Often clients come to a coaching session with quite simple, technical ‘presenting’ issues. They want to be more effective managers, to influence senior people or to delegate more effectively. But the thing underlying all of these desires is often much simpler – happiness.
“If you solved this problem, how would you feel?”
In fact, a simple question can reveal startlingly different concerns. I ask about their presenting problem: “If you solved that problem, what would that do for you?”. The answer begins to go deeper, usually along the lines of “it would make me happy” or “I’d be less stressed”.
My sense is often that clients have got this the wrong way round. Rather than seeing business and career issues as gateways to happiness/de-stressing, maybe they could consider that being happy and/or stress-free will help them solve their professional issues.
Highly successful people often come across as happy – which makes them more believable and pleasant to be around. So, strangely, personal happiness is also a key to success.
So how do we help our clients reach personal happiness?
Trying to understand human happiness is not always an easy thing. The way I do it in Advanced Coaching is to use Robert Dilts’ Logical Levels. Some of you will be familiar with these. For those who are not, the model was created as a way of pinpointing where client issues lie and making sure that coaches intervene at the level that will be most effective.
Dilts’ Logical Levels are:
- Beliefs and Values
The most basic level is Environment: the external world; things and people. There is not a great deal a coach can do about these – but these aspects of life can be important factors in happiness.
At the same time, it’s worth remembering that one can often meet people who seem to outwardly ‘have everything’ and yet are still miserable. But the inability to effect change at this level need not prevent us helping clients on their ‘happiness journey’.
Behaviours tend to be unconscious. Once learnt, we carry them out automatically. Often people habitually think negative thoughts or rush around in a panic. Becoming aware of our moment-to-moment behaviours and being able to adjust them can be hugely freeing.
There are many skills to help us become happy, and coaches can teach some of these. Good examples are relationship skills and emotional intelligence, the ability to organize ourselves and knowing how better to look after our health and manage our energy.
Beliefs and values
Unhappiness often springs from conflicts at this, deeper level. Two things we value deeply may be clashing in our lives. A common example is integrity and loyalty. Often we face pressure to override an important principle to please someone or to do what appears to be right for an organization we belong to.
Being able to address this type of conflict by determining which value is more important (and then acting accordingly) can help enormously.
More complex are limiting beliefs – ideas that we hold so deeply we don’t even know we hold them, but which create inner pain. A client recently told me, “You can’t be angry and love somebody at the same time.” I questioned this, and the client realized that this was just a belief, not a fact, and had a major, positive shift.
A classic belief I come across when coaching successful but unhappy people is something like “If you don’t work hard – you are …” (I invite you to fill in the dots: worthless, lazy etc.)
This belief, usually created in childhood, drives people to work relentlessly: useful at the start of working life, but ultimately unsustainable and damaging. The belief can also destroy a person’s ability to relax and unwind, replacing necessary time off with constant anxiety.
Coaches can gently challenge such beliefs, and this can have a great liberating effect.
Who we believe ourselves to be has huge influence on happiness. Coaches will often find clients’ identities (or clients perceptions of their identities) causing difficulties when faced with change, either when facing promotion and resisting it or fearing retirement or the challenge of, say, leaving a corporate career and starting a business or a family or both. In Advanced Coaching, I use the concept of Script from Transactional Analysis to help people deal with such issues elegantly and successfully.
The highest of Dilts’ levels is that of Vision, having a sense of life purpose beyond personal ambition. This can be the major element driving change: as the philosopher Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can cope with just about any how.”
Getting clients to think at this level can be remarkably powerful and inspire them to change not just themselves but the systems within which they operate. When you work with a sense of purpose, your work makes you happy.
All the six logical levels play a part in the complex business of human happiness, and the coach can help out at all of them. The key point to remember is that there may be one particularly neglected level, at which coaching work can be particularly effective.
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