Empathy is Learned, so Learn it!

I have always had a keen, almost unhealthy interest in psychopaths. I studied forensic psychology and while my past professional interest has mostly been helping victims of crime, I couldn’t help feeling an abundance of morbid fascination for this small, incomprehensible cohort of people who seem to lack remorse, moral compass and compassion. They lack empathy.

The truth is, they are not the only group in the general population which lacks empathy. This is e.g. also the case in a lot of types of autism as well. The crucial difference between the two groups, is that psychopaths know what is logically right and what is wrong, but can’t feel the difference. Autistic people however, are exactly the opposite: they feel what is right and what is wrong, but can’t always express this logically*.

Having read extensively about empathy in groups of people that don’t seem to have the ability to develop it, I have come to the conclusion that there is no excuse for the rest of us not developing it, or at least using it in our day-to-day interactions. Let’s be clear: most of you reading this blog, are not likely to be psychopaths or someone suffering from any type of syndrome which makes it almost impossible to develop empathy. You are however very likely to belong to the big majority of the population who can develop empathy and apply it.

Long time ago, I wrote my university essay on the topic of emotional intelligence. I learned that unlike cognitive intelligence (IQ), it is a largely learned skill and something that can be developed through training and practice. This is exactly the case with empathy, which is at the core of what constitutes emotional intelligence.

Speaking from personal experience, developing and maintaining empathy in my day-to-day dealings and personal relationships has been an ongoing struggle, which only improved after years of self-awareness and working on my shortcomings. I still find from time to time having to remind myself to be more empathetic when I fail to rise to the occasion. This has required me accepting that empathy is something that needs to be worked on in the first place. My intention is to show empathy at all times, and when I sometimes fail to do so, self-introspection has allowed me to accept and pledge to do better next time.

There is no doubt in my mind that we are currently living in a world which needs more empathy and compassion. Millions of people are living in conditions of poverty and unemployment as a result of the covid-19 crisis is reaching critically high levels. Thousands have been directly and indirectly hit by the virus itself. In the months and years to come, our ability to show empathy and understanding with a wide variety of people, will be key to us returning to some sort of new reality and accepting that people will need time and space to adapt to it.

If you are struggling to develop empathy in your regular interactions, and are willing to do something about this, the tips below will help you to make a good head start. The issue often starts with our intentions. While these are often genuine and not meant to harm, they don’t help us to create empathy. Start by deciding to better connect with other people. Show genuine interest in them. Make a commitment to listen and understand rather than trying to be understood.

You might be anxious to be heard and understood, as you feel you have been misunderstood in the past. In order to avoid talking over others in an attempt to ensure this doesn’t happen again, improve your communication. NLP principles tell us that people are responsible for their own communication. If your message doesn’t come across as it should, then it’s in your hand to adapt it so that the recipient understands what you want to communicate.

If you don’t understand what others are communicating to you, ask questions. Make the person feel that you really care. Don’t judge. People hate The Advice. Instead, they just want to be heard, just like you. How often do we have the opportunity in today’s hectic society to be listened to, to feel that someone genuinely cares? Not as often as we should. But maybe the lockdown and current situation which forces us to rethink and evaluate our lives, is a good opportunity for an empathy restart.

Lastly commit to continue working on your empathy skills. In our day-to-day lives it is not possible, nor desirable to feel constant empathy with everyone and everything around us. It is however possible, and more than desirable, to decide to improve our empathy to those we care most about. So practice on a daily basis. Acknowledge where you perhaps haven’t shown as much empathy as you should, and decide to do better next time.

Empathy is not optional. It is a crucial skill which has played a vital part in human evolution. It has been at least equally important for survival as selfishness has, because it has allowed us to connect with others into groups and achieve much more than we would have on our own. Tolerating and understanding individual intra-group differences and sacrificing them for the overarching group aims, has been extremely important in the development of our societies to what they have become. It is now a good time to acknowledge empathy as the vital ingredient to improve our communities and daily reality it truly is.

Kostas The Coach is a Psychologist, Life and Small Business Coach and NLP Practitioner based in Llantwit Major, Wales. I help people of various backgrounds find the ideal intersection between profit, joy and values in their lives, and I assist businesses to grow sustainably while remaining aligned to their why.

If any of the topics discussed here has intrigued you, I would love to hear your thoughts. You can email me on Kostasthecoach@gmail.com or contact me via telephone or SMS on 07725653870.

* For further reading on how a lack of empathy is expressed differently in psychopaths and people with autistic syndroms, as well as the importance of empathy in general, I recommend the following book: Simon Baron-Cohen (2011): Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty and Kindness, London: Penguin Books.

A Walk in Nature has Many Benefits

I remember how as a child, I always hated long walks. I squirmed and protested at any occasion where my mum announced that we are going for a family walk. I didn’t see any excitement in just walking around for no other purpose than the walk itself, depriving me of the opportunity to play with my toys instead. Even the chance of ending up with an ice cream or sweets in my hand was often scant, as apparently the idea was to just walk, not to buy stuff. The horror! It wasn’t even proper exercise, or sport (that was football or basketball for me). What was the point in it, and why was mother, like so many other people, keen to do it regularly?

