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Sadness: The Gift We Resist

April 25, 2018

I’d rather listen than read this.

My father passed away recently and we held the memorial service for him last weekend. While an unconscionable amount of drama preceded it, the service itself and our time together was precious and sweet and everything I could have hoped for. I was able to share my profound sadness with my family and friends and join with them in theirs.

The permanence, realness and finality of the loss of my father made so many unimportant things fall away. I had more meaningful, heartfelt, teary-eyed conversations with my family and friends than I have,  maybe ever. The whole experience was such a gift.

The Information in Sadness

Every emotion contains information for us that no other dimension of our experience possesses.

The information within sadness is that of loss. Our sadness tells us that we’ve experienced a loss of someone or something important to us (or someone close to us has). This description makes unpacking loss seem much simpler than it is. Loss is not easily untangled, teased out and identified. That is part of why experiencing loss can feel so overwhelming.

My dad was the single most important person in my life, for most of my life. When he passed, I lost more than just my father. I lost someone who believed in me, accepted me and loved me without condition. I lost the head of our family, the one who convened us, looked out for us and knitted us all together. I lost my advisor, mentor, and emotional sponsor. I lost the person who humbly embodied so many of the qualities to which I aspire.  I lost my hero.

The Gift of Sadness

The gift of sadness, should we allow ourselves to accept it, is sensitivity, intimacy and connection. When we allow ourselves to experience sadness, we connect with our deepest self. We connect with our heart and who or what is dear to us. And when we share our sadness with others, we invite them to feel us and to feel with us.  

And when we allow ourselves to feel our own sadness, we can be with and connect with others in theirs. Sadness is like an emotional bridge that joins us with others, connecting our hearts.

At my father’s service, anyone who wanted to, was invited to share whatever was in their hearts. I was drawn to tears by the tears of my family as they spoke about my dad and who he was to them. I felt connected with them in our shared sadness. And when I spoke, I was able to feel more of my own feelings by seeing them reflected in the eyes of my family and friends. Such is the gift of sadness when shared.  

Sadness connects, self with self and self with others.

Sadness: The Gift We Resist

A good friend of mine lost his mother recently and shared that he still hadn’t cried. He explained, “I don’t like connecting with that pain.”

Sadness is painful. No doubt. And at times denying, avoiding or dismissing that pain can be what we need. To cope. To get through. To give ourselves a break.  

But when denying our sadness becomes something more than temporary, it can extract a great cost. This was illustrated in an exchange I had at a training a few years ago.

My dad was sick at the time, and his doctor (not knowing the measure of the man he was dealing with), didn’t expect him to live, and called in hospice. (This was the first of several times over the following three years in which he was given weeks or days to live.) I left my father’s bedside to conduct a training.

At the training, I was getting to know one of the coaches attending. I shared with her that my dad was in hospice. She laughed. (That’s right. She laughed.) I looked at her, speechless and puzzled. Seeing my expression, she explained, “My father was in hospice a year ago, and he died. Six months later, my mother was in hospice, and she died. And now, my sister has cancer. You have to laugh.”

What I thought at the time was, “No, you have to laugh. I want to cry.”

I can’t imagine the overwhelming loss this coach must have been experiencing. Perhaps to access all of the sadness within that loss would have been incapacitating. Perhaps she was coping with all that loss as best she could by denying the sadness of it. And by denying her own sadness, she could not be with me in mine. And, though unintentional, she invalidated my sadness.

When we can not, or do not, allow ourselves to access our own sadness, we can not be with others in theirs. Hence, the risk of not accessing our own sadness is insensitivity, invalidation and disconnection. Insensitivity to the pain of others, invalidation of the sadness of others, resulting in disconnection from others.    

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Sadness is an emotional muscle that when exercised is more easily recruited. Once we’ve experienced loss and the accompanying sadness, it can be much easier to access. As we age, we tend to access sadness more easily because we’ve had more life experience, and experienced more loss.

Some people too easily access too much sadness. People who access high levels of sadness:

  • May have experienced great loss and not have not found a way to process, accept and/or reframe their experience.
  • May be emotionally and/or physically fatigued and not attending to their own well-being and self care.
  • May (consciously or unconsciously) believe that sadness is a more ‘acceptable’ emotion than other distressing emotions, and so substitute an acceptable emotion (such as sadness) for an “unacceptable” one (such as anger). (Note: The EQ Profile reveals that sadness is the most easily accessed of all of the distressing emotions.)
  • May find that sadness is more comfortable to access, particularly if they fear disconnection from the boundary-setting of anger. (That’s another way anger can be bundled under sadness.)
  • May be suffering from depression. (Which is a wholly different subject.)

