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Developing Good Habits

Hello, everybody, welcome to a new series of blogs and videos called 'The Coaching Conversation' presented by me, Graham Whiley. I've been coaching business leaders for the last two decades and in this series, we're going to explore some of the things I've seen and learnt in that two decades, that will hopefully help you see how you can become more focused, more effective, and happier in your life.

So, it's now time to sit back, relax and enjoy The Coaching Conversation.



GRAHAM: This is the coaching conversation and I'm joined today by Mat Hayes. Mat, please, before we get going, tell us a bit about yourself.

MAT: I'm an enterprise agile coach; working with executives coaching them. I've had all sorts of roles from program writing to working as a CTA. What I find most interesting is changing culture, which is how I got into coaching in the first place. I’ve worked with start-ups and also larger organisations in the financial industry and such. So, that's me.

GRAHAM: You talked about change there, and obviously coaching is all about helping people to change. One of the things we want to talk about today is habits, which are clearly things that are difficult to change because they become habitual. In your experience Mat, when you're coaching people, how do you identify that they've got a habit they need to give some thought to, or perhaps adapt. What do you see when they turn up?

MAT: Often they don't notice they've got a habit. There’s just some poor behaviour - and probably they haven't noticed that either. They notice that what's going on around them, isn't congruent with what they would like to have happened. They may have some self-awareness that they are causing it, or they may not. As you spend time talking, you can start to ask the questions about what impact does is that having on their situation and they can then start to make a decision - Is it something about them? Is it something that they need to react to differently? Usually, it's about seeing the world that you want to see.

GRAHAM: There’s a lot of neurosciences around habits, habit-forming and changing. Are you familiar with that?

MAT: I am. I think we all have our own habits. What I notice is how easy it is to notice bad ones and how hard it is to form new, positive ones. It feels like you have a vision - let's say I would like to lose weight - that seems like a straightforward thing to do - but obviously, there are lots of things going on that stop you. So, habit-forming allows you to create some constructive, short things to get towards a vision, and then by building these up, you can basically affect positive change - which may be a new habit to swap out an old one.

GRAHAM: The science that I've read about, and been taught around, is that the neuropathways in the brain build up over decades through your life. Obviously, they have been born out of the origins of ‘fight or flight’. Therefore, if you're going to adopt new habits, you need to create new neural pathways. That means, exactly as you just said, that you've got to do things differently, and by doing things differently, you teach your brain to do things differently - to react to life differently. These little steps that you were talking about, are the way you are reprogramming your brain to react to life and to create these new neural pathways and ultimately these new habits.

In your coaching experience - when you've been one-to-one with clients with a need to develop new habits - how have you helped them with that?

MAT: At the start, the first thing is to identify what it is they want to achieve. I think the simplest thing to do is pick something small that works towards it - maybe that's about just simply identifying a negative behaviour and catching it, or maybe it's something more fundamental, but you then end up helping them identify this trigger-point so that they are able to make a different decision.

What I then coach around is 'let's say you could catch that now - what is it you'd like to do?' I help them explore different opportunities, maybe something smaller, maybe it's something big depending on what they think they could do; and then it's basically about repetition. So, once they've done something, the hard part is if it's not a positive experience for them, it's about helping them get back on the horse.

Maybe it's because the behaviour that they've picked is probably a bit too strong for them. If we imagine A kind of a gym, for example, and they pick up two heavyweights to start with, but if they were to get used to picking up smaller weights, then gradually they can grow that, the reward is probably not as quick, but like getting into the habit of doing something, that is contributing to where they want to go.

GRAHAM: That’s interesting. It brought to mind an example of one of my clients; he was very comfortable - his habits made him very comfortable in not being particularly open and vulnerable and not being particularly user-friendly. So, he used the authority of his position to get stuff done rather than make people participate and engage. Clearly, that's a self-limiting aspect in career development – it is going to mean he's not going to get as far as he wants to go - and actually encouraging him to take the risk of not being like that - So in a meeting actually asking people if they'd like a cup of coffee and then going and getting it for them - seems like a small thing, but for him was a big thing.

Clearly, as he was starting to do it, he was getting the reaction from other people; What's happened to him. Why is he behaving differently? And you can go further with these examples with him as a case, but he persevered through it, and it did take him, I guess, nearly two months before people began to recognise what he was trying to do, and to welcome it, and embrace it, and give him a chance. But he did have to push through it - as you said - it was a tough weight he was picking up; a heavier weight than perhaps most people thought he was going to.

So that was an example from my experience - Mat what's happened for you, have you got an example?

MAT: Yes, I've got a personal example, and I've also used this with lots of other people; I was working in an environment where I couldn't scale myself. I had the feeling that I was doing too much because when I would step back, things wouldn't happen and I was introduced to a tool to help balance collaboration. The first part of that tool is understanding what are you observing? And the second part is what is your reaction in response to it?

And this is a habit-forming process because when I mapped out the different types of interventions and interactions I would have, they were often me organising the group. There are other ways to deal with that - let them organise themselves, give them enough motivation to help themselves or to do something different, or maybe they are just lacking in information. So the first part is observing something and catching that - that was a really small step - and rather than saying, I'm going to go in and fix it, I would then go and explore what I could find out about the situation. From that point, I was then able to make a decision about what kind of support or what kind of intervention, if any, I would need.

What I find when I worked with leaders is that they don’t notice that they're acting in a command-and-control way - that they are trying to organise everything. Then they're wondering why things don't add up when they're not around, sometimes it's about the lack of information, but their judgment could be that these aren't good enough, they couldn't do it without me.

Often when that habit of intervening is so regular, the team feel 'what's the point because you're going to do it anyway’. So, the first habit is observing it. The second habit is do I need to react the usual way? Or can I react differently? Then gradually the reward starts to come because there's a real amount of space now. If I'm not intervening and I'm starting to trust the right things are happening, the team can start to grow.

In my example, I was able to take on more - take on other roles, do some other stuff, form a new company in another part of the world. None of that would've been possible if I'd stayed with my initial habit of controlling people who aren't showing up.

It's really interesting how many ways good and bad habits can break and be reformed.

GRAHAM: Thanks for that Mat and thanks for coming to this edition of The Coaching Conversation and I look forward to seeing you here again soon.


So, there you have it, the next edition of The Coaching Conversation. I hope you found it interesting. I hope you found it useful. You can find out more about our coaching programmes at

If you want to reach out you can send me an email at you can book a free 30-minute coaching session at which will give you a really good feel for how coaching can help you. Thanks, Graham Whiley


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