I have always loved the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, they have an anarchic splendour about them, Calvin and his special tiger, Hobbes see the world in a special way, as only six year olds can. Through innocent, (yet very smart) eyes, they comment on some things we do without thinking and make them suddenly look strange. I saw one Calvin and Hobbes classic cartoon today – Calvin asks his father why grownups do not go out to play.
His father says ‘Grownups can only justify playing outside if it is called exercise, doing it when they would rather not, and quantifying their performance.’
Calvin is puzzled. ‘It sounds like work,’ he says.
Dad agrees with the proviso that ‘Except you do not get paid.’ Then he gets puzzled too.
Suddenly he sees work and play in a new way.
Calvin just did some great coaching – with one question and a reframe.
He is always stirring up his parents thinking, (although his parents never seem to change as a result), they just stay the same, which is fine with Calvin, he has more issues to coach.
There is so much to learn from this, and let’s pick one thing – how we get used to our thinking – it freezes in place and we get into a rut. Once in a rut we do not look outside the rut and as we keep ploughing it, it gets deeper. Life is a series of habits, some useful (let’s call them furrows), some not (let’s call them ruts), but we cannot tell the difference between the useful and the useless ones unless we look at them anew. This is where a coach comes in. A coach who could be like Calvin, asking you a question and making you look at what you do and the thinking that underlies it, in a new way.
From a neuroscientific perspective, this process is called habituation – how our nervous system gets used to something until it does not notice it any more. There is some good news and bad news about habituation. The good news is that our thinking and behaviour is very flexible, we can change and make new routines and maintain those routines without very much further effort. The bad news is that the routines run by themselves in the background and it takes work to change them. Time passes and they get out of date.
It is interesting to look under the hood of our behaviour and see what is going on at a nervous system level. We see a novel situation – a new ‘stimulus’ Our nervous system has what is called an ‘Orienting Response’ which is a shift of attention towards the new. This response engages our autonomic nervous system (over which we have little control), and changes our brain waves. Our attention is caught, and the nervous system is open to the new information. The function is clear – to detect changes and evaluate them in case they are a threat, so as to respond accordingly. Even our most ingrained habits came once upon a time from a new response to some new stimulus. New means interesting and possibly threatening. When the situation is repeated over and over again, this orienting response gets smaller and smaller until it finally disappears, as our nervous system remembers this is not a threat and there is no danger. Our system remembers the stimulus, and gets used to that situation.
A significant change in the situation gives the orienting response again. For example, we can sleep through all sorts of noises, sounds of traffic, howling winds, but if there is an unusual bump downstairs in the kitchen, we wake up. We were used to the other sounds, but that one was new.
Another example, I once lived in an apartment that was very close to a railway line. The sound of the trains at night used to wake me all the time at first. (I knew with certainty the first train of the morning went past at 06.03 AM). Then after about a month, I habituated and I slept through all the noise. When I moved to a house in a quiet road, I found it difficult to sleep at first – too quiet. Then I habituated to the quiet.
You can see how this model produces what we call limiting beliefs – an idea that constrains our thinking and therefore our behaviour.. At a neuroscientific level, a limiting belief is habitual thinking built from a habitual response to a repeated situation. It is limiting when we or the situation has changed significantly but we have not noticed the change. We are habituated to the past. This can happen in small ways. For example, paper work needs to be done in triplicate because a year ago two departments needed to see a copy. Now only one looks at it, but still we make three copies. Why? Because, ‘Well that’s the way it is,’ and it is more difficult to change that to continue in the old way. Habituation is backed by the very strong force of inertia.
Here is a more serious example. A same person wakes in the night and wonders how he got stuck in his job when he does not enjoy it any more. How indeed? Habituation has stopped him thinking and making a new choice many times leading up to that moment. (He may continue in the job, but at least he has woken up and made a choice, and is no longer sleepwalking into the future).
We need a Calvin to make us look at things anew. Sometimes I ask a client, ‘What would your six year old self think of what you are doing now?’ This always leads to some new thinking. The six year old does not have the ‘right’ answer, just an important new perspective. A similar, but less challenging question would be, ‘If you could plan this again based on what is happening now, what changes would you make?’
I personally like the ‘Calvin Question’; coaches need to channel some Calvin sometimes, and wake the client. The coach is an awakener. In neurological terms, challenge the habituation, get as many orienting response as you can in a session. This channels attention, and in a new way. Habits are great, we just need to make sure the right things are habituated. Always look for the sell by date of our assumptions and actions. When next you have a client who seems to be stuck, think of Calvin, what would he say?