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Coaching to a New York City State of Mind

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Those living in New York can escape by remaining in their own neighborhood and viewing everyone who is different from themselves as the enemy. Leonard Bernstein and his colleagues portrayed this poetically (and musically) in West Side Story. Robert Bellah and his colleagues provided a sociological perspective on this retreat in Habits of the Heart (Bellah and Associates, 1985)) when they identified the escape of many Americans into lifestyle “enclaves.” New York is filled with these enclaves as are many American communities—and these enclaves are particularly prevalent today in the tragic splitting of our political landscape into the severe left and right wings.  For visitors to New York City, the temptation is to see the Big Apple from only one perspective. I’ll spend all my time on Broadway and ignore what is happening only blocks away. I am here on business and will travel from my hotel to the corporate office building without looking out the window of my cab. I am frightened of people who are different from me and I fear for my own personal safety–so I won’t venture very far from my tourist bus or planned itinerary.

Under these conditions of fear, we tend to make fast decisions that are based primarily on stereotypes or intuition (Gilbert, 2006; Lehrer, 2009). We also tend to rely on third party judgments and look to “authority” (such as the Zagat restaurant guides) as a way to reduce ambiguity and the number of criteria needed to make a choice. In other words, we escape from freedom. As coaches, we need to be particularly sensitive to this dynamic. It is very tempting to be sources of judgment and authority ourselves. Our clients will lean on us for advice. We take on their “monkey” (ownership of the problem) as a way of feeling better about ourselves as “experts,” but also as a way to reduce our client’s anxiety and range of options.  Sometimes the collusion is even more complex. We first encourage our clients to consider all of the options available to them in their lives. Then when they are sufficiently scared as the New York City State of Mind envelops them, we become the expert who helps them make the decision about which option to choose. We encourage them to move from too many options to a single option (that happens to be our own preference).

There is an alternative. We can help our clients find a balance between the challenge of too many options and the constraint of too few options. This is the power of diversity and Intersection that have been so effectively articulated by both Page and Johansson (The Medici Effect). I will turn to Johansson’s strategies shortly; however, the first step is all about the balance—this is where the coach comes in. As a coach I help my client identify the options and articulate the strengths and problems associated with each option. The tools of polarity management (Johnson, 1996) can be very helpful here: spend time looking at both sides of each option rather than leaping immediately to another option. The reflective process I mentioned above is appropriate here: what is special about some event that occurred today? This “specialness” may come with a mixture of both hope and fear—this is not a bad thing. Various special events that occur in the client’s life should be identified and assessed during several sessions—rather than being packed into a single session (one day visiting everything in New York City). This more deliberate pace is especially important if one’s client is in a New York City State of Mind.

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