Enabling the Unconscious Mind


Psychologists and neuro-scientists are increasingly finding that the unconscious mind is far more powerful than we realise.  Our unconscious mind if often way ahead of our conscious thought when it comes to making decisions, processing all the inputs which come through our senses, sifting through relevant memories and taking control of our actions, before we have even realised what is going on.  The unconscious mind checks in with our conscious awareness at some point briefly after the decisions have been made, and our conscious mind may then try to justify our decision to ourselves or to others with rational argument.  Often, however, the decision has already been made, and this conscious process is almost an afterthought.

This is not necessarily a bad thing – our unconscious mind can sift through large amount of information, deal with vague or ambiguous information, may be better at noting information that makes us uncomfortable and can come up with more creative solutions than the logical part of our brain.  Intuition may send us in exactly the right direction, especially if we take time to mull over a problem rather than rushing to a decision.  Auto-pilot saves us a lot of energy when it comes to making routine decisions.

When we try to put the conscious, logical brain in charge of our decisions, by creating lists of pros and cons, assigning scores to different options or matching interests to jobs, we focus in tightly on a small number of variables, and our decision-making may actually get worse.

So, if we want to help our clients to tap into the powers of their unconscious brain, what can we do to help?  Here are a few tips:

  • Don’t rush your client’s decision-making – stress weakens the ability to pay attention to information on the margins of the thought process.
  • Be playful – the less invested the client’s ego is in getting the “right” answer, the more they will be able to access information from the unconscious mind.  Felt tips, toys, Plasticine, building blocks, stickers and coloured materials create a playful vibe.
  • Use pictures, metaphors, visualisation and images, since these help the client to by-pass language and access feelings or information that cannot be easily expressed in language.
  • If you do use logical decision-making tools, such as occupational interest quizzes, pros and cons lists, or scoring sheets, discourage your client from making a firm decision immediately afterwards.  Allow the client plenty of time to digest the activity and mull over any ideas or issues that arose.
  • Allow plenty of time for silent contemplation.  Forcing the client to keep up a running commentary on their thought process can make it harder to capture what is going on in the unconscious.
  • Encourage the client to listen to their heart or their gut feeling.  If something seems right logically, but feels wrong, this may be a sign that the logical brain has overlooked something important.
  • Encourage the client to take a break from problem solving and do something to take their mind of it, or sleep on it.  The unconscious will continue to mull over the problem even while the conscious brain is otherwise occupied, and may work better without the conscious brain peering over it’s shoulder.

For a good read on this subject, try “Hare Brain Tortoise Mind” by Guy Claxton.  The Hare Brain is the quick thinking logical brain, whilst the Tortoise Mind is our more creative intuition, which takes time to mull things over before telling us what our heart knows is right (although, of course, our unconscious mind is also responsible for a lot of quick, auto-pilot decisions as well).


Strengths Based DMAIC



Whatever you focus on, you tend to get more of.  When you focus your brain on problems, your subconscious is then primed to look out for things to go wrong and will probably help you create more problems.  If you focus on strengths, on the other hand, then you will notice what is going well, expand on it and amplify your strengths.

If you have ever been involved in continuous improvement of your career coaching service, you may have found it rather problem-focused.  Classic Lean and Six Sigma are all about identifying, measuring and eliminating problems.  But is there a better way, a way that feels positive and encourages your service to make the most of it’s strengths rather than anxiously contemplating it’s problems?

I was recently lucky enough to attend a training day on Strengths Based Lean Six Sigma, organised by Academi Wales and delivered by David Shaker.  

Strengths Based Lean Six Sigma builds on the continuous improvement tools used in Lean and Six Sigma, but puts a more positive spin on them, using questioning techniques taken from Solution Focused Coaching.  

We explored the use of solution-focused questions in continuous improvement, and then took a number of popular continuous improvement tools and re-framed them from a strengths-based perspective.  

