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Coaching in the New Year

Every new year offers the opportunity to hit the refresh button and make a fresh start on something we have yearned to improve for a while yet have not achieved lasting success. We may have been motivated all year long to tackle the New Year’s resolutions we made, having the burning desire to improve health, happiness, and productivity.  We may have had the confidence – the well-grounded belief that we have the ability to be successful. Yet, for some reason, we did not bring our vision to fruition. This is a very common phenomenon.

Having the Best of Intentions Is Often Not Enough Statistics show that a large number of New Year’s Resolutions are never realized. While the numbers vary from study to study, one thing is clear, people start the New Year with the best of intentions. Some write them down, others proudly announce them to friends and family because they feel certain in their hearts that they will be triumphant. Yet by year’s end, success has not been achieved. If they have the motivation and the confidence to succeed but do not, what is missing?

Explaining the Gap between Aspiration and Goal Achievement Harvard psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey have spent years studying why our sincere best efforts to change often go awry. The authors are advocates of a theory called constructive-development. The constructive-developmental approach is a combination of two theories—constructivism and development—and describes how we make meaning or interpret our experiences over time. In his book, The Evolving Self, Kegan emphasizes the importance of meaning making in human development. Contending that making meaning is a physical, social, and survival activity, he states, “well-fed, warm, and free of disease, you may still perish if you cannot ‘mean.’”

Kegan and Lahey employ this theoretical scaffolding to address why there is a gap between our aspirations and our ability to effect lasting behavioral change. They maintain that, without significant changes in the underlying meanings that give rise to behavior, it is very difficult for an individual to sustain new behaviors. Which is why behavioral change takes more than motivation and confidence.

Overcoming Immunity to Change In their most recent book, Immunity to Change, Kegan and Lahey address the conundrum of unfulfilled New Year’s resolutions. They write, “When we make a New Year’s resolution, we look at the behaviors we seek to extinguish as bad; we look at the behaviors we want to amplify as good. But until we understand the commitments that make the obstructive behaviors at the same time brilliantly effective, we have not correctly formulated the problem.”1 According to the authors, desire and motivation are not enough. The only way to move forward towards lasting change is to discover the hid- den commitments we have that obstruct our behaviors—in short, the underlying agenda that is driving us when we should be in the driver’s seat.

The authors argue that, in addition to our physiological immune system that works to preserve our biological equilibrium, we have a second kind of immunity—an immunity to change, which works to preserve the status quo. Our immunity to change is made up of hidden commitments that drive our behavior. We become “subject to” them to the point where they “have us” in their grip rather than their being an “object” of our thoughts. The authors believe that we must identify  these  underlying commitments,  which they call big assumptions, and objectify them, so that we are no longer subject to them. Only then can we achieve lasting behavioral change.

How might this work in practice? An example is a client who may complain that no matter how hard she has tried, she cannot lose weight and that her weight is preventing her from finding an intimate partner. In reality, she may have a fear of losing the spontaneity of enjoying food that drives her to eat in an undisciplined fashion. Her underlying commitment to eat with abandon and pleasure trumps her conscious desire to lose weight. When this big assumption is brought to light, then she is free to choose which commitment she wishes to uphold. Now she can proceed towards lasting change by testing her assumption, such as eating a smaller portion size slowly and noticing that she does not feel deprived.

Coaching for Change Tool In Immunity to Change, Kegan and Lahey offer a valuable approach that can be used by coaches to pinpoint and uproot issues to overcome immunity to change, thus releasing their clients’ potential for growth and success. They offer a five column chart that can be used with clients to determine: visible commitment, doing/not doing instead, hid- den competing commitments, big assumptions, and a first S.M.A.R.T. test—preparing to test the big assumptions. The authors write, “Our purpose is to put in your hands a new conceptual and practical means to unleash capabilities in yourself and your colleagues.” Their model delivers on their promise.

Conclusion Behavior change is difficult, even with the best of intentions. A large majority of New Year’s resolutions are never realized. Yet, if we look beyond motivation and confidence to the hidden commitments that “have us,” and work to fulfill the marvelous visions and goals we have, we can make a fresh start for the New Year.

Originally published in ACSM Certified News Coaching Column

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