Cognitive behavioural coaching (“CBC”) is a powerful coaching technique which can enable you to challenge your self-limiting assumptions and minimise unhelpful emotional responses and behaviours. In this article I explain a little about the way in which CBC could help you or your colleagues.

But, first, where does my eponymous tiger fit in to all this?

Back in the 18th century, Immanuel Kant came up with the following koan – a riddle to prompt philosophical thought:

  • I see a tiger
  • I think I’m in danger
  • I feel afraid
  • I run away

Kant’s premise was this: his fear of the tiger was triggered by his thought or perception that he was in danger, and not the presence of the tiger itself. As a result, his behaviour (running away) was a consequence of an emotional reaction to his own thoughts and assumptions. In other words, it’s our view of the world and our response to that view which drives our behaviour and not the world itself.

But isn’t it rational to be afraid of tigers?

Well, yes, but the difficulties come where we respond to irrational assumptions and beliefs. That concept was researched by pyschologists and led to the modern psychotherapeutic treatment of cognitive behavioural therapy (see below).

Cognitive behavioural therapy
Psychologists Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck developed their theories on cognitive therapy in the 1960s and 1970s. Essentially, they put forward a view that we hold a set of assumptions and beliefs about the world around us. Where those beliefs are irrational, unfounded or unrealistic they can lead to flawed thinking and emotional or behavioural difficulties. By challenging or correcting those underlying negative or irrational assumptions, rather than tackling the behaviour itself, a person could resolve their issues.

Cognitive behavioural coaching

 The current cognitive behavioural coaching model takes those cognitive behavioural therapy approaches and applies them in a coaching context. CBC techniques can be used where a person harbours negative thoughts, caused by past experiences, which are then reinforced by subsequent events over a period of time. When a trigger event occurs, we have a thought, often at a sub-conscious level, which “taps-in” to those underlying negative beliefs or assumptions. That results in an emotional reaction which may lead to a particular set of unhelpful behaviours. Often, those behaviours result in reinforcing the underlying negative thoughts we have about ourselves and so the cycle continues. CBC enables the client to tackle those underlying negative assumptions, rather than simply focussing on the resulting behaviours.

So, how does CBC work in practice?

Take the following scenario. I recently coached a senior manager (let’s call him Alex) who recognised that he was failing to perform in high-pressure conflict situations such as presenting at board meetings or handling critical face-to-face negotiations. Alex described how he would deliberately avoid being placed in those circumstances and he was conscious that he wasn’t pulling his weight.

A straight-forward coaching approach might have been to only focus on the way in which Alex operated in those situations and to identify ways in which he could perform better i.e. tackle the problematic behaviours.

However, a CBC approach had a far greater and longer-lasting impact.

Going back to Kant’s koan, Alex’s “tiger” was being put in a high-pressure situation. When we explored how he felt about those scenarios, Alex recognised that in those moments he experienced certain fundamental thoughts eg “I can’t do this”, “I’m incompetent” and “I’m going to fail”. Those thoughts led to powerful emotional responses of fear and anxiety. Those responses led, over time, to Alex’s problematic behaviours-  developing the avoidance strategies –  and, because he knew this wasn’t the best way to perform, reinforced his underlying sense of incompetence.

When we looked at Alex’s thought process it became apparent that his negative thoughts stemmed from a number of historical underlying factors: a belief that he was less qualified than his peers, a past deal which had fallen through and his perceived shame of a redundancy from a previous organisation. Those events had given rise to a set of irrational self-beliefs that he was incompetent and out of his depth.

But those beliefs were not supported by evidence – Alex regularly received positive feedback from the board, had run other successful transactions and his redundancy had not been linked to his performance.

Alex gradually recognised that it was irrational that those past events should be any indication of how he might be capable of performing in his current role. Using some simple self-awareness techniques, Alex was able to recognise his negative thoughts when they arose and respond to them critically and rationally. As a result, his usual emotional response of fear and anxiety dissipated which, in turn, meant that he did not feel the need to rely on his avoidance strategies. By tackling the underlying cause of Alex’s behaviour we were able to achieve far greater results than if we had simply focussed on the behaviours.

If you would like to discuss how cognitive behavioural coaching could help you or your colleagues, then please do get in touch. For now, however, I’ll leave you with the following:

Man is not disturbed by events, but by the view he takes of them”

Epictetus, 55-135AD