Unconscious Cognitive Biases in the Coaching Practice

Carlos Davidovich's picture Submitted by Carlos Davidovich January 26, 2018 - 11:51am
Unconscious Cognitive Biases in the Coaching Practice
Unconscious Cognitive Biases in the Coaching Practice

How do cognitive biases manifest in our coaching practice from the perspective of the coachee? How do we raise our self-awareness and approach these biases in our coaching conversations?

In my previous blog on biases I covered bias traps for coaches and how coaches might improve bias awareness.  This blog will cover biases and the brain in a more general way.

From my perspective, the best way to understand biases as part of our behavior is by following Daniel Kahneman’s description of how the brain works: specifically, his concept of System 1 and System 2. System 1 emerges from our reptilian and emotional brains; and System 2 is driven by our rational brain.

As a reminder, our System 1 is the result of all our past evolution; our social and biological history. It’s older than civilization because it brings the experiences from our most primitive, instinctive brain; experiences that first evolved with survival pressures in the animal kingdom. In other words, it brings the most primitive animal behaviors to our life.

System 1 is fast, non-self-aware, uncontrolled, and automatic. It has a protective role based on the oldest learned and evolved reactions to optimize our chances of survival. On the other hand, System 2 is slow, reflective, self-aware and controlled. 

In our coaching practice we need to recognize and identify the voices of these two systems. The coach should be the “climate generator” in the coaching session. We as coaches are responsible for creating the right environment where the client will feel comfortable enough to invite her System 2 to the session. Normally, we are dealing with our clients’ conflictive situations. This implies that System 1 will be permanently checking if everything is under control, that there is no danger or threat present. The coaching environment must be a tacit invitation to our client’s System 2. But coaching engagements don’t naturally begin or move this way; clients bring their System 1 emotions with them and therefore all their biases!

This is one of the most difficult challenges in our work: how not to be misdirected by our clients’ System 1. 

In the current literature, we can find a long list of biases already described, more than 150! Do we have to become bias experts and remember all of them? For most of us, that’s not realistic. I would like to share another, more reasonable way to deal with client biases in a coaching practice. 

Following the excellent work done by Buster Benson on biases, we can define four categories of biases that will help us formulate the best questions in order to generate the most productive client outcomes.

Why take so much care with client biases? Because client stories are inevitably colored by bias. We need to become masters of “reading between the lines,” or understanding bias influence and impact, to more accurately question and grasp what the client is really bringing to the session.

Remembering the definition of cognitive biases—ingrained habits of thought that lead to errors in how we perceive, remember, reason and make decisions—we could also ask, “Do we really need them?” Yes, we still do. Our brains are wired to promote fast, efficient information processing. Biases are a kind of cognitive shorthand, a fast passage to safety, the brain’s way of saying, “Better safe than sorry.”

We can organize all biases into four basic groups:

  1. Too much information
  2. Not enough meaning
  3. We need to act fast
  4. What should we remember

Bias Group 1: Too much information 
We are bombarded by tons of information every day. The brain’s way of dealing with this onslaught is to filter the information and will always choose first those bits that are familiar to us. We notice those things that are already primed in our memory or repeated often. Moreover, we tend to ignore details that contradict our own beliefs. This is the well-known confirmation bias.

What kind of questions will help our clients to identify all those biases related to “Too much information?”

  • What aspects of this situation challenge your beliefs, values or thoughts?
  • If you were in the opposite position, what would your decision be?
  • There are many other questions that you could come up with. The key goal is to make your client question her perspective.

Bias Group 2: Not enough meaning
The brain needs to make sense of the world. It doesn’t care if the story is true or not and will always fill in the blanks. It’s a matter of survival. The world sends us confusing messages and we organize that information to give it meaning. We find stories and patterns everywhere. But, they are not necessarily correct.

These are some questions that could help us with this group of biases:

  • Did you confirm the information you’ve received? How?
  • What would be another interpretation of xyz situation?
  • Identify ways that your conclusion could be wrong.

Bias Group 3: We need to act fast
We’re constrained by time and information and yet we can’t let that paralyze us. To save time, we favor the immediate, relatable thing in front of us. The objective is: “Do it fast! There is no time!”
Here’s how to identify this group of biases:

  • How different would your decision and actions be 6 months from now?
  • What kind of information would you have sought, or with whom would you have consulted, if you had more time to decide?
  • Let’s make a list of potential derailers in the short, middle and long term.

Bias Group 4: What should we remember?
We prefer generalizations over specifics because they take up less space and are more cognitively manageable. We generalize based on our implicit associations, stereotypes and prejudices.

Let’s see the coaching questions for this group of biases:

  • What did you choose to ignore, or set aside, to make that generalization work? 
  • What are the known exceptions to this generalization?

This approach will help us to challenge our clients’ perceptions and understanding of their world. It’s our work as coaches to move them from their comfort zone to a more fully informed, self-aware place, a foundation for better life decisions.

As Buster Benson says, “Information overload sucks, so we aggressively filter: Noise becomes signal. Lack of meaning is confusing, so we fill in the gaps: Signal becomes a story. We need to act fast lest we lose our chance, then we jump to conclusions: Stories become decisions. This isn’t getting easier; so we try to remember through generalizations: Decisions inform our mental model of the world.”

We live in a VUCA world (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). Default solutions don’t work anymore.

As Alvin Toffler says, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”


Related Resource: Webinar: Unconscious Bias:The Challenge and Opportunity for Coaching