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Empowerment Systems

"........When Change is the Challenge."



by Jonathan B. Weiss, Ph.D.


Imagine cutting down trees in the forest, clearing a circle. At first, the circle grows rapidly; each new ring of trees you cut expands the space noticeably. After the circle gets to be a certain size, however, you notice that it takes more and more effort to cut another ring, and the amount of difference it makes when you finish is barely detectable. At this point, you seriously question whether it's even worth the effort.

This is what it's like when we are already pretty good at what we do, and face the challenge of getting better at it. The common wisdom for handling this situation is to just keep practicing, pushing, repeating, trying to be perfect and never being satisfied that it's good enough, yet.

This strategy unquestionably produces results; the dramatic results obtained by Olympic athletes, among others, attests to its power. The extreme concentration usually makes it possible for the person to make finer and finer distinctions about what they are doing, and each distinction creates another area in which to focus and practice. At the same time, this strategy has the disadvantage of being very intense and narrowly-focussed. Someone who improves this way is rarely in balance in their lives, and can easily become obsessed with the project. They have a tendency to underdevelop other important areas of life.

A less obvious way to go about getting better at something involves learning or doing something entirely different than the original area of focus. This strategy works especially well when the new learning is in an area that has always been a background interest, but never pursued. I was surprised to find, for example, that learning to play the piano (I have loved music all my life) was having an impact on how well I was listening to clients, how comfortable I was meeting new people (networking) and how much energy I had available to bring to the other areas of my life.

A third way of improving at something also involves taking the focus off that specific activity, and concentrating on learning to understand the key factor in any success -- yourself. There are many well-established technologies of personal growth and self-development that could be summarized under the heading of "Sharpening the Axe." In individual coaching, personal growth seminars, self-development classes, retreats or psychotherapy sessions, you give someone else permission to challenge you to do and think about things you would not ordinarily pay attention to.

Most of us understand that we react to the events and people around us. It may surprise you to discover how many of your reactions are actually created by your own unconscious and automatic patterns of assumptions, habits, choices and preferences. In deliberately chosen personal growth settings, the combination of unfamiliar activities and skilled guidance gives you an opportunity to examine these automatic patterns and observe how they actively contribute to what happens in your life. You recognize that the way you are going about the new activity is a very clear sample of the way you already go about other things in your life. The learning from this kind of experience can be invaluable: you can discover unconscious patterns of choices and decisions, and become empowered to reinforce the patterns you want to keep and drop what you no longer need.

I experienced this the time I had an opportunity to learn to rappel down a 50-foot cliff. As I stood at the edge of the cliff, with my back to the precipice, the instructor showed me the rope that was fastended to the harness on my chest, and how it went over a pulley in front of me and back down behind me, where it ran through a bracket on the lower back part of the harness. He showed me how to put my right hand in front of me, grasping the rope attached to my chest, while my left hand held on to the rope that hung down my back. He carefully explained (he thought) how I could easily control my descent by pulling the back rope out away from me at an angle.

However, the moment I stepped off the cliff, the "training" disappeared! As I started dropping down, the fear of falling took over, and I grabbed (with my most-used hand, my right) for the most immediately obvious lifeline -- the rope right in front of me, fastened firmly to my chest! The faster I fell (since I was doing nothing to slow my descent with the other hand), the more tightly I tried to hang on to the wrong rope!

What I learned about my own process from that experience was the importance of getting clear and reviewing what information I need before going into a situation that is likely to be stressful. If I don't do that, I'm likely to react primarily to the stress, and fixate on something familiar and easy to "grasp," whether it has anything useful to contribute or not.

Most of the time we do not deliberately choose to put ourselves in these personal learning situations (even though I think we SHOULD!). However, life itself seems to enroll us in an endless series of personal growth classes, which we seem to have to repeat until we learn their lessons. The learning process is considerably easier if we choose to handle them by challenging and examining our own patterns.

No matter what method we use to improve and develop ourselves beyond our current state, we will encounter some predictable obstacles. The key to producing consistent, sustainable improvement in performance is to understand and manage these factors.

The most important predictable pattern to understand about the growth process is the balance between progression and regression. The common phrase, "two steps forward and one step back," expresses this idea, but implies more frustration than is actually necessary. What actually happens is that any forward movement into new territory will trigger an impulse to retreat from the unfamiliar newness back to safer and more familiar areas. The original model for this process can be seen in toddlers; the child eagerly and energetically charges out into the world, looking for anything and everything that is new and different. At some point, however, there is a moment of recognition that the attachment to the familiar has been stretched too far, and the child turns around and rapidly retreats to the security and comfort of the safe caretaker.

This "regressive" process is not only natural and built into our systems, it can be predicted to appear any time we step beyond whatever our previous limits have been. This can be easily managed, unless we react to the regression by getting upset at ourselves, thinking we should always and only move directly forward and upward to higher and better results.

If we only step a little beyond our limits, the regressive process simply looks like being quiet and introspective, reflecting on what we just did, and perhaps thinking about what we might have learned about ourselves from the experience. It is usually unnecessary to do anything about this part of the process, other than go back to doing what it was that produced the small breakthrough.

If the step over our previous limits is significant, however, the regressive tendency can take us as far below our usual level of functioning as the breakthrough took us above it. The specific form this takes is different for each person, but common examples are negative thoughts and feelings, discounting the achievement ("I was just lucky, I could never do that again, it was an unusual situation, I really didn't like doing those things," etc.). These feelings can be summarized as a fear of failure. We become reluctant to go back to doing the successful behaviors, and feel an urge to maintain ourselves in our familiar comfort zone.

Managing this reaction properly means getting reassurance and support that you really DID produce the extraordinary results, you ARE really capable of such things, and that you HAVE done them before and CAN easily do them again. A friend, manager, loved one, or a mentor or coach are all appropriate people to give this kind of support. You may, however, have to specifically train them by telling them exactly what you will need them to say and do when you hit this point. Ask them directly, preferably in advance, to give you reminders of what you have actually accomplished, and to keep pointing out that it was YOU who did the things that you did.


If the breakthrough is far beyond your previously highest level of functioning, the regressive process will trigger a fear of success, which is less dramatic and obvious than the fear of failure. At this new level of functioning, there is a direct threat to your sense of identity, and the discomfort from that often shows up in very subtle forms. You may forget things, break things, shift your attention entirely in a different direction, and behave as though you have forgotten that you had ever done the breakthrough activity. The return to the comfort zone is thoroughly rationalized and justified.

Our daughter had dreamed for years about living in Japan after graduating from college, and planned her once-in-a-lifetime trip down to the last detail. Two days before she was due to leave, she suddenly decided that she just needed to get a job and an apartment of her own.

A supportive person at this stage must understand the progressive-regressive process, recognize what you are doing, and activily confront your shift of attention away from your goal, insisting that you go back to the area of breakthrough and consolidate what you have accomplished. Again, if you know what to expect, it is possible to pre-program your support people, telling them what to expect and what they will need to do to help you maintain your gains.

Our reaction to our daughter's "decision" was to do everything short of carrying her to the plane and putting her on it. We reminded her of all the reasons why this had been important to her, how she would feel later if she didn't do it, and helped her recognize and feel the very real fear of striking off into such unknown territory.

You can make it through life just fine without someone to give you the kind of support I am describing, but imagine what your life would be like if you did have someone in that role. Think about who you could invite to take that position with you, and what the trade-off would be for them to be willing to do it.


Jonathan B. Weiss, Ph.D., is a partner in Empowerment Systems, a Littleton, Colorado consulting and counseling firm that specializes in Personal and Professional Development Coaching. He can be reached at (303)794-5379 or by email.