An example of this is how we re framed DMAIC to focus on possibilities rather than problems (if you have ever worked with Six Sigma, you will be familiar with DMAIC as a structure for a continuous improvement project).  Re framed as a strengths based tool, it could be:

Define the Possibilities (agree on a statement)

  • What is our shared vision for improvement?
  • What could we achieve?

Measure the Rate of Excellence (obtain a benchmark so you can measure improvement)

  • How often do we do it well?
  • How often are customers really satisfied?
  • How often does the process run smoothly?

Analyse our Strengths (data, focus groups, questionnaires, walkabouts, observations)

  • Where are the hidden examples of excellent practice?
  • What are we good at in this process?
  • What are our strengths in relation to this?
  • When we do this better, what is going on?
  • When the problem is less severe, what is happening?
  • How do our values support us with this?
  • What are the key success criteria?

Implement Solutions (try things out until you find changes that work)

  • What solutions might help us improve?
  • Which solutions build on our strengths?
  • How is this action helping us to improve?

Culture (amplify the gains)

  • What is now working well (or better than it was)?
  • How can we embed this change in our culture?
  • How does this change align with our values?
  • How can we amplify the strengths we now have?
  • Where are exceeding our expectations?
  • How can we celebrate success?
  • How can we build on this success to improve even more?

If you structure your improvement project using these five steps, you will encourage people to discover the brilliance that may be hidden away and make the most of your strengths.  You don’t need to deny that problems exist, you just choose to focus on solutions instead.


Visualisation as a Tool to Support Decision Making

IMG_0598Traditional career development theory emphasises logical rational decision-making, the matching up of skills against occupations to the find the best fit.  To this day, that is what most people expect a career development professional to do.  And yet, our modern understanding of how the brain works demonstrates that if we rely solely on logic, we are likely to make sub-optimal choices.

Our logical brains are not great at working with complex, impartial information, especially when part of the work will be to weigh up how important all the available information is to us.  This is where our limbic systems, or intuitive brains, have a key role to play.  This part of the brain can sift through huge amounts of information, linking it to all our previous experiences and memories, to produce a “gut feeling” response to a decision.  Our best decisions will often be made using a combination of both intuition and logic.

The easiest way to engage intuition is simply to ask, “Which option feels right?”  

Another way of helping a client to get in touch with their intuition is to encourage them to visualise options.  Some clients are happy to try this, but others don’t feel so comfortable, so do ask the client if they want to try visualising before you launch into it.

You could say “Some people find it interesting to use their imagination and visualise themselves doing different jobs, to see how it feels.  Is that something you would be interested in trying?”

You can then ask the client to visualise themselves in a job that they are considering.  Ask them to close their eyes, and really try to imagine that they are at work doing the job.  Ask them questions to help them add details:

  • What are you wearing?
  • What are you doing?
  • What other people are around you?
  • What are they doing?
  • What can you hear?
  • What can you smell?
  • How does it feel?
  • What are you looking forward to?
  • What are you good at?
  • What is your lifestyle like – house, car, holiday, shopping?

If this approach doesn’t work so well for the client, another approach is to do a mind-map.  Ask similar questions, but map out the answers on a piece of paper.

You can try this approach for several options, so the client can compare the options.

If you client has limited knowledge of the options they are considering, you could describe some tasks or scenarios to see how they respond. The client may realise that they don’t know enough about the option to be able to visualise it, and this may help them realise that they need to do further research.



Joining Language


Joining language is language that mentally connects the client to their situation and helps them explain how they feel about it.   A joining response uses a word that describes the clients emotional relationship to their current dilemma or barrier – bored, pleased, frustrated, excited, concerned, anxious.  Your joining language connects the client’s emotional response to the facts as they see them.

Using joining language can produce more powerful and emotionally felt responses than straight forward reflective responses (“it sounds like you have been through a difficult time”, for example).

