The Transformative Power of Pain

Recently I attended a luncheon for a fabulous non-profit called Count the Kicks. (If you know anyone who is pregnant be sure to recommend their free Count the Kicks™ app. You may save a baby’s life.)

The speaker, Glennon Doyle Melton, is a disarmingly wise and funny human being who provides some of the most honest color commentary on life I’ve ever encountered. I’m enjoying reading her New York Times best selling book, Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life.

Glennon views pain as a transformative force that changes people into who they are meant to be. She should know. The pain of transcending her own addiction and eating disorder has transformed her life in significant ways. Glennon noted that when we protect people from pain, we prevent them from becoming wise, brave, and compassionate, because those are some of the many qualities that learning to be with pain evokes.

She went on to observe that as parents (and I would add, managers) we think it’s our job to protect our children (direct reports and others) from pain. In her words, “that’s the wrong job description.” She holds that rather than trying to eliminate pain, it’s our job to help those we care about to embrace the beautiful, sometimes painful, messiness of being human.

That got me thinking about coaching and pain. Too often I think we try to use coaching to eliminate or minimize pain, rather than helping people find their way through it. That’s because we tend to see pain as a problem to be fixed or avoided, rather than a transformative force to take us to the next level of personal mastery.

“Pain” shows up in all kinds of ways in our daily lives, and it doesn’t have to be monumental to be transformative. There are truths that need to be told, changes that must be navigated, disagreements that beg to be resolved, relationships with challenging people to be built, and “out there” ideas to be shared. We need to use coaching to help people find their way through these pinch points in ways that produce positive results, both inwardly and outwardly.

Nike’s “Just do it!” approach isn’t going to cut it. We need to use coaching to give people strategies for addressing what is difficult. Let me give you a simplistic example of how this can work. In yoga class last Friday, the instructor announced that we were going to do a three-minute plank exercise. If you’re not familiar with “the plank” exercise, picture yourself in the position to do a full push up, then imagine holding that position for three minutes. The most I’ve ever managed is two and a half minutes. Trust me when I say, 30 seconds is FOREVER when you’re struggling to hold a plank.

What was interesting to me was the instructor’s approach. She kept telling the class that our minds would give in before our bodies gave out, which I hadn’t thought of before, but it certainly resonated as true for me. In earlier attempts to hold a plank, I got tired of the discomfort and gave in. The instructor suggested we keep switching between having our arms straight and bending them to rest on our forearms. This was a new approach for me. I found the movement helped to take the edge off of the discomfort enough for me to keep going beyond my previous limit. I almost made it to three minutes. More importantly, with this new mindset and approach, the three-minute plank now feels like a doable challenge. Hopefully I’ll make it next time. That’s the key to coaching people through pain, expand their worldviews about what’s possible and give them strategies to find their way through what they perceive to be difficult.

Pain isn’t pretty, but it is a powerful force for delivering us to the possibilities of who we are. I hope you’ll use your coaching skills to help others find their way through the inevitable difficulties that show up in life so they can discover more of what they’re made of.

Dianna Anderson, MCC
CEO, Cylient

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