Assessing our Circumstances (Just the Facts, Ma’am)

This is the first of a series of blog posts introducing the concepts of the Model that I use in coaching clients.  Today we’ll look at the first line of the model “Circumstances”.  The model in full states that Circumstances trigger Thoughts which create Feelings which drive our Actions which create Results.

How many times has a circumstance had you ruminating and fuming, to later find out that your interpretation of the facts was just plain wrong? 
You see your teen’s car in the driveway when he’s supposed to be at work and think “He overslept again?!” Only to learn later that he rode to work with a friend. Your husband promised to be home in time for supper.  When he’s 40 minutes late you think “He has no respect for how I feel!”Only to find out he stopped to assist at an accident scene.You hear your neighbor throughout the day yelling at her kids and you think “She is a horrible mother! She should be reported!” Only to learn that her husband recently died and she is completely overwhelmed, with no family nearby to help.
Coaching sessions generally begin with clients telling me about a problem they’re experiencing, looking for some insight in how to change the circumstance.  I listen quietly while jotting down some notes. My mantra is “Tell me everything.”  I want to hear it all.Because the information they share with me tells me very little about the circumstance, and an awful lot about their thinking.  The very first thing I teach is how to separate the circumstances from their thoughts.  This sounds so simple-so basic. Yes?  Yet, when any of is is “deep in a circumstance” our brain does not separate the two.  We think we’re just reporting what happened.  When I ask clients “Is that true?” Their first response is almost always “YES”. They think they’re just giving facts. The background. Setting the scene. So why is this so difficult to do?

Attentional and Cognitive Bias

One reason it’s so difficult to see a circumstance in a different light are what’s known as attentional bias.  This is the brain’s attempt to manage the huge volume of data it takes in daily, by focusing in what it expects to see.  A similar concept, cognitive bias, is the brain’s natural tendency (in order to be efficient) is to look for evidence of what it already believes to be true.  The differences between these two psychology terms is slight, but the important application here is that our brain tends to focus on what we already believe, and is likely to only see proof of that thought.  A fun example of this is the Invisible Gorilla experiment.  In this famous psychology experiment, participants are told that they will be watching a video where two teams will pass basket ball, and are asked to keep track of how many times the “white team” passes the ball.  During the video, a man dressed in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of the group and beats his chest.  The great majority of participants do not see the gorilla! We see what we expect to see.

  1. Searching for your gorillas (AKA “separating circumstances & thoughts”)
    Here are some steps to help you separate your circumstance from your thoughts.
    Break the story down as much as possible-putting the circumstance in one sentences or phrase if possible. Circumstances do not include adjectives! (“Just the facts, Ma’am”)
  2. Ask yourself, “Would I be able to prove this?” We can not prove how others feel or what they think. These things would not hold up in court.
  3. Ask yourself, “Would anyone else disagree or see this differently?
    If you had a room full of people, would they agree with your statement or would they disagree or need more clarification. For example, “Murder is wrong” is a thought, not a circumstance. We know this because if we were to state this to a group, many would need clarification. What qualifies as murder? Hunting? Euthanasia for a beloved pet who’s suffering? The death penalty? This would need to be reworded in order to be a circumstance. We need to separate out the specific circumstances from our thoughts (and opinions) about it.

Here are some examples:

I have $200 in my account and the bill costs $350.

My neighbor said “I see you got a new car”.

My son received a D- on his final exam.

My daughter said “Don’t worry about it!”

My child died when she was three.


I’m broke & in debt.

My neighbor was judging me for getting a Lexus.

My son is flunking out.

My daughter was disrespectful to me.

I lost my child.

Apply it! Try this out the next time you feel a strong emotion about a situation.  Grab a sheet of paper and do a “thought download”, meaning list all your thoughts about the situation in bullet point format.  Then go through and check each one to determine whether it’s a fact or a circumstance.  If it doesn’t meet the above three criteria, try to rewrite it as a factual circumstance, or recognize that it is your thought.  I’ll continue this series with more information about circumstances, which will help you choose how you feel about them and give you other options -even when the circumstance is out of your control.

Not sure how to apply this to your own life?  Why not do a mini session with me?

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