How things have changed since then! I have learned to appreciate the many benefits of walking. For starters, it is equally valid for exercise as running. Both are considered forms of cardio exercise. Walking strengthens your heart, increases stamina and can even extend your life. Even a walk of 30 minutes a day, has been shown to have many long-term cardiovascular benefits.

But the benefits are not merely physical. There are a range of psychological and mental benefits to a long, or even a shorter walk. During a recent walk from my town to the neighbouring village of Llanmaes, I experienced most of them. A walk in nature creates a sense of stillness, tranquility and inner peace. , the silence and peace around, help you focus on your inner thoughts and feelings. But strangely enough, you are also becoming more observant of the world surrounding you and its microcosms. The day was bright, and there were carpets of flowers everywhere. We spotted the first swallows flying around this year. A water stream was inhabited by green algae, water frogs and small transparent fish. A playground looked strangely eerie with no soul in sight (as people were observing social distancing). We greeted from a distance the only two other people we saw during our walk, as they were strolling around the courtyard of a small church.

And here comes the paradox of a walk with no apparent purpose in itself. It instead creates a sense of purpose in your mind, as it helps you refocus and live the moment. It evokes a sense of gratefulness and appreciation of the present. It invites you to realign yourself with your centre.

A good walk has all the benefits of a short meditation, or a mindfulness session. Additionally, it provides the benefits of physical exercise. It is an excellent opportunity to daydream and plan creative activity, as the artists and daydreamers among us will know. And it fills your heart with gratefulness and appreciation for the beauty our senses deliver to us, helping us to focus on what is worth focusing on in our lives.

When is the last time you took a walk? Can you remember what you felt, heard and saw? What benefits have you experienced? It’s on your doorstep, so if you haven’t done it recently, go out for a walk now. It cures anxiety and negative thoughts, and replenishes the mind like no many other activities do.

Kostas The Coach is a Psychologist, Life and Small Business Coach and NLP Practitioner based in Llantwit Major, Wales. I help people of various backgrounds find the ideal intersection between profit, joy and values in their lives, and I assist businesses to grow sustainably while remaining aligned to their why.

If any of the topics discussed here has intrigued you, I would love to hear your thoughts. You can email me on Kostasthecoach@gmail.com or contact me via telephone or SMS on 07725653870.

Finding Purpose Through Creativity

I am one of these people who can’t settle doing just one thing. I’m madly jealous at individuals who seem to be able to focus with monomaniacal obsession on a big goal in life, a purpose. Only earlier today, I was completing a worksheet in my NLP instructor’s book, asking for my purpose. I had to think long and hard and, I confess, I eventually wrote the question in my notebook for further thinking without being able to fully answer it. What’s my purpose? There are so many angles to this question. Do I need to have a purpose? Are we assuming at all that there is someone or something who has put us on Earth for a particular purpose? Personally (biological purpose aside) I don’t think this is the case. I think spiritual purpose is an individual choice albeit strongly coloured by our experiences, background and social influence. So unlike many individuals I know and clients I effortlessly assist to find their purpose in life, I don’t think I have yet found mine.

There is however a silver lining, a thread that seems to be connecting all my disparate experiences under one banner: music. Since the age of 11, I have been hearing music in my head. For that, I feel rather fortunate; instead, it could have been voices telling me to do something sinister, for instance. But hearing music intrigued me, as I couldn’t even play an instrument then (in fact it took me another 4 years until I was bought my first keyboard and started to learn to play music). What I ‘heard’ wasn’t very original in the beginning (as I only found out much later). Much of the music I heard in my head, was in fact an amalgamation of existing songs and musical pieces I was familiar with, often blatantly following the same chord patterns and structure as the original, with only a few clever alterations to the melody and arrangements. But as I struggled to find a way to express them and ‘get them out’, I realized that I was stuck with them. They were there to stay, and inhabited my head daily. They would pop up at unsuspecting moments, demanding full attention. You won’t be surprised to hear that I was considered (and still unapologetically remain ) a daydreamer.

Music has helped me through some rather dark times over the years. The first album of my metal band, of which I composed all music and wrote all lyrics, was dealing with my permanent feelings of isolation and solitude at the time. It was a greatly cathartic experience, and it also got me out and about in Europe with a small tour where I met a lot of interesting people, had fascinating experiences and made new friends. Over the years that followed, music helped me to overcome shyness, was a reason for me to get out of the house and actually do things (feel the fear and do it anyway, as the motto says) and even brought me respect and a high ‘social standing’ in certain circles. And all that because I decided to do something about the sounds I was hearing in my head.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then to hear that music was the first thing I turned to as soon as lockdown kicked in the United Kingdom. In the previous nine months, I had precious little time for it as I had to make the small business I now owned work, and all my time was being consumed by this. However, I often felt that something was missing in my life, an escape from the physical constraints of reality to which I could flee whenever I had the need. And suddenly, this escape was there for me again, ready to take me to new places where I could acquire new experiences, and discover new worlds.

