Creating the “Ecology of Change”

One of the most helpful insights from my coaching instructor Roger DeWitt is his notion of  “the ecology of change.” It provides a great way to ground my clients’ change processes with fundamental structures of understanding and practice. Thinking of the client’s self-system as an ecosystem comprised of both inner and outer resources, I marshal their awareness of these two poles of the self and coordinate them to ensure successful change.

To apply this insight most effectively in our work together, it is helpful for my clients and me to remember three of the most fundamental, structural understandings we establish in our work from the beginning:

1.  ADHD is not about character, but about one of our most intrinsic structures—our nervous system— and its challenges for meeting a social environment generally not receptive to its modes of operation. ADDers are measured at only about 10% of the population, which means that our social institutions from education to work performance standards and processes have been designed around the nervous system of the majority of people (often referred to as “Neurotypicals”).  Metaphorically, this makes ADDers  like left-handers in a right-handed world; it’s really hard to fit in! We extend this insight of, “it’s biology not character,” by further dispelling the cultural myth and internalized belief that we must draw upon our inner resources only to effect the changes we seek in our lives. This is simply not true. We all, Neurotypicals and ADDers alike, live in an environment surrounded by forces outside ourselves, from people to things that, if arranged and coordinated properly, can complement our own inner capacities and help assure our success.

2.  Identify where and how the client’s ADHD shows up in their lives: What is the nature of their attention patterns; in what situations are they compromised and in which are they strong? Knowing this helps us to better align their inner and outer environments.

3.  Differentiating the client’s own authentic values from those of the culture outside them. Like a ripening walnut whose inner meat pulls away from its outer shell, the client must learn to  “individuate” by wresting and condensing their own agency from their cultural surroundings comprised of rules, roles and values of family, friends and authorities who taught them their value sets of “shoulds.” Establishing the difference between the values a client really knows are their own, versus those they simply took on as “shoulds” from outside authorities growing up, is always a profoundly liberating insight.

This dance with the client’s interior world (their subjective processes) with the external environment of cultural values, beliefs, customs and expectations, as well as the physical aspects of home, family, friends, office, work mates, employer etc., continues as we identify other ways to bring the inner and outer worlds together in practices that harmonize the two.

Typically I use the following five structural support methods I learned from my coach academy to do this:

1.  Clear the decks

2.  New practices to guarantee follow through

3.  Establishing healthy habits of body and mind for greater effectiveness

4.  Identifying the client’s work pace and building in appropriate cycles of work and rest

5.  Negotiate/coordinate with family and employers for cooperation with all of the needs above

Let me round-out each one:

1.   Clearing the decks:

    1. Time:  The mind works at near light-speed, but the body and the whole world of matter much more slowly. It takes time for the impulse of change to move through our muscles and interact with the environment. In making change, taking time into account is of the essence. We must make/take the time necessary for this work. To do this, the client and I will go to the client’s calendar to see when they will commit the time for it.
    2. Significant others:  The client notifies family members, school counselors, office managers and colleagues of the plans for change so space and time is coordinated and these folks don’t become obstacles to the plan. An additional benefit is that such notification of the client’s intentions serves as a great reinforcement for the client to follow through on their intentions.
    3. The workspace: Whether at home or at the office, one invaluable support for a client’s success (especially ADDers) is an ordered and organized workspace.

2.   New practices to guarantee follow through: This structure requires some creativity. For this, I found the book Following Through by Steven Levinson, PhD and Pete Greider, M.Ed. to be an invaluable source for strategies and techniques to follow through on intentions. Examples:

    1. Creating compelling reasons to follow through: If you won’t act on something for the right reason, find a reason that compels you to follow through. Identify someone whose positive regard for you is terribly important to you. Tell them of your intention so that failure to do it is too embarrassing.
    2. Strike While The Iron is Hot: Take action the moment you identify something you want to do. Don’t give the intention time to cool.
    3. Going Too Far: When you find yourself wanting to resist an urge to eat chocolate, this strategy allows you not to fight the urge, but to make a deal with yourself that if you’re going to eat one, you must eat five. This makes the intention to quit stronger than the urge to indulge by amplifying the harm you recognize the chocolate causes your body.
    4. Utilizing alerting devices to remind you of your intention to fulfill a goal: Use a watch alarm, your computer screen saver or a program that will send you regular messages, or employ your Smart Phone alerting capabilities. While the authors prescribe this for everyone, we certainly know its value for ADDers with working memory challenges.
    5. Leading the Horse to Water: With any identified task, first simply show up to do the task with the permission to quit. With this release from the pressure to do the task, being there to do it makes starting easier, and once started with permission to quit at any time, the inclination to complete can grow.

These are just five strategies the authors of Following Through offer to make it too difficult to fail to follow through on your intentions. They are worth studying and practicing on your self to feel their convincing effectiveness. Understanding my clients’ ways of attention helps them identify the most effective strategy in any given instance.

3.   Establishing healthy habits of body and mind for greater effectiveness: The structure outlined above will make this support system more effective, as it pertains to establishing such things as regular exercise for physical and mental health. Brain scientists have clearly shown how invaluable exercise is for ignition and sustained attention in ADDers. The authors of Following Through also emphasize how essential fulfilling intentions are for knowing one’s effectiveness in the world, and how not fulfilling even the smallest of intentions creates a powerful pattern of erosion of one’s confidence and self-esteem.

4.   Identifying the client’s work pace and building in appropriate cycles of work and rest: Once again, knowing the client’s attention patterns is crucial for supporting their effectiveness. Distractibility and impulsiveness can be barriers to attention if the client tries to stay on task beyond their ability to resist outer distractions or inner impulses.

5.   Negotiate/coordinate with family and employers for cooperation with all of the needs above: Another way of describing this support is establishing “functional fit” with the external world. There are several facets to it:

    1. Commitments to family and work can become severe barriers to a client’s intentions if they don’t enlist the support of these others to help make time and space for the client’s efforts. It pays not to begin a commitment for change that doesn’t have a chance to succeed if there are already too many commitments to family situations or work projects.
    2. Overcoming the notion that one must do it alone. Enrolling others for support can provide further creative insights and strategies.
    3. Otherwise known as the “Buddy System,” enrolling companionship as one engages the tasks for fulfilling a goal can assist in keeping one on task, if not also getting help with the task.

Establishing structure for the client’s success means identifying, marshaling and aligning the inner and outer resources of the self’s ecosystem. My coaching relationship with my clients is one of their already precious and engaged resources, and an encouragement to recognize they’ve decided to reach out and garner support from their outer world. The supports we find together become foundational features of their reinvented selves, their world and the space of interaction between the two.

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