Des O'Connell's picture Submitted by Des O'Connell October 31, 2016 - 9:36am
A Reflection Following the IOC’s 9th Annual Conference in September 2016

This was my fourth Institute of Coaching Conference in Boston. And it was great to be back; such high caliber speakers. I find these events energizing. They remind me how important our work is as coaches. I left stimulated, and with plenty to think about.

My biggest take-away was Susan David’s presentation on Emotional Agility – the idea that our thoughts, feelings and internal stories are not objective truth; they’re just data; coupled with Viktor Frankl’s famous insight that between stimulus and response there is a space; and in that space, we have a choice as to how we respond. This was an exceptional presentation -- heartfelt and powerful – which earned Susan a standing ovation from the 500 or so people in the hall.

Roll on two weeks and I get a chance to practice emotional agility for real. I’m back home in London preparing to return to the US for a special trip for me and John, my partner of over 40 years.  I get excited about these trips. I’ve arranged first class air tickets (courtesy of our air miles), a visit to adored friends in Connecticut, a few days in New York, opera at the Met, a Broadway play – and a very nice hotel. A proper celebration.  I can visualize us entering the first-class cabin, enjoying that welcoming glass of champagne, congratulating each other on another wonderful adventure (I do this a lot: foreseeing fun moments and anticipating the pleasure).

And then…bang.  Some bad news. The day before we’re due to leave John is told he is not well enough to fly. Our plans fall to earth. My mood spirals quickly downwards. Disappointment, frustration – anger even – displace my previous excitement and anticipation. My mind goes into overdrive trying to figure whether there is a way we can salvage this trip. Or whether we must face the inevitable and cancel. John would have to cancel, clearly; but what about me? Could I go anyway, and leave him home alone, sick?  (What thoughts of disloyalty that aroused in me!). Besides, how could I – an extrovert who doesn’t get people who travel alone for pleasure – take a holiday on my own?  Now massive disappointment.

In the end, a little to my surprise, we agree that I should go – on my own. Any pleasure I might take from this is now off the table. In fact, it triggers a familiar process in me: I see myself alone on the plane, disconsolate, sipping a lonely glass of champagne; I imagine solitary meals in unfamiliar New York restaurants; sitting on my own at the opera, John’s empty seat a bitter-sweet reminder; which leads me on to thoughts of what life will one day be like without him... ah, yes, I’ve begun catastrophizing! And so, it went on, wild ruminations sadness feeding on sadness.

Now, to counter this downward spiral, I go back to Susan David’s words about emotional agility – the idea that my thoughts, feelings and stories are not ‘true’, they’re just data. Is it possible some of this sadness is unwarranted? This unlocks for me a thought I haven’t had before: that once I leave our home, as soon as the door closes behind me, nothing I do or don’t do, feel or don’t feel, will affect John. If I choose to be sad, to let my sadness bleed into every detail of our planned trip, it won’t help him (however much I want to see it as proof of my love, my loyalty). And if I choose not to do that, if I go on the trip like I planned, find the fun in it, it won’t leave him any the worse. Here was a liberating thought; I have a choice. I’m not bound to let the sadness spread everywhere, or to believe the ‘disloyalty’ narrative. I am sorry that John is not with me, that he’s at home and unwell. I can be sad about that and, at the same time, find fun and enjoy the trip, the opera, the theatre – the lot.  Which, in the end, is what I did.

What does this mean for us as coaches? Often we’re involved in helping clients reframe, inviting them to consider that the lens through which they are viewing the world may be a distorting lens. This approach – the invitation to play with emotional agility - gives us and our clients another way to see things. They can notice their thoughts; observe the effects on their feelings – maybe notice the elaborate stories they are beginning to weave. And see that they have choice.  They can stick with the current position – sadness, pessimism, in my case. Or they can gain distance from it; treat their thoughts, feelings, stories as interesting – but not definitive – material. They can maybe find a space to exercise choice – a different choice. Which can lead to a better outcome.