5 – Overcoming obstacles

Obstacle track

“Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying'I will try again tomorrow.'” Mary Anne Radmacher-Hershey

If you drive a car, you'll be well acquainted with road construction, detours, traffic jams and parking tickets. Rarely can someone leave their home to drive somewhere without some obstacle getting in the way of a smooth journey. For those of you, like me, who rely on public transport, the delay of buses, trains and planes is an everyday occurrence (actually for me that is seldom true since I live in Singapore but it does happen even here).

The chances are high that you picked up this book because you were facing an obstacle in your career or life. The equivalent of a traffic jam or a roadblock. You may have come this far with a clear vision, SMART goals and a full understanding of the changes you want to make for purposes that will give you great satisfaction. Then there's an obstacle.

Real barriers, outside of you, are actually easier to deal with than the internal ones we create for ourselves. Internal obstacles include the more subtle fears, attitudes, insecurities, distractions and habits. An obstacle can make their appearance at any time in coaching and development. Some are common and easily identified. Others are unique and so well disguised that they don't appear until later in the coaching process.
The following list shows the top nine obstacles preventing people from doing what they had agreed to do:
  1. I don't know what is expected of me specifically.
  2. I don't know how to do it.
  3. I don't know why I should do it.
  4. I think I am doing it but I'm not getting any feedback.
  5. There are obstacles in my way, beyond my control.
  6. I don't think it will work.
  7. I think my way is better.
  8. Something else is more important so I'm doing that now.
  9. There is no benefit if I do it.
Do you notice that only one of these top nine ‘reasons' is outside of the person's control?
For most people, the obstacles fall into two broad categories:
  1. Lack of clarity of direction (goal and specifically what to do)
  2. Lack of feedback (unable to evaluate how they are progressing)

External obstacles

There's one thing I can be sure of in your coaching and development, there will be an external obstacle at some time.
Do you have too much to do? Of course you do, so do I. We complain about our hectic lifestyles and too often, busyness is a badge of honour and thought of as a sign of importance. True, much of this busyness is caused by demands from other people. If you are caring for preschool age children or your boss is demanding, you have little control over your schedule. There is little enough time to keep up with the demands of life as it is, let alone work on your own development.
The following list shows some of the common obstacles to development that appear to be rooted in circumstances (or people) beyond our control.
Barrier – impact – suggestions
Too many demands – Pressured, distracted by things more urgent – Re-prioritise, learn to manage time and schedules, find someone to help, delegate.
Difficult people – Consumes more time, drains energy and enthusiasm, no support or help – Establish clear boundaries, avoid politiking and power struggles, learn to say “no”, confront where you can and reevaluate your priorities.
Distracting life events – Consumes energy and diverts attention to the distraction – Deal with the life event and return to your continued development later.
No accountability – Lack of motivation and commitment and to keep on keeping on – Find a buddy to hold you accountable.
Criticism – Self-doubt, fear of rejection, fear of failure – Evaluate the criticism, work on valid feedback, don't bother defending yourself or your actions, decide what you will do from now.
No feedback – Discouraged, confusion, lack of progress – Find a way to get honest and candid feedback.
Energy vampires – Interruptions, losing time and patience, distracting – Identify the energy vampires – if they are people, get them out of your life. If it is something else, find ways to reduce their impact.
As you look at this list, you will notice that many of these ‘external' barriers are actually rooted in ourselves. For example, a demanding schedule is, in my experience, often the result of re-work rather than getting it done right first time. At other times, the demands are high on us because we're not actually very good at doing what is needed… you might be surprised how much time you can create for yourself by only working in areas where you have strengths, learning how to delegate effectively to others for your own areas of weakness. Another big problem I find with clients is OOPS or Overly Optimistic Planning Syndrome. A general rule of thumb suggested by successful Project Managers is to take the plan, double the time, double the cost and halve the benefit.
Some of these external obstacles are very real and very difficult to overcome. Distracting life events such as critical illness (of yourself or a loved one), kids needs or a sudden and unexpected loss of income simply consume our time. You have two options: do nothing and give up or determine what you can do to make whatever changes are needed to alter, remove or learn how to live with the barrier.
Common throughout the ‘external' obstacles is the energy vampire. Whether the energy vampire is people, pressure of work,or negative emotions like anxiety or depression, or just those thousands of small hassles that, like mosquitoes on a hot and humid day, drive even the calmest person to distraction.
For many, the biggest problem is an overloaded email inbox, or the text message beep that might just be more important than anything else happening right now. I worked with a large organisation soon after the arrival of the Blackberry phone which they had implemented organisation-wide. Senior managers in the company would respond quickly to any and all incoming messages and expected their staff to do the same. After all, wasn't this new technology meant to quicken response? The downside was the very ‘macho' culture of being seen to be busy and always in demand led many staff to near nervous breakdown. A beep in the middle of the night could be a client issue across the globe and demanded instant attention. And of course, the off-button simply doesn't work – even weekends and evenings are consumed. Is anybody more productive as a result? It seems the opposite is true.

