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  • Writer's pictureBelinda M

Normative Momentum

Did you know that our brain is set to focus on fixing problems vs building capacity? What this means is that we are wired to focus on what is missing vs what we have. This is our fight or flight mechanism – being alert for danger/problems. Coaching is about focussing on what is working and our strengths. This takes WORK and ATTENTION. It isn’t yet natural for most of us. My recent moving experience was a perfect opportunity to consciously practise focussing on what is working vs letting my brain follow its old neural pathways and get caught up in what is wrong! I am continuing to learn about the Positive Change Construct and Normative Momentum.

Normative Momentum – what is it and how does it relate to me?

“Why are strengths hard?” Neuroscientists have been heard to say “I don’t know” (just like quantum physicists). We tend to focus on fixing problems vs building strengths.

Here is a story that my friend Diana told me nearly 20 years ago. Given I have been dressing up for Spring Racing Carnival (including the world famous Melbourne Cup) here in Victoria – hats, fascinators, heels, dresses, handbags (and horses of course!) – I thought you would appreciate this as many women (and men) can identify:

You have just purchased a beautiful new pair of shoes. They make your legs look long; your calves look toned, your ankles delicate. The colour compliments your skin and outfit. The style is perfect for this season’s trends. You can walk elegantly in them and you feel like a million dollars.

So off you go to lunch with your gal pals, all eight of them. Seven of your friends comment on your new shoes – how they match your bag, look spectacular, suit your style, and make you look fabulous. They were impressed by the brand and also by the good price you paid (yes, they did ask!). Yet, one of the women doesn’t say anything to you about your new shoes.

What do you focus on for the rest of the luncheon? Do you focus on the seven women who commented positively on your new purchase, or do you focus on the one woman who said nothing? For many of us it is the one woman who said nothing!

Again and again in coaching conversations I’m asked by my clients “WHY?”

“Why do I focus on the negative, on what is not working?”

“Why after a performance review to I remember my development needs vs my strengths, and what I do well?”

Given I’m a coach and don’t have answers (I have questions), I let my clients know I, too, have thoughts like this, and they are not alone. Now, thanks to some research and sharing by my clients with me, I have learned about the concept of Normative Momentum. Basically it explains why it is so hard to focus on strengths/positive and we tend to focus on gaps/what’s missing/negative. It is our brain’s wiring – the way we have evolved over eons… we are wired to focus on fixing problems (threat response) so it takes far more effort to build capacity (focus on strengths). Dr Fry’s diagram below explains:

I have a set of VIA Strengths Cards with both At our Best and When Thwarted elements clearly worded. As I studied these cards I noticed that most of the group and myself would identify with the When Thwarted. It seems easier, less effort, to identify when we are not at our best, when our strengths are thwarted.

So for a strengths based approach to work it takes EFFORT. What neuroscientists call Attention Density – creating the new neural pathways so the old ones can self prune (remember, if you don’t use it you lose it).

Coaching sessions are a place and time where the coachee can purposefully focus on strengths and begin to build the new neural pathways and reinforce them.


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