People who have high access to sadness (that falls short of depression) may benefit from reflecting on their sadness and what’s underneath it, using the bullets above as a guide.

Confusing Coping with Strength, Sadness as Weakness

When someone has experienced significant loss and doesn’t appear sad, it’s often said that they are “being really strong.” I get irked by that.  People who experience loss and tearlessly power through it are coping. Let’s call it what it is. Coping. And that’s OK. Coping is good. Coping is necessary. Sometimes. But is it strength?

If someone experiences significant loss and is visibly in mourning, are they then weak? I don’t think so.

While non-feeling, as reflected in coping, has its place, it ultimately serves to disconnect us from ourselves and others. Only by connecting with our emotions can we connect with others in theirs.

Yes, the distressing emotions (anger, anxiety, fear, sadness, shame) are distressing. Sadness is painful. And feeling our feelings, while we are having them and expressing them in safe and appropriate ways, is a key aspect of being emotionally healthy and emotionally intelligent.

How do you come to understand your sadness? How do you unpack your loss? How has your own sadness connected you with someone else?

Join the conversation.

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P.S. Our 2018 training calendar is now set. Check out the entire course catalog or click on the link below for our two new Team Training courses launching soon.

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Posted in: Assessment Tools|Emotion: Sadness|Emotional Intelligence

What is Emotional Intelligence? And What’s Missing?

April 17, 2018

I have a love/hate relationship of sorts with Emotional Intelligence. In 1995, my boss at the time suggested I read the recently released book by Daniel Goleman as part of my development.  She didn’t mean it in a casual “this is a book you might enjoy” kind of way, but more of a “if you don’t figure this out, you’ll never be successful” kind of way. Hmmm.

One of the reasons I purchased Learning in Action a few years ago was because there seemed to be no end to the depth of the space we call Emotional Intelligence.  It’s a rich, complex topic with so many angles into it.

This post is a bit on the dry side.  And iIt’s intended to help you and your coaching clients better understand the origin of Emotional Intelligence, how it has been defined, the limitations of some of those definitions and how the definition we use really matters if what we are wanting is to be more successful in life and in business. 

A Brief History of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EI) is defined differently by different people. In fact, authors Gerald Matthews, Moshe Zeidner and Richard D. Roberts wrote in their 2004 book on the topic, “EI may be the most protean of all known psychological constructs.” David Caruso, Research Affiliate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, called EI a conceptual inkblot.

Controversy over the definition, construction and measurement of EI is embedded in its history.

While some of the ideas and concepts underpinning EI have been around since as early as 1920, the term emotional intelligence is more recent.

  • 1964 – Michael Beldoch used the term emotional intelligence in a research paper
  • 1966 – B. Leuner wrote a paper entitled Emotional Intelligence and Emancipation
  • 1983 – Developmental psychologist, Howard Gardner, published Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences which included both interpersonal intelligence and intrapersonal intelligence .
  • 1985 – Wayne Payne wrote a doctoral thesis, A Study of Emotion: Developing Emotional Intelligence
  • 1989 – Child psychologist, Stanley Greenspan, put forward a model to describe EI
  • 1990 – Social psychologists, Peter Salovey and John Mayer, published their article, Emotional Intelligence
  • 1995 – Science journalist, Daniel Goleman, published the book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ

In 1995, after more than 30 years of research and publication in the scientific and academic community, the term emotional intelligence was still virtually unheard of. When Daniel Goleman published his book on EI that same year, it quickly became a bestseller, and the concept of emotional intelligence was popularized, seemingly overnight.  

In the 20-plus years since the publication of Goleman’s book, hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written on EI and related topics. And a great deal of controversy has sprung up, about both the definition and the measurement of EI. (We’ll tackle the controversy about measurement in a future post.)

Controversy about the Definition of EI

Not only do researchers and scholars differ on the definition of EI, these same researchers and scholars regularly amend their own definitions. It’s clearly an indication of the growing interest in, and scrutiny of, the topic.

