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Name it to Tame it

A phrase first coined by psychologist Dr. Dan Siegel gives us one of the profound reasons why coaching has a significant impact in helping people navigate challenging situations and the emotions that might accompany those situations. So, is this just a helpful rhyme, or is there any evidence that sits behind the principle?

Dr. David Rock in his book, Your Brain at Work, states:

When you experience significant internal tension and anxiety, you can reduce stress by up to 50% by simply noticing and naming your state. (1)

As humans, we operate best in what is called our Window of Tolerance (2), a band of alertness which sits in the Goldilocks zone of not being hyper-aroused, such as when our amygdala is warning us of danger or the less referenced state of hypo-arousal where we might experience numbness or a sense of feeling withdrawn from the world. As coaches, our role is to notice when a client arrives in either of these states in order to help someone move back to neutral or their window of tolerance. This is the place where we can be curious, learn and do the work necessary to reveal new ideas and thinking. Through either creating a moment for the client to land into the session with a few deep calming breaths or having a few minutes of decompression where they empty their head of all the thoughts which are swirling around we enable people to fall into a more regulated place. Not too excited, not too zoned out... Just right.

We see this technique in both mindfulness and meditation under the name 'noting'. Whilst being present, we might be distracted by noises or events and noting invites us to name the distraction and then just let it pass. eg 'car horn'. Once having achieved some ease with our surrounding environment, our meditation might turn inwards and if we notice our mind buzzing or becoming distracted we can use noting to label something as either a thought or a feeling before letting it flow through.

In leadership it is also important to recognise someone's emotional state, as trying to do something together whilst your colleague is in a state of hyper/hypo arousal will be really challenging, if not impossible.

So, whilst executive coaching and leadership are not therapy, there is still an importance in how we can support someone to feel calm and centred in order to do good work together.

Options to move from Hyper-Arousal

  • Take a pause and slow down. Slow down your movement, speech and breathing.

  • Bring some mindful attention to how you're feeling and what you're thinking. Where are you holding this in your body?

  • If you are holding tension, focus on releasing that tension (I know if I've been working to a deadline on the computer, I hold a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders!)

  • Change your state either by putting on some soothing music or burning off some of that excess adrenaline by going for a short walk.

  • Offer yourself some calming self talk. I like 'you're a good person, doing the very best you can with the resources you have and that's enough'

Options to move from hypo-arousal

  • Get up and move about. So often we can be sat at our desks for long periods and it's no wonder our mind can go into a holding pattern.

  • Even better if you can move outside. The air moving, trees blowing or even just the hustle and bustle of a city can give us a little bit of a jump start.

  • Reconnect your brain and body. Either through a mindful body scan where you notice what you're feeling, or by systematically activating each part of your body into a more wakeful state; this might be through tensing and releasing or just giving things a little wiggle.

  • Reconnect your senses. I love the exercise: 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. Smell in particularly is a really good one to kick start us mentally so whether it's some essential oils, a stinky cheese or a hot cup of coffee - all can enliven our senses from hibernation.

Once we're feeling in the right place, we can start to do some good work.

Creating the space for someone to talk about how they're feeling and what they're noticing has a soothing effect. We know this intuitively from sayings such as 'a problem shared is a problem halved'. The very act of giving thoughts and feelings words also helps us to crystallise and organise our thinking. It's not uncommon for my clients to be stuck on a problem for weeks, and come into session with me and say it out loud and to find that new solutions start to emerge after just a few questions. This is not because I am a magician coach (although I like to think I'm competent!), it's just that the process of converting our thinking and feeling into words will start to make the intangible into something more tangible. Once we've named it, we can start to tame it.

Building our awareness to describe the emotions we feel or tuning in to what our body is telling us, helps us to get really specific on what problems we might need to solve or opportunities to grasp. Kaitlin Robb's wheel of words (3) is a really nice example of a simple technique to find the right words for a specific experience.

In a coaching session we might use any number of ways to help you think more deeply about what you're thinking and how you're feeling:

  • Somatic Coaching: to notice where you are feeling it in your body so you can describe the experience in more detail

  • Metaphor: Noticing when you use a metaphor to describe an experience and using that metaphor to gain more perspective. eg: ‘I feel like I'm between a rock and a hard place’ or ‘I'm balancing on a tightrope’ can all be utilised to bring more insight.

  • Perspective Shifting: Seeing your emotions, thoughts or feelings from the perspective of a significant stakeholder, or perhaps an objective observer.

As is always the case, the coaching conversation goes where it is needed and the client is in the driving seat, setting the agenda and agreeing where it might be best to focus and how. My role is to have lots and tools and resources to help us to get there.

As always... Appreciate you stopping by!

1) Rock, Dr. David – “Your Brain at Work, Revised and Updated: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, 2009

2) Siegel, Dr. Daniel - The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician's Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration, 2010

3) Robb, Kaitlin -

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