My business found itself suddenly closed, and I had to furlough my staff. As I am not a beauty ‘technician’ myself and my staff are not allowed to work during furlough, business activities are now on hold with the exception of an eCommerce store I quickly set up. There is still plenty to deal with in terms of accounting, dealing with government grants, keeping clients updated during closure and staying in touch with staff who are isolated in their homes. But I couldn’t possibly find any purpose in all of this. Unlike in making music.

Being creative with music, and any engaging activity in general, brings us in a state of Flow, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi demonstrated in his fascinating book with the same name. And this is exactly what happened once I found the time to concentrate on being creative again. Within weeks I recorded and released an album with piano music, I did Facebook live shows and released several videos in which I performed my music from my room. In the process I made quite a few people happy and kept them entertained during their own isolation. I also created my own universe again, my ‘centre’ where I feel happy and fulfilled. Time flew, but didn’t feel lost.

I’m expecting that in this instance, a lot of you will protest. ‘But I’m not a creative person’ you might say. Truth is, that even though a lot of people believe this, in fact most of us are. It’s just that in the society we live in, particular emphasis has been given to certain types of creativity, such as creating art. But creativity can manifest in various ways. It can be seen in the way in which you tend your garden, in how you pour your tea, or how you negotiate traffic lights as a creative musician pointed out in a podcast interview I did a few years ago. The crucial point however, where creativity can make the difference in your life and help you create your own world of purpose, focus and happiness is when it meets not only your creative needs, but also your purpose.

There, I said that word again. And it does look like upon reflection (and through writing this blog), I have found my purpose after all: I want to move, entertain and influence people’s thoughts and feelings, by creating positive energy and change. I accept that this can mean something different to each person individually and I’m always keen to find out what it means to each individual, in order to help them get to that place of utter fulfillment and flow. I can also now see how music will always play a central role in all of this.

What about you? What is your purpose, your ‘why’, your centre? What keeps you sane and fulfilled in these highly unusual times of social distancing and financial uncertainty in the world?

Kostas The Coach is a Psychologist, Life and Small Business Coach and NLP Practitioner based in Llantwit Major, Wales. I help people of various backgrounds find the ideal intersection between profit, joy and values in their lives, and I assist businesses to grow sustainably while remaining aligned to their why.

If any of the topics discussed here has intrigued you, I would love to hear your thoughts. You can email me on Kostasthecoach@gmail.com or contact me via telephone or SMS on 07725653870.

How a Gratefulness Journal Can Help With Your Isolation

One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with the current disruption to our lives due to Covid-19, must surely be the lack of structure we suddenly find ourselves struggling with. I remember three years ago, when my father-in-law retired, having worked most of his life in a highly structured job with managerial responsibilities, what massive adjustments he had to make in order to get used to a life where he had to structure his days himself, rather than having this done externally by his work duties. Three years on, and there are still aspects of his new life needing a different type of structure and focus, he can’t get used to. Likewise, when I moved from Slough to South Wales a few years ago, I also found myself in a position where for many months I had to find a way to not only structure my daily routine, but also figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I regularly attended business networking meetings to create a semblance of normality, and attempted to use the rest of my time as constructively as possible engaged in creative activities, learning and self-development.

The human mind doesn’t like chaos. It likes regularity and routine. And when there are none available, then anxiety and doubts emerge. Negative thoughts emerge, brand new ‘enemies’ to think and worry about are created, and suddenly the mind has spawned a whole new vicious circle of worries and problems to be preoccupied with. Our minds are designed to avoid lack of structure, but also to avoid a vacuum. Sensory deprivation research has revealed that people who spend time in an environment where a combination of isolation and lack of stimulation occurs, develop symptoms of agitation, tension and restlessness. They also experience disturbed and obsessional thinking, and eventually panic.

Helping people to develop a set of strategies creating structure and positive routine in their lives, is one of my regular challenges as a life coach and psychologist. Goal setting, breaking down ‘big’ thoughts into smaller ones and developing positive habits are all powerful ways to take control of your mind, and create your own rhythm and routine, rather than relying on external events and stimuli to bring them to you. But we are not always prepared and ready to work on the ‘big’ stuff. Sometimes we just need a small task to focus our brain on the positives of the day. Such a positive routine can be easily created, if we spend a short time a day, perhaps not even longer than 15 minutes, to focus on what we decide has mattered in the day that has just passed.

I remember how during my transition period after moving from Slough to Wales, during one of my coaching sessions, my coach asked me to keep a gratefulness journal. This was met with initial reservation from my side. I always thought of myself as a grateful person, someone who doesn’t take things for granted. Most days of my life I do take some time to reflect on the things I am grateful for, such as a lovely wife, supporting family, two fluffy Birman cats and musical inspiration which allows me to lose myself in a self-created universe, and temporarily distract my mind from the minor woes of daily existence. However, what hadn’t occurred to me, is the power of actually committing these thoughts of positivity and gratefulness to paper.

