Self-coaching is the process of guiding our growth and development, particularly through periods of transition, in both the professional and personal realms. (As an executive coach, I focus on helping clients address issues related to professional fulfillment and effectiveness, but the dynamic interplay of our professional and personal lives means that each sphere affects the other, and we can’t look at one in isolation.)
Our Coaching Team
Self-coaching is a self-directed activity, but not a solitary one. We may ask colleagues, friends, family and even professional coaches to be members of our “coaching team.” Some of these coaching relationships will be long-lasting and wide-ranging, while others will be brief and address a single issue; what connects them is the meaning we derive from each conversation and how we apply that learning in an overarching framework.
How We See Ourselves
Self-coaching starts with our attitude toward ourselves: How do we see ourselves? Effective self-coaching involves seeing ourselves as a work-in-progress, being open to learning and change, and adopting a mindset that supports this perspective. This attitude toward ourselves is the foundation for all self-coaching, and our ability to make effective use of any self-coaching tools rests upon it.
Self-coaching also involves an ongoing process of reflection. We need to view our lives as an ongoing exercise in experiential learning, and we need to obtain the necessary critical distance to be able to observe and reflect upon our experiences, while also fully inhabiting those experiences in the moment. The precise steps we take in this process will look different for each of us, and they will vary over time, but it’s critical to regularly engage ourselves in conversation and to develop the habitual practices that support this reflection.
An important product of this reflection is increased self-awareness, by which I mean both a heightened in-the-moment perception of how we respond to various situations and a deeper understanding over time of who we are as individuals. Our immediate perception of our physical and emotional responses to situations is often blunted--it’s only in retrospect that we fully understand what we were feeling. Honing this in-the-moment awareness of our responses allows us to expand the range of options available to us and to make choices that will best support our goals in any given situation.
Over time this heightened perception contributes to a deeper understanding of ourselves. We learn more about our tendencies and preferences, and patterns in our behavior (with certain people, in certain settings, at certain moments) begin to reveal themselves. We can then capitalize on these patterns, exploiting those that work to our advantage and challenging (or avoiding) those that work to our disadvantage.
At some level self-coaching is all about change. Changing how we spend our time so we're more fulfilled, and changing our behavior so we're more effective. Doing more of what's working in our lives, and doing less of--or stopping entirely--what's not working. We may even want to change the direction of our lives in a more comprehensive way, and all large changes result from a series of smaller ones.
Action and Inaction
Change is rarely easy, but the self-awareness noted above can make the process much easier. Heightened self-awareness allows us to make different choices, both in the moment and over time. In the moment, we can act--or we can refrain from action. In situations where we might tend to lean back (for example, to avoid a conflict, or to shrug off work that seems difficult, rather than be limited by our pre-existing mental models and beliefs about ourselves, we can step forward and act.
Alternatively, in situations where we might tend to react compulsively or reflexively (for example, when we’re angry or stressed), rather than blindly obey our impulses, we can slow things down and act with greater care...or do nothing at all. Collectively, these interventions take the form of momentary, tactical acts of what we might call self-regulation, and taken as a whole they comprise a larger, strategic process of self-management.
Our interest in self-coaching efforts is often driven by a set of goals. A goal may be highly detailed, a target we want to hit or an accomplishment we hope to achieve, or it can merely be a general direction we want to move toward. There’s extensive research going back decades on the power of goals to motivate action (and, under the right conditions, superior performance), but in recent years additional findings have highlighted the downside of goals.
They’re such powerful motivators they can actually lead us to act against our larger self-interest. We achieve a goal, but at a cost we regret; or we achieve a goal, but in the process the experience loses its savor and is no longer enjoyable; or we achieve a goal, but we fail to see the big picture and miss out on a more important or meaningful accomplishment. While clarity about our goals may be essential if we want to achieve them, it’s also worth asking whether our goals are the right goals and whether they may have any counter-productive side-effects.
Values and Vision
Our self-coaching efforts occur within a context defined by our personal values and our vision for ourselves. If self-coaching is a sequence of steps to help us effect positive change in our lives, then our values and our vision are the source of meaning and purpose in our lives, the underlying rationale for the changes we seek to make.
It's not necessary--or even desirable--to fully define our values and vision at the very start of the self-coaching process. These are large, complex topics that take time and effort to address, and at the beginning of a change effort it may be more important to simplify: Break things down into components, build momentum with small victories, and scale up as needed. But a sense of overall direction is still important, and we need to make time at regular intervals to pull up and observe our progress from a higher perspective.
Accepting ourselves is ultimately one of the most important aspects of self-coaching. While a desire for change may initiate our self-coaching efforts, an inability to accept and love ourselves--right now, as we are, with all our flaws and foibles intact--condemns us to an endless cycle of dissatisfaction. The most profound coaching imaginable can't overcome this obstacle, and we ultimately need to validate ourselves.
I'm not suggesting that the self is the only source of validation. Any number of external factors contribute to this desired outcome, from healthy relationships to sufficient social status and material rewards, and in their absence the work of self-acceptance will be more difficult. But no amount of external validation will ever be enough until we're able to accept and love ourselves.
Photo by swanksalot. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.