How a focus on the future can move us on however low our starting point

A guy I know professionally had said in passing he’d appreciate a chat, but I heard nothing. Some months later an email arrived saying he’d still love to talk, but he feared it would become a moaning session and what he wanted was to move on, so could we explore working together. I was struck by how brave and perceptive that was, to resist the temptation to moan – and probably blame, which we also tend to do when in complain mode – and focus instead on making changes in his life.

It made me think of the clients I’ve had who’ve trusted me with painful and emotional honesty about hurt and trauma in their lives. I’m clear with clients who disclose issues that my coaching training involved significant person-centred counselling skills, and I’m comfortable and able to work with people’s distress, but I’m not a trained analyst. I am nothing if not ethical and always refer clients to that option as an alternative, or as an intervention to be done in parallel with the coaching.

What I’ve heard in response on many occasions is how much my clients like the forward focus that coaching provides. Despite the pain and despair, even the depression, that some are experiencing, they want to talk about it – and, crucially, have their feelings heard and acknowledged – but then they want to focus on what to do with the insights. They want to commit to the steps that they have identified will help them. They want to look forward and shape, sometimes slowly, but always with resolve, how they want their world to be.

I don’t know a great deal about optimism bias, the belief that the future will be much better than the past and present, but it makes me wonder if coaching is as powerful as it is because it taps into just that. It’s vital to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to look at our pain in order to move on, and maybe it’s so much more powerful when we also tap into hope and a belief that we can shape our future and the steps needed to create it. As Tali Sharot wrote in an article in Time some years ago:‘To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals.’

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