Although only one person in 500 is receiving treatment for a delusional disorder at any time, the rest of us are much more susceptible to bizarre and irrational beliefs than we like to admit. A recent study asking people about 17 delusional beliefs (for example: Do you ever feel there is a conspiracy against you? Do you feel you have been chosen by God in some way? Do you ever think that people can communicate telepathically?) found that over 90% of people held one of these beliefs weakly and 39% held at least one strongly.
Psychologists talk of cognitive biases to explain how we create and cling on to irrational beliefs. Desirability bias describes how we are drawn towards beliefs that boost our self-esteem. Conformation bias encourages us to ignore evidence that contradicts such beliefs and accept only evidence that supports it. (Remember Florence Foster Jenkins, the American heiress with an irrational belief in her prowess as an opera singer?) Clustering bias describes how we tend to see non-existent patterns in unconnected events.
Any or all of these processes may be at work, if the coachee or mentee holds beliefs that are, to an observer, manifestly irrational. (Unless, of course, it is the observer, who holds the irrational belief!) So, what is the role and responsibility of the coach or mentor when they observe an irrational belief in the coachee or mentee?
A pragmatic, safe and person-centred response for the coach or mentor
The first thing to be aware of is that the term delusional is normally reserved for specific clinical conditions. If the person believes, for example, that they are the Messiah, or that they have been abducted by aliens, or that a film star they have never met is deeply in love with them, this is beyond the scope of coaching or mentoring. Your responsibility is to seek professional guidance on how to help them acquire the specialist help they need. You should not continue with the coaching or mentoring relationship in such circumstances.
If the bizarre belief is not extreme, then ask yourself:
- Does this belief have a negative impact on their ability to achieve the goals they have brought to the coaching/ mentoring relationship?
- Does it have a negative impact on their ability to perform their job role?
- Will it have a negative impact on the coaching/mentoring relationship and conversation? (For example, do they keep turning the conversation to an agenda aimed at convincing you to join them in their belief?)
If the answer is no, then you should:
- Acknowledge their perspective, without endorsing or contradicting it
- Contract with them to park the issue as interesting but irrelevant to what you aim to achieve together
For example, having a belief in the power of reflexology would be regarded as irrational by anyone taking a genuinely evidence-based approach, but is sufficiently common and harmless enough that confronting it would have no benefit to the person or to the coaching/ mentoring conversation. (Unless their belief prevented them seeking proper medical help for life-threatening condition.) Similarly, disbelief in climate change might be considered irrational, but is not likely to be relevant in the context of coaching and mentoring, unless, for example, it results in a significant clash between their values and those of their employer organization.
If their beliefs clash severely with your values, you should consider whether you can still be effective as a coach or mentor. If you choose to withdraw, you should ensure that all the key stakeholders (especially the coachee/mentee and any sponsor) are aware why.
If the answer is yes, then confronting their beliefs head on is unlikely to be effective. It may even drive them to become even more resistant to contradiction. What’s needed now is a way to open them up to alternative perspectives. A simple way to do that is to say something like: “That’s a very black and white statement. But we all know nothing is ever so simple. When is it most true and when is it less true?”
Other useful questions gradually to open up thinking include:
- If other people don’t see it your way, what do you think they are seeing that you don’t?
- If you assume other people have your best interests at heart when they see things differently, what can you learn from that?
- How do you decide what evidence you will include and exclude when you think about this?
- What was it that first made you believe this might be true?
- What reinforced it for you?
- If you were being sceptical, what questions might you have asked yourself at that time?
- Which of your core values are in play here?
- How does this belief relate to your deepest fears and your deepest hopes?
The key here appears to be that the coach or mentor should adopt an approach of genuine curiosity towards how the coachee or mentee has come by and sustains their belief. If the person recognises that they are being listened to, they are more likely to consider rationally alternative information and views – reciprocating the spirit of open enquiry.
© David Clutterbuck, 2017
 As reported in: Jones, D (2017) Delusional you, New Scientist, 18 November, p 40-43