Steve Norman, of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan, provides a strengths-based approach to life coaching for men in recovery. He teaches them more effective ways to communicate and to be personally accountable while helping to identify the life skills that have worked for them in the past and find ways to apply those skills to current situations. Norman sat down to discuss his work as a Life Coach with Randy Flood, psychotherapist and Director of the Men’s Resource Center, for this Revealing Men podcast. Following are excerpts from that conversation.
The Blame Game
Norman: Communication needs to start with accountability. “These are my feelings. They aren’t caused by you. They’re not your fault. You’re not to blame for them.” …People think they’re making a real solid statement when they say “I feel,” but this is a particular case of a statement that blames. “I feel like you…” is a simile and it usually involves an indictment or a blame on the other person.
On the other hand, a statement that would facilitate or help relationships is a statement [such as], “when you come home 30 minutes after we talked about, I feel frustrated.” So, you describe the other’s behavior. You don’t judge it, blame it, indict the other person. And then you say your own feeling response; how you felt in relation to that behavior. And that gets around the aggression, gets to more what we’d call an assertive communication model.
Flood: Men are oftentimes socialized to dominate in a conversation or take charge and show that they’re knowledgeable, and so I’m wondering what that’s like … have you any experience with trying to “sell” your approach — if you will — to a guy who’s maybe not seeing that as a proper way of talking; you know, establishing position or control.
Norman: Sure. That’s a very difficult transition for anybody because it’s a paradigm shift. If you’re in one paradigm – the aggressive paradigm – it’s really almost impossible to see, to operate in the other paradigm. So the initial steps have to be based on trust: trusting the coach that “here’s some steps to take to do it different,” and then, after it takes hold, the person will start emerging into the new paradigm.
Norman: I think one good point to make is that when we talk about feelings that doesn’t mean a person has to tell everybody about their feelings. What it means is a person has to know what their feelings are. So, in a business environment I wouldn’t probably tell my boss “I feel afraid,” or I feel this, or I feel that. But I might say, “you’ve put me in this new role and I feel concerned about how things might look for me in this new position.”
Flood: I think these skills you’re talking about would be essential to thrive and be fit in this new economy and business world.
Norman: Absolutely. Aggressive communication doesn’t work anywhere.
Flood: There’s this attribution where it’s like, “if I’m feeling feelings that I don’t want to feel then it’s like ’who do I blame?’” I think that your ideas about this tendency or propensity to blame someone for how I’m feeling rather than to take it inside and say “what’s going on inside of me?” That must be an important part of what you have to teach. How you stop someone from this long-term relationship with dependence on blaming.
Norman: No doubt. I think that the key, working with somebody, is not to blame them.
Flood: You’re not to blame for how you blame others!
Norman: Exactly. That’s a real trap. So, I think the key is education. The coach will say, “here’s some techniques,” “here’s some sentence structures.” Look at the grammar and syntax of a sentence, of proven models, that would help a person communicate assertively and not aggressively. And so, we’re taking it off the person that we’re coaching and saying, “here’s an educational piece. Look at these parts. See if they apply to you. Maybe use them. Maybe not.”
An Explanation of Life Coaching
Flood: When I grew up, coaching meant you’re coaching a sport, coaching basketball or something like that – where now it’s like this new nomenclature that’s different. It’s different than counseling, different than psychotherapy. Can you say a little bit about this field of coaching, how it’s different, and how it could be attractive to someone.
Norman: Absolutely. I heard somebody say that psychotherapy is dealing with trauma, so coaching is not that. …Coaching is teaching skills or passing along skills. We’re not psychoanalyzing, we’re not trying to dig up your past, we’re not looking for patterns, we’re looking for strengths. You know, “Look, what has worked for you in the past?” Most of us have had difficulties in our life or challenges at one time or another. So, whatever a person comes to me with in their communication, I’m going to look at what’s worked for them in the past. What are their strengths? That’s an important aspect for coaching.
Flood: If I have a guy that’s listening right now. He might be thinking, “I don’t need a life coach!” You know, it’s like “A real man’s a rugged individualist. They kind of take things on their own; a self-made man.” So, there’s this idea that getting coaching for your golf swing or getting coaching in basketball is kind of in that masculine realm and we can take that coaching. But I’m wondering if you have men who might be resistant to this idea of a life coach.
Norman: I think a lot of people are. If you look at Tiger Woods for example or other top athletes. They have a swing coach —they have like, how many coaches do they have? — their athletic coach, their thought coach. It’s widely accepted if you want to be a world-class winner, you have coaches, a variety of coaches. A person just has to make that mental transition and… allow themselves to come into an environment where they feel vulnerable, feel a little nervous, but yet what we call “intellectual trust,” intellectually they understand it and they’re willing to take the step.
Relationships and Recovery
Flood: Are there people that could benefit from coaching if they’re struggling with something more specific?
