Wrestling the shark – coaching questions to help you get to grips with the unknown…

By Karen Amos

I’ve just been reading an article about Great White Sharks in Scotland (Spoiler – there are some, but not many, so you’re more likely to die of hypothermia!).  As it does, my mind went on a little meander, taking me back to watching the film Jaws for the first time as a kid.  I wasn’t old enough to watch it at the cinema, but later watched when it aired on TV in 1981.  The rest of my family was out and I remember my Mum asking if I really wanted to watch it on my own.  She knew I wasn’t a fan of scary stuff, having been traumatised by the daleks and a pantomime of Beauty and the Beast years before.  (I know, it’s not exactly the exorcist, but I’m a horror lightweight OK!)

The article vividly brought back the suspense in the lead up of the film. The tension, anxiety and fear.  The glimpses, the terror of the characters and of course, the music.  This was going to be horrific – should I be watching it alone?

Then we finally had the reveal and saw the shark in all its terrifying monstrousness… erm, no… I remember laughing out loud.  Special effects weren’t exactly enhanced in those days and Steven Spielberg definitely got the hang of it later, but the sight of the obviously latex shark just took the scariness out of everything.  From that point on I just buckled in for the ride and enjoyed the rest of the film as a bit of a comedy adventure.

This lead me on another little meander to think about how I use this technique in my coaching to help clients with change.  No, I don’t make them swim with great whites (although perhaps there’s a business opportunity in there somewhere…), but the process is the same.  Simply, that

We fear what we can’t see.

Fear is disabling.  We’re all familiar with the ‘fight or flight’ adrenaline response to danger, but there’s actually another, less well-quoted response that’s equally as powerful.  That’s Freeze.

For this response, think rabbit in the headlights.  The rabbit knows the danger is coming and even though it’s naturally built to flee, it just can’t get its muscles to move.  We often have the same response in life and the causes and effects can be quite insidious.  Usually the cause is nothing so obvious as a shark attack, or a car about to run us over – it’s the stuff lurking in our subconscious.  It’s there, we’re largely unaware of it – but it’s controlling our every action, thought, emotion and decision.

This stuff includes fear – particularly fear of failure, or of being judged.  Other things can be good old imposter syndrome, or a past negative experience that we subconsciously don’t want to repeat.  The problem is that we’re often completely unaware on a conscious level of what’s actually going on and berate ourselves for not driving forward in the way we would like.

My wonderful coach supervisor has a phrase to sum this up perfectly…

‘Let’s identify it – let’s name it – then we can control it.’

If you find yourself procrastinating, or tinkering around the edges of a task or project, this could be the root cause.  The fact is that once we name the thing that’s causing the problem, we find, just like with the latex shark, that it no longer has a hold over us.  It’s common for my clients, once they’ve named the issue, to quickly and metaphorically roll up their sleeves and crack on with the task at hand as if there never was a problem.

So as usual, here are some coaching questions to break out of the freeze mode and identify and name what’s really going on.

  • What is it about this task/issue that I find so difficult?
  • What’s the part I really don’t want to do?
  • What am I worried may happen if I do this?
  • What are the risks for me here? (NB: risks can be personal/emotional as well as physical or financial)
  • Can I relate this situation to something that’s happened to me before?
  • What would I be embarrassed to admit about my approach to this?
  • What’s ‘unseen’ or uncertain here?
  • If there was one thing holding me back, what would it be?

It’s a fact that whilst coaching has a focus on action and goals, often the biggest part of the work is around the reality check of ‘What’s REALLY going on here’.  The fears, anxieties and general horrible imaginings that hold us back from getting what we really want.  Do remember that these are also questions you can use to help someone else who seems ‘stuck’ too, whether you’re a manager, a colleague, or just a friend.

If you’d like to find out how our 1-to-1 coaching programmes can help you get ‘unstuck’ and move forward this year..

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Karen Amos is an executive coach and founder of BrightBird Coaching & Training. She supports leaders and managers to get the best out of themselves and their teams. She brings a down-to-earth, practical approach to improving working lives through better leadership, communication and working relationships. 

Wrestling the shark - getting to grips with the unknown