Following are some of the definitions of EI that have been offered over the years and later amendments:

  • 1990 – Peter Salovey and John Mayer – emotional intelligence is: “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”
  • 1995 – Daniel Goleman – emotional intelligence – “knowing one’s emotions,” “managing emotions,” “motivating oneself,” “recognizing emotions in others” and “handling relationships.”
  • 1996 – Reuven Bar-On – emotional intelligence is: “an array of non-cognitive (emotional and social) capabilities, competencies and skills that influence one’s ability to succeed in coping with environmental demands and pressures.”
  • 1997 –  Six Seconds Team – emotional intelligence is: “the capacities to create optimal results in your relationships with yourself and others.”
  • 1998 – Daniel Goleman – emotional intelligence is: “self-awareness, self regulation, motivation, empathy, social skill.”
  • 2002 – Peter Salovey and John Mayer – emotional intelligence is: “The ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional meanings, and to reflectively regulate emotions in ways that promote emotional and intellectual growth.”
  • 2004 – John Mayer – emotional intelligence is: “the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships; and to manage your own and others’ emotions.”
  • 2009 – Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves – emotional intelligence is: “your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behaviour and relationships.”
  • 2018 – Six Seconds Team – emotional intelligence is “the capacity to blend thinking and feeling to make optimal decisions.”

While the details of these definitions differ, what most all of these definitions have in common is the sense-making of emotions, one’s own and those of others, to achieve an ideal outcome in relationship.  

We, at Learning in Action, align with much of that general definition. However, we see it as incomplete.

What’s Missing in Definitions of EI

For the last 20-plus years, the colloquial use of the term emotional intelligence has been shorthand for “good with people.” The most emotional intelligent person in a heated room would be the one who was most able to stay present, calm and focused on the topic at hand, while staying connected with both themselves and others. If you buy into this shorthand, even a little, clearly, there’s more going on than  simply being able to make sense of one’s own emotions and those of others.

From our perspective, several core capacities that are elemental to emotional intelligence are missing from the above definitions. For example, navigating challenging interpersonal terrain requires:

  • Not simply relying upon the emotional dimension of our experience, but also relying on our thoughts and our wants/desires
  • Not simply the recognition and understanding of emotions, but also the recognition and understanding of thoughts and desires/intentions of both ourself and others
  • Not simply giving in or acquiescing to others, but also staying connected with ourself
  • Not simply recognizing and understanding the emotions of others, but actually caring about and sharing in them
  • Not simply allowing the patterns of past relationships to blind us to the present, but seeing and accepting ourselves, others and the world as it is and as we are.

Without these essential internal capacities, emotional intelligence simply isn’t possible.

Learning in Action’s Definition of Emotional Intelligence

Our definition of EI is inspired and informed by the field of interpersonal neurobiology. Thus, our approach to defining and measuring EI is based upon science, but not constrained by it.  

We define emotional intelligence as the ability to recognize, understand and rely equally on all dimensions of our internal experience (our thoughts, wants and feelings, not simply our emotions) and the internal experience of others, to accept and be present in the moment with who and what is, and to stay connected with and separate from others in order to navigate wisely the challenges of interpersonal relationships.

The theoretical underpinnings of our approach to EI recognize the ways in which we are all shaped by the relationships and experiences in our lives, not only metaphorically, but neurobiologically. How we are shaped impacts how we see, think, feel and experience ourselves, others and the world around us.  

The end result of that shaping becomes our default experience – our patterns of thinking, feeling, wanting and focusing – that become the non-conscious backdrop to our lives and relationships. Only by becoming aware of how we’ve been shaped in ways we can’t see, are we able to become emotionally intelligent. (That is the awareness created by the EQ Profile).

We believe that emotional intelligence is an inside job. While we don’t diminish the importance of developing social skill, without the core capacities of emotional intelligence, it’s akin to “putting lipstick on a pig.”

The inner capacities that make up emotional intelligence can be developed once we are aware of them. 

Creating Awareness

Our core purpose at Learning in Action is to create greater awareness that leads to more choice and better relationships. Only by being aware of our default experience can we know what we are bringing into any challenging interpersonal situation.

Once we are aware of our non-conscious defaults – our patterns of thinking, feeling and wanting that have been shaped over the course of a lifetime – then (and only then) can we exercise more choice over who and how we want to be in relationship, and to create the relationships that we are proud of.

What about you?  How do you define and measure emotional intelligence? Has it changed over time? How so, and why?

Join the conversation.


P.S. Our next EQ Profile Certification course begins May 11, 2018. Register now. Hope to see you there!