Norman: Yea. Life coaching is a big umbrella obviously so it implies a lot of things. Specifically, my focus is on helping people develop relationship skills by looking at communication models. And that also includes working with people in recovery.
Flood: I would imagine someone who has a history of addiction, that’s usually a lot of losses in relationships, a lot of broken relationships, a lot of conflict because of the addiction and the consequences of it. So, I would imagine a lot of repair needs to be done so these kinds of communication skills could be quite helpful in that journey.
Norman: When you talk to people in recovery or take even a cursory survey of that population, you’re going to find a lot of people who feel really isolated in life, they feel alone, separate, different. And, of course, a lot of this goes back to what you’ll commonly see as this aggressive communication style of keeping their feelings hidden.
And when I say “keeping them hidden,” I think most times they’re not aware of how they’re doing that. It’s like an automatic function. …And, so it takes a little bit to work with that, where the person actually recognizes “oh, there’s a feeling.” Finding those feelings is not so much all of a sudden that person says “oh I feel happy or I feel joy. … It’s a person learning to recognize what behaviors, what things are the red flags or the green flags or whatever for the underlining feelings. … This doesn’t have to be something a person is going to necessarily share with somebody but it gives them an understanding of what their motive is when they’re communicating with somebody.
Acknowledging Fear and Anger
Flood: Is it unmanly to admit that you have fear or is there something empowering about acknowledging a feeling of fear?
Norman: I guess we all can recognize—in parts of our culture—that fear is considered unmanly. …So, a person may be in the habit of exhibiting or experiencing anger when underneath is “I feel afraid.” And that could be a very vulnerable, off-putting feeling to have. With a coach, it’s a safe place to have that feeling and to talk about and explore it.
Flood: I think the person who’s trying to convince himself they have no fear is probably, in my estimation, is probably drowning in fear. And it gets converted. They’re not aware that they have the fear. It gets converted into anger or toughness.
Norman: Absolutely. And that’s the kind of thing in coaching we can look at i.e., what’s the kind of evidence-based and some of the reasons how these things manifest. So, we can take a look at them and kind of step outside of ourselves and say “Oh yeah, I am doing that,” or “I do have that behavior,” “I do have that experience,” and “Oh, this is kind of what might be behind it,” and just start kind of chipping away at prying that loose so we can become more accountable.
Assertive and Aggressive Communication
Flood: The traditional man-box says that we’re supposed to be independent and men don’t need relationships. But I hear you saying that these communication skills could help build relationships.
Norman: As far as the man-box, all I say is “how’s that working for ya?” It’s probably not. It doesn’t work. People around you … I mean you can see where these behaviors are present because there’s conflict. The person who has those behaviors has conflicted relationships. …and there just seems to be a tone of blame and resentment. Or they maybe get quiet. Quietly suffering. Or they may even be passive at it. But they’re not happy. … A person has to come to the point where they say “This isn’t working.” And there’s no way around that. You have to come to a point where you say “This isn’t working for me. I’m going to try something different.”
Flood: We’ve been talking about more the aggressive/dominant type of style of communicating but you know there’s all different flavors of men. And so, even on the other side of that spectrum is what I call “the nice-guys-syndrome.” And I think that these guys might be afraid of conflict and have a level of passivity and just try to be smiley and accommodating. It’s not so much unlearning aggressive types of communication but you’re probably having to teach that person to figure out how to embrace conflict, see it as part of the human experience, and how to navigate that. And empower them and coach them in that area.
Norman: Outwardly, there’s a big difference if you see somebody who’s passive and somebody who’s aggressive. But it boils down to the same thing: it’s assertiveness. The person who’s aggressive appears very assertive because they’re dominant. But they’re not telling us how they feel. And if you’re not telling us how you feel, you’re not saying who you are. You’re not assertive by the definition I understand. So, this person who’s aggressive is not assertive. And so the person that’s more passive or quieter, it’s the same boat. Either way, each can benefit from the same teaching; the same skills-based teaching.
Improving Relationships and Life
Flood: I think that at the end of the day or at the end of our life we tend to reflect and what’s really important is the life we live and the relationships we have and so not so much what our golf game was or how big our business was. Those are things to be proud of but this idea of having a life coach and having someone who can help improve your relationships and help improve your life is a good thing.
Norman: Yea, there’s absolutely nothing to lose. One tool for making a decision is a cost-benefit analysis. What are the costs of not changing? What are the benefits of not changing? Versus what are the costs of calling a life coach and what are the potential benefits? I don’t think there’s anything in the negative column as far as a loss. It’s just a matter of taking a step.
Considering a Life Coach?
Listen to the entire Revealing Men podcast with Steve Norman for more information about life coaching and his approach. If you’re ready to take the next step or are looking for information about counseling, coaching, and consultative services, please explore the Men’s Resource Center site. Also, feel free to contact us at the Men’s Resource Center if you have any questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast.