As a ‘brief therapy’ practitioner and coach, helping hundreds of clients each year, I am always interested from a clinical perspective in the small number people who struggle with the process of positive change.
In this article I will explore four significant ‘red flags’ to look out for in the way a person thinks – cognitive traits or patterns that can form a serious obstacle to achieving the change they desire.
I’m writing this from the perspective of a practitioner (whether therapist, coach or even specialist mentor) but these concepts are equally applicable to analysing and improving your own ways of thinking.
The Search for the ‘Holy Grail’ of Techniques
A criticism I often level at my profession is an over focus on techniques when they appear to work in the relative ‘echo chamber’ of practitioner groups and forums, but with limited testing in the world of actual, paying clients.
On my travels, I meet many practitioners who, rather than simply completing their Continual Professional Development (CPD), have become ‘course junkies’, almost desperate to find something that really works with their clients. Many of these people are highly trained, often to PhD level, and all of them have the very best of intentions – they genuinely do want to help their clients.
However, the mistake I see them making is an over-focus on the search for a technique or process that will work with almost everyone every time, instead of focusing on learning why, for some people, nothing ever seems to work.
Why Some People Struggle to Change
There are, of course, many different reasons why a particular individual will struggle to make positive changes in their life or behaviours.
It is for precisely this reason that they will often seek out the professional help of a coach or therapist!
Some of these factors will also relate to the context or environment in which the person is seeking to make these changes. In this situation, a practitioner can give guidance, but if a person wants to give up sugar addiction and still live and work in a cake shop, then they have to understand that this will put pressure on any therapeutic approach succeeding.
The above is an example of how a person’s ‘ecology’ should be supportive for positive change to occur. However, from my experience, there are also powerful trends in the way people think which form significant ‘red flags’ or warning signs that, unless addressed, can sabotage any intervention, no matter how skilfully or sensitively delivered.
Identifying and Responding to Red Flags
The problem with such red flags is that many practitioners engaged in helping people to change may only notice them when it is already too late. In hindsight, red flags are nearly always easy to spot.
A person’s language, whether in their written responses or their speech, will give strong clues as to whether any of these red flags are present.
The key is spotting them early in the process of positive change so that you can address them at the start and minimise or eliminate their impact.
Red Flag 1 – External Locus of Control
This is one of the most powerful concepts in personal development – whether a person sees control over their life as something internal (which they are responsible for) or external (that events and experiences happen to them).
In terms of the process of positive change, the ‘treatment’ model is unhelpful to many clients as it sets up a dynamic where the coach or therapist is the driver and the client is the passenger. The practitioner has a more active role, the client a more passive one. It’s therefore easy to ‘nod off’ or disengage as a passenger and then potentially complain about the journey or destination. After all, someone else was driving!
I find that positive change is best achieved through a collaborative process, but crucially with the client in the driving seat. The practitioner can guide, support, provide directions, etc. but the ultimate responsibility for the vehicle and its progress lies with the person at the wheel and their foot on the pedal.
Warning signs: Look for statements or evidence of previous behaviours that express events or experiences as ‘happening to them’. People with this pattern of thinking will usually report a number of incidences where they describe themselves as the victim or attribute blame externally.
In terms of working with a coach or therapist, very early on they may make statements like “fix me” or “try your best to change me”. The latter can also be a very adversarial way of seeing the process of positive change and is unhelpful.
How to Address: Ideally, as a practitioner, your marketing and pre-session conversations should establish that clients will need to be motivated and committed to the process of positive change.
If someone still shows elements of an external locus of control then sensitively explain the benefits of challenging such a way of thinking, perhaps using examples of how people have thrived by doing so.
I explain that, though it can feel daunting at first, taking responsibility for your life is empowering and nerves soon transform into the exhilarating feeling of being truly in control of your mind, life and direction.
I also inform my clients that there will always be some work for them to do in the process of making positive changes, small amounts for some and more for others, but either way, that they will need to be actively in the driving seat in the process.
Coaches and therapists, you are NOT helping your clients by thinking that client care is ‘protecting’ your client from having to (1) do some work or (2) take personal responsibility for the process of change.
I find that agreement is usually reached with the client to be mindful and active in guarding against external locus of control thinking and behaviours. This becomes the firm foundation for making further positive progress.
Red Flag 2 – Testing for Failure
This way of thinking is a specific negative framing of the process of change, where there is an abnormal focus on the expressed unwanted outcome (i.e. that they will not change) and testing to ‘prove’ the validity of this belief.
I explain the effect of this as follows – we usually to get more of what we focus on and we get the results we are testing for. You could say that testing for failure is a form of ‘confirmation bias’ in action. You decide something will fail and you start finding all the reasons that confirm this decision.
Warning signs: Some people with a negative mindset will tell you immediately that they have this trait, either generally or specifically, in relation to the issue being dealt with or techniques being used, e.g. “I don’t believe anything can help me”, “I’m a skeptic”, “Nothing will work for me”, or simply “I am a negative person.”
Others may say that they are ‘realists’ or lack the self-awareness to know that, on a practical level, they apply ‘glass half empty’ thinking.
How to Address: I explain the risks of testing for failure and the contrasting benefits of testing for success. It is important to assess how deeply held any limiting beliefs that support this way of thinking are, i.e. has it become a rigid part of their overall identity.
For example, some clients will say to me that they are ‘negative’ but quickly describe ways in which they have perceived that to be a benefit in life. Some even compound this by saying ‘I hate annoying super positive people’.
In this instance, the last thing I am going to do is try and tell them to change their whole identity or personality. One approach is to gently help them work an exception into their mindset for this particular process of change , i.e. they can keep any perceived benefits of cynicism and negativity for other things, but suspend it for this process so they can benefit accordingly.
However, when someone starts to see the benefits for challenging and altering negative thinking in one aspect of their life it usually starts to spread to other areas. This is why I find rapid change therapy and coaching can have such far-reaching positive effects on a person’s life, far beyond one particular issue that they have have initially seen me for.
Red Flag 3 – Uncertainty of Experience
If a person is uncertain about their experience of a problem or issue how will the know if and when they have experienced positive change?
The negative impact of this way of thinking is often further amplified when it is combined with the red flag of ‘testing for failure’ as described above.
For example, a person going through the process of positive change might say something like:
“I guess I think I’ve changed my outlook a bit. I mean, well, I think I have, but I don’t know, maybe it’s just because the weather is better, I’m not sure. I don’t know if that means I will stick to it or I won’t.”
This is what is often referred to as the ‘Maybe Person’ phenomenon – a person who is unsure of their experience (positive or negative) and hence is more at risk of applying arbitrary or unsupportive meanings to it.
Warning signs: Language, both written and oral, is where this will be most evident. As in the example above, a person with a way of thinking that shows uncertainty of experience will have language often peppered with words and phrases like ‘maybe’, ‘I think’, ‘yes and no’.
They will also often answer a question with a preamble or caveat that allows them to hold potentially two opposing positions on how they feel about an experience at the same time.
How to Address: Once I have identified the above, sometimes I ask my clients directly, “Are you an indecisive person?” It’s a provocative question to try and gauge their level of self-awareness.
If they say “yes”, I will explain how, often through no fault of their own, indecisive thinking about our experiences and their meaning can almost become a bad habit that slows down the process of positive change. They obviously don’t want this outcome so we work together on ways to overcome it.
If they say “No, I’m a decisive person”, I will tell them that’s great and will sensitively explain how they can still be a decisive person in other aspects of their life, but that the ‘uncertainty of experience’ phenomenon still appears to be present in relation to this particular issue.
Either way, self awareness is the first step. I then help my clients to be more decisive in taking control of the meaning of an experience and deferring judgement until they have the benefit of hindsight.
I often use the example of a person who starts training at the gym. They lift some weights and they get a feeling like their muscles are burning. If they are uncertain of the experience and don’t know what this experience means then they may think, “This is strange, I don’t like it, maybe this means I am hurt, I will stop.” Worse still, after one session, they may think that they don’t really look much different either!
However, if the person understands the process of changing their body, then when they feel that burning feeling they can apply a different, positive meaning, e.g. “My muscles are burning so this means I am breaking them down to make them stronger, this is good, I will continue.” Likewise, knowing that changes in the body take time they will assign no negative meaning to the fact that they look no different after just one day of the gym.
We seem to understand these concepts better with the body than we do with the mind, but from my experience, the same rules apply!
Red Flag 4 – Negative ‘What If…’ Thinking
‘What if…’ thinking is not bad in itself.
I have heard some practitioners before say ‘I don’t do ‘what if’ thinking, I am always in the present moment’.
That’s great most of the time but what about when you want to be in a different mental ‘time zone’ or to use your imagination?
Positive ‘what if’ thinking is, after all, a base ingredient of creativity itself (e.g. “What if I add this to that?”) and of affirming and enjoyable visualisations of future outcomes.
I believe that a powerful imagination is a double-edged sword. It can bring amazing creativity and joy if focused positively or obsessive rumination and anxiety if focused negatively.
Negative ‘What if…’ thinking is the latter – an abnormal focus on imagined, unwanted future outcomes. Not only does it rob the person of the joy of the real present moment, but it causes stress and anxiety and can then influence future outcomes negatively.
This can become the ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ of focusing on what can go wrong. When powerfully reinforced in the subconscious mind this form of negative mental rehearsal can guide the person on every level to the very outcome they don’t want to happen!
Warning signs: A person who expresses worries, either generally or about the process of positive change will be doing some type of negative ‘What if…’thinking’.
As a practitioner, you can often spot signs of this even at the enquiry stage, for example a person who is overly focused on the process of change not ‘working’, either in a general sense or for them specifically.
In sessions and conversations, this way of thinking usually reveals itself very quickly.
How to Address: Individual worries can be addressed one-by-one, but it is important to also help the person understand the unsupportive nature of this way of thinking generally.
I explain the difference between worrying (negative, unstructured, pointless) and strategising (positive, structured, productive) and highlight the fundamental flaw in all ‘What if…’ questions – that you cannot answer them now, only when you get to that scenario (if indeed it ever happens!)
An affirmation or mantra I repeat, whenever I catch myself asking a negative ‘What if…’ question is:
“I don’t ask negative what if questions and I don’t answer them. I’ll deal with that scenario IF or WHEN it happens.”
I also often teach my clients Mindfulness (using the approach covered in my book 7-Day Mindfulness) and explain the benefits of being in the present moment as the desired ‘default’ state.
Any trips ‘time travelling’ should be deliberate and positive, for example a warming nostalgic memory of the past or an exciting visualisation of a forthcoming holiday.
Mindfulness techniques allow the person to disrupt the pattern of the negative ‘What if…’ thought cycle, by actively engaging in the present moment. The more this is done, the more the bad habit of negative ‘What if…’ thinking is broken down.
Red Flags Are An Opportunity
If you are a practitioner, then presence of the above red flag ways of thinking simply means that you and your client will have to do a little more work to minimise and eliminate them.
If this work is not done then it means any model, approach or technique being implemented is much more likely to fail, regardless of its general effectiveness or the skill of the practitioner.
However, where these red flags are overcome, the other approaches applied will have the best chance of success. Combine this with a supportive environment and arguably the greatest ‘healer’ there is, time, and most people will achieve the positive change they desire.