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Posted in: Emotional Intelligence|Learning in Action

Want More Clients? Articulate Who You Work with and Why

April 12, 2018


I’d rather listen to this than read it.


I had just moved with my family to Washington, DC, for my husband’s job. Other than my family, I didn’t know a soul in the DC metro area. (OK, well, there was this one guy I’d met at a TEDActive Conference one time, but otherwise, no one.) I was starting from scratch….again.

I’d left a thriving network and strong coaching practice back in Seattle. I was still mourning the loss of my friends, clients and community, when a friend I hadn’t seen in years came to visit. We were on the metro, on our way to the Smithsonian, when she asked me what I was doing now. I don’t remember exactly what I said. It was extemporaneous. It was something like, “I help CEOs and entrepreneurs connect with what gives their lives meaning and purpose and support them in expressing that in their business.”

As I was expanding on that, a man sitting near us said, “Excuse me, I’m sorry for interrupting. But, I overheard what you said you do  and… I need that.” He became my first client in DC. He could see himself in how I described what I do.

Coaching Kool-Aid

When I completed my first coaching certification program, I left believing that it wasn’t appropriate to clearly identify my ideal client. I had drank what I call the Coaching Kool-Aid, which goes something like:

“The client has all of their own best answers.” “The coach owns the process, the client owns the content and the outcomes.” “The coach’s subject matter expertise can get in the way of their coaching.” “If you are contributing your expertise, you are not coaching in line with the ICF core competencies.”

(To be clear, I’m not saying this is wrong or bad or inappropriate. I actually buy into a lot of it. It’s just that the way I internalized it, didn’t support the development of my business and didn’t meet what I felt the market was asking for.)

If I subscribed to the Coaching Kool-Aid, then I thought, by the “transitive property of coaching,” it would be inappropriate for me to clearly describe who I work with. I should be able to work with anyone, assuming they are coachable, right?

And that’s the problem. Oh, and I’m not the only one who drank the Coaching Kool-Aid.

Everyone and No One

For the last several years, I’ve been in the fortunate position to have more coaching opportunities than I can or want to take. So I refer a lot of business to other coaches. Or at least, I try to.

When I meet a coach for the first time, I typically ask, “Who is your ideal client?” Nine times out of 10, I hear something so vague, it could be most anyone. This is the kind of thing I hear:

  • “I work with emerging women leaders.” (OK, well, I guess you’ve eliminated half of the workforce and so the other 72 million are your target market?)
  • “I work with new managers.” (OK, so only about 47 million people.)
  • “I work with leaders of nonprofits.” (There are 1.5 million nonprofits in the US – doesn’t narrow it down much.)

Because I’m determined to advocate for, and support, other coaches, when a coach provides vague answers regarding their ideal client, I’ll keep digging to see if I can figure out something, anything, that will help me know who to refer to them (versus any of the other hundreds of coaches I know).

I’ll ask, “If I was talking with someone who was your ideal client, what would they say that would tell me I should introduce them to you?” And I get trite, coachy answers like, “They’ll say they are feeling stuck.  Or that they are in a transition and want help navigating it. Or want to grow and develop personally and or professionally.” Seriously? How, in any way, does that differentiate you and the uniquely meaningful, transformative, life-changing impact you have in this world? Work with me people!  🙂

For the vast majority of us, coaching is a word of mouth (WOM) business. Meaning, most of our business comes from our contacts, our clients’ contacts, or our friends, family and referral partners’ contacts. And for a WOM business, who you work with and the problem you help them solve IS your calling card.  

If you can’t clearly, succinctly, uniquely articulate that, how can you expect to grow your business?

Focus on the Client

Like a lot of coaches, I don’t like describing what I do as a coach. Especially in the context of an elevator rant. I’ve worked with clients to create their elevator pitch, I’ve read books, even led workshops on creating elevator speeches. And every one I’ve created for myself has felt like sawdust in my mouth. (Clearly something I could use coaching around. ☺). However, I can comfortably, passionately and fluidly talk about my clients. (Not by name, of course.)

I found that when I put my focus clearly on who I coach and why, I can speak about them in ways that feel natural to me and allow others to recognize themselves or others they know in it. When I discovered that, I got clearer and more specific about my ideal clients, why they come to me and what they get from me.

Now, any time I’m asked about what I do, I talk about my ideal clients.

