Cognitive Dissonance and Coaching

When we consider what actions to take we can visualise the implications. The result of our action is like dropping a pebble into a pond and watching the ripples radiate outwards. There are unstoppable consequences in every direction. However, we sometimes metaphorically drop a pebble and walk away choosing not to watch the ripples.  It is as if we detach ourselves from the outcome of our actions. The concept of cognitive dissonance can explain why we choose to act and deny consequences. We all experience cognitive dissonance, so how does it play out in your coaching?

Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of stress that is experienced when someone holds a belief and performs a contradictory action. For example, an individual is likely to experience dissonance if they are addicted to smoking but continue to smoke even when they know it seriously damages their health.

Leon Festinger is credited with developing the notion of cognitive dissonance in the 1950s. When cognitive dissonance is present the individual will try to reduce the feeling of stress in the following ways:

  • Change behaviour, such as quitting smoking.
  • Justify behavior or thoughts by changing the conflict “It’s OK to smoke every once in a while.”
  • Justify behavior or cognition by adding new thoughts “I won’t smoke tomorrow.”
  • Ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs “It’ll never happen to me, I’m always healthy, smoking won’t affect me.”

Cognitive dissonance picture for blog

The first of these strategies is effective, but the other three are forms of denial and avoidance. These strategies for reducing cognitive dissonance are evident especially when contemplating the systemic implications of our actions. With the system we bring into play the wider perspectives, the connectivity with other stakeholders, and the long-term impact. However, as time and distance increases from our action our belief in the certainty of the outcome reduces. Definite effects become the probable impacts and then possible consequences. Because of this we can experience cognitive dissonance, and deny or avoid the consequences saying, “Oh it will be OK, that will never happen.” However, as we have seen with corporate failures and scandals, economic crisis and environmental damage, these things do happen.

So if we feel cognitive dissonance in ourselves, or with our coachees, we can speak our truth and highlight the contradiction. If the response comes “You’re talking about 5 years from now, a lot can happen in that time, there are too many variables”, then we could respond “What if it did happen, how would you feel knowing you had seen it coming?” As coaches we might experience cognitive dissonance by saying to ourselves, “It is too early to challenge my coachee, I’ll do it at the next session.”

The first strategy to resolve cognitive dissonance is to change behaviour to eliminate the contradiction. However, this takes courage and determination to change habits, and to move against the status quo. With support and challenge this change is possible.

Have you experienced cognitive dissonance with your coachees, what is your approach? Post your thoughts on the Challenging Coaching LinkedIn Group.

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