Thinking Smarter: Cognitive Behavioral Coaching and the 5 thinking traps every coach should know
You may have heard of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT, which is a widely applied psychological treatment for a broad range of issues. Research has demonstrated its enduring effectiveness through many decades of application as a treatment for depression, anxiety, and trauma.
The techniques from CBT can be applied in the context of coaching. But, what is Cognitive Behavioral Coaching exactly? In this post, we take a deeper look at 5 common thinking traps or cognitive distortions that every coach should keep an eye out for when applying CBC.
What is Cognitive Behavioral Coaching, and how does it help?
Cognitive Behavioral Coaching or CBC has its roots in CBT techniques. Just like in CBT, it uses meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) to accelerate self-directed learning, improve problem-solving and decision-making.
Cognitive Behavioral Coaching can help:
reduce stress symptoms,
increase personal and professional satisfaction,
and increase coachees' goal-striving, sense of wellbeing and hope.
CBC is not for everyone, though. For instance, it may not work well for coachees who are not ready for introspection; or for those who find it too difficult or stressful to introspect. But it tends to work well for coachees who are keen to examine their thinking patterns objectively, and are eager to learn new systems to help them overcome problematic thought loops.
What are Cognitive Distortions?
In the 1960s, Aaron Beck, the psychiatrist known as the father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, was the first to notice cognitive distortions in people as part of his original research. These distortions later formed the central part of his theories.
Cognitive distortions are thinking traps that we all tend to fall into. Often these thinking traps are what coachees are trying to overcome in their coaching sessions.
Here are five of the most common cognitive distortions with examples of the resulting thinking patterns.
All or nothing thinking
Black-or-white thinking takes on the form of absolute thought patterns like 'My performance was amazing'; 'My performance was rubbish'; or 'People are either with me or against me.'
This leads to hyper-critical judgements about yourself, and other people. Because the thoughts are always in extremes it doesn't allow the person to see that reality is always more complex and nuanced.
For instance, performance will always have good aspects as well as room for improvement; and people will have varied reactions to you ranging from positive to negative and everything in between. Understanding and internalising this fact is key to unlocking inner growth.
Filtering is a pattern that functions much like a bias. In this case, the person is looking at just the negative side of the coin. They're fixating on all the details of what went wrong, instead of noticing the many other things that went right. 'Look at all the things that went wrong today!'
This thought distortion doesn't allow them to see the full picture of their situation. Identifying positive aspects of what happened will clear the way forward and create a growth mindset.
As the old proverb goes: we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bath water!
Fallacy of fairness
This is the idealistic belief in a fair and just world where bad things do not happen to good people. It is the belief that if you are a good, hard-working person then bad things won't happen to you, because bad things only happen to bad people. This results in it being a shock when something bad happens to you because your intentions were positive. 'Why didn't I get promoted? I worked so hard!'
Although you can philosophise that doing negative things will attract more negative experiences and doing good things will attract more positive ones, you can never say that bad things will never happen to good people. On top of this, just because something bad happened doesn't mean that what you tried to achieve wasn't good or that you shouldn't keep at it.
This is when a person is always assuming the worst is going to happen, and that when it happens, they won't be able to deal with it. 'This presentation is going to go horribly. I will never be able to prove myself to get further in my career, and I will be stuck here for ever.'
This is a thinking pattern that spirals down. All of the threats in the coachee's thoughts are perceived threats. There is no factual evidence that these things will happen, and there is also room to prepare for those situations even if they did arise.
Probably one of the best known distortions, perfectionism is striving for wildly high or unattainable standards, and staking your personal value on achieving those standards. 'I must get a perfect mark on that exam, or else I am a failure.'
Again, there is a pull to an extreme way of thinking that lacks nuance and doesn't match up with reality. The thinking pattern is a value judgement that a person sets on themselves and is not necessarily shared by others. Taking the example above, it can be countered that a competent performance doesn't equal a failure, definitely not in the eyes of others.
How can coaches help coachees overcome their cognitive distortions?
To overcome their cognitive distortions, coachees will need to actively recognise their thinking patterns, break them down and replace them with new, and healthier, patterns.
To achieve this they will need to gain three key insights.
We largely feel the way that we think. We can control our emotional reactions by paying close attention to how we think when we get upset. This creates a moment in time where we can intentionally choose a positive course of action over a negative compulsive reaction.
Our beliefs influence our actions, and vice versa. No matter how we acquired our unhelpful beliefs, we still choose to hold on to them today by acting in ways that strengthen those beliefs. If we want to rid ourselves of these beliefs, we will need to act differently, too.
There is no magic pill to break thought patterns: consistent and iterative reflection and action is the key. The way to weaken and ultimately get rid of our cognitive distortions, negative thinking patterns, and unhelpful beliefs is to continually think and act against them. There will be ups and downs on this journey, but the results compound over time.
A good exercise for coachees on this journey is to treat everything like an experiment. Rather than accepting our thoughts as facts, we can think of our thoughts as hypotheses that we can test. If the coachee tests their hypotheses as experiments, it allows the them to test the validity of their predictions. In so doing, they will uncover new information, creating new and different thoughts.
This cycle of questioning their own thoughts, and then performing actions that deliver more insight will allow the coachee to draw new conclusions. The act of getting more data and facts driving the coachees' thinking process will chip away at their existing thinking patterns, slowly replacing them with new and healthier ones.
Have you applied CBC in your practice? We’d love to hear about your experiences through comments or email.