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Overcoming apprehension and self-doubt

A recent piece of research by Peter Zunick (reported in the BPS Research Digest by Alex Fradera) looked at how people could overcome something that they were apprehensive about, such as public speaking. The study stated that people with low self-belief are liable to hold onto negative assumptions about their own ability and a technique known as ‘directed abstraction’ can help reframe their thoughts.

Some people doubt themselves, even when they have every reason to believe in their abilities. In the face of a clear success, these individuals do not recognise the existence of an underlying ability or skill. Peter Zunick, et al stated that people with overall positive self-views readily accept success feedback but discount failure, whereas people with overall negative self-views are quick to accept failure feedback but discount success. These people are not able to take the success in one specific situation and generalise this to their wider world.

Take the example of someone apprehensive about public speaking. Even after delivering a successful presentation and after receiving positive feedback, they may still feel apprehensive about future presentations.


In a series of 4 experiments by Peter Zunick and colleagues, the participants were subjected to directed abstraction, such as “explain why you were able to achieve such a successful performance”, by being asked to complete a sentence beginning with “I was able to achieve a successful performance because I am…” This was compared to a control group who were asked, “You received a score of 50 in this test. Describe how you completed this test. What did you do?” You can sense the difference in the questions asked. The ‘how’ question is very specific and descriptive, focusing on the task. For the other group, there was clearly a directive question, encouraging them to focus on their personal qualities that enabled success, this allowed them to generalise and abstract their thinking into their wider world.

One of the experiments in this study, with people assessed as having low belief in their public speaking skills, asked each person to prepare and then deliver a presentation to camera on a familiar topic. The video was played back to the person, and they were given positive reassuring feedback implying that they had done well. Half the group received directed abstraction, and so asked, “explain why you were able to achieve such a successful performance. Begin by completing the sentence below. ‘I was able to achieve a successful performance because I am…'”

Following this, participants were asked to make another more demanding presentation. It was found that participants who had received the directed abstraction now felt more positive about public speaking. Through the directed abstraction they were able to internalise their ability and generalise this to new and even more demanding situations.

This is an interesting approach for coaches in a number of ways. Firstly, we are often asked to avoid the ‘why’ question. However, in this situation, “why were you successful in this task…” enabled the person to internalise and learn, as opposed to a ‘how’ question that is simply descriptive. Secondly, this emphasises the impact of the choice of words we use when coaching. A simple change of wording in our questions to coachees can have a significant impact. Thirdly, and most importantly, this is an interesting questioning technique when working with a coachee who is struggling to build on successful events and grow their self-belief.

The research goes on to say that there are limitations to the use of directed abstraction. There must be evidence of success and some personal ability, and also, it would not be appropriate to convince people they are good at something if that conclusion is unjustified!

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