A Coaching Power Tool By Joanna Poplawska, Leadership Coach, UNITED KINGDOM
The Mountain vs. Anthill Power Tool
Coaching Case Study:
My client was very anxious about meeting her manager for their monthly performance review. The manager did not speak to her a lot in the days before the meeting and my client assumed that this silence meant that her manager was dissatisfied with her performance.
My client had no evidence that her manager’s silence was an expression of dissatisfaction, she actually acknowledged that the company and its employees, including the manager, were under a lot of pressure but this negative assumption of what the manager’s silence meant, caused my client to create a whole imaginary scenario of a negative outcomes of her performance review, a scenario of calamity. She spent her time and energy thinking about how difficult this meeting will be. She felt very anxious. She told me that she is pleased with her own performance and her leadership team values her, in fact, she was just invited to present at one of the important company’s meetings. Nevertheless, she was not using this positive evidence to dispute her catastrophic vision of the review meeting. Her vision of the meeting can be compared to facing a snowy, icy, and hostile climber mountain.
During the session we focussed on exploring her catastrophizing beliefs and how they serve her. Then we moved towards exploring how can she influence her internal dialogue by exploring alternative ways of interpreting her boss’s silence, using positive evidence to calm her anxiety and putting the meeting in a much wider context of her achievements, skills and the potential impact of one meeting on her career.
By acknowledging that she catastrophized the situation and by becoming more aware of the negative impact of her own beliefs on her well-being, my client recognized that her meeting might be more comparable to the anthill rather than a mountain.
The concept of catastrophizing was originally introduced by cognitive psychologists Beck, Rush, Shaw, and Embry (1978) as related to depression and anxiety (‘Catastrophising and decatastrophising’ by Heather S. Lonczak, published on www.positivepsychology.com) Beck et al. posited that individuals who are vulnerable to anxiety experience cognitive distortions in which threats of negative outcomes are overestimated and coping skills for dealing with adversity are underestimated.
In some ways, the brain is designed to make assumptions as the brain “is a vast network of connections that requires an enormous amount of energy to keep it running. There are over one hundred billion cells in our brain and each of them makes over ten thousand connections with other brain cells. While the large number of possible combinations of cell connections allows for higher-ordered thinking, this is a big problem evolutionarily in terms of energy cost,” according to neurobiologist, Dr. McCormick at Yale School of Medicine “Therefore, the brain has to encode things efficiently to save energy.”(https://www.yalescientific.org/2010/09/how-the-brain-saves-energy-the-neural-thermostat)
Assumption aids our routine activities, leaving our brains with energy to focus on non-routine tasks and challenges but they also often influence our logical reasoning. There is a famous quote assigned to Isak Dinesen:
You can’t change the past, but you can ruin the present by worrying about the future.
In the case of my above-described client, she did suffer in the present by worrying about the future, without any evidence that the future is not positive for her. She “played up” one aspect of her work environment to the degree that it affected her well-being. In fact, like any other human, my client was not equipped with any superpowers of a mind-reader.
In coaching, I see that the role of the coach is to help their client recognize their thoughts as just thoughts not reality, consider other possible explanations, review the evidence, and consider what they can do to cope with the situation until they know the real outcome.
Catastrophizing pushes people in the wrong direction, wasting their brains’ energy rather than using it for new learning. By accepting that they do not have enough evidence to predict accurately other people’s behaviors, thoughts, and feelings and that they do not possess mind-reading ability, the client gains a better understanding that a mountain might not be a mountain after all. Decatastrophising dialogue can release them from unnecessary fear, anxiety, and negative behaviors.
Power Tool Application
- How do you know that your assumptions are true?
- What beliefs led you to make this assumption?
- What are you assuming about yourself in this situation?
- How does this vision serve you?
- How would your evaluation of the situation change if you could only focus on facts?
- What would your life be like if you stopped catastrophizing?
- How can you use evidence as a support tool?
- What would you say to your friend if they were in this situation?
- What skills do you have to help you in this situation?
- If the worst scenario happens, how will this affect you in a day, a week, a month, a year, in five years?