The human brain is a wonderfully flexible instrument. It quickly gets used to new routines and sets new goals and expectations when you train it to do so. Having had to force myself for the first few weeks to keep that journal, I eventually started to see its benefits. My mind started to long for the daily moment of introspection, where I sat down and wrote on paper the three positive things I would keep from the day.

I see some of you frowning at this stage, and questioning how you can find positivity in a day where nothing positive has happened. How can you be positive in a world where you are reminded every moment of the day by TV and social media that there is a global pandemic going on, destroying people’s health and livelihoods and restricting their daily lives and sources of entertainment? The answer lies within yourself. You can find positivity when you decide to reframe your life experiences as positive. You can decide now that one of today’s positives was the fact that you have made a resolution only to check the news once a day, on the most reliable news source of your choice. You can decide that it has been a good day, because both you and your family are still in good spirits at a time of a global pandemic. You can decide that the day has been good after all, because despite the fact your business is currently closed and your don’t have an income, you and your loved ones are still in good health.

Thinking in positives is like medicine to the brain. Soon you will have it trained to think spontaneously in positive terms, and to not resort easily to catastrophizing. Even at your darkest of days, you will have the ability to pull yourself together, start reframing your experiences and change the narrative in your mind.

I recommend you set aside some time during every day, perhaps just before going to sleep, to sit down with your gratefulness journal and write three positives that have occurred today. They don’t have to be life changing experiences, I made myself and my partner the best cup of tea I remember in a while will do. By doing this, you will start training your mind to reframe your experiences in a positive way, and at the same time you will gift yourself some of the structure and routine you need to get through the social distancing isolation during the lockdown. Moreover, having committed your thoughts to paper, you will be able to return to them at a later stage and remind yourself of your strengths, resources and coping strategies during some of your difficult times.

Act now, and start changing your life.

Kostas The Coach is a Psychologist, Life and Small Business Coach and NLP Practitioner based in Llantwit Major, Wales. I help people of various backgrounds find the ideal intersection between profit, joy and values in their lives, and I assist businesses to grow sustainably while remaining aligned to their why.

If any of the topics discussed here has intrigued you, I would love to hear your thoughts. You can email me on Kostasthecoach@gmail.com or contact me via telephone or SMS on 07725653870.

Tackling Anxiety in Times of Social Distancing

Anxiety has been my basic ‘mode of existence’ for years. As long as I can remember, one of my main motto’s in life has always been ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’. I have chosen to acknowledge the paralyzing fear inside, and after considering the pros and cons I usually choose action and prepare to let anxiety wash over me.

There are many benefits to inaction, mainly to protect yourself from the potentially harmful effects of exposing yourself to failure and ridicule from others (I would however argue, as an introvert, that the harshest punishment is still the internal, ever present voice shouting ‘I told you you would fail’). But, as I found over the years, and more and more as time goes by, the sad sight of the inner parent, slowly shaking their head in disappointment at yet another missed opportunity, an experience that is now never to be had, has been overwhelmingly the one which leaves the sourest taste in the mouth. And so I have always chosen to live with my fears, embrace them like good old friends and allow them in my life, usually at some discrete distance where I can safely keep an eye on them.

Recently, my anxiety has found a new ally. It is an invisible one. You can not see it, smell it or touch it, but it’s wreaking havoc in the world around us, and has, in a short period of time, changed the way we lead our lives. It is threatening our livelihoods, our previous ways of existence and our mental health. It’s called Covid-19.

I’m sure many of you will agree that we do live in unprecedented times. Sure, there was the SARS epidemic many years ago. But compared to the effects of Covid-19, it nowadays feels like a gentle breeze set against a typhoon. Since the coronavirus epidemic, we have been told to self-isolate and to socially distance ourselves. Social media and TV reports are full of indignant voices, exposing people who are not keeping to the ‘rules’ (which, must be added, have been strongly varying from day to day and from country to country); we see police forces deploying drones to spy on perpetrators who go out for a walk or a drive. We hear of people getting fined for driving without a good reason, or going to the shops with more than one member of the same household at the same time. And, at the furthest extremes of the spectrum, regimes which already didn’t think too highly of human rights or press scrutiny, are now using the opportunity to curb freedoms, limit press expressions of disagreement and impose draconian measures for indefinite periods of time.

It is no wonder that in these times where we feel our freedom of movement, sense of control and opportunity to earn livelihoods are strongly restricted or even depleted, people’s natural feelings of anxiety and fear are particularly heightened and amplified. Most of us do understand of course the necessity of most measures imposed in order to limit the spread of the virus and save human lives. But at the same time, living in a seemingly indefinite period of restrictions, loss of control and finger pointing at every attempt at human activity outside of our homes, does little to help people’s fragile mental health states.

