Friday, May 11, 2007

When Trading Coaches Fail - Part Two: Stages of Change

In my last post, I mentioned the relapse problem as a major challenge for any coaching efforts. As several readers astutely pointed out, skill development and the acquisition of expertise are a function of practice. That same practice effect pertains to personal change as well. Repetition cements all learning.

There is, however, another major barrier to change that helps to account for situations in which coaching does not work. Coaches, counselors, and therapists tend to approach their work with a limited toolkit of methods to create change. In applying this restricted set of methods, they fail to recognize that the people they work with may be at very different points in the change process.

Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente, in their extensive research on the stages of psychological change, have found that individuals differ greatly in their readiness for change.

At the stage of precontemplation, traders are unaware of a problem and may even be in denial--much like the substance user who does not acknowledge signs of addiction. This trader may blame outside forces for problems or refuse to face problems altogether. Such traders rarely seek coaching on their own, but may be referred by their trading firms or may be nudged into help by spouses and concerned others. For this reason, the person in precontemplation does not usually have a strong motivation to change. The role of the psychologist is to help the person explore actions and consequences and move toward contemplation of change.

In the contemplation stage, there is a mixed motivation for change. The prospect of change raises a "yes, but" response. For example, I know I should exercise, but I have so little time during the day; I know my marriage isn't working, but I don't want to raise the kids myself; etc. Change, for the person in contemplation, is overwhelming, creating an internal tug of war. The psychologist's job in this stage is to help the trader develop more limited, doable, non-threatening goals that can serve as a focus for action.

Some traders enter coaching already in the next, action stage. They know they have a problem, and they are ready to work on it. They've experienced consequences from this problem and no longer want to continue acting out their old patterns. Those traders are ready for psychological techniques that facilitate focused change, such as cognitive restructuring methods or solution-focused techniques.

As mentioned in the previous article, however, initiating change is only one part of the coaching process. In the final, maintenance phase of change, traders work on holding onto those gains, rehearsing them, and making them automatic. The goal is to prevent relapse. Here, too, the role of the psychologist shifts dramatically. Instead of introducing new change methods, the coach helps the trader identify new opportunities for extending developed skills and provides copious feedback about those change efforts.

Coaches with limited repertoires (and sometimes very limited training) will equate coaching with the third, action phase of change. They come to the coaching relationship like a cavalry riding to the rescue, armed with action-oriented techniques for change. The problem is that not all traders are ready for change. If a coach tries to impose action methods on a trader in a contemplation mode, for instance, that trader will seem unmotivated and resistant to change. The problem, however, is not really one of motivation. Rather, the trader needs an exploratory process to help them develop viable goals and become ready for action. Many people drop out of their meetings with coaches and counselors because they are simply not ready for what their helper is offering: they don't feel heard or understood.

Equally problematic, the limited coach will initiate change efforts for traders, but won't have in place structured methods for preventing relapse. Ignoring the maintenance phase, the change they create is temporary; it is never truly internalized as part of an ongoing repertoire. This is a problem even with very experienced psychologists. Research shows that the outcomes of counseling and therapy are typically much better at the end of the helping process than six months or a year later. Too often, the emphasis is on generating change--not maintaining it.

A routine goal of my first meeting with a trader is to assess his or her readiness for change. If that readiness is low (precontemplation or contemplation stage), I will work in an exploratory mode to help that person see problems that might be there and begin to think through limited goals to start some action. Conversely, if the trader is in action mode, I am happy to bring out the toolkit of behavioral, cognitive, biofeedback, self-hypnosis, and solution-focused methods to work on targeted change. When a trader has already made meaningful changes, my role is to highlight these, find out how they occurred, and then extend this process to new facets of performance to reduce relapse.

In coaching as in clothes, one size does not fit all. It is important for traders to know where they stand in terms of readiness for change and find the right activities to help them move to the next phase.


Five Principles of Trading Psychology