A Research Paper By Ekaterina Breous, Life Coach, SWITZERLAND
How to Use Visualization in Coaching
Conventionally, when we identify what we want to make happen in the future, we want to get into action quickly and take the first steps to build a plan – based on what we know today. But this would mean that our efforts are based on precisely what is certain and predictable. For example, I have an idea to build a skyscraper from Lego blocks. Typically I would then go and check what type of blocks I have and how many. I would then design and build a skyscraper to match my blocks, with predictable heights, colors, and shapes. Or perhaps I would end up with a small tower – if I don’t happen to have suitable blocks. What if I were to start at the end – by visualizing the skyscraper of my dreams first and figuring out the blocks I need later? What if we were to start by imagining our goal or outcome or wish as if it already came true, without limiting ourselves to conventional wisdom and self-doubt?
Interestingly, many athletes and performers do exactly that. They visualize an incredible performance – months before the actual act, to focus themselves beyond what they are already capable of. The actor Jim Carrey shared his practice of doing it on the Oprah Winfrey Show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPU5bjzLZX0. In the early 1990s, he was an unknown actor struggling to get by. To stay motivated, he decided to write himself a check for $10 million for “acting services rendered”, dated it for 1994 and carried it in his wallet for daily inspiration. In 1994, Jim Carrey landed a role in Dumb and Dumber and earned exactly $10 million. Carrey demonstrated a key mindset – he didn’t take action in line with the current circumstances, he took action in line with the future he wanted. This created power and belief and momentum and confidence and allowed him to consider different actions to what we conventionally think is possible.
In fact, the power of imagination has been known for centuries. Albert Einstein said:
Imagination is everything. It is the preview to life’s coming attraction.
Multiple mental techniques using imaging techniques have been invented; they are referenced below and are not described in detail in this paper. What is mentioned here is a generalized way of visualizing the future.
Specifically, this paper focuses on:
- How visualizing the future works from the neuroscience perspective
- How to use visualization in coaching
Neuroscience Behind Visualization
Our brains do not distinguish between reality and what we are imagining. In fact, we trick ourselves all the time, for better or for worse. This happens both consciously and unconsciously. Examples are: “I can’t do it because it didn’t work for my friend”, or “My new coworker probably doesn’t like me because he didn’t say hi”. These examples show that we tend to make assumptions. Interestingly, this way we can also trick our brains into something positive. Pippi Longstocking said: “I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that.” She thought in terms of possibilities and not limitations. Possibility thinking is what underlies the neuroscience of visualization. It all starts with the idea – supported by the abundance mindset, of what it is that we really, truly want to achieve in the future. Visualizing this idea in the future, as if it has already happened, trains our brain to garner the sensations and feelings to experience doing and attaining something before it is physically here. It is for this reason that athletes and performers are already busy visualizing the competition or acting months in advance – to be able to perform optimally at the supreme moment. By conditioning their brains, they teach them to get used to their future situation.
So, what exactly happens in our brains when we visualize a future event? Repeated imagining of your future situation results in the activation of a neuronal network that is formed of various brain regions located at the brain stem. This network is known as Reticular Activation System (RAS) and is illustrated below.
RAS focuses our attention on what matters to us at that moment in time. It learns over time what we care about, what is important to us, and, most importantly, what we place our attention on. RAS functions together with the limbic system, our “emotional brain”, which is made of a set of structures covering both sides of the thalamus, right under the cerebrum. It is the joint activation of the neuronal networks of the RAS and the limbic system that is responsible for our brains responding to imagining something as if it were reality – creating confidence, momentum, and innovation in the form of ideas and thought patterns we wouldn’t have had otherwise. The more often we repeat imagining, the more powerful and durable the neuronal connections in RAS become.
Translated into practice, it is important that we condition ourselves and perform visualization exercises regularly. For example, we can choose 5 to 10 minutes for ourselves daily to envision our goals. Adding a positive emotion is very important for the inclusion of the limbic system. For example, we can imagine as if we have already achieved our goal. We can experience satisfaction, the gratitude and already feel how we can enjoy our achievements. It can be helpful to smile and to feel gratitude. Music that symbolizes the success of our goal can be added for an enhanced experience of positive emotions.
As we all learn and take in information differently, it is important to understand our learning style and use it to intensify our visualization practice. Learning styles are the building blocks of our representation systems in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and are used to represent how we process information. In NLP the styles are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Visual learners prefer to take in information by seeing and often process it in the form of images. This means that they will often think or remember things in pictures and like to read, see graphs, and use symbols. Auditory learners prefer to listen and take information from what they hear. They favor lectures and discussions over reading. Kinaesthetic learners learn by experience and particularly by tactile exploration of the world. They prefer to learn by experimentation. Tailoring envisioning experiences to fit your preferred learning style would enhance the power of being able to experience the future of your goal and thus get an even better result. By using the learning style that works best for you in visualizing the future, you can increase empathy for the situation. In other words, you will feel more associated with the future you are imagining. For example, a runner who is a visual learner can already intensify the focus on his track by focusing his gaze on the finish, but also by making the cheering of the audience louder in his imagination. He can already visualize his TV interview and feel the Olympic medal’s weight already around his neck. By working with learning styles, desired situations can be intensified, and the accompanying feelings and emotions can be experienced more intensely.
Incorporating Visualization Exercises Into Coaching
In coaching, imagining the outcome in its future state – as if it has already happened, can be very impactful. Offering the client to “visit” the future of their outcome may bring to light the possibilities previously unseen. It is important to note that the client may or may not be open to such an exercise, so it should be gently offered by the coach with a clear possibility to say no. Here are some ways how visualization can be offered:
💭 Through a “what if” question. For example: “What if the obstacle wasn’t there and you have achieved it already – what is possible now?”
💭 If the coach observes motivation in the client as a result of answering a “what if” question, the coach can invite the client to try to imagine the achieved outcome in more detail. A way to offer it can be: “I see how excited you are when you talk about your outcome. Would you be interested and comfortable trying an exercise with me that involves closing your eyes and imagining your outcome as it has already happened? I think it might bring valuable insights to move your outcome forward.”
💭 If the client expresses their interest in doing the visualization exercise, the coach can offer to either explain the exercise and give space to the client to “visit” the future on their own, or guide them through it. Both options should include an explanation and exploration of the client’s learning style. By observing the use of the language of a client, a coach often can identify their learning style. Visual thinkers will use phrases like “I see what you mean” or “Let me get the picture straight in my mind”. Auditory thinkers will be more likely to say “I hear what you are saying”. Kinaesthetics will use the word “feel” and will “feel your pain” and give you a hug. For additional clarity, and especially if the client is not aware of their learning style, the coach may offer a learning style self-assessment to a client, for example, https://www.proprofs.com/quiz-school/story.php?title=vak-quiz-visual-auditory-kinesthetic
💭 Guided visualization can be done in two steps:
In step 1, the coach can take the client into the future state of their outcome. The coach can invite the client to imagine that they have already achieved their goal or solved their problem. The client can be invited to stand in that future and get really clear on what they notice and how they will know that they have been successful. The questions should be tailored to the client’s learning style. Here are some examples:
- What are you observing?
- How do you know you have been successful? What are the metrics, and evidence?
- Where are you?
- Who are you with?
- What do you see?
- What do you hear?
- How does it feel?
- What is possible now?
If at any point the client starts to doubt the success of their outcome, the coach should gently bring them back to the future state where they already are successful.
In step 2, the coach can guide the client to identify the key elements that they got handled and were crucial in driving success. The questions can be:
- What did you do to get there?
- What are the key steps you took?
- What challenges did you overcome?
- What relationships did you build?
- What else?
💡 It is important to remember that the client should stay in the future during both steps of this exercise. It is the coach’s responsibility to bring the client back to the future if they go back to the present.
💡 If the visualization exercise resonates with the client, the coach can offer to repeat it and eventually transform it into practice, if necessary. “Visiting in the future” one or two times may not be sufficient for a transformative effect. A coach can explain the benefits of the repetition to the client and ask what their repetition practice or reminder to practice could be.
💡 The coach can also offer to start the visualization exercise with relaxation and breathing. The coach can invite the client to find a quiet place and relax by taking a few deep, slow breaths together. A simple way to relax is to concentrate on deep, slow breathing. A great guide for relaxing breathing is to aim for 5 breaths in one minute by breathing in for a four-count, breathing out for a four-count and just remaining still and relaxed for a four-count before breathing in again (i.e. 12 seconds per breath cycle). After one minute (i.e. 5 in and out breaths), begin visualizing the outcome.
Coaching the Client Is Frequently Used to Achieve a Goal
In coaching the client often works towards achieving an outcome. Imagining it as it has already been achieved can lead to confidence, momentum, and creativity. It is a different approach to a coaching session, where – once the outcome is identified – the client starts by imagining their future and works out the steps to achieve it after it. While ample evidence, including scientific explanation, exists supporting the positive effects of such imagination exercises, not every client may be open to it, no matter how passionate the coach feels about it. It is therefore important that the coach offers it gently and lets go of it if the offer does not land well with the client.
Becoming Supernatural: How Common People Are Doing the Uncommon – Joe Dispenza
You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter – Joe Dispenza
Your Heart’s Desire: Instructions for Creating the Life You Really Want – Sonia Choquette
The Psycho-Biology of Mind Body Healing – Ernst Rossi
Creative Visualization – Shakti Gawain
Biology of Hope – Norman Cousins