Describing the Ideal Client

Several years ago, a coaching colleague walked into a room filled with my coaching clients. (I regularly bring my coaching clients and others together for workshops.) Upon entering the room, she started laughing. After I asked her why, she said, “Alison, everyone looks like you!” I looked around the room and at first, I didn’t get it. Then it clicked!

I was attracting a very specific type of client. My clients shared a narrow set of demographics, firmographics and psychographics. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you coach clones of yourself.)

When I looked around the room, this is what I saw:

CEO/owners of companies $5-50 million in size, male, age 35-45. They work hard, play hard and are athletically inclined. They’ve reached a high level of success relatively early in life, and what happens from here, is all up to them. They’ve run out of what they know to do, and the road ahead is high stakes and uncertain.

This was a eureka moment for me! This is the clientele that I was attracting and was attracted to. I loved working with these guys. It was fun, meaningful and rewarding. These were my ideal clients!

Of course, not 100% of my clients fit this description, but 85% did and still do. Of course, I took on clients who didn’t fit this description. And if you are offended by my identifying my target market as male in this very #MeToo environment, I’m sorry. I don’t know what to tell you. Over the course of 15 years, the vast majority of my clients have been men because I have always targeted CEO/owners and the majority of CEO/owners are male. It simply turned out that way. And I like it!

The Ideal Client as Elevator Pitch

When I realized how I was attracting my ideal clients organically, I decided to see if I could engineer it to happen. So now, when people ask me what I do, I say something like:

“I work with CEO/owners of businesses $5-50 million in size. They tend to be males who work hard, play hard and are athletically inclined. They’ve reached a high level of success early in life and they’ve run out of what they know to do. What’s ahead for them is both high stakes and uncertain. By working with me, they become clearer on who they are, what they want and how that aligns with their business. They become more confident, more certain and more relaxed in their work and in their lives.”

When I started saying that, a few exciting things began to happen. People would always ask me about it: “Athletically inclined – where did that come from?” “Do you only work with men?” “I know someone just like that!” Bingo! By saying who my ideal client was and why they worked with me, I was getting exactly the reaction I wanted.  When I shared my ideal client, people were curious about it and about me. People could recognize themselves or someone they knew in my description.

Within about three years, I’d built my business in the DC area up to what it took eight years to build in the Seattle area.

Common Objections

You might be saying “This doesn’t apply to me. My clients don’t have anything in common.” Or “I don’t want to attract clones of myself. Gross!” OK. Fine. Perhaps your clients don’t look alike and perhaps your clients don’t have similar occupations, but all of your clients have one thing in common. You!

Also, you might be thinking “I don’t want to narrowly define who I work with. That will narrow down my chances of getting a referral.” Au contraire! The opposite is true. When you define your ideal clients so generally so that most anyone can be included, no one can see themselves in it!

You might be ruminating, “I’m not sure what I’m doing with my clients. I’m just coaching. What my clients are getting is what all clients of coaching are getting.” And you are uniquely you and you are their coach.

Putting it All Together

How do you put all of this together? Especially if you have some of the common objections noted above, how do you identify your ideal client and what they get from you?

Consider the following:

  • Create a worksheet with four columns.
  • In column 1, list the names of all of the clients you’ve loved working with.
  • In column 2, identify the essence of the challenges your clients brought to the coaching (not the specifics, not the topics, but the meaningful underlying issues).
  • In column 3, identify how your clients have benefited from working with you, in tangible and intangible ways.
  • In column 4, describe your clients – demographically, firmographically, psychographically and in any way that’s relevant – be as detailed and specific as you can.
  • When you’re done, step back and reflect on what your ideal clients have in common, in terms of:
    • What they are like (be specific and don’t be shy)
    • What they come to you for (describe it as uniquely and clearly as possible)
    • What they get from you (articulate this in terms of the ultimate outcomes they get)

Put it all together in a statement: “I work with (what they are like) who (what they come to you for) and (what they get from you).”

Next time someone asks you what you do, try it out and see what happens.

We Are All In This Together

The majority of coaches don’t make a thriving living by coaching. And many coaches who do make a living coaching, do so by coaching other coaches. That’s all okay. And I’m determined to help more coaches and people in related professions thrive doing what they are passionate about doing. The world is full of people who need, want, and would live and perform better, with coaching.

Together we can coach people to become better leaders, to lead more fulfilling and meaningful lives and to create lives of their own design. We can do this. Being clearer about what we do, who we do it for and what they get from us, is a start!

