ theory suggests that positive emotions also have an adaptive role, but one that works longer-term. Positive emotions make us more capable of handling later hard times, because they increase our resilience, reduce ‘learned helplessness’, strengthen social bonds, have a beneficial effect on our physical health, and broaden our ‘thought-action repertoire’ – in effect, giving us more choices in challenging situations.

‘Coaching with Compassion’ Versus ‘Coaching for Compliance’

Given that the human brain also pays more attention to negatives and threats than to positives and opportunities (for the same short-term evolutionary reasons), how do we activate the Positive Principle in coaching to elicit these beneficial positive emotions? It can be surprisingly easy (one of Alice Isen’s experiments made experienced physicians feel good just by giving them a small bag of candy, with the result that their clinical reasoning was both quicker and less likely to reach premature closure in diagnosis). A more sustainable and natural way of enhancing the cognitive skills and decision-making powers of coaching clients is to ask positive questions.

Richard Boyatzis and Anthony Jack, in their research paper The Neuroscience of Coaching (Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. 70. 11-27. 10.1037/cpb0000095), draw a distinction between what they call ‘coaching for compliance’ and ‘coaching with compassion’. Coaching for compliance is the kind that asks about the challenges the person faces: how they’re doing in their work, are they able to complete it all to a satisfactory standard, are they managing their time well, and so on. Note that, because the human brain usually gives more weight to negatives, an ostensibly ‘neutral’ question about, for example, how work is going is more likely to elicit answers focusing on the negatives. Consequently, it’s more likely to activate the Task Positive Network.

For ‘coaching with compassion’, by contrast, the other coach in the study asked the test subjects to outline their personal vision, or to look ahead 10 to 15 years and describe what their ideal life and work would be like. Subsequent brain scans confirmed that this kind of coaching activated the ‘Default Mode’ or empathic network.

Furthermore, the test subjects felt that the ‘compassion’ coach was significantly more personally inspiring, and more trusting and caring, while the ‘compliance’ coach was perceived as slightly more abrasive and inducing feelings of obligation and guilt.

The researchers concluded that the ‘coaching for compassion’ style is more likely to put the individual into a positive emotional state that helps them feel motivated, open to new ideas, and ready to tackle difficulties; in short, it’s more likely to succeed in its aims than the ‘compliance’ style that focuses on external problems and constraints, and tends to shut down the individual’s mind and make them feel defensive.

From an Appreciative Inquiry perspective, I would say that Boyatzis and Jack may actually be missing a trick. Their ‘coaching for compassion’ questions focused on personal vision and dreams. It’s not surprising that this produced a positive result – but I wonder how many of the test subjects found it hard, at least initially, to move from the emotional state they were in at the start of the session, which in some cases may have been stressed or at least mildly anxious, to describing their personal vision and desired future, especially if they hadn’t previously given it much thought. Emotional state affects memory, but also ‘self-efficacy’ – the individual’s belief in their ability to complete a task or achieve a goal. So if the individual isn’t in a great state to start with, it will be harder for them to think about where they want to be in the future. Although asking about their dreams and ideals will probably help to shift their mood in a more positive direction, their future vision will be less vivid, and may feel less credible, if it isn’t based on a solid foundation of reference experiences.

Appreciative Inquiry encourages us to focus first on what’s already going well, and what’s worked well in the past, before asking about an ideal future. Although state-dependent memory means that it’s not as easy to retrieve memories associated with positive emotions if you’re not already feeling good, patient questioning will still elicit them – and in the process improve the individual’s emotional state and activate the ‘Default Mode’ network. In turn, this will improve self-efficacy and make it easier to imagine a desired future, which will also feel more believable, as the individual can now base it on some reference experiences where success has already happened, even if only partially.

What to Avoid: Toxic Positivity!

Finally, we should distinguish between genuine positive questions, designed to elicit experiences of success, and ‘toxic positivity’ which tries to disallow negative emotions and delegitimise an individual’s response to challenging experiences and situations if it’s less than 100% ‘positive’. If the individual does not feel heard, it’s going to break the rapport which is essential in the coaching process and tip them back into defensiveness and ‘Task Positive’ mode; and if they feel pressured to put on a mask of false positivity and say what they think the coach wants to hear, the values and visions they express will not be authentic.

As coaches, we need to meet people where they are before we can help them get to where they (not us) genuinely want to be.

How Will You Apply the Positive Principle?

  • What do you do to get yourself into a positive, resourceful state before you think about your own future vision and goals? What else could you do?
  • What changes do you want to try out in your coaching style in the light of Boyatzis and Jack’s findings about the efficacy of ‘coaching with compassion’ versus ‘coaching for compliance’?
  • Think back to one or more of the coaching sessions where you feel you did your best work. How did your client’s emotional state change as the session progressed (as far as you could tell from the outward signs they were displaying), and what was the effect on how clearly they could see where they wanted to get to and their ability to generate ideas for getting there?
Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Coaching: The Positive Principle

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