No one really knows at the moment how long this situation is going to last, and whether the epidemic will completely go away. But most experts agree we could be in it for a long period of time, a period in which we will have to settle for lifestyles and activities which are strongly restricted compared to our usual routines. There are of course opportunities within this global crisis, some of which I will touch upon later in this article. But the first question arising for many of us dealing with the current uncertainty, is ‘what now?’ How can I manage my anxiety, get a sense of control again in my life, and start creating a renewed sense of normalcy?

Isolation can easily breed anxiety. Human beings are social animals and typically, our anxiety levels rise when we spend long times restricted from our usual social activities. Notice that I highlighted the terms ‘our usual’, as normality is something typically defined individually, based on what we consider sufficient or enough social contact. The key is however in the restrictions we feel when it comes to relating to others. It doesn’t matter whether we socialize every day, or once a year. Anxiety comes when we feel we have lost control of our levels of socialization, and aren’t in charge of how often we interact with others any more. So rule number one for coping with anxiety in an era of social distancing, is: Communicate with others, and don’t isolate yourself mentally. Share how you feel about this new situation, whether it’s face-to-face, over the telephone or on social media. No communication method is more ‘valid’ than any other; just use the communication channels you would typically use, and if these typically take the shape of Facebook rants and Twitter updates, so be it. It’s ok to feel frustrated and inadequate in periods of global stress and uncertainty. It’s also ok to let others know that this is the case. More often than not, you will find that talking about how you feel about your isolation will encourage others to do the same, and you will find that people are generally more vulnerable and worried than they would like to admit. For that reason they will seek connections too, hoping for answers at a time where so many questions are being asked of the things we normally take for granted.

What else triggers anxiety? When we are anxious we can’t see clearly ahead of us. There is a giant monolith erected obscuring our vision ahead, and it seems so big that it deflects all light and hides the way out of the room. Typically, anxiety makes our problems seem big. So rule number two becomes break down big problems into their smaller components. This is a technique I often use with my coaching clients in order to help them break down what appear like massive, impossible goals into smaller actionable steps. This often leads to goals being achieved quicker and more effectively, because the client can see the value of taking these smaller steps separately, which will in turn lead to the big issue being tackled with more confidence and with a proper plan in place.

Imagine that you main anxiety stems from the uncertainty around the length of time in which government restrictions will affect your lifestyle and day-to-day life. It feels like your isolation and social distancing will last forever. The night is long and the dawn seems far away. What if you break this big, rather vague fear into its smaller components? It could then be broken down into:

  • I fear that the government will use the crisis to impose restrictions on whenever I choose to go out of my house
  • I fear that my intentions will be questioned every time I leave my home
  • I fear that neighbours will ‘spy’ on me and judge me based on my activities outdoors
  • I fear that I won’t be able to remain in charge of my feelings under the pressure, and that I will have a public meltdown which will create more fear and shame

By breaking down the big, ‘vague’ anxiety into more specific fears, you are now more in control. You can decide which of the above you can tackle, and which not. Even knowing that there will be things you won’t be able to tackle right now, will help you take decisions on which things you should concentrate on, because you can actually do something about them. What is the chance you might have a public meltdown? What little steps can you take to ensure the pressure doesn’t get on you, and that you remain firmly in charge of your emotions? Are there any breathing and meditation techniques you can use to create inner peace and take control of your internal emotions?

As it can be seen above, a lot of this breaking down into smaller chunks leads to a sense of greater control. And taking control of your life is rule number three for overcoming anxiety in times of social distancing. Here it needs to be stressed that it’s not possible to take control of every single aspect of your life. However, it is possible to regain some sense of control in most of these areas. As a small business owner myself, and having been interacting with other business owners throughout the crisis, I noticed that taking control of finances, to the extend that this is possible, is the number one mitigating factor for tackling anxiety. Notice that taking control doesn’t necessarily mean ‘solving’ your financial issues. These could be there for a long time to come, and there will be inevitably elements about the world we live in, including the collapse of some financial markets and a new era of recession we will be most probably entering, which can’t be fully controlled. What you can control however, is your reaction to all this. Will you act angrily, resigned, confused and panic-driven, or will you decide to take things as they come, prioritize direct debits and standing orders which you can defer and delay, and cut unnecessary costs? Your reaction now will determine to a large degree how you will cope in the months to come. Take a long view of things and decide now what you can afford to pay, and what will have to wait. Remember that there will be a time when things return to normal, and ensure that you won’t be one of the many who will go bust then. By managing the bills you can pay now and avoiding to cut essential services and standing orders which will be difficult to restore afterwards, you are already taking the steps you need to be ahead of the pack. You will retain control not only throughout the period of the crisis, but also afterwards, when the true aftermath will hit those who have been cutting unwisely and racking up debts which will now need to be repaid.

