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Liquic gets an exclusive chat with renowned Personal and Executive Coach Dr. Kevin J Fleming. Below is a transcript of the interview where he tells us about the jump from psychotherapy to coaching and how he gets his clients to transform their thinking.
So, can you tell us about yourself and what you do?
My work as a coach comes from obviously the clinical psychology background when I trained as a psychologist for many years but currently my company, Grey Matters International is a lot more than a “psychologist-turned-coach” type venture.
At the end of the day, I am sure you know, John, there are a lot of people out there call themselves coaches and we are seeing a flux now of psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors moving into it for many obvious reasons with one being that it is a very lucrative and arguably prestigious kind of field right now. Ah but what Grey Matters International does, my company, is we try to go after what we call the decisional allusions aspects of behavioral change which obviously is a big key factor of anybody looking for a coach is they want to change some aspect of their live, get some goals going, take themselves to the next level, that type of language. We believe, as the mantra in our company, that most of the behavior change efforts we all embark on are full of what I call half-truths or things that make us feel like we are changing when we really aren’t. The industry itself, in my opinion, deals with problems where the things that are sort of neurochemistry desires and inside these programs being sold are sort of like the needle in the veins addiction fix so you have to be weary a little bit of be aware of what those factors are in the brain that we crave when we seek to change something.
So, what would an example that be?
Well, that motivation feels good - to actually seek success and transformation and to obtain a higher level with a wealth, happiness, power. These things innately pump out a bunch of happy chemicals in our brain when we actually imagine them. And so we say that is not a bad thing you just need to be cautious in that pursuit of the methodologies you choose to get there. I am talking beyond the get rich kind of scams and programs that people sell. I am talking just in your own conversations with your coach and what your brain tells you it wants you to do. We basically try to teach in our coaching some of these fundamental tenants around the brain, one being the brain is naturally wired to feel right not to be truly effective. Once you actually embrace this notion all your dialogues with any of your helpers or guides or advisors start getting a little tricky because you start saying “how do I know what I really think I know?”. It becomes a very primary question to start asking now. I am not trying to advise that we are going to teach more neuroticism or hyper-questioning for people but I do think an appropriate level of skepticism about what the brain tells you is seeking is always just good wisdom.
I had this in interviews for jobs where someone asks what are your strong points and your weak points. And I always want to laugh, like “what makes you think I know?”
Is that the kind of thing you are talking about there?
Yes, in the research, we call them cognitive biases. There are a lot of them out there. Certainly, there are a lot of people have researched things like the halo effect and positive effect bias. The way we kind of spin ourselves, even our weaknesses get spun to being like you said in that allusion like “well I just work too hard”. That kind of weakness. Absolutely, we will see that there are tons of these and what Grey Matters International is interested in is not just the biases. We know the brain is wired this way. It is not wrong thing. You are never going to completely fix that. We just want to teach people be what we call “thinking about your thinking”. Be aware of your thinking a bit. We sell programs, we work one on one with clients and we also work with coaches as they want to put out their programs because we believe our meta-level thinking skills from our company can inform, and improve and purify coaching methodologies to a higher level by removing some of these decisional allusion aspects that are quietly hanging out in the corners of peoples programs so to speak.
How do you pick those illusions out?
