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Radical Acceptance—Part 2: 4 ways coaches can help us say goodbye to the way of life we once knew
As a BetterUp Coach, I have had the privilege of hearing members’ stories and reflections about their experiences of this past year. And what a year it's been. The pandemic, social unrest and injustices, a presidential election, a changing workplace, and so much more have challenged us all. Yet, I have been heartened to see how resilient our members are and how they’ve adapted to change, as well as how instrumental coaching has been in the process.
I’ve noticed that we hear about the need for people to be adaptable and resilient, but less about how an individual actually adapts and grows through challenging circumstances. First, we have to see that our world has changed, then let go of what is no longer useful. Radical acceptance, a practice from behavior therapy, is about acknowledging reality rather than fighting it. When we stop fighting reality, we can let go of bitterness, self-pity, denial, and attachment to the way we think things should be. Instead, we can get curious about better solutions that align with the new opportunities and complications of the current reality.
Moving from seeing the change, or what is lost, to seeing the possibilities isn’t easy for many people, especially under stress. A coach can help a person reframe and switch focus. It doesn’t have to be complex: a coach listens. Based on their trusting relationship, a coach can reflect for a member what his expressed values, interests, and needs have been and work together to understand how that relates to their current situation.
To highlight the ways in which the coaching relationship has helped our members be more resourceful and adaptive, I’d like to focus on four situations that capture the challenges members have faced.
To protect the privacy of our members and preserve confidentiality, the examples below are amalgams of different stories, not literal descriptions and some details have been changed. Also, I’ve simplified the stories and streamlined the coaching process to highlight the essential points and spirit of coaching. Reality is less straightforward.
As a result of the pandemic, many companies around the world are downsizing and reorganizing. This is often accompanied by layoffs. As you can imagine — or perhaps have experienced yourself—job insecurity and the related stresses has been front and center for many workers throughout 2020.
In my experience, events like we’re facing now — ones that cause job insecurity, for example — can trigger painful memories of past insecurity. Several members I coach, when faced with economic crises in their current organizations, were reflexively swept back into childhood experiences of precarious financial times. As a child, they may have suffered through the loss of a family farm or small business or witnessed their family’s desperation about not being able to pay the rent or meet medical bills.
One member described her experience of being thrown back into past insecurity as “blanking out” and not being able to stay present. She couldn’t consciously and fully accept the changes surrounding her because so many of her inner resources were taken up by the legacy of intense hardships from her early years.
In these poignant, deeply-human situations of triggered loss, a trusting coaching relationship can provide a safe container for the member to share memories of pain that may have long been buried. Coaching can help a member to let in these difficult feelings without judgment, and especially without shame.
In holding space for a member to surface, accept, and show self-compassion for pain carried over from the past, the coaching relationship can help a member develop greater self-awareness about the roots of such “blanking out” behaviors. With greater awareness can come greater self-regulation and an increase in energy and openness to meet the challenges of the moment. Members can become more steadily present with the loss that invariably accompanies change and with the open possibilities that change also can bring.
Faced with turbulent markets and fast-changing work practices, like moving completely to remote work, companies increasingly want executives and managers to help their team members adapt to uncertainty, change, and new performance expectations. In effect, what many companies are asking for is that leaders in their organizations learn to coach their teams through seeing what has changed in their work environments and letting go of ineffective work practices – even though the leaders, themselves, may be struggling to reach that same acceptance. The companies may not use the term “manager-coaching,” but they want managers to motivate, guide, and support team members to achieve high performance in dramatically changed and changing environments.
I’ve found that when a BetterUp member faces the challenge of becoming more skilled in manager-coaching, they often need more hands-on assistance. For example, recently, a manager was having problems with the performance of a direct report and was uncertain how to approach addressing the problem when there were so many potentially complicating external factors. The manager was signaling, without being explicit, that he could use some help in empathetically coaching the low-performing team member to bring his best self to work.
Together, we zeroed in on particular patterns of the team member’s performance that were problematic in the current reality of that particular work environment and generated several possible small, attainable steps the manager and his direct report might take. The member felt that this was the kind of “just-in-time,” context-sensitive help he needed to help his team move forward in a way that aligned with the present rather than the past.
Another thing I’ve learned in capacity building for manager-coaching is that managers may not realize that it’s okay to lead from their own strengths. Often, members are so concentrated on helping build up their reports’ strengths that they forget that they do best when they can take their own strengths into account when determining how best to help. For example, if a member is strong on self-awareness, there’s nothing wrong with their choosing to focus their manager-coaching on fostering another’s self-awareness, so long as this is one of the needs that a team member has.
Several members I coach, while making outward adaptations to living, working, parenting, and recreating within four walls during the pandemic, reached a six-month wall of frustration. They were clearly coping – outwardly they had accepted and adapted to their new reality – but they were nonetheless suffering from change fatigue. In a funk, they asked for help.
We talked through a strategy for scaling down from global concerns and transformational adaptation to focus on small, but consequential, things that they could readily control. Members reported finding renewed energy — and even lifting their spirits — by awakening their curiosity about positive possibilities and sources of meaning right in their midst.
For example, several members found value in exploring the question: “Is there anything about the fall season that holds special meaning for you?”
Voila! Pumpkins popped up!
In this instance, coaching involved validating members for claiming their pumpkin-y pleasures: to spritz pumpkin scent throughout their house, to jazz up the coffee order with pumpkin lattes, or to bake pumpkin bread.
In other cases, these types of questions prompted members to rediscover the mood-boosting benefits of the simple act of going for walks in nature; adding a tangy piece of fruit contributed sensory richness and made for an even fuller experience.
While the new world of work is unsettling for some, being untethered to a physical office has been very freeing for others. Several young professionals I’m working with have taken advantage of the decoupling of work from fixed offices to move to places they have long wished to adventure. However, even positive change often requires a degree of letting go of how things “work,” of being known or having “insider” status, and of comforting routines. At times like these, we may need help recognizing and accepting that we are, unexpectedly, feeling grief or loss or regret even when we thought we were fully embracing the new possibilities.
When resettling in a new and different place, a member may need help figuring out how to find their own ground and their own joy in the midst of an unfamiliar environment with pandemic restrictions. For example, I helped a member plot out nature trails she could walk on in her new city and think through how to explore special grocery stores, since few eateries were open. What became clear is that the member valued having a trusted, steady support person to stimulate fresh thinking and to plan and problem solve with her.
Even in complex times, coaching need not be overly complex to be meaningful. It can be simple, additive, and responsive. Even without a pandemic, members’ needs change in real-time. What matters is the quality of the coaching relationship and the co-created, shared focus on the member’s expressed needs and best interests.