The elevator principle

Everyone has someone in their lives who, when you see them, they just drain all your energy and enthusiasm for life. They are the energy VAMPIRES. The moment you spot them, you go ‘oh crikey, not them, what are they going to take this time?’ Duck or run, but if they spot you already…
There are some people who lift you up, and others who take you down. Surround yourself with people who raise your energy. These optimistic individuals will encourage you and infect you with enthusiasm. There are some people who light up the room when they walk in, and those who light it up when they walk out. You know the ones you should avoid, you see them coming towards you and immediately you prepare yourself for the bite on the neck as they suck the life blood from you. What to do with them? Get them out of your life. Establish the boundaries and sometimes confront them. If you are a ‘people pleaser' and find yourself unable to cut yourself off from them, you're going to have to live with that. It's harsh I know, but you get bitten enough by these energy vampires… you can so easily turn into one yourself.
Remember these wise words from Colin Powell – “When we are debating an issue, loyalty means giving me your honest opinion, whether you think I’ll like it or not. Once a decision has been made, the debate ends, loyalty now means executing the decision as if it were your own.”

Internal obstacles

When I first created the GAINMORE Golf Leadership Advantage, a coaching programme on the golf course that equipped and enabled leaders to control their inner thinking, I was astounded with how powerfully leaders began to change for the better. As Tim Galway, author of The Inner Game of Tennis, argued that most good players know all about techniques, but many fail to realise that “the opponent within one's head is more formidable than the one on the other side of the net.” 
To thrive in work and life, we must deal with the inner obstacles of resistance to change, procrastination, doubt, boredom and fear of failure. Such thinking undermines our confidence and must be replaced with positive, empowering and goal focused visions and a determined pursuit of our goals.
The following list shows a partial list of the top internal obstacles to development:
Barrier – impact – suggestions
Fear – Stops you taking action – Talk openly and candidly to a friend, challenge self-defeating self-talk, break the change down into smaller outcomes and get quick wins.
Negative mindset – Believing that it cannot be done – Catch all negative self-talk and replace with a positive belief in the possible.
Resistance to change – Lack of cooperation even with up-front agreement – Review the real value of change for yourself and others.
No ownership – Motivation to keep on keeping on drops until the project is abandoned – Choose to be accountable for your own life… no-one else cares to do it for you.
Habits – Get in the way of taking action – Change the environment or people who encourage the habitual behaviour, admit that habits can be changed by repetition of new behaviours, work with a buddy.
Impatience – Rushing the process and achieving mediocrity and even failure – Break the change into smaller outcomes and get quick wins.
Boredom – Loss of interest and motivation – Re clarify your goals and link to your passion.
Internal barriers are mostly emotions that are fed by your thinking or self-talk. It is easier it seems for all humans to dwell on the negative and seemingly much more difficult to mediate on the positive. Your emotions then trigger behaviour and actions.
That is, the process is: Thinking to Emotions to Action.
  • So to change an action, we need to change the emotion. To change the emotion we must change the thinking.
Try it. Think of smiling and force yourself (if necessary) to smile. Keep it. Now you feel better.
  • If you are feeling tense, just breathe deeply into your belly for 10 long breaths. Count if you like as well.
Why do these work? Well, your thinking brain is essentially slow and lazy and doesn't like doing too much work. So occupying your thinking with ‘how to smile… which muscles etc' or breathing purposefully' means that your thinking brain cannot also process whatever negative thinking was going on. Added oxygen or the positive physical sensation of a smile then allows your emotional brain to ‘believe' that all is well and floods the brain with positive feeling chemicals.
The trick is to catch any and all negative thinking or self-talk… fill your thinking with positive thoughts or something that requires effort.
Do this every single time you can catch yourself thinking negative thoughts and it will soon become a habit and to anyone outside, you will appear calm, positive, in control and at peace. In such a space, change is much easier and fears are just a test for you to celebrate overcoming.
We will look at a couple of very useful tools to help you in overcoming obstacles:
Understanding the Creative and Survival Cycles and how to Re-frame Attitudes.