Examples of joining language include:

  • So it sounds like you are getting a bit behind with Maths – what concerns you about that?
  • You said you were fed up with not having any money – what frustrates you about it?
  • You really enjoyed visiting the ice cream factory – what did you love about it?

Joining language encourages the client to get more involved in talking about their feelings and their involvement in a problem, rather than just describing the facts of the situation.

Using joining language can encourage the client to use “change talk”:

  • I’m worried that I won’t get a job and I want to have something sorted out,
  • I’m fed up with not being able to go out and borrowing money off people and I want to make my own living,
  • I really liked all the machines they used and I’d like to do that kind of job.

All these change talk responses involve the client imagining themselves doing something positive, whether that is making a living or doing a job they enjoy. Picturing a positive outcomes helps to establish the neural networks that are needed to make positive thinking more of a habit.

The more the client uses positive change talk, the more likely they are to actually make those changes, since the brain finds it uncomfortable to say one thing and do another; this internal conflict creates a sense of unease or cognitive dissonance.  Many tactics in Motivational Interviewing have the aim of encouraging the client to use positive change talk rather than repeat the reasons why they can’t change.

I first came across the concept of joining language on Motivational Interviewing training with Peter Beven, and it is one of those skills that seems simple, but, like so many other MI techniques, it really works, particularly when used as part of an MI strategy.


Getting Ready for GDPR

If you are a careers professional working in Europe, you are probably preparing for the introduction of the EU General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into force in May 2018. If you are not, you should be! It’s a tightening up of the regulations on how we store and process data, and the fines for non-compliance are huge (try €20,000,000 on for size).

Career Coaches need to be particularly careful since our client records are likely to contain both personal data (name, address) and sensitive data (ethnic origin, disability, health issues).

So, what can you do? The Information Comissioner’s Office is a good place to start. You can download their guidelines and work through the steps. There are also lots of organisations offering training and consultancy.

It’s likely that you will need to audit the data you hold, and record a rationale for why you keep it and how long you keep it for. You will also need to review how you get permission from clients to store their data. Clients can ask to have their data by making a Subject Acces Request, so make sure you only record factual information that you would be happy to share.

Cyber security is an important issue. Have you taken appropriate steps to protect yourself from hackers? This is particulalry important if you use wifi when working out and about. It’s definitely time to stop keeping your passwords in your unlocked top drawer!

60% of us have been hacked in the last few years but most of us don’t know it! If you have been hacked, criminals could access your files.  You can check if your email/password has been hacked at Have I Been Pwned?

Paper records are just as risky, since they are easy to lose. Are you sure there isn’t a notebook with client data sitting on your desk? It all needs to be properly locked away, even when it is in your confidential waste bin.

If you share information with partner organisations (schools, youth workers), you need to think through some additional issues. When you email information, do you encrypt it? If you share paper documents about clients, can you be sure they won’t get left lying around? Do you have Information Sharing Protocals to be sure they look after the data well?

GDPR might seem like a lot of work, but none of us want our data being sold around the world or falling into the hands of criminals. Cyber crime is now one of the most common forms of crime, so protecting yourself and your clients is as important as remembering to lock your door.



Clients Who Struggle To Commit



We have probably all met clients who struggle to commit.  Maybe they hop from course to course or job to job, and never seem to settle down long enough to complete anything or to make progress.  We come across clients who want to choose completely three completely new A-Level subjects, rather than continuing their commitment to the GCSE subjects that they have chosen – what is really going on in that situation?  Procrastination around decisions is a similar issue – again there is some unwillingness to commit, and the client may miss out on good opportunities by procrastinating.

A colleague recently shared with me an example of a high achieving client, who had managed to find work experience in both Law and Engineering, was on track to do really well in her A-Levels, and yet could not commit to a Degree subject.  She had completed a university application for Sports Science, but then at the last minute, felt it wasn’t right for her, and so did not send it off.  She then decided she wanted to study Chemistry, even though she had not done it at A-Level.