What about you? How do you define your target market? What objections / challenges do you have about defining it? What, if anything, holds you back?

Join the conversation.


P.S. Our next EQ Profile Certification course begins May 11, 2018. Register now. Hope to see you there!


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Posted in: Business of Coaching|Growing Client Base

Angry? Who, ME?

April 5, 2018

I didn’t see myself as angry early in my career … and I was.

I accessed higher than ideal levels of anger, but didn’t recognize that within myself. Looking back, I can now understand both why I didn’t see the anger within me, and how my unrecognized anger hurt my working relationships.

This blog post is written with the hopes of opening the eyes of others who have high access to anger, but can’t see it.

Patterns Playing Out

In my early working life, I was acting out a pattern of behavior that had been modeled in my home throughout my childhood. To be clear, I, and only I, am responsible for my behavior. Now and then. And what is true is that I was shaped by my earliest relationships. And anger played a role in the shaping.

I didn’t see my anger because it was my default experience. It’s what was modeled for me and how I was wired to conduct day to day interactions. I didn’t experience myself as angry or not angry. I just was.

We are all shaped by our primary relationships. And not simply metaphorically, but also, neurobiologically. Meaning, the neural wiring of our brains, our mental models, our implicit understanding of what is is and isn’t acceptable are all shaped by our earliest relationships. And it can blind us to certain aspects of ourselves.

The Tale-Tell Signs of Anger

While I didn’t experience myself as angry, the signs were there if I had looked. My co-workers tended to give me a wide berth. Silence often followed after I spoke. I didn’t have the kinds of close personal connections at work that others had. Eventually, I was told that I was seen as having an agenda (which I thought was ludicrous.)

I just wanted to get s%$t done. I wanted to be successful. I didn’t think much about how I did that. I just did it. And because I was unaware of my inner experience and how that experience was playing out, I didn’t make the kinds of connections with my co-workers that would have enabled me to be more successful.

Angry Shadow in the Workplace

I’m not the only person who accesses anger without feeling it, knowing it, or seeing it. I believe there are armies of people, just like the younger me, in workplaces across America.

While there are a number of studies on Anger in the Workplace, they are mainly about physically aggressive or verbally abusive behavior. The more common, more subtle, more pernicious presence of anger is in the non-conscious internal experience of anger that people access and don’t see. Meaning, many people access anger and don’t recognize it in themselves.

Angry? Who, Me?

When anger is a dominant part of our internal experience and is not overtly manifest in our behavior, it’s easy for us to dismiss the notion that we might be accessing anger. In fact, I’ve worked with a number of clients who reported (in their EQ Profile) experiencing anger more than any other distressing emotion, and still didn’t recognize the anger in themselves.

Access to anger is one of the many dimensions of internal experience that the EQ Profile measures.And when an EQ Profile reveals greater access to anger than is ideal, people often push back, saying “This isn’t right. I’m not angry. I hardly ever get angry.” One might say that they are accessing anger (or resistance) at the idea that they access anger. 🙂

The Fingerprint of Anger

Anger has a recognizable fingerprint (if you know what to look for …and want to see it). Anger, like other emotions, has a direction. Anger points outward. “I’m angry at you.” The focus of anger is on the Other. (The Other person, the Other thing, Other Situation). People who have high access to anger tend to focus outside of themselves when challenged. That might look like blaming or judging or competing with or dominating the Other. Or like feeling victimized by the Other.

The essence of anger is rejection, resistance or non-acceptance of something or someone. There is no curiosity in anger, no openness, no uncertainty. Anger is right! Maybe even righteous! Some people enjoy the feeling of anger because it provides them with clarity, with a feeling of being right. If we are feeling right, there is a good chance we are also accessing anger!

The language of anger points outward, as well, and implies resistance. Many people who don’t see themselves as angry, tend to see anger as binary (versus as a spectrum) and as extreme (versus nuanced). However, anger, like all emotions, is experienced on a spectrum from “peeved to seething.” Anger has many nuanced shades that include annoyed, frustrated, irritated, perturbed, ticked, rankled, riled, livid, vexed, impatient, appalled. As people describe their challenging experiences, they’ll use these words that fall on the anger spectrum, often without noticing it

The Underlying Meaning of Anger

The underlying meaning of anger is essentially, “I’ve been wronged.” That’s why anger makes us feel so right!

