At first, I was pretty sceptical of spending almost my entire weekend at a life-coaching workshop in New York.
I expected it to feel either cultish or boring. And of course, any event dedicated to talking about your feelings runs the risk of being mind-numbingly corny.
But you know what? I liked it. I left with a plan addressing things I need to work on to overcome some hurdles in my life, and they’re realisations that I came to with some nudging along, rather than being artificially implanted into my head.
The Handel Group’s “Design Your Life” weekend served as an introduction to the Handel Method, essentially a process that gets people to dig to the roots of their beliefs and behaviours with the aim of addressing the reason why they aren’t as happy as they’d like to be in their personal and professional lives.
The essence of the Handel Method is having a coach motivate you to be completely honest with yourself, which is something anyone can benefit from.
I got the invite from Lauren Zander, the group’s founder, when I interviewed her about her career as a life coach. After working as a life coach for six years, she started the Handel Group in 2004 to codify her coaching method and train others to teach it. Today the group has 14 life coaches with an additional nine in training and seven corporate coaches with an additional 10 in training. Zander works as both, and has consulted with companies like the New York Times and Sony Music Entertainment. The Handel Group also has coaching electives at MIT and Stanford University.
As a guest, I didn’t pay the $US600 fee. While pricey, it’s pretty standard for high-level personal coaching. For comparison, the cheapest ticket for the upcoming Tony Robbins’ “Unleash the Power Within” weekend in Dallas goes for $US695.
From 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday and Sunday in mid September, I joined 27 other Design Your Life participants and three of Handel’s coaches. The program was pretty low key, taking place in some rented office space in a Madison Avenue high-rise. The only prop was a modest television streaming slides and video from a laptop.
I’ll take you through my own experience of the workshop, sharing pieces of insight you can apply to your own life.
Before we began Saturday morning, everyone filled out a homework assignment that detailed the most important aspects of their lives, including their upbringing, career, bad habits, and haunting memories. It served as a way for the coaches to form an idea about the strengths and weaknesses of their group members, and for the participants to get their thoughts prepared.
We were assigned to either Hildie Dunn or Suzee Edwards as our personal coach, who read each of our homework assignments. I had a chance to talk to my coach, Dunn, for about 20 minutes a week before the event to get a loose idea of what the weekend would entail and what I’d like to focus on.
Handel Group Co-President Laurie Gerber led the weekend and coaches Dunn and Edwards each had smaller groups of 14 people called “pods” to work with.
Gerber kicked off the morning session before we went to our pods to talk and work through written exercises. As we worked on these exercises, the coaches would take time to speak to participants on a one-on-one basis.
The first order of business was determining a “dream” to work on for the weekend, an ideal vision in which a particular bad trait was overcome to achieve certain goals. It could be related to a specific area like your career, romantic life, or money issues.
For this weekend, I decided to focus on effective time management. Following the method of “dream writing,” I wrote a paragraph in the present tense, imagining myself as someone who addresses my (many) anxieties and goes to bed with a completed to-do list. But according to my pod coach, Dunn, I shouldn’t have even used the word “address,” since it comes across as panicked and uptight.
After thinking about it and talking it through with Dunn and my group, I decided that my dream regarding time management was to live in a state where I eased my way through schedules so that I had the chance to maximise my chances for connecting with loved ones and new professional contacts.
Then it was time to find out why we haven’t yet made our dream a reality. In the Handel Method, there are three kinds of excuses that people use to explain not meeting their goals:
• The Weather Report: You failed because something was out of your control. Think: “I’m sorry I’m late, but the storm hit during my commute.”
• The Chicken: You didn’t do something because the fear of failure seemed scarier than suffering the consequences of not doing it.
• The Brat: Things turned out to be more difficult than you expected, and that’s not fair. Throwing a tantrum seems preferable to actually putting forth effort.
An excuse I wrote down was, “I don’t have the ability to do this to the best of my ability right now.” It’s an excuse I’ve used to justify procrastination in just about every aspect of my life, from work to friendships (it’s a “bratty weather report”).
So instead of being a brat, I’m going to recognise when that excuse runs through my head and immediately counter with, “Getting just one step done is valuable.”
Your counter-excuses will probably be things that are simple and that you’ve known all along. You only need to put forth some effort to quiet the voice that has become routine. And make sure your counter-excuse isn’t self-bullying, Gerber and Dunn warned. Telling yourself to “get over it,” for example, is dismissive of what you’re actually thinking and feeling, and thus setting you up to throw in the towel.
The point of the entire exercise was to break down lies we tell ourselves.
At the end of the day, we were given a homework assignment of having a moderately difficult conversation with someone, clearing up a lie that we had told. Since I was in a situation where I felt compelled to participate, I went ahead with the cathartic conversation, and I don’t think I would have done so for a long time had I not had that push.
On the second day, we determined a single negative trait to focus our energy on, coming up with an adjective and noun that captures it. We did this as a way to confront the worst parts of ourselves that we had been ignoring or justifying in some way.
Everyone had fun thinking of creative ways to characterise the worst aspects of themselves, coming up with titles like “righteous critic” and “dramatic victim.”
I have to say, I think my coach Dunn did a surprisingly accurate read on me from the relatively little she actually knew about me. I wrote down that I was an “anxious judge,” and she replaced the second word with “controller,” which I actually like better.
I talked it through with Dunn in front of the group and then followed up with her one-on-one afterward.
I explained how there have been times in my life where I’ve either performed with utter responsibility and carefulness, and other times where I’ve been completely dismissive and reckless. Our conversation made me realise that I tend to equate the path to success with an adrenaline rush, as if something is only good if it was the product of an intense struggle. I tend to create obstacles if the road to accomplishment appears too clear and simple. Of course, that’s not a sustainable or even healthy approach.
Dunn suggested that I try to switch over to a “chilled engager,” a phrase that got everyone laughing but came with a real strategy. I will always need to feel like I’m in control, but I also need to build trust with myself and not make plans that I know I can’t keep.
“The feeling of being overwhelmed comes when there’s no trust in your plan,” Dunn told me, saying that it’s something she’s dealt with herself.
To get us to stop telling lies that hold us back, we each came up with promises to ourselves that we would keep, with accompanying consequences to hold us to them.
One of mine was “I will finish my planned work by 6 p.m.” so that I can work more efficiently. I need to skip an end-of-day beer or glass of wine anytime I break that, and a drink is so much better after a day that’s gone on long past 6…
After all the writing, listening, and conversations, I left feeling good.
There were a couple of small things I wasn’t sold on completely — the brief mentions of New Age-sounding spirituality or the furthest extent of how much your traits are a reaction to those of your parents — but I experienced enough to conclude that it was valuable training.
When coaching works, you are not “learning” anything, but rather compelled to confront something you’ve always known but ignored.
After taking two days to reflect on myself and listen to what smart and talented people are going through, I realised that, to put it simply, I don’t need to be making my life so hard. And that little bit of insight has been empowering.