Of course, every client is different, but here are some ideas for what you may want to explore with the client who is struggling to commit:

  • Can you reflect back the issue as you see it to the client – that they seem to be struggling to commit to anything?
  • Do they need to commit at this stage? Obviously, if they are going to university, that is a big commitment.  But if they are entering the workplace, commitment may not be so important – it’s possible to move from job to job, gathering skills and experience, without committing.
  • Is there a fear of commitment? Does the client feel that once they commit, they will be stuck with one career for ever?
  • Does the client have unrealistically high expectations of what a course or a job should provide? Few opportunities are without some downsides, and there needs to be a level of realism.
  • How have they made previous decisions? Did they use logical analysis, gut feeling/intuition or do what others suggested for them?  How happy are they with the way they made earlier decisions?
  • How much have they enjoyed their current programme of study? If they haven’t enjoyed it, what evidence do they have that they will enjoy the new course any more?  Does it use a different learning style or more of the same?
  • Are there any issues with ability or motivation for the current programme of study? Are they trying to hide away from these issues by changing subjects? Would they in fact be better off choosing different route entirely (possibly an apprenticeship)?
  • Who do they get advice from? How do they handle that advice?  Are they conscious that some of the people giving advice may not have the full picture, and that what suits one person may not suit another?
  • What is the thought process when the client keeps changing their mind? What self- limiting beliefs may be holding them back?
  • Procrastination can be linked to fear of failure or perfectionism, and this may be a line worth exploring.
  • An interesting question for the client who now seems quite committed, but has a pattern of changing their mind,  could be, “If you did change your mind at some point in the future, what might cause you to do that?”
  • Alternatively, you could ask, “What are the benefits of committing to one thing, and what might you loose?”

Cultivating Optimism


Optimism is generally a useful characteristic when managing your career.  Optimists persist for longer in the face of setbacks, take more risks, are more resilient and are less prone to depression.  Of course, optimism does need to be tempered with a dose of realism, and we do need to encourage our clients to assess risks appropriately, but on the whole, optimism is a characteristic worth cultivating.

Luckily, optimism is a pattern of thinking that can be taught.   Optimists interpret negative experiences as being temporary and specific, while pessimists tend to generalise from one negative experience and ascribe more permanence to it.  Conversely, pessimists tend to dismiss good events as specific and temporary, while optimists interpret them as permanent and general.  You can learn to spot these negative thought patterns in your client and challenge them effectively.

For example, you may have two clients who both get rejected for a job they applied for.  Your optimistic client says, “I didn’t do well in that interview, they asked me a question that I hadn’t prepared for”.  They are keeping their thinking specific (about this particular interview and one question in particular, which they can prepare for better next time). Meanwhile, your pessimistic client says “I never do well in job interviews, I am no good under pressure” – they have made their thinking permanent with the “never” and they have generalised to any situation that involves performing under pressure.

Once you start to listen out for pessimistic thinking patterns, you will be able to reflect them back to the client.  Once you and the client have both noticed this pessimistic thinking pattern, you can challenge it.  A good start is to write down the troublesome pessimistic thought, and then discuss what evidence the client has for this thought.

Is it really true that they have never done well in any situation in which they have to perform under pressure?  Have they ever done well in a job interview (they may have done quite well even thought they did not actually get the job)?

Try and move your client towards a more realistic belief that allows for a chink of optimism.  This will help the client approach the next situation with a more optimistic and positive mindset, rather than giving up on their dreams and plans.  A more realistic belief about interviews might be, “I do tend to get nervous in job interviews, but being a little nervous can help me to perform at my best.  The interviewers will expect me to be a bit nervous, it just shows I want the job.  I can do better at the next interview once I have prepared better.”

For an excellent read on this topic, try Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism.  It introduces a range of techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy that you can use with yourself, your family and your clients to cultivate a more optimistic outlook on life.  I can honestly recommend this book as genuinely a bit life changing!