Blog Post: Getting out from under the Streetlight 



One of my favorite jokes is one you’ve probably heard.  It’s about a guy who’s looking for his car keys late at night along the highway.  When a friend comes by to help and asks him where he dropped the keys, the guy points 10 yards away and says, “Over there in the bushes.”  The friend asks why he’s looking over here beside the car instead of over there in the bushes, to which the guy responds, “Because the light is better over here.”   

Okay, the joke tells better in person than in a blog. 

Many of our coaching clients are looking for solutions where the light is better versus where the solutions actually will be found.  Instead of exploring unfamiliar terrain, they focus on things they know and with which they are comfortable. Here are some examples: 

  • Our marriage is rocky, and the solution is nicer vacations and shinier cars. 
  • Business is down, and we need to get those salespeople working harder. 
  • Students are not graduating high school, so we need more funding. 
  • I’m overwhelmed with work; I need a long weekend away. 
  • I have a big opportunity, but I need to convince my spouse. 
  • My schedule is too packed, so I need a better way to manage my time. 
  • I want to quit my job, but I have too many bills to pay. 
  • I’m frustrated with the messiness of my teenager, and I want to find a way to get him to be tidier.  

When we look under the light, we make the assumption that we see the issue clearly and that we know what kind of solution will bring remedy or forward movement.  This is the equivalent of looking under the streetlight even though our keys are hidden somewhere in the bushes.  One of the reasons people hire a coach is to help them get out from under the streetlight and to venture into new perspectives, explore new criteria for success, and examine unexplored concepts that might prove helpful.  

Here are three examples of unexplored concepts that show up with some regularity in my coaching. 

  1. Trust.  It’s amazing how many challenges find resolution when trust is addressed.  In marriages, families, business teams, churches, or even with an individual, trust is like the lubricant that lets the parts of the engine run smoothly.  Without trust, there’s friction, unproductive heat builds up, and eventually, things start breaking down.  As essential as trust is to well-functioning relationships, it’s rarely the place clients look when considering what needs to change.  

As a coach, I listen for evidence of trust and lack of trust when a client describes their situation.  Recently I was coaching a new division manager in an oil and gas company.  Things were going well, but he felt like his supervisor might be disappointed with him on some specific issues, including how late my client was willing to work.  My client-first wanted to focus on determining how late was reasonable, which would give him a way to gauge who was right and who was wrong – him or his boss.  While right/wrong conversations are easy to have, they tend not to be very productive.  I asked my client point blank: how much do you trust your boss?  He immediately remarked, “Not as much as I would like to!”  As we investigated what would be different if there were more trust, it became obvious to both of us that the quality of the relationship was more important than who was right or wrong. 

  1. Self-Acceptance. In his book Upstream, author Dan Heath talks about solving problems at the source, which is actually a form of preventing problems.  He uses the strange metaphor of rescuing babies from a river.  Instead of figuring out more efficient ways of getting babies from the water, it would be wiser to go upstream and find out how all these babies are getting into the river in the first place.  Hence, “upstream.”

One upstream source of so many problems is self-acceptance.  A weak or missing self-acceptance can create problems for a person at work, at home, with physical health, financial well-being, and pretty much any area of life.   

And self-acceptance issues are not always obvious.  I once had a client who was the picture of confidence, success, and spiritual well-being.  She was a rock star.  Not literally – she is actually an attorney.  Over and over again, our coaching sessions focused on work-life balance issues.  We shone the light of attention on the usual spots: time management, prioritization, boundaries, etc.  Still, she felt out of balance and sensed she was letting herself and others down.  Eventually, we turned our attention to her self-acceptance.  To what degree was she able to be okay with herself?  And I meant ALL of herself: the good, the bad, and the ugly.  She logically inquired, “Why would I be okay with a bad or ugly part of myself?”  She wrestled with her options before landing on a truth that proved life-changing: “Oh, I don’t have to like something to be okay with it.  And I can be okay with it and still want to change it.” This breakthrough cut off so many of her challenges at the source.  It allowed her to stop functioning out of fear, anxiety, and perfectionism.  She was able to relax and appreciate what she accomplished in life instead of frantically focusing on all that was undone, still to be done, or could maybe be done someday.   

  1. Systems. Jody wanted a different marriage.  He wasn’t sure he wanted a different wife or not, but that was an option.  He was tired of being “the responsible one” in the relationship.  He felt like all the childcare, the chores, and the cash were his responsibility.  (For the record, I was the one responsible for getting them to all start with the same letter.  I have issues.). 

Jody wanted his life to change and he was pretty sure the key was to get his wife to change.  But a truth in coaching is that people don’t change that much.  On top of that, I told him that it might be wise to try less invasive solutions before changing his spouse for a different model.  Instead of a new wife, Jody developed some new systems to help him get a better handle on his responsibilities and as a way of sharing the load.  BTW, it’s hard to share the load when most everything is on a list in your own head.  Keeping things in your head IS a system, it’s just not a very good one.   

Once he developed some systems, Jody was able to tweak and adjust those systems to allow for more involvement from his wife.  She found him to be less controlling, easier to work with, and less judgmental (his word, not mine).  In the end, Jody got a new marriage, but the keys to a better marriage were not where he was looking.   

Trust, self-acceptance, and systems are just three typical blind spots.  And these three are typical for MY clients; perhaps your clients have a completely different set of blind spots.  Take some time to reflect on your client interactions over the past year or so and notice where your clients tend to fail to look.  What are the streetlights for your clients?  And where are the dark bushes that need to be explored more often?  Invite your clients to venture out from under the streetlights and into the places where they will find a way forward. 

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