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Bridging the Gap: The power of psychological distance

Check out Rebecca Hamilton’s excellent article in this month’s Harvard Business Review on the topic of ‘psychological distance’. Based on 12 years of academic research, she argues that effective leaders achieve their goals more frequently because they understand how to shift from ‘big picture’ thinking to concrete thinking in areas such as negotiation, time management, sales and talent development. When leaders go ‘big picture’ they increase the psychological distance in their thinking and when they engage ‘concrete’ thinking they shrink it.

Let’s take the example of a time management challenge. Ian and I have recently been asked to present a two day master class in challenging coaching in Slovakia this autumn. At the ‘big picture’ level, I am excited about this opportunity because Slovakia is a country I have not visited before and I love to engage coaches with the themes from our work. However, if I was to shrink the psychological distance in this situation to make it more concrete then I would have to imagine that I was delivering the master class next week and this focusses me on the practical logistics of the challenge; preparation time, airport logistics, other immediate priorities, etc. As Rebecca Hamilton states, when psychological distance is large we tend to focus upon the desirability of the outcome, yet when psychological distance is small we confront the feasibility of the plan.

Psychological distance comes in four varieties:-

psychological distance

The earlier example involves the shortening of temporal distance, whereas if I were negotiating then I would shrink social distance by putting myself in the other person’s shoes. In spatial distance, I shrink this by imagining that my client in the Far East is sat here in my office complaining about my service. With experiential distance, I shrink this by moving from the design stage of a project to the actual implementation.

As coaches we can help leaders by using this idea to ask specific questions that either shrink or enlarge the relevant type of distance. For example, here are some questions that would trigger such a shift:-

  • ‘If you had to do this tomorrow, what would you think?’ (shrinks temporal distance)
  • ‘If you were in the other person’s shoes, how would you feel? (shrinks social distance)
  • ‘Imagine you’re looking at this issue from 10,000 feet, how might that change your perspective?’ (enlarges spatial distance)
  • ‘That’s a great action you took. Now what is the 5 year vision this could be part of?’ (enlarges experiential distance)

Furthermore, it turns out that substituting one type of psychological distance for another can also have a powerful effect on our thinking. Maybe the most obvious example of this is when leaders enlarge social distance by placing themselves in an office on a specific floor of a building (spatial distance). Similarly, those who are struggling to get a task done (temporal distance) could schedule a review meeting with a colleague and use this shrinking of social distance to trigger action. Again, for a coach there are some interesting implications of this approach for asking powerful questions:-

  • ‘I can see how you are struggling to achieve this task. Who might be able to help you? (substitutes social for temporal distance)
  • ‘This looks like a complicated idea. How about you give it a few days, sleep on it and see what you think?’ (substitutes temporal distance for experiential distance)
  • ‘You know that flight you are going on next week. I think that would be a good time to work on the feasibility of this idea’ (substitutes experiential distance for spatial and temporal distance)

I am intrigued by this work of Rebecca Hamilton’s work and I have a hunch that there are many powerful implications of it for practising coaches, as well as leaders. So now all I need to do is sleep on it, take it on a journey with me and discuss it with others. By then I will either have integrated this approach seamlessly into my coaching work or I will have forgotten about it altogether! Let’s see if writing about the idea (shrinking the experiential distance) has been a good start in making it stick.

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