Exactly what that wrong is, is unique to the person experiencing the anger and the meaning they’ve made of the situation. People who are angry can be convinced of the absolute correctness of their response. However, for any given situation that provokes anger in one person, the exact same situation can occur for someone else and they will not access anger. Our anger is all about the meaning we’ve made of the situation, and is unique to us.

The internal language that someone accessing higher levels of anger might use to explain to someone why they are angry would sound like, “You are wrong!” “You wronged me.” “You are at fault.” “You are to blame.” Most people would not externalize this language, particularly in the workplace, however it would be the voice of their internal experience. Again, the focus is on the Other.

When the person accessing anger turns the spotlight back on themselves (if they do), and owns their experience, the internal language might sound more like, “My needs are not being met.” “My values are being violated.” “This is not what I wanted / expected.” “My voice is not being heard.”

Guide for Coaches with Clients who have High Access to Anger

It’s common for clients who have easy access to anger not to see it. And though it may show up in their 360 feedback, that often merely reinforces their focus on the Other. The key is to connect them with their inner experience using what you both witness together in your coaching sessions.

If you have clients who don’t see their anger, consider the following approaches to help them see and process their anger:

  • Listen and mirror the emotion words your client uses. As your client describes challenging situations, listen for words like “frustrating,” “annoying,” “irritating” (all anger words) and mirror that and be curious.
  • Listen and mirror the focus of your client’s words. As your client describes challenging situations, listen for where their focus is. If it’s on the Other or outside themselves or if they are giving their power away, mirror that and be curious.
  • Attend to your client’s tone of voice, facial expressions and body language. Some clients don’t use emotive words, however, their voice, facial expressions and / or body language may appear rigid, tight, defensive or resistant. Mirror that and be curious.
  • Divine what is underneath the anger. Considering asking questions like, “What of your needs are not being met?” “Which of your values are being violated?” “How is this different than you expected / wanted / hoped?” “How are you feeling unheard?”
  • Access the missing perspective. When you are sensing the anger in your client, mirror and explore it using some of the techniques mentioned. Then, at the right time, consider asking your client how they might have contributed to the situation that provoked their anger. What of it do they own? If they continue to focus outside themselves, respond defensively or like a victim, or respond rigidly, mirror that and be curious. (We all can tend to lose our agency when we are angry, because our focus is outward. These kinds of inquiries can help our clients regain their sense of agency.)

These approaches can help your client connect more fully with their internal experience, giving them more access to themselves. Anger can be disconnecting because the focus shifts so strongly to the Other. And turning your client’s attention back on themselves can connect them more with themselves and ultimately with others.

Do you have clients who don’t see their anger? What have you tried to help them see it? How have you helped your clients see their anger and connect more fully to themselves?

Join the conversation.

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Posted in: Assessment Tools|Coaching|Emotional Intelligence|Learning in Action

What is Coaching? (And Who Is to Say?)

March 29, 2018

I have a client who, for a couple of years, I either wanted to, or tried to, fire.

He’s a smart, kind, values-centric guy. He’s always on time and usually quite prepared for our work. And he acts on what he says he’ll do. Sounds like a dream, right? So what’s the problem?

I’ve since determined that the problem was me. And how I was defining coaching.

Failing as a Coach?

My client, Bill, would start out each coaching session with the topics he wanted to focus on. He would move fluidly from one topic to another, sharing what he was concerned about, what he feared would happen, what he wanted, but felt sure couldn’t happen. He would share his aggravations regarding his staff, his frustrations about finding good people, and the opportunities available to the company “if only”…

Bill didn’t believe in setting a vision. “Visions are just fairy dust and pixies. I’ve got to work with reality.” Bill would systematically shoot down every possibility that arose during our sessions that had any hope of moving him forward.

And I would do what coaches do, ask questions, be curious, explore his feelings, assumptions, judgments, beliefs, his relationship to the situation, and mirror what I’m hearing.

At the end of each session, I’d ask the very coachy question, “Where are you now relative to where we began today?”

Most days he’d say, “Pretty much back where I started.” Ugh!

I left those sessions feeling like an utter failure as a coach.

Going Nowhere?

I have another client, Fred, who I was tempted to fire for quite a long time. (I don’t want to fire all of my clients, really!)

