If You Have a Brain, You’re Biased
We all have biases, and they have a way of popping up and derailing situations. A bias is a powerful belief or a preconceived opinion about something or someone. A bias can be for or against an idea, an ideology, a behavior, a culture, or even ourselves.
As our brain developed, it designed techniques to help us stay alive. In fact, survival is the primary function of our brain. We navigate life with all its external inputs and data points of information. Our brains learn to filter out what is dangerous from what is safe.
Our brains are hypervigilant, observing any differences that might be dangerous. Our brains manage all the external information we receive at any given moment by sorting, generalizing, selectively focusing on, distorting and/or exaggerating what seems relevant to notice.
We create biases all the time. When a bias gets activated, we start deciding right from wrong, good from bad, what’s possible and what isn’t. When someone does or says something that disagrees with a powerful “belief” (bias), it can feel threatening.
Bias in Action
It is imperative that we are aware of our biases. Bias can take us out of the coaching role without us even noticing. For example, I have a bias about manipulation. I intensely dislike emotional manipulation. So, if my client shows up for the session and shares a situation that centers on how they are feeling manipulated, then my client’s issue just tripped my bias. If I am not paying attention, or I’m unconscious to my bias, I may leave the coaching role and find myself digging into the details of what happened. I could start asking leading questions or catch myself “giving expert advice” on how to protect against manipulation, emotional or otherwise.
If a client says something that we disagree with, we may leave the coaching role in another way; we may form an agenda about what the client needs to “learn.” This takes us out of the coaching role because we are no longer a completely connected observer of the situation. We’ve jumped the rails and inserted our bias into the space. When we don’t maintain complete curiosity, we tend toward judging, directing, and “fixing.” If I don’t acknowledge to my client that my bias got triggered by saying something like “Please take my perspective with a grain of salt, I’m biased here,” then I am not being transparent, and this undermines trust and intimacy.
By far one of the most prevalent biases I see is a negative sense of self. Recently I was working with a client who arrived at our session wanting to address her procrastination around writing her book. As we looked below the surface of her behavior, she stated, “I am really scared.” I asked, “What scares you?” She responded with, “What if everyone hates my book?” I stayed curious, “And, what if they do?” She looked shocked, “Well, I would die.” We started laughing. Deep in her brain, she believes she might die. When we muddled through some more, logically she knew death wasn’t possible, yet it still felt that way. It was the classic, “I don’t think I am good enough” bias.
The deeply held, internal narrative that says, “I am not good enough,” is a bias against ourselves. Our brain looks for every example that confirms this bias as true. If our brain thinks people “not liking” our writing equals “death,” it’s going to find a way to stop us from taking that action. As a coach, when we notice a possible bias, it’s an opportunity to get curious with our client. What is at risk if they don’t choose to explore a deeply woven bias, especially one that is in the way of their forward motion?
Tips for Recognizing our own bias and the biases of our clients include:
- Notice negative reactions. These often indicate a bias was tripped
- Question imbalanced perspectives. All positive is as unbalanced as all negative
- Be alert for when you feel like digging your heels in or your body tenses up
- Listen for exaggerated language such as “everyone, always and never”
- Challenge unrealistic expectations. “Shoulda, woulda, coulda” are indicators you bumped into preference bias.
Having a bias isn’t a bad thing; it’s just a thing. Biases color our view of the world and run the spectrum from protective to problematic. Awareness is key to what end of the spectrum we find ourselves. Because I am aware of my emotional manipulation bias, it allows for transparency, and I can consciously manage myself as coach. I don’t need to save my client, they’re capable of that themselves. Getting curious and noticing our biases, calling them out, well, that’s the trick to living with them.