This brings me to the last point to tackle anxiety, which is to see the big picture. I truly believe that this challenging time can be a great opportunity for us to reconnect with the things we truly love. Things we do because we love doing them, not because they bring money or are somehow expected by the society we live in. This is a good time to create your ideal environment, your ‘centre’ which brings you inner peace, tranquility and happiness. This can be a place within your house, or somewhere near your home. Even better, it can be a place in your mind, a place to which you can always return for inspiration, rest and perfect alignment with your values. The ‘big picture’ is your ‘why’, the reason you want to return to your centre over and over again. It is the place where all creative activity starts, the place where you connect with your inner voice, and allow it to be amplified. It is where your vision for tomorrow starts. There are a number of visioning exercises you can do to get to that point. One of my favourite ones is called the rocking chair exercise. It asks you to imagine being a 90-year old sitting in your rocking chair. The exercise helps you see the vision you already have within you for your life. As you sit in your rocking chair, a blissfully healthy and happy 90-year-old, you are looking back over your ideal life. Take some time to write a story and paint a picture of your life with words. Who are you as a person, and what is it about you that people value? What have you achieved in your life, and what are you proud of? What is giving you a sense of fulfillment? Consider how your life unfolded over a number of key areas, such as family, health, friends, significant other, career, fun/leisure and personal development. What did you do in service, leadership or in your community? Finally look around you. What do you see? What can you hear? What shows you are truly happy?

Writing down the answers to the questions above and perhaps drawing a picture involving them (if you are a visual person), will create alignment with your ‘why’ and the values which are driving you right now, perhaps without you even noticing. You will be in tune with your big picture again. Times of big change such as the one we currently live in, will give you a great opportunity to embrace these somewhat neglected values, and align yourself again with what truly matters in your life.

Kostas The Coach is a Psychologist, Life and Small Business Coach and NLP Practitioner based in Llantwit Major, Wales. I help people of various backgrounds find the ideal intersection between profit, joy and values in their lives, and I assist businesses to grow sustainably while remaining aligned to their why.

If any of the topics discussed here has intrigued you, I would love to hear your thoughts. You can email me on Kostasthecoach@gmail.com or contact me via telephone or SMS or 07725653870.

No to Advice, Yes to Feedback

I want to make a bet with you. I bet that you have probably never met a person who thinks that they are a bad person. And if you have met someone who says so, you know they probably don’t mean it. Most people think of themselves as good, ethical and part of the ‘correct’ in-group. It should therefore come as no surprise that they want to share their values and beliefs with others, and expect others to act and behave as they do. So far so good, you say.

It is a natural consequence of the above that people like giving advice to others. Giving advice has a psychological function: as we want other people to be, do and have what we are, do and have, we advice them to do what we do (or rather, what we think we do). Why is it then that most counselling, coaching and support services, teach people not to give advice? Why do they teach their staff and volunteers to instead listen and try to understand?

They do this because they have seen the evidence of encouraging their people to listen and understand, rather than talk and advice. And they have seen that the evidence is good. Skilled support workers who listen without judgement, who try to understand rather than be understood, create a sense of empowerment and control in others. They establish rapport and make the recipient of their support feel validated, listened to and strong. On the contrary, this rapport is lost when advice is given which doesn’t lead to positive results; people who are given advice, are not given the opportunity to develop their sense of control over their own lives and what happens in them. They will often come back to the ‘expert’ for more advice, rather than developing the skills to tackle challenges by themselves.

In a previous post, I have discussed the benefits of listening to your own inner voice, your own instinct, rather than seeking advice. At this point I need to make a disclaimer: there are a lot of very competent professionals out there that give very helpful expert advice, whether it’s legal advice, business related advice, or consultancy. We are not talking about this type of professional (and usually paid for) service here. We are talking about personal, non-qualified advice which people freely give to others in order to feel better about themselves.

We all find sometimes ourselves in a period of our lives where we feel lost, directionless and unsure about the next step. When you are in a dip, it’s hard to resist temptation to listen to those around you that are available to give you a sympathetic nudge in the right direction, by telling you what you should do. Unfortunately, advice based on others’ personal experience is seldom going to help you improve yourself and reach your personal goals. Furthermore, asking advice from the wrong people might put you off from doing what your instinct says you should do. This can have dire consequences in your life, as you will miss out on potential opportunities to get what you really want. You already know that deep within yourself, lays the answer about what is the right thing to do. Listen to your inner voice, and avoid taking non-qualified advice from someone who means well. While they think they are helping you, they only validate their own values and beliefs. They may think they do this for you, but in their unconscious reality, they mostly help themselves.

Feedback is different from advice. Constructive feedback is not coloured by personal experience, but built around objective behavioural observations. It will involve phrases such as ‘I noticed that you did this’ rather than ‘you should do this’.  Good feedback helps you improve and you can choose to either accept or reject it.  It helps you identify your blind spots, and look at your own behaviour from a more detached point of view, one you are not that familiar with. Learning to accept constructive feedback graciously, helps you become a more complete and confident person and allows you to blossom as an individual and become the best you you can be. Start surrounding yourself today with people who are able to give you good feedback, and say a polite ‘no’ to those who want to give you ‘good’ advice!

