A Research Paper By Marta Potulna, Leadership and Optimal Performance Coach, AUSTRALIA
The Concept of Finding Flow and Its Applications in Coaching
The concept of being in a zone and finding everyday moments of fulfillment has been a popular topic in positive psychology for years. And rightly so – we all want a life worth living. There is room in the coaching profession for expanding the approach to using the concept of flow in life, transformation, career, or leadership coaching sessions. This paper reviews how the concept of flow has been researched and examines its applications in coaching clients from a place of daily frustration to a place of everyday flow.
Being in a Flow-Like State
The main thesis of Csikszentmihalyi’s most popular book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), is that happiness is not a fixed state. The state of happiness and fulfillment can be developed in time as we learn to achieve flow in our lives. The key aspect to a state of flow is control: rather than allowing ourselves to be passively determined by external forces, in the flow-like state we exercise control over our consciousness. As he writes,
The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)
The ICF defines coaching as ‘partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” The underlying philosophy behind coaching is that everyone is resourceful with genius waiting to be set in motion. Thuscoaching by principle is a means of facilitating the accomplishment of worthwhile moments, responding to passiveness with action, countering stagnation with development, and turning frustration into flow.
Csikszentmihalyi concludes, similarly to Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, and Aristotle nearly 2,500 years ago, that happiness comes from within oneself. Humans have attempted for centuries in vain to find happiness by assigning power and meaning to things outside of one’s control.
The underlying power tool in coaching is evoking awareness and shifting the client’s perspective. Thus in a role of a coach, you help the client shift from assigning power and significance to things that are burdensome to putting energy and attention to activities that bring lightness and happiness from within and they have control over this process. They are acting within their circle of influence.
As Stephen Covey’s work reveals, we go about our lives operating in two circles. The first is our circle of concern – these are things that we care about or may even affect us but over which we have little or no control. The second is our circle of influence. These are things that we can control or influence. When people are reactive they focus on the outer circle, they spend time and energy on things that they really can do nothing about. As a result, their circle of influence shrinks. When people are proactive they focus on their inner circle of influence where their efforts will make a positive difference. (Stephen Covey, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, 1989).
The concept of the inner circle of influence is helpful to use in coaching clients from frustration to flow because one important aspect of being in the flow-like state is to have a sense of control and influence over the situation.
During his childhoodCsikszentmihalyi experienced hardships, and during World War II was put in an Italian prison camp. In an interview, he described his first experience with a flow-like state, “I discovered chess was a miraculous way of entering into a different world where all those things didn’t matter. For hours I’d just focus within a reality that had clear rules and goals” (Sobel, D. (1995, January). Interview: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Omni). This is how he, as a child at that time, found his optimal experience in this unimaginably brutal environment.
The key to fulfillment is in how we invest our internal energy to accomplish optimal experiences. When we focus our attention on a consciously chosen goal, our internal motivation literally “flows” in the direction of that goal, resulting in a shift from any frustrating distraction towards focus and harmony and losing track of present time and consciousness.
As positive psychologist Martin Seligman puts it, “Consciousness and emotion are there to correct your trajectory; when what you are doing is seamlessly perfect, you don’t need them.”(Martin Seligman, “Authentic Happiness”, 2002)
How to use this concept to work with our coachees through their challenges, so they ‘correct their trajectory’?
Frustration – A Trigger to Finding Flow?
According to Martin Seligman’s thesis frustration as an emotion can thus help and trigger clients to take action towards the desired emotional state. Imagine if you could flip this negative emotion into fuel for a frustration-busting coaching session!
There’s no question emotions have an impact on a client’s productivity and engagement with everyday life. They affect their energy, focus, willpower levels, etc. For instance, when you’re happy, you get more done, you have better working relationships, more energy, resilience, etc. But what about frustration? Most of the time, ongoing frustration makes us overreact, make bad decisions, and have a tough time focusing and it can negatively impact our engagement in daily professional or personal life.
But there’s a mechanism in every emotion — particularly negative emotions — that can be leveraged to fuel productivity and quality of life. Since frustration is derived from a feeling that something “is annoying and needs to change”, that feeling creates energy. “Now, what could I do to use that energy to move forward on this thing that’s making me frustrated?”
Turn Energy Into Action
Csikszentmihalyi’s ways to finding flow and its applications in coaching:
Setting Goals That Have Clear and Immediate Feedback
Help the client set a clear goal of what they want to turn the current situation into / what they want to turn the energy from the emotion of frustration into (specific outcome)
Becoming Immersed in the Particular Activity
Help the client explore their inner self and what immersed looks like to them. Often people don’t know what talents or passions they have, and what activity they can really thrive in. Exploring these moments of losing yourself and track of time may help the client discover about themselves and what gives them a sense of self-actualization.
Learning to Enjoy Immediate Experience
It’s about doing what you really love. It’s unlikely to be exceptionally productive or find flow in activities that the client dislikes. Help the client ponder on what comes effortlessly with a great sense of lightness and freedom and creative energy. Usually, it will be something they are naturally good at or talented in.
Proportioning One’s Skills to the Challenge at Hand
Add an element of challenge. Help the client discover and acknowledge their talents, strengths, and limitations, and stretch their capabilities to step out of their comfort zone.
One key aspect of flow is that, while in flow, nearly all of the brain’s available inputs are devoted to one activity. This is why the perception of time changes, the discomfort goes unnoticed, and stray negative thoughts don’t enter the mind. The brain is too busy focusing on one thing to keep track of all those other things. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)
Finding Professional Flow Through Coaching
Finding flow relates to all aspects of life: personal, social, spiritual, and professional, and finding worthwhile moments in all these aspects accumulates to a worthwhile life. In leadership coaching the focus is on helping clients find meaning, joy, and fulfillment in their careers. Finding flow can transform a routine job into one full of worthwhile moments, one that makes a difference and satisfies the need for achievement. Coaching clients from frustration to flow will help them accomplish more on the job, help them enjoy working in their profession more, or find one that is right for them, and probably be more successful. When approached with a determination to make it personally meaningful, even the most mundane job can produce flow, and coaching can help clients uncover that. Alternatively, with the help of a coach clients can find their professional flow in a different or different profession and transform a potentially frustrating situation into a flow experience.