Blessed Are the Rule Breakers

In an article by William R. Miller, clinical psychologist, on motivational interviewing he commented that fundamentalism happens in religion as well as in management.  “Jesus, he said, “ was famously criticized for feeding the hungry and healing the sick on a Saturday, a technical violation of the rule that no work should be done on the Sabbath.”

It raises an important point about our fixation with four step plans and grids based on four quadrants.  His challenge is that strict obedience to such rules may be missing the point.  For example, to stick with Jesus for a moment longer, when he was reportedly asked “What is the most important rule?” he answered that it is to love God and to love others as you love yourself, which sums up all the other rules.

The point is that what begins as a compassionate description can become “set in stone” as dogma, even though it usually happens with the best of intentions.  That is why, when we come up against “the rules” for something like coaching, it begins to feel like literalism or fundamentalism at play.  “You must use the GROW model and don't leave out any of the stages”, the trainer might say.

Often this happens in the form of oversimplification: all you have to do is ask these five questions, or fill in these four boxes, and you’re doing it right.  It happens when we try to reduce complex skills e.g. coaching to a formula or series of steps to follow.  

Think of all the session manuals that require coaches complete an action plan - a change plan - at the end of the session.  The implication is that we must fill in a change plan whether or not the client is ready.  And that’s the heart of the problem with literalism – blindly following the rules.

Miler points out that there is psycholinguistic analyses that shows that with clients who are not yet ready to commit to change, you are likely undo all the motivational progress gained towards change by forcing them to an unfelt commitment to change.  Not exactly what you would want.  The problem?  Following the model blindly, regardless of sensitivity and situation.

This literalism also comes in the form of “must” and “always” rules, for example, and depending on the model:

  • Never ask closed questions
  • Never offer information or advice without permission
  • Always do the four processes in this order
  • Never ask three questions in a row
  • Avoid using “why?”
  • …and so on.

Perhaps this is rooted in the rational mind and its strong desire to simplify and code.  And yet, it does not capture the whole picture by any means.  As others have observed, there seems to be an inverse relationship between ease of measurement and importance.  That which may be most important in coaching is not simple to measure.  

As Georges Braque (a 20th Century French painter) said, “The only thing that matters in art is the part that can’t be explained”.

Maybe concrete behaviour counts can be coded reliably, but they offer only a partial picture.  The temptation is to take descriptive measures and make them prescriptive. This creates a rule-governed approach rather than a method that responds flexibly to the client’s immediate experience. It also tends to stagnate, harden and restrict practice.

You can just hear new coaches, still in learning mode, being criticised for violating model rules.   Yet listen to coaching sessions with a list of rules in front of you, and you will hear experienced coaches breaking every one of them as they respond responsibly to the situations they face.

Are these errors? From a rule-governed perspective they are indeed violations and mistakes. The ideal within a rule-governed perspective is error free performance, as in Olympic gymnastics.  

Miller suggest that it is better to think of the concept of telos, often translated as “perfect,” which actually implies maturation rather than being free from flaws.  It’s common definition refers to the end goals.  A bit like Covey’s “start with the end in mind”.  What matters here is that the means to the end goal is somehow open and flexible.

Specific guidelines can be helpful in learning a complex and automated skill such as driving a car, but over time the specifics fade into an enjoyable process and the objective of arriving safely at a destination.  A reminder now and then doesn’t hurt (“use your indicator to signal a turn”), but skill is more than the sum of component rules.  It involves flexibility, responding to the immediate situation, and remembering where you’re going.

Drawing on an example from coding research into motivational interviewing, and from other prior research, we know that a lot of “confronting” is linked to poor outcomes.  Yet within skillful motivational interviews, there are observed examples of the “confront” response being associated with better client engagement.  It is true that these occurrences are infrequent and success is situation specific but it illustrates the point. 

It is worth noting what constitutes a “confront” is directly contradicting or disagreeing with your client.  Thus if a client says, “I don’t think I can do it,” and the coach responds, “Sure you can,” that is coded as a confront. In coaching it might be termed “challenging limiting beliefs”.

Coaching, like motivational interviewing, is a complex skill, or a set of skills. Excellence in coaching practice is a bit like proficiency in a sport or with a musical instrument.  We know it when we see or hear it, yet reliable rating of that overall quality is elusive.  What is clear is that it is not adequately captured in compliance to behavioural rules.   In motivational terms, when “flow” is achieved, it usually implies a heady mix of challenge, change and skills combined in a way that moves beyond the edge of current thinking or rules.

Guidelines may be helpful when setting out to learn.  It is how most people develop some level of proficiency over time.  However brilliance comes from those who just seem to recognise the underlying skills, learn it quickly and move beyond - certainly not by adhering inflexibly to rules.  As Jesus may say, “Blessed are the rule breakers”.