What is solution-focused coaching and why it works

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Solution-focused coaching: an effective way to achieve your goals

Having previously looked from a neuroscience perspective at why coaching works, I will now introduce solution-focused coaching and explain the basis of its scientific validity.

Don’t be a slave to habit

Once new circuits (or maps) are created by the brain (see my previous post), it is virtually impossible to remove them – that’s why old habits and ways of thinking are so hard to change.

In fact, the more we ruminate over “why am I like this”, and the more we try to change, the more we are reinforcing old ways of thinking. This is because the brain loves links, and it looks for existing maps that it can strengthen with these negative thoughts. Also, the more emotionally-charged our thoughts, the more embedded the maps become.

So how do you change negative thought patterns?

You can’t! You can only add new patterns of thinking and behaving. As an analogy, the old way of thinking is like a well-worn path through the jungle – very easy to get from A to B. To create a new path requires a lot of effort in the early stages, but as we use this path more and more, it becomes worn-in and easy to use. The old path never disappears, but as we use the new path more and more, the old one starts to get over-grown and less attractive to use.

This explains why we sometimes have set backs – particularly if we are stressed, and we revert back to the old path.

So how does solution-focused coaching help?

Solution-focused coaching doesn’t generally ask ‘why’, or try to over-analyse unhelpful thoughts and behaviours. As we’ve seen, this can have the opposite effect than intended and embed negative thoughts and behaviours even more.

Instead, solution-focused coaching, through skilful questioning and generous listening requires the coachee to come up with solutions to their problems, developing new perspectives and new ways of looking at the situation. Only when they do this for themselves can they create a new “map”. Once the new map has been created, practice is essential to embed the new thinking.

The coach’s job is not only to facilitate the creation of the new map, but also to ensure the client continues to use the new path, especially in the early stages when the temptation to revert to the old path is strong.

To give an example, I once had a sales person in my team (we shall call her Rachel). She was convinced that she was lousy at her job. This greatly impacted her enjoyment of her job and it also had a negative impact on the team.

No matter what I said to try and make her see that she was actually very good at her job and a great asset to the team, she obstinately stuck to her deeply embedded neuronal map – that she was no good. She could only find evidence to support her existing map – that she was lousy. As we know, the brain loves links, so it will look for all the evidence it can find to support its maps. My telling her that she was good simply fell on deaf ears because my map did not correlate with hers.

This is why telling doesn’t work

Things only changed when I adopted a solution-focused coaching approach. I stopped asking Why questions, and instead asked her to give me on a daily basis one example of good work she had done that day. Over time this helped Rachel to create a new “map” for herself and the daily repetition strengthened the new neuronal pathway over time.

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