When coaching, I am always surprised by clients’ beliefs about the unknown. People often obsess about, and make huge efforts to avoid extremely unlikely outcomes.
Yet their own past experience tells them that if something has created chaos in their lives, it has not been some huge threat they have been worrying about for ages, but something unexpected. As my father used to say, “Always expect something from the left field”.
The unknown – planning for worst-case scenarios
This point is taken up by Nassim Taleb, advisor to David Cameron and author of The Black Swan. In this book, Taleb argues that significant ‘game-changing’ events often appear to come from nowhere, so we can’t plan specifically for them. He cites World War 1 and 9/11 as two classic examples.
However, we can still protect ourselves against worst-case scenarios, even if we don’t really understand, from where we are now, how they might come about. (He goes on to argue that once such events have happened, we are very good at creating new narratives that make them ‘inevitable’.)
The book’s title comes from the fact that Europeans assumed all swans were white, and actually used the belief as an example of a truism.
Then explorers arrived in Australia to find black ones. Be careful about what we think we ‘know’.
The book, and its claim that high-impact events come from (apparently) nowhere was extraordinarily prescient: it was published in 2007, a year before the global financial system went into meltdown – an event predicted by hardly any economists or financial ‘experts’.
Exploring all outcomes through coaching
One of the most important roles of a coach is to help a client properly explore what could go wrong with a course of action. This can be confused with negativity.
We coaches tend to be positive people, and it’s tempting to push clients towards outcomes. I have experienced this as a recipient of coaching: on a couple of life changing decisions, I felt that my coach wanted to propel me into action.
When aspects of that action created problems, I found myself blaming the coach for not properly helping me consider possible consequences of the decision he seemed so eager for me to take.
Of course, it takes two to tango. There can be a ‘Faustian pact’ where the client doesn’t want to engage their judgement, as they confuse this with that carping, unhelpful, inner negative voice that most people have. They may tell the coach, “I’m so indecisive. I really don’t want any downer energy – just help me to make a decision.”
The coach is also keen to walk away with a client committing to take positive action.
Differentiating negativity and discernment
However, this is poor coaching. A key role of a coach is to help a client differentiate between that inner negative voice (“You will mess it up!”) and the highly creative critical voice – critical in the best, positive sense of ‘discerning’ – which can look at potential consequences and inspire the client to put things in place that will protect them against disasters – even if they are not sure how such a disaster can come about.
Nassim Taleb’s main focus is the world of business, but he has some words to say about personal development:
- Stay open-minded
- Don’t think you have all the information
- Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
- Stick to your core values (following the crowd can turn out to be disastrous, as crowds suddenly change direction)
- Don’t freak yourself out with narratives about how things ‘will’ go badly wrong, but at the same time make sensible plans for things that could go badly wrong – then get on with life.
This is good coaching, helping your client to make significant decisions ‘with their eyes open’ and to develop strategies to minimise risk.
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