If everything worked out perfectly in your life, what would you be doing in ten years?
That query invites us to consider what really matters to us, and how that might guide our lives. Pursuing this simple exercise encourages openness to new possibilities.
“Talking about your positive goals activates brain centers that open you up to new possibilities. But if you change the conversation to what you should do to fix yourself, it closes you down,” says Richard Boyatzis, a psychologist at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve.
His research has explored these contrasting effects in coaching. Boyatzis and colleagues scanned the brains of college students being interviewed. For some, the interview focused on positives: what they’d love to be doing in ten years, and what they hoped to gain from their college years. The brain scans revealed that during the positively focused interviews there was greater activity in the brain’s reward circuitry and areas for good feeling and happy memories. Think of this as a neural signature of the openness we feel when we are inspired by a vision.
For others the focus was more negative: how demanding they found their schedule and their assignments, difficulties making friends and fears about their performance. As the students wrestled with the more negative questions, their brains activated areas that generated anxiety, mental conflict, sadness.
A focus on our strengths, Boyatzis argues, urges us toward a desired future, and stimulates openness to new ideas, people, and plans. In contrast, spotlighting our weaknesses elicits a defensive sense of obligation and guilt, closing us down.
A positive lens keeps the joy in practice and learning – the reason even the most seasoned athletes and performers still enjoy practicing their craft. “You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive,” says Boyatzis.
Boyatzis makes the case that this positivity also applies to coaching – whether by a teacher, parent, boss, or an executive coach. A conversation that starts with a person’s hopes can result in a joyful learning exchange, one that supports that vision. This conversation might extract some concrete goals from the general vision, assess what it would take to accomplish those goals, and determine what capacities we need to improve to get there.
To get data on how well this works, Boyatzis does systematic ratings of those going through his course. Co-workers anonymously rate the students on a dozen specific behaviors that display one or more of the emotional intelligence competencies typical of high-performers (for example: “Understands others by listening attentively.”). Then Boyatzis tracks the students down years later, and has them rated again by those who now work with them.
“By now we’ve done 26 separate longitudinal studies,” Boyatzis tells me. “We’ve found that the improvements students make in their first round hold up as long as seven years later.”
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