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Muse, coaching, and sensory overload

I recently went to see ‘Muse’ on their ‘Simulation Theory’ tour at the London Stadium with my wife and our friends. What a great experience; multisensory hedonism at its very best! A fantastic show, great atmosphere, and an excellent venue. All shared with great friends and a wider group of around 60,000 people all intent of having a good time.

Did I think of my coaching practice while in the thrall of ‘Muse’ and their sound and vision spectacular? Absolutely not! It was all about enjoying the moment with the music and that palpable excitement you get from being in a good natured crowd who share a common purpose. However, once the adrenalin levels had fallen and we had successfully navigated with the crowd through Stratford tube station, I did think about how I had ‘sensed’ the concert given that a ‘Muse’ experience is always a visual and aural spectacular! Fantastic though it was, there were times when I felt a sensory overload leading to a loss in clarity and urgency in my response to the music – I even stopped pogo-ing! Shutting my eyes had the immediate effect of bringing the detail of the music back ‘into focus’. While this need to reduce sensory load might be an age thing in my case (and in this context) it did remind me of how sensory load is important in personal coaching.

For example, in relation to the question ‘can coaching be delivered as effectively by phone as it can be when face to face with a coachee?’ The working assumption might well be the answer is ‘no’ as both visual and auditory cues provide important data to coach and coachee. Yet in my experience coaching without being able to see my coachee is just as powerful as when I can. Sure, the absence of visual prompts is a loss of data yet this appears to be compensated for through the heightened awareness of the linguistic prompts shared between them. I can still remember being blown away by the positive experience of my first coaching conversation on the phone, an experience that I verified as being equally positive for the coachee.

Michael Kraus (School of Management, Yale University) sheds some scientific light on this in his research into how ‘voice only’ communication enhances ‘empathic accuracy’; what he describes as our ‘ability to judge the emotions, thoughts and feelings of other individuals.’ He demonstrates that when others hear only our voice they gain a more accurate picture of our emotional state than is the same message is conveyed by visual means alone. Perhaps more interesting is that voice only is a more powerful tool to judge emotions than when voice and visual clues are combined. Kraus concludes that ‘these findings suggest paradoxically that understanding others’ mental states and emotions relies less on the amount of information provided, and more on the extent that people attend to the information being vocalised in interactions with others.’ An example of ‘less is more’.

The issue of sensory overload was also central to a segment about gaze aversion on a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s ‘All in the Mind’. Work done by Newcastle University in primary school aged children showed that when presented with a hard problem they tackled it more effectively if they did their thinking while not holding the eye of the questioner. The benefits of gaze aversion to complex problem solving are so significant that there has been some work in encouraging students to break eye contact when problem solving. The basis of the benefit is again believed to be down to reducing cognitive overload which is particularly taxed when trying to understand the facial expressions of the person you are looking at.

You might see how challenging this is to those who use the phrase ‘look at me when I am speaking to you’ in moments of challenge or who assume that averting your gaze is evidence of lying. In the face to face coaching situation, having a coachee look into the middle distance is an indication of deeper thinking and is to be celebrated by the coach’s silence. Although I have no proof I swear that I can tell when my coachee is having this gaze aversion moment while on the telephone too!

So, two examples of where less is more, at least in the context of personal coaching. I don’t think that less is more is true for Muse. They do the spectacular so well. For me though the best parts are the sound and the sense of collective being you get in a large crowd. It’s worth focussing on this from time to time by closing my eyes even if there is a heightened risk from the flailing arms and legs of my nearest neighbours.

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