That is a good question. One of the things, I’ll take a stab at the one-on-one level of coaching. We’ll start there first. We do a very high-level assessment process where we look at a neuroscience type information of what’s idiosyncratic to that person, there are some intellectual property that we have come up with that are in the assessment tools that help me get at that at the front end and I basically say to my clients “we are starting with the ending in the beginning” so I am able to create an assessment distinction at the front end which is very different in the field because most psychologist and trainers and coaches go out and do what I call more the this “additive notion” so there is a personality test, a thinking test, and everyone is trying to tell you another layer added on to another layer about yourself, and so you end up holding this binder of all these tests and Myers-Briggs codes and personality topologies, and get all these labels and colors and graphs and they say “this is you” but they are all in the same level of thinking,you know, and Einstein said it well when he said, and I am probably paraphrasing the exact quote, “no problem is ever solved with the same level of thinking the problem was created on”. So Grey Matters International tries to get on to this a new level and so by doing this on our assessment side on the front end, we don’t give you additive nature of knowledge, we subtract it. We basically say “here is you probably know from your prior psychologist, coach, trainer, whatever, but you have some self awareness that you kind of buy into and utilize every day. We are going to go in there and tell you a little bit about the half-truths about yourself - what you probably skipped over or rationalized as true because it is very difficult to discern what is fully true and what just merely makes sense in your profile, so it is probably too much for a phone call interview like this to get into the testing instruments but a lot of it is assessment. So to answer your other question, though in terms of how we distill coaching methodologies, I do both whether they’re a private coach selling a program or whether it is a corporation that has a training and development program. They will give us their binder of their program that they are using and what we do is look through some of the assumptions they are making about learning and most typically most of the areas we go after when we go through this comes from behavioral economics which basically has taught us in the field that the rationale economical model of decision making is maximizing benefits, minimizing losses - that that works in teaching and may work in a business school seminar. “Here is what will make you more wealthy, happier, successful, whatever and here is what you have to avoid”. The idea is that we pummel you up with all this information about the positives and tell you all the risks that you will naturally lean toward those conditions that make you maximize positives and reduce negatives. We know though that that’s not exactly what happens with the brain. It is very irrational very finicky very vein, very wildly wired, and what we try to do is to at least give the individual coach that wants me to run with their coaching program or their corporate client basically an overview of the assumptions they have that fall in the rational and economic model of decision making in the program and then help them work on ways that leverage the brain instead versus leveraging their own thinking of how the brain should be and help them get to the same end point that desiring their program to do.
So, you talked about the brain wants to be right rather than effective. What is an example of where the brain is trying to be right but it is not effective?
Well, the biggest examples I see when I do couples coaching which I always love to see this spun back and forth interactively between husband and wife. I will give you an example where somebody has come into, I am going to take this into therapy side of the fence when I was doing the psychotherapy, which I don’t do any more, but the principle remains, somebody comes in and denotes a problem with the other person - of course they don’t usually come in and say “here’s my problem in the marriage” -- it is someone else’s problem, which is fine. And that’s fine. We know that’s we’re wired. The brain projects endlessly. So we take that in, and le’ts say that’s objective. So say that this one thing that this one partner said is literally happening and is being exacerbated by the other partner and the other partner is doing this. Well, we have seen many times I am sure the therapist turned coach will laugh when they hear this, what we see is a change will happen. So that other partner eventually agrees and surrenders and says “yeah, you’re right, that is probably causing a problem” and starts changing it. They change it but without the acknowledgement that they were wrong in the change so the original partner gets the results they want but they didn’t get them acknowledging it was wrong. They got the result by accident. I have many clients who get that who literally say the statement back to me and say “yes, things are better but they didn’t admit that they were wrong”. Here we have something that the brain at that moment is wired to be right not effective. It’s been happier. Apparently the change is happened the way you want it, why are you circling back around! We have this sort of love affair at times, the brain does, to actually get the ego part going way more than it needs to and so instead of accepting a positive change, we have to get the positive change and the notion that someone was wrong in doing the prior thing.
And so you say we have to let that right part go.
As best you can or at least flag it. That is where meta-cognition as a coaching skill comes into play. I don’t think you ever unplug this or ever able to completely let it go but imagine if you can now have dialogues with your spouse, or with yourself, or your partner, with your boss, or whoever that could be on a whole other level. When I was doing some of this coaching work in the Middleast I found it very interesting when you talk to people who are of different religious backgrounds over there – Muslims, Shiites, the Jews, the Christians – when I did that audience what I thought was interesting was that if you could get these people to at least agree that we are all wired to be incomplete in our notion, we find that incompleteness is a lot less threatening than wrongness. And then all of a sudden you bypass those ideology hot-buttons. And I think that is what we try to do. How do you engage people to have critical conversations about the thinking underneath their thinking as best you can? And so you don’t completely push it out of the way, but you flag it? You note it.
And let them know that you trying to be right is actually getting in the way of trying to be successful whatever you are trying to do?
Yes, because in the rightness it doesn’t always have to be about putting someone else face in the pie. I think that is our notion when we are talking about. I am also talking about when I am getting in the coaching stuff. I saw this a lot when I was running the training and development for a health coaching company when people were trying to change health behaviors. The brain is always running post-talk like rationalizing what was done and always making sure that when it gives you the print- out that you are doing okay. So even if you didn’t reach your goal that you made with the coach there was always an excuse. I hate using that word because it is actually deeper than excuse-making it is actually reality-making. There was something that actually made very good sense and the usually the coach would let it go by and say, “well, you got a good point there”, you know. But it is a very interesting thing that the brain is doing in rewriting history and even objective memories are an illusion. I just think there is too much stuff going on up there in our head to really be 100% sure that this memory you are going off of is literally, literally, literally true.
