Coaching Report

2016 June Coaching Report

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2016 June Coaching Report

Greetings Institute of Coaching Members and Friends,

Nearly 20 years ago to this day, I had an experience that changed my life. I'd just returned home to South Africa after a two-year around-the-world backpacking trip and was invited to a 'meet the parents' dinner at my new boyfriend's house.

Over dinner, the discussion turned to a newly released book – Dan Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence. The conversation was fascinating, and in that moment, I decided that this topic - emotions and their impact on life, wellbeing, and work, would become my career focus. 

Fast-forward 20 years: the 'new boyfriend' and I got married, we have two young children and live in Boston. And I, now, get to introduce our upcoming webinar speaker, Marc Brackett, whom I met at Yale when we were both doing postdoctoral work on emotional skills. 

Why the fascination with emotions? For me it is simply this: our clients’ (and our) ability to navigate emotions is critical to lifelong success and fulfillment. This ability drives how clients bring themselves to their careers, relationships, health, parenting; everything. For example, do they let feelings of sadness, anger or shame hold them back?  Are they able to put themselves forward effectively in what is an uncertain world? Can they come to interactions with clear-sightedness rather than being reactive? Emotional skills are the crucial determinant of whether our good intentions remain as rhetoric or become reality. 

I am excited, then, to announce that Dr. Marc Brackett -- who received outstanding ratings at our 2015 Harvard Coaching Conference -- will be presenting the June webinar on the science and practice of these emotional intelligence skills. Marc is one of the world’s leading researchers on how emotional intelligence is measured, what it predicts, and how it practically impacts people’s lives. Not only is Marc a brilliant scientist, he’s also engaging and very funny. As a result of feedback on his conference talk (which had people quite literally laughing until they cried) he’s now known around the Institute of Coaching as the “Seinfeld of Psychology”. His webinar is not to be missed.

I hope you have a beautiful, fulfilling and productive month ahead of you, wherever in the world you are. 

Susan David, Ph.D.
Co-director, Institute of Coaching

Unpacking Emotion Differentiation: Transforming Unpleasant Experience by Perceiving Distinctions in Negativity. Kashdan, T. B., Barrett, L. F., & McKnight, P. E. (2015). Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(1), 10-16. 
A fitting complement to Marc’s webinar is this month’s scientific article on a key aspect of emotional skills - the ability to accurately label emotional experiences and to differentiate among these.

The article describes how people:

  • high in differentiation use a wide range of adjectives to describe the experience and intensity of their emotions. They have the ability, for example, to label the nuance between being nervous, embarrassed or confused.
  • low in differentiation, in contrast, use fewer adjectives to describe their feeling states. They might, for example, put various unpleasant feelings under the umbrella of “I feel bad” or “I’m stressed”.

A large body of research is accruing on the importance of emotion differentiation to wellbeing and goal attainment. The article cites studies showing that this skill has been associated with:

  • Fewer maladaptive behaviors (e.g. excessive drinking) when stressed.
  • Lower levels of aggressive retaliation.
  • Higher levels of psychological health.

There are a few reasons why this emotion differentiation skill is key. First, accurate labeling of what one is feeling can provide vital information on potential courses of action. In this context, labeling becomes a critical precursor to the ability to manage emotions effectively. Second, the act of labelling emotions diffuses the intensity of the emotional experience itself. That is, accurate labeling actually reduces the level of emotional charge that the experience holds. Third, and related, the cognitive resources that are freed up through the clarity of what one is truly feeling can be directed to pursuing other goals and bringing oneself more fully to interactions as a leader, parent, or partner.  

Implications for Coaching

In sum, while it’s well recognized that that a client’s ability to manage emotions is critical to goal attainment, research shows that a key precursor to emotion management is the ability to be accurate and nuanced in describing the emotions that accompany a challenging or charged experience. Yet, often, both clinically and in coaching, people will devolve to the first word that comes to mind, “I’m stressed” or “I’m angry” is very broad brush-stroke. It reminds me a little of the Black Knight from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail who cries “Tis but a scratch!” or “Nothing but a flesh wound!” every time he loses a limb. There is a world of difference between ‘stressed’ (a common label used by clients in executive coaching) and disappointed, embarrassed, frustrated, concerned and so on. Without an accurate label, it becomes difficult to truly make sense of the emotional impact of a situation or how to match strategies to it. 

From this perspective it can be useful as coaches to:

  • Note when your client is using a stock-standard “I’m stressed” or “I’m busy” phrase to describe an experience that likely has a greater level of depth or variation than is being captured by that phrase.
  • Try to encourage greater levels of emotion differentiation by clients, both about their own and others’ experiences. “You say that the team is angry with you. What else might they be feeling?” Depending on the context, it can be helpful to choose from emotions word lists. Here is an example.
  • Recognize that not only is emotion differentiation a key aspect of goal attainment and well-being, but that studies with children and adults show it is learnable.

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