Blog Post: Why People Get Stuck

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Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head? As much as you try, you can’t stop thinking about it, you can’t stop singing it. Oh you try. But the more you try, the louder it gets. Songs like Achy Breaky Heart by Billy Ray Cyrus. Or how about We Will Rock You by Queen. All you parents out there – Let It Go by Idina Menzel. Who Let The Dogs Out by Baha Men.

When you can’t go to sleep tonight, You’re Welcome. (Send hate mail to Dr. Chad Hall – founder and director of CAM!)

If you’ve delved at all into some reading around neuroscience it is likely you have come across what is commonly referred to as Hebb’s Law or Hebb’s Rule. It comes from a book in 1949 (!) by Donald Olding Hebb entitled The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory. For a book written over 70 years ago addressing brain theory, it is quite impressive that his understanding is proven to be true through advanced brain-imaging technology. The essence of Hebb’s Law is summed up in this statement:

“Neurons that fire together wire together.”

In CAM 504, the course I teach on the Neuroscience of Coaching I talk about dirt trails, dirt roads, country highways and superhighways to describe this concept. When we begin a new habit, thought-pattern, activity there aren’t many neuronal connections. It’s new. It’s hard. It’s unfamiliar. But as we practice more and more, we build up more neuronal connections. The dirt path turns into a dirt road. Then the dirt road becomes a country highway as we become more proficient. If we continue to engage in it, over time it turns into a superhighway – fast, automatic, non-conscious. Neurons that fire together wire together.

Dr. Daniel Siegel in his book Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence puts the principal this way:

“Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.” 

At the beginning of this post I directed your attention to some examples that surely dated me. They might not have triggered the song in your head but they most likely triggered some “ear virus” of a song that started going through your head. At some point in your life you heard the song. And then again. And again. And again. Your attention focused there, your brain created neural firing that were strengthened through repetition.

This simple but powerful concept helps us to understand how we get stuck in patterns of thinking, feeling and action. We can get stuck because our personality is a certain type. (This is one reason I appreciate the Enneagram as a powerful tool of self-awareness.) We can get stuck because we were trained as an engineer so we think like one, or theologian so we think like one, or an artist so we think like one or an entrepreneur so we think like one. We can get stuck because we experienced trauma that trained us how to survive.

Coaching Stuck People

First, recognize what is behind them being stuck is almost assuredly a strength. Their personality, training and perspective are the things that have helped them succeed. There can be a lot to affirm in why they find themselves where they are. Be curious about what has them in this place. Recognize and verbalize those strengths. It will build trust and rapport.

Second, remember that the perspective of the hammer is that everything is a nail. That’s the “stuck” showing up. As a coach you have the ability to be standing outside of their experience, personality and perspective to invite them into new awareness. Sometimes it is as simple as pointing out “That isn’t a nail.”

Under the ICF Core Competency of Evokes Awareness, there are a number of ways to address a client being stuck. One is to challenge the client as a way to evoke awareness or insight. Another is to invite the client to generate ideas about how they can move forward and what they are willing or able to do. Like the song that gets stuck in your head, without another playlist they are going to be stuck singing the same old tune.

Third, make the client work. Listen, we’re all a bit lazy. We want someone to give us the answers. You might find yourself in a place where you need to prime the pump of alternate pathways but just prime it, don’t go any further. When they identify new thoughts, new emotions, new actions from deep within, your client is going to get a huge dopamine hit that is going to be great for both of you. But it is a process that is hard work – for the client and the coach. The ability to stick with being a coach in these moments separates the great coaches from the mediocre ones. You have an answer for them but never forget it is your answer, not theirs. Great coaches help clients discover their own answers.

Lastly, help the client create specific, timely actions that will reinforce the new thinking, feeling and action. Remember, “Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.” Anything new is a dirt trail and without regular traffic down the path, it will be soon lost. You can do this by helping them come up with a new mantra/message they say when that old song starts playing in their head. You can help them create a body movement that represents this shift that has taken place. You can help them identify a reward when they catch themselves going down the new path, thus reinforcing positive emotions.

One final thing, the easiest person to practice this on is…yourself. Constantly singing Achy Breaky Heart is a horrible way to live! As you begin to engage in new thoughts, feelings and actions, observing your own process and coaching yourself you will become more competent in coaching others. Don’t give up on yourself or your client! The reward of skilled perseverance is great.

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