I’d wanted to fire Fred because most of our coaching sessions followed the same directionless pattern. I’d ask him what he wanted to focus on, and he’d dart from one topic to the next, speaking in sentence fragments. Each idea only tangentially related to every other idea. He projectile-vomited a spaghetti of loosely related thoughts.

I’d mirror his thoughts, ask clarifying questions, explore, and desperately search for some kind of scaffolding to hang onto in an attempt to determine what it is he was wanting (because he wasn’t saying).

I’d ask and mirror some more. I’d try to find the gestalt from all of the pieces he was providing. I’d try to weave together some kind of coherent narrative from the patchwork he’d throw up. I’d try everything I’d learned in hundreds of hours of coach training and thousands of hours of coaching to figure out what the heck he was wanting from me and our sessions. All to little avail.

It felt like our work was going nowhere.

Who Decides The Value of Coaching?

As failure after coaching failure mounted, I sought relief. I thought firing Bill and Fred was the answer. After all, what value could they be getting from our work when it either ended right back where we started, or didn’t go anywhere to begin with?

When I finally sat down to fire Bill, I was direct with him. “Bill, I’m getting the sense that you’re not getting much value from our work together. Most coaching sessions end with your saying that you’re right back where you started. That doesn’t sound like progress, and I don’t feel good about continuing to take your money if you’re not making progress.” And that was when he schooled me.

Bill replied, “Alison, I get a lot from our work. I can tell you things I can’t tell anyone else. I can share my frustrations and anxieties. I can put everything on the table and get it out of my head. I trust you and I don’t trust many people. And since we’ve started working together, I’m feeling more relaxed and more confident. I’m taking better care of myself and am really proud of where my business is.”

Wow! Really?! I had no idea.

The value Bill was getting from the coaching wasn’t in helping him get where he wanted to be at the end of a coaching session. The progress that Bill was making was between the sessions and over the long course of our work together. And the value he was getting wasn’t necessarily defined in the coaching plan. It was bigger than that.

Who Decides What Coaching Is?

After this conversation with Bill, I learned that I needed to buck up and ask my clients what they are getting from our work. And so I had a similar talk with Fred, and I asked.

“Fred, what are you getting from our time together? I can’t tell.” Fred said simply, “It helps to just hear myself talk. I leave our sessions clearer and more determined. I feel lighter and more optimistic and more grounded when we’re done.”

Hmmm. How could that be? I wasn’t even coaching… Was I?

What is Coaching?

As I rewind, I realize that my feeling like a failure as a coach was triggered by how I was defining coaching.

At the time, my internalized definition of coaching was something like, “Coaching is the process of helping the client get from where they are now to where they want to be.” Based upon that definition, either what I was doing wasn’t coaching, or I was doing it very badly.

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) now defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” I can argue that I was failing by that definition, too.

If you Google “What is Coaching?”, the post with the highest ranking cites this definition of coaching: “… a useful way of developing people’s skills and abilities, and of boosting performance. It can also help deal with issues and challenges before they become major problems.”

While I honestly feel that this definition of coaching is pretty lame (sorry, it is), I felt like I was failing by that definition, too. In fact, I was failing by most any definition I could come up with.

Who is To Say What Coaching Is?

I’ve heard some coaches say that if their clients aren’t consistently working to make solid progress on the goals they’ve set, they don’t want to keep working with them. They are about helping clients achieve their goals, make progress, realize their potential. If their clients aren’t doing that, they don’t want to work with them. That’s cool. It’s just not me.

Some coaches might say that what I’m doing isn’t coaching. Or that I should be doing what I’m doing differently. Probably. Even after 15 years of coaching, I still have a lot to learn.

And I’m sure that some of what’s going on in my coaching is about my own edges showing up, my own EQ Profile showing up.

And I’m always engaged in learning how to do better whatever it is I do. (I’m in Dr. David Drake’s Narrative Coach program now.)

Frankly, I don’t know how to define what I’m doing. And I’ve determined, I don’t much care to. And I’m certain now that I’m meeting a basic human need. And that’s enough for me.

I’m done with strict definitions of coaching and I’m over following someone else’s rule book.

I’m finding my own way.

As simple and naïve as it sounds, I’m in this to help people, whatever that looks like. If I can be the one person my clients can say anything to, if I can help my clients be more clear, more confident, more determined, that’s enough for me.

What about you? How do you define coaching? What doubts do you have about whether what you are doing is coaching? If you are following the rules?

Join the conversation.

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Posted in: Coaching