So let’s say somebody is trying to lose weight or accomplish something in their life they don’t get it, it doesn’t work out, and they make these excuses. What is the difference then between excuses and reality-making?
There is a way and again most coaches and therapists will read this interview and get at what I am saying. The excuse sounds in the sale like a very shallow, very trite, it just sounds like, “oh, and it was my wife’s fault because she didn’t put the treadmill down for me. She knows that I don’t know how to do that”, whatever. And you immediately think “Oh, come on, buddy”. We are talking literally. Here is an example of reality making. “I definitely wanted to do that Dr. Fleming, and I am so motivated”, and they tell you everything they are kind of doing, sort of, towards and around their goal and they try to pat it and then there is a “but” somewhere in that sentence as to why their goal wasn’t hit and then to assure me at the back set of the conversation that all is well and I am still on board and I am ready to make my next goal. It is more in the packaging of the story telling that I think is different than just a mere excuse. It’s just something that is standard. It is everywhere in this world. We sell everything all the time. It isn’t just potato chips and diapers on the TV. We are constantly neuro-marketers all the time and a good coach has to bust through the neuro-marketing that is spinning and spinning and spinning.
And so let’s take that example again, let’s say that a person who wants to lose weight or something or they want to accomplish something do you bring them back to reality and give them the kind of thing actually you don’t really want this and that the excuses they are making are just ways of your subconscious acknowledging that?
Well, that is a good question. But I wouldn’t say I would confront like that because then look what you do, and I am not saying you personally, but in a response this is why I left the clinical world because I felt there was too much of that type of response that you gave which whether it was that word or not the implicit assumption underneath that type of response was “you don’t want it”. You see, a personalization of very strong in the analysis. Even if you kind of went around and said it in that sort of lovely little nice unconditional positive regard therapist voice, it is still very much saying, “gee, Johnny, I wonder why you don’t seem to want it”. We always thought in the clinical world the person who didn’t follow through with their goals was “resistant”. We always had individual psycho-pathological reasons why they were and we usually could win the argument. What I am getting at is not necessarily that they didn’t want it. Or I would say something different. “Hey Johnny, the brain tricked you again”. Very neutral, very kind of like “this isn’t your fault. Want to know how the brain just tricked me in my dialogue with you right now? You probably thought for the last four minutes that I was completely very interested in what you were saying. I just thought about dinner tonight. Bet you didn’t know it. My brain thought of something else.” Because my brain did something and my words did something you had no idea I am selling you that I am literally present right now with you. Immediately I share the heat with them and say “you can either get mad at me for that admission and I can call you an excuse maker too or we can call it a draw and we say ‘this is what we say the brain does all the time’. It has a world going on while we are trying to engage in another world.
Then I am going to ask you too much here but then maybe we kind of separated ourselves from our brain like in the sense we are not responsible for what it is doing all these crazy things like a computer that is sitting on our desk while we are the person using it. Then how do we go about manipulating that brain?
Well, now you are leading into the coaching part of what I do. The way I sell my coaching is…I usually work on like 6-month retainer mainly because of the issues you are posing which is the first 3 months or so of a coaching engagement is exactly what you are saying which is just getting sober to this idea. Just get people to know that this is the “it” that they need to start befriending. You are not going to teach and grow and learn and motivate people until you unlearn what is getting in the way silently. And this is the secret sauce in the intellectual property and trade mark at Grey Matter International. We get to the necessary unlearning before the relearning or the new learning. So, really what I am getting at with people is that we don’t even start with some of this stuff that is sold at these high priced seminars with all these coaches until down the road because it just isn’t going to stick with the brain in my opinion. And if it does, more power to these people. I think it is a smaller percentage that if you literally track these people that sit in these self-help seminars for personal growth, wellness, wealth, happiness, whatever, and literally ran an MTV Real World camera type of thing, and we actually saw these people after the seminar and track them, I don’t think the stats are as great as people think. So, again, I would say the same thing I just did in the example “No harm, no foul”. It is just reality, guys. Reality will win about 100% of the time so why not hop right inside it and not try to sell something outside of it.
