A few weeks ago, on a whim, I signed up to two-day life coaching course. It was free, so I was more than a little wary. But I was also intrigued.
As the first trainer kicked off proceedings, we were taught that the first rule of coaching is that you don’t give advice. A coach listens, asks questions and then encourages their coachee to find their own answers. I thought it all sounded a bit daft. Surely when you’re flailing around in your own life and not sure what direction to move in, the last think you need is a barrage of questions? Why would anyone pay for that?
When we hit a roadblock in our lives, most of us turn to our friends and family for support. But research suggests that the average person is capable of listening to another person’s thoughts and opinions for between two and eight seconds before they start thinking about themselves. Next time you pour out your soul to your mum or your friend, take a long hard look at them. They might appear to be in earnest listening mode, but there’s a good chance they’ll be simultaneously planning what to cook for dinner tonight.
Try it for yourself. It’s actually really hard work to listen with 100% of your attention.
But it gets worse. Our friends and family are serial advice givers. And when it comes to the really important decisions in our lives, advice can actually be pretty toxic. It’s always meant well, but it has a major flaw. Advice is subjective. Advice is someone else’s dream for us, not our own. And it’s almost always accompanied by the “should” word. You should dump him. You should study harder. You should be married by now. You should listen to your mother. You should be more respectful. You should watch less TV. You should push for a promotion.
We hear these sorts of lines from cradle to grave. And it provokes a reaction in us, well it definitely does in me.
My mum and dad used to joke that whatever anyone told me to do, I’d do the opposite. A teacher warned me against applying to Oxford, I did … (unsuccessfully, but I was glad I tried). Don’t go travelling on your own; I travelled to Australia for seven months at 18 solo. Don’t give up your steady management consultant role and become a glorified coffee maker for a TV crew. Yup, did that.
But I know I’ve also given in to the “shoulds” on countless occasions too.
And it’s not just other people’s “shoulds” that sabotage our dreams. It’s our own as well. One of our coaches revealed that she remained in her job in adult education through rounds of gruelling cut backs and management overhauls. She was miserable but she dug her heels in and stayed. It didn’t dawn on her till many years later (when she had eventually quit her job), that she had been in the thrall of an unconscious “should”. Her unconscious mind was pushing her to prioritise job security over everything else in her life including happiness, satisfaction and a work / life balance.
When you give in to a “should”, you are essentially giving up agency in your own future and agreeing to live your life according to someone else’s expectations, not your own.
I found that pretty powerful. Maybe I need to go and find myself a life coach …
If you want to try out the free course: