"The intellectual life of man consists almost wholly in his substituting a conceptual order for the perceptual order in which his experience originally comes." William James, Some Problems of Philosophy, 1910
James biographer Robert Richardson has described the pioneering psychologist as mounting "a lifelong protest on behalf of experience," and James' emphasis on the importance of our immediate sensory perceptions has a parallel in the self-coaching process. While a key step in effective self-coaching is an attitude (and an ongoing process) of self-engagement, this isn't an end in itself; the intended result is an increased sense of self-awareness. I use this term to mean both a heightened in-the-moment perception of our physiological and emotional responses to a situation and a developing understanding of who we are and how we operate as individuals based on those responses.
Note that our physiological and emotional responses are deeply intertwined. An emotion often generates a set of physiological responses that we may perceive before we're even aware that we're having an emotional experience, and what we feel physically often provides important clues to what we're feeling emotionally. When working with someone who's having difficulty naming the emotions they're feeling in the moment, I may ask them to do a mental scan of their body--literally, what do they feel?--and the physical can often be a helpful avenue into the emotional.
It can also be useful simply to expand our emotional lexicon. Here's a 1-page "vocabulary of emotions" [PDF] that lists eight primary emotional states--angry, caring, embarrassed, excited, happy, inadequate, sad, scared--and 52 synonyms. (Note that this list shouldn't be construed as an "official" list of basic emotions. Psychologist Paul Ekman defines the six basic emotions as anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise, while the late Sylvan Tompkins believed there are eight: anguish, disgust, fear, joy, interest, rage, shame, and surprise. [For more on basic emotions, see Chapter 5 in Joseph LeDoux's The Emotional Brain.] The list above, which I've adapted from one originally developed by David Bradford, Mary Ann Huckabay and Carole Robin at Stanford, is simply one that works well for me as a coach.)
But whether we're scanning our physiological responses or naming our emotions, the goal is a heightened ability to sense ourselves in the moment and then to make sense of those perceptions.
Self-coaching is a form of experiential learning, and if perceiving ourselves more acutely in the moment is a form of reflecting on our experiences, then the act of understanding ourselves more fully as a result of those perceptions is a form of conceptualizing those experiences and distilling them into generalizable principles.
Arriving at this understanding--a set of conceptions about ourselves as individuals that we believe in and can act upon--is a subtle, iterative and complex process. We need to hold this understanding provisionally and modify it repeatedly based on new data. We can't jump to conclusions, get locked into an unhelpful mindset, or cling too tightly to our mental models about ourselves.
For example, I've come to realize that at times I can act, speak and even move quickly, a dynamic that's exacerbated when I'm stressed, excited or just keenly interested in something. This is fine when I'm working by myself, but I've learned (the hard way) that this can make it difficult for others to stay connected with me, which undermines my ability to achieve my goals in any collaborative experience, particularly when speaking before an audience. I can talk too rapidly for people to follow what I'm saying, or my mind races ahead of my mouth, and I may not even finish my sentences, leaving my listeners trailing behind.
This heightened self-awareness has helped me tremendously as a public speaker, a topic I've discussed a number of times over the years. Today I'm much more aware of the emotions I feel before speaking--nervous anticipation, excitement, even fear--and of the physiological responses that are the signatures of those emotions in me--a tingling in the pit of my stomach, sweaty palms, a burst of energy. And while I once interpreted those perceptions as signs of my ineptitude, I've developed a different understanding of myself--I care deeply about my work, I want my listeners to have a good experience, and as a result I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well.
I don't want to lose this feeling of urgency entirely--the elevation that comes with mild stress can be both enjoyable and extremely productive. But I've had to learn how to sense its presence, regulate it, and manage how I express it in order to be more effective. I've also learned that I can overdo that self-regulation and self-management--it's important to find a happy medium. (I'll talk more about self-regulation and self-management--elements of what we might call self-intervention--in the near future.)
One final note: My work with coaching clients and students almost always involves increasing their self-awareness in both of the dimensions described above--perception and understanding--and it's not unusual for them to express some frustration that their newfound awareness doesn't immediately translate into change. In my experience as a coach, awareness is insufficient to motivate change on its own, but change rarely occurs without it.
For an overview of my self-coaching framework, see A Self-Coaching Guide for Leaders at All Levels.
For all my posts on this topic, see my Self-Coaching category.
Photo by ЕленАндреа. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.