Kostas The Coach is a Personal Performance and Small Business Coach based in Slough, UK. I help creative people develop their individuality and businesses grow sustainably while remaining ethical.
Kostas The Coach site
Email: Kostasthecoach@gmail.com

My Journey as a Pro Bono Coach for The Coaching Academy

Most of us, the people who have gone on a learning journey in order to be able to provide a service that improves people’s lives, are faced with the prospect of doing pro bono work at some stage in the early stages of our practice. Whether you are an aspiring therapist, counsellor, mentor or coach, chances are that at some point you will have had the opportunity (usually a requirement) to hone your skills by practising on a number of clients for free.

Besides the usual number of pro bono practice clients I was required to find in order to qualify for my Personal Performance Coaching diploma (The Coaching Academy strongly discourages , for deontological reasons, asking for payment before you qualify for your diploma) I was privileged to also be offered the opportunity to provide 26 hours of pro bono coaching to a range of clients otherwise unable to afford coaching services. This is not a requirement of the course, but an opportunity given by invitation only, to some of the students who already have some experience or contacts in the charity sector, or aspire to work with some of the less privileged people of our society.

Other than the satisfaction I already know I gain from helping people to cope and recover from life’s difficulties, this pro bono work was a great opportunity for me to gain a significant number of hours of experience coaching people in order to build my confidence.  Even though I was already familiar with the GROW model and was coaching staff in-house for my work as senior manager of a charity, I didn’t have much systematic one-to-one coaching experience and I approached this as a prime chance to gain additional skills before setting myself up as a professional coach.

I have always approached doing good in a practical way, by trying to follow the Buddha’s  Noble Eightfold Path in the way I approach life. This includes choosing the right livelihood (I am quite confident that working for a charity that helps people in need and coaching people fall within that category) as well as adopting the right view, which for me relates to being aware of and improving on the impact my actions have on the people around me. Doing pro bono work for The Coaching Academy helped me practice the second, while preparing for the first.

The obvious starting point for me was the charity I work for. However it soon transpired that I was facing the same difficulties I faced years ago when I conducted research using some of our service users. There were obvious data protection issues, in the sense that I couldn’t use data meant for another purpose (offering emotional support, information and practical help) for coaching clients, and recruiting people for my purpose would prove to be laborious and counter productive. I then turned my attention to other local charities and put forth a number of coaching offers to coach overworked (and dare I say, underpaid) staff facing the stress of working with clients in distress on a daily basis.

This appeal was heard, and my first client was a charity service delivery worker who faced symptoms of burnout. My work with her helped her develop her reflective skills and gain insight into the causes of the burnout she was experiencing. At the end of the coaching sessions, she was able to take drastic decisions in her life which led to its immediate improvement and change of work and life environment, leaving the main causes of stress and unhappiness behind her.

While the first client satisfied my need to help people who are doing good, I also started to look into another area of personal interest: working with artists and creative people, people who are consumed by the need to create, sometimes at the expense of their own financial security and life balance. I soon realised that my own circle of artists (I am also a musician) was too close involved to be coached. Therefore, my next step was to advertise through a recording studio owned by a contact of mine.

That’s how I received a phone call enquiry from my second client: a musician struggling to find time for creative work due to her difficulty to free up time as she needed to run her own micro business in order to survive financially. Our work together (which still continues to this day, beyond the pro bono requirements) helped her focus on freeing up the time she required, by working on her business and getting to the stage where she was able to delegate some of the work to a staff she recruited for this purpose. Currently she continues working on developing her artistic identity (or amplifying her inner voice, as I like to describe this process).

As word got out that I was receptive to clients needing pro bono work, my ever expanding network brought me a third client through a mentor/therapist I am doing reciprocal work with. This client was a charismatic filmmaker struggling to find creative space due to financial pressures (can you spot the theme?). He was consuming too much of his time doing good (including making charity documentaries that were financially or artistically not rewarding) and had somewhat neglected his financial security and overarching creative aspirations. Our work centred on helping him to double the revenue in his film teaching business. He is now at the point where he doesn’t need my coaching any more as he has developed the confidence to concentrate on his creative work without worrying about the finances.

Without a doubt I learned a plethora of skills through my 26 hours pro bono coaching. I earned valuable coaching experience with a number of people presenting a wide range of topics and challenges. It helped me to define my niche (working with ethical businesses and creative people). I didsome good with people who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford the services of a professional coach. Furthermore, I learned to search for clients more effectively by using my own network, work contacts, friends, referrals from other clients etc. I learned to ‘sell’ my services more effectively by preparing a range of coaching program offers and discussing with a wide range of people the benefits of coaching. As a side effect of my pro bono work, I got a paying client as well; one of my clients continues to work with me after finishing our pro bono sessions as she is now able to afford payment through the work we did!

