Physical Tension as a Metaphor for Behavioral Change

I believe one of my assets is to think metaphorically.  As a teacher, I was able to utilize this asset to explain complicated concepts to students.  Sometimes, I used a case or an illustration to amplify a concept. For example, when I was explaining balance theory as a psychological concept, I would tap into student knowledge about supply and demand from economics or homeostasis from biology.  So, when one of my coaching clients analyzed my approach to coaching from an engineering perspective, my ears perked up, and I asked him to write this blog post with me.  Our goal is to explain how to create change. Our hope is that by relating engineering principles to behavioral change, we will add some clarity and understanding of how coaching works.

Ray Mercer, president of Aurubis Buffalo, a copper and brass manufacturing company in Buffalo, New York, summarized my coaching as a process.  He characterized my coaching as the creation of clarity about a situation, developing the case of what needed to change, followed by creation of tension for change, and further followed by energy dedicated to making the change. He pointed out to me that nothing works in our physical reality without tension.  I had never thought about this, so I asked him to elaborate.  Here is what he wrote.

As an electrical engineer, I know that to get current to overcome resistance and flow, I need a “potential difference,” called voltage.  In layman’s terms, this is literally electric tension.  My mechanical engineering friends would offer more examples.  In hydraulics, we need a pressure difference for fluid to flow.  In heat transfer, we need to create a temperature difference for heat energy to flow.  And the simplest of all, when we compress a spring, we create tension, and we get an opposite reaction.  We use this tension to close a door or get a pen to retract.  The list goes on and on. Engineers implicitly understand that in order to get a desired action, you first need to create a form of tension.  It is the basis of how nature works and a fundamental element in almost every mathematical equation that describes this natural behavior.

Ray further commented on the quality of tension.

In our industry, we have pressure-pour molten copper casting furnaces.  The technician needs to supply exactly the right amount of pressure (tension).  Too little, and the molten metal freezes in the spout, and the operation