Because to be honest with you on a personal level I am a big Tony Robbins fan but somebody introduced me to him years and years before I got into him and I thought this is just nonsense. I wasn’t into it until I myself went into therapy and therapy got me like you said into that place where I could see this sort of process and these steps to get to where you are talking about. It sounds interesting that you are doing that whole process.
That is a good point, you may have taken from different practitioners and I think you are pieced it together into your own little jigsaw puzzle and saw it all go together. What we try to do is condense it literally into one process. Because then, we are trying to do what? We are trying to do transfer of learning. We want people to do this every moment of their lives with their partner, with their job and if I can teach them all those skills that go together and those steps… The way we talk in our company is, you know, we think of a tree, and we think of every coaching product or idea out there is being potentially valid but on the branch level so they are all knowledge branches that we think approximate in their own way and everyone has different personages of truth variances that they explain so to speak but you know they are up there and the idea is that the fuller richer tree, the more branches, the leaves, you are going to estimate the ontological sense of truth. Well, I started running around on that level trying to market and I realized I am not selling what these guys are selling. In fact, I spent a lot of time critiquing that. Instead of being negative nanny, I have to start selling something more positive, which is, I am going down the trunk of the tree. I want to inform thinking that runs through every single branch and that to me is the neuroscience of behavioral transformation and this is the distillation work that we do and I started realizing there is a marketing niche for that work and that is our trademark and that is what we are doing and I think that is very very distinctive in the coaching world.
It sounds very interesting. So what kinds of things are people coming with? Do they actually come in for one thing and come back in a short time with a conclusion that something else is going on. What does that look like?
That is actually a good question. Most of the time we actually do see just that. What you just alluded to. Someone is usually going to come to you with a symptom, and as we know in systems theory, the symptom isn’t the problem. Right? So the brain is all wired to simply reduce dissonance, not to seek constantance or truth and one of the best feeders of dissonance is pain. And so people will come with this sort of, “I am unhappy”, or “I need to make more money” or “I have to have a better relationship” or “I need to be moving up in the company”. Well, why? Because in the current reality, something is not right. There is dissonance in them and we know the body is wired to reduce that and to seek homeostasis whether it is your body temperature 98.6 or to spin enough half-truths to make yourself at least feel like you are 98.6 in your brain. Same process. So, they come in with that and usually the assessment process that I alluded to earlier is designed to literally get at what is the truth thing they are seeking. A lot of times in behavior change what you want to get out pretty early is you want to call them on fence hedging. Most people will come in –“ I want change” but the parenthetical, silent portion on the back of the sentence is “but is don’t touch this, Doc”. “I am not willing to trade off on this part of myself but I do want to change”. So when people tell this sort of thing in the self help industry of you can have it all. I just don’t believe it. The way we are quantumly oriented to go to the next paradigmatic level of living it means something dies. Something does give up. If you can actually get transformation and have it all, then something is wrong with the ontological wiring of the damn universe, or the program you are seeking. Because that is not the way things are. You actually have to die and transform. Something has to die and you go into another state of being. You have to give up something.
Is it only a bad thing you are giving up or could it be a good thing.
It could be a good thing but what usually prevents people from going, I am not talking about mere behavioral change, when I seek transformational work with people I am talking about full systems character rewiring and there is nothing beneficial or feel good about it. It does not feel good to go down that path because the brain is wired to be right more than effective it will protect you all the time and protect you from taking the leap. One guy, I think his name is Charles Jacobs, wrote a fantastic book that was called Management Rewired, a great book on Neuroscience in business and he had a wonderful chapter in there that talked about the best way you actually make paradynamic changes in your life is through failing and I read that and it was that you have to learn through failing and I kind of tolerate it when I hear it. Like, “Johnny had to learn the hard way”. But the more I think about it, the more Charles’ quote in that book was right because I actually think the brain sort of blows up. When you have a quantum-level type failure it doesn’t know what to do with it. It can’t reorganize it into some prior knowing that it was comfortable with. It literally blows up and has to create a whole new file in the file system. I am not guiding everyone to colossal failures, but I do say that I teach people to fail successfully. I have to say that that actually is a skill. That the world, the small time media, consumers and the world actually protect you from learning. Everybody is still trying to achieve and grow do more and more and more. Everything is more, more, more. There has to be failing and there has to be letting go and there has to be dying. Well, how do you do that very, very well? These are just some meta-level principles that we teach in coaching that I think will guide you through conflict and so stuff like that.