In summary, working as a pro bono coach has helped me to gain confidence, expand my network of clients who are now spreading the word on my behalf and define my client base. It helped me discover what I love doing most, gave me the opportunity to become more professional and to acquire non-coaching skills that are essential for coaches who want to start their own business (such as marketing, promotion and being able to do an effective ‘elevator pitch’ on the services I offer). It has been a pleasure and an invaluable experience, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants to practice honing a range of skills, while doing good.

Kostas The Coach is a Personal Performance and Small Business Coach based in Slough, UK. I help creative people develop their individuality and businesses grow sustainably while remaining ethical.
Kostas The Coach site
Email: Kostasthecoach@gmail.com

#Inspiringstories II: Interview with Creative Artist Daniel Neagoe

One of the challenges I face as a coach, is many people’s limiting beliefs that they are not creative. I often come across such beliefs when I ask my clients to think out of the box and come up with creative solutions to change what needs to be changed in order to start achieving the results they desire. For, as a wise man once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results”.

Their response is quite often “I don’t know how to do this, as I am not a creative person”. This explicit belief is in part fed by a tradition and reporting in the media that creativity is a gift for the few, which is inaccessible to most of us. Hence we worship artists such as writers, painters, musicians and (especially) pop singers as some kind of demigods blessed with a rare ability to give shape to a vision which leads to our entertainment and moves our emotions. They are able to tune in to that most elusive of all frequencies, the one where Divine Inspiration resides, and return back to the world of mere mortals with gifts of creativity and inspiration (interestingly, some creative people actually encourage the belief in divine inspiration, but this is for reasons not relevant to this blog).

This point of view can be more easily challenged if we start seeing creativity under a different light; our skills to think differently in order to tackle the challenges of day-to-day life are often of a remarkably creative nature; they give an individual touch in such trivial things such as how we motivate our co-workers to do things for us they don’t really want to do, how we make a better than average cup of tea, how we avoid potholes on the road without damaging the car or swerving dangerously or -as Dan himself points out during the interview- how we negotiate traffic lights. The creative skills used by artists and musicians are not that different in that respect; as my vocal coach used to tell me, the difference between an ‘ok’ singer and an exceptional singer is merely in the details. The exceptional singer is able to add nuance, intonation and vary the tempo subtly in a way that the average singer hasn’t (yet) learned to do. And this is a skill that takes 90 percent perspiration and 10 percent inspiration, to reference the famous quote.

Regardless of whether you believe in divine inspiration or not, few people who know Daniel Neagoe will argue against the fact that he is one of these people who seems to have tuned in successfully to that place where inspiration turns into creation. As a composer, songwriter, musician and sound engineer, he has been involved in countless bands and projects over the years, creating his own music or helping others to create theirs. He has recently expanded his activities to include woodcarving (to create a special edition box set for one of his bands) and video recording and editing. His energy and drive seem unstoppable and as someone who has collaborated with him musically over the years, I thought these are good enough reasons to hold the conversation which follows below. Find out what drives a person with endless creative urges, how he manages this unstoppable force and how he incorporates his creative activities in a life which involves family duties and a day job!

Kostas The Coach is a Personal Performance and Small Business Coach based in Slough, UK. I help creative people develop their individuality and businesses grow sustainably while remaining ethical.
Kostas The Coach site
Email: Kostasthecoach@gmail.com

Interview with Ethical Business Owner Jaya Patel

As a life coach, a significant part of my work centres around helping people to fulfil their potential. Once in a while, we all meet a person in our lives who seems to live and breathe for their unique talent to inspire and bring other people together. Those people are not necessarily what the -rather materialistic- western worldview would consider to be ‘successful’. Their ‘success’ doesn’t necessarily translate into material wealth; this doesn’t mean that they can’t achieve wealth, and indeed they often do as a side effect of their strong work ethic based on the deeper values that lead them to positive action. However, their gains are first and foremost internal, and their influence upon others cannot be measured solely by quantitative figures. It is rather akin to a slow burning flame, which is passed on in an almost unnoticeable and inconspicuous manner to the people around them.   Their leadership is powerful and infectious, and yet they don’t shout, demand or intimidate.

I believe that Jaya is such a person, and in the 30 minute interview below I speak to her about her life and food philosophy, what motivates and drives her forward and how her customers react to her work. You will hear about her holistic views and how the ancient Ayurvedic philosophy influences her cooking methods. Her approach has a strong effect on her customers, whose loyalty and enthusiasm are visible to anyone who has ever set foot in T Caddy- Jaya’s Veggie Haven.

This is the first conversation is a series of interviews I plan with inspiring people who I feel can act as an example to others who also search to tune in to their inner drive and amplify that tiny little voice inside in order to roar like a lion.   I hope you find this conversation as inspiring as I did.

Kostas The Coach is a Personal Performance and Small Business Coach based in Slough, UK. I help creative people develop their individuality and businesses grow sustainably while remaining ethical.
Kostas The Coach site
Email: Kostasthecoach@gmail.com