What if the client worries too much?
Like most human traits, worrying in the normal course of events has benefits, because it raises our awareness of real or potential threats. Compulsive worrying, however, can cause unnecessary stress and have a serious negative effect on performance. At extreme levels, where the person is, for example, unable to make choices or leave the house, psychotherapy is required. But coaches and mentors can be of practical help in less severe situations.
The problem begins for worriers when they encounter a situation that might turn out positively or negatively. Instead of taking an optimistic or balanced view, they focus on the negative possibilities. Take the example of someone worrying about giving a speech. “Suppose I dry up?” “What if I get asked a question I can’t answer?” Their mind becomes fixated on thinking about all the things that might go wrong. Even when they have worked through how to deal with each of these issues, they worry about the possible calamities they haven’t thought of.
As a coach or mentor, we can help them restore their sense of balance, in the following ways:
- Acknowledge the value of being prepared for anything. Think of it like a first aid kit. It’s rare that you will need to use it, but when you do, it’s important it is well-stocked. But you probably wouldn’t want to carry around a defibrillator or fully equipped operating theatre! A simple exercise is the “five-minute worry list”. The important factor here is to put a mental time limit on how long the person spends on thinking about what might go wrong. Now, in a second column, capture answers to the question “What signs could you look for, so if it happened, you could be prepared?” And in a third column, practical responses – for example, asking the audience to raise their hands, if they have ever lost where they were in a presentation and saying “Well, you’ll empathise with me while I take a moment to gather my thoughts”. You can also help them create a catch-all response for the
This approach fulfils one of the cardinal, but often forgotten rules of coaching – start where the client is now. It also allows space for creative thinking and for laughter, both of which lighten the client’s mood. What’s more, it begins the process of building a portfolio of “Get out of jail free” cards, because the same tactics can be used again and again. So, it takes less and less time.
- Explore the downsides of perfectionism. It is impossible to be perfect all the time, so why set oneself up to fail? An alternative perspective is to approach every worrying task with curiosity, as a learning opportunity. If you don’t fail sometimes, you don’t learn.
- Help them look after themselves. Given that compulsive worriers tend to have negative moods more often than normal, encourage them to take more exercise; and to allocate time each day for things they really enjoy doing.
- Help them build the habit of reframing negative events. A simple technique I often use, when hearing a tale of woe, is to ask: “So, stepping back, what is there to laugh at here?” The intent is to enable them to laugh at themselves, which helps becoming less sensitive to real or imagined criticism from others. Or you can ask: “What can you learn from this that will be useful in the future?”
- Remind them they are rarely alone. Discuss who else has a stake in ensuring things go well and how to make sure they provide a safety net.
- Reconnect them with their courageous selves. The question “How would your most courageous self tackle this issue?” links them to a different narrative. Even a few small moves in this direction, in their thinking about what they are going to, can reduce their worry levels.
- Help them become more self-aware. It is sometimes suggested that mindfulness training can help reduce constant worrying, but it might also lead to increased focus on negative possibilities – so, the coach or mentor should treat this option with caution.
- If all else fails, encourage them to use self-calibration. What would it look like worry just enough? A bit too much or too little? A lot too much or too little?
As a coach or mentor, you are unlikely to change someone’s personality, or their basic instincts towards optimistic or pessimistic interpretations. But you can give them tools to self-manage the way they think and behave in this context and that is often all that is needed to turn dysfunctional automatic responses into functional considered responses.
© David Clutterbuck, 2018
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