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Using visualisation to turn ‘I feel overwhelmed’ into ‘I know what I need to do’

Recently, one of my clients arrived at our usual coaching session looking forlorn. He is a senior leader in a large and complex organisation with years of experience and many successes to his career. Even so, on this day he walked into the room looking deflated. His shoulders were hunched and he seemed distracted. When I asked him how he was, his response was one I’ve heard many times from high-performing execs under a lot of pressure: “Oh, you know…” In coaching, this usually means: “I’m feeling overwhelmed and I can’t see the wood for the trees.” Or more concisely: “Help!”

Feeling trapped and pulled in all directions

Normally, my client is upbeat and full of energy. However, even ambitious, top executives can experience moments in their career where their motivation and drive just seem to abandon them. Pressure on all sides and a feeling of being overwhelmed can creep up and suddenly they can’t cope. In my client’s case various factors had led him to this point.

He was expected to deliver to a deadline which seemed entirely impractical. Furthermore, he believed there would be catastrophic consequences for the business if he and his team were unable to deliver. He couldn’t see a solution and it all felt too much for him.

Visualising the difference between urgent and important

Nothing about my client’s predicament is unusual for high-performers. However, the feeling of being trapped or stuck is not an easy one to get a handle on if you are totally immersed in it. What I try to do with my clients is shift them away from focusing on what tasks are urgent (usually everything) and help them understand what tasks are important (to you and to the business). Being able to visualise the difference between urgent and important helps us to navigate through seemingly intractable situations like the one my client was in. Understanding what is important to you as a leader is the key to this.

In my coaching sessions I am fortunate to be able to choose from a wide variety of tools and techniques to help my clients overcome their challenges. How we spend a session and what we ‘do’ depends on their needs and the outcomes they are looking to achieve. One of the tools I use to help my clients visualise and therefore objectively analyse their situation is the use of images. The use of images in coaching works remarkably well to unlock thoughts and feelings that are stored in the subconscious and are therefore difficult to access.

Drawing for clarity

I invited my client to draw a representation of his current challenge in picture form. His first response to my suggestion was one of hesitation, primarily due to his perception of himself as a poor artist. Many of us can relate to that of course. However, when you’re working in a safe space without any judgment attached to what you do or say, it is amazing how creativity can flourish. Stick man and stick woman can very quickly become fully formed people with thoughts and feelings through the power of dialogue.
My client became curious about what he might draw. As he put pen to paper, his energy started to increase. His pictures began to show him what was going on from perspectives he hadn’t even considered. It became clear to him that he was stuck between three conflicting objectives, both in terms of what was expected, who it was expected by and the delivery time frame. In particular, he was able to identify and understand that there were different agendas: his boss, the project team and his own team.
Once he started to find some clarity, he began to think of possibilities rather than impossibilities. We began to ‘see’ a variety of best ways forward. His relief was palpable. Being able to make strong decisions about what to do next was then much easier.

Using coaching tools to create insights

Visualising and drawing are some of the most effective ways to gain perspective in complex situations. Anything that helps us to gather more insight into what is happening during a challenging time empowers us to be able to decide the best course of action to take.
I have experienced time and time again how even one new insight can lead to a breakthrough. Fear and anxiety tends to disappear when it is replaced by clarity of what actions need to be taken. Insight and understanding give us strength, motivation and enthusiasm for tasks and conversations that we may have previously perceived to be difficult, even impossible.

Feeling strong, in control and credible again

My client had walked into the room that day feeling worried about the risks to the business, the risk to his credibility and the risk to his team. He was losing sight of his overall vision and purpose. Through our session, he moved from feeling powerless, trapped and ineffective to feeling strong, in control and credible again.
Coming back to drawing and art: the start and end points of that journey are like the difference between Expressionism and Impressionism: the first focuses on emotions and subjective interpretations, the latter is all about depicting the visual appearance of the things around us. Compare the teeth-grinding panic of Edvard Munch’s The Scream to the bliss-inducing tranquillity of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies – no prizes for guessing which artist best depicts a client after a successful visualisation session!

Draw yourself a new perspective

If you’re reading this and are currently grappling with a problem or challenge, I invite you grab a pen and paper and let your hand do the talking. Draw the things (or people) that are blocking or frustrating you. Draw your objectives. Try to think of possibilities rather than impossibilities. Focus on what is important to you in ‘the bigger picture’: in your role, in your career, in your team. You will be surprised by what comes up. By being able to visualise, you can begin to coach yourself through to a breakthrough and some ideas around what you can do improve your current situation. Often, simple approaches can be the most effective.