- By Ian Bradley
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Before specializing in executive coaching and workplace problems, I was a clinical psychologist with stints in mental hospitals and clinics in Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto as well as Montreal. I worked extensively with both severely disturbed patients with diagnoses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as well as more down-to-earth problems in living such as depression and anxiety.
Despite the diagnosis, there was a common thread in many of the patients that I saw, namely, an inability to deal competently with a meaningful social or interpersonal situation. For the severely disabled such a patient with schizophrenia, this disability was expressed as an inability to perform interpersonal tasks associated with basic skills of living such as shopping, taking public transportation or opening a bank account. Research has demonstrated that the ability of these patients to successfully cope with these tasks of daily living were predictive of their ability to avoid hospitalization. In fact, what might be termed as their social competence has been shown to be a better predictor of community survival than their actual psychiatric symptoms.
In less debilitating conditions such as depression, I often found that the sadness was often unleashed by a failure to cope with an interpersonal situation, be it an inability to respond with an assertive counter-attack when challenged or an inability to express feelings of need in a romantic relationship.
Sensing that many patients required was an expanded repertoire of interpersonal skills I was drawn to a type of therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, (CBT) that provided the necessary teaching tools. In particular, I was a practitioner of a popular CBT technique called Social Skills Training (SST) that, as the name implies, aimed to teach content and delivery of everyday social scripts.
When SST was first introduced in the 1970’s, the technique represented a landmark. Instead of passively listening to patients describe or complain about their problems, SST allowed psychologists take active steps to teach their patients better coping techniques.
The training comprises many components from assessment, goal-setting, discussion of response-options etc but the core involves oodles of practice in role-playing. Like all successful teaching techniques the degree of difficulty of the role-playing is varied to match the existing competence of the client. Often, the role-playing followed a demonstration or modeling by the therapist of one version of an appropriate social response. The techniques focused on training everything from the micro-behaviors of social competence such as appropriate eye contact to more strategic concerns such as goals and options to achieve those goals.
Fast-forward twenty years where the underlying philosophy and actual techniques of the original SST are still paying dividends today especially in the area of executive coaching. In today’s business environment, employees are being asked more than ever before to be flexible and address pressing challenges. Often, the employees are faced with novel situations where new skills are required. A young executive promoted into her first managerial position, a technical saleswoman now managing a district sales force, a bank manager moving into a central office HR role – all these job changes demand new skills and interpersonal competencies that might not be present due to lack of experience.
As a result, I often find myself taking a temporary time-out in my discussions with a manager or professional to perform a role-play related to their problem. Sometimes, the role-play helps me understand the problem in better detail. On other occasions, I use it more as a teaching technique to illustrate a tone or style that might be helpful.
A recent example concerned a manager of a technical services department that provided detailed mechanical drawings to clients both within and outside the organization. Since the interactions among the various building systems – heating, air conditioning, lighting etc- were complex, invariably almost any mechanical drawing that left his office could be improved. It was always a question whether the added client benefit was worth the client cost. However, sometimes a client would complain about some aspect of the drawing – not that the specification was wrong but rather something perhaps could be improved. Each time my manager received this type of call he went in panic mode. Even though he knew everything could be improved, he reacted to each complaint by apologizing, calling an emergency meeting of the team and then work furiously to adjust the plans. The process diverted resources from other projects and added a needless element of stress to his and everyone’s working life.
We role-played various responses to these irritant customer calls. Initially, the manager provided re-assurance to the client, then a response that reflected the client’s creativity in coming up with this suggestion. Finally, we role-played a response without urgency or implied guilt. The role-plays were informative to me and helpful to the client. As his coach, I learned that even the possibility of disappointing someone –especially a client – was painful. The client learned that the range of potential responses to this one challenging situation –a client complaint- was much wider than he ever believed.
Although SST was developed to teach rather basic social scripts in every-day situations, the basic ingredients of the technique –the modeling and role-playing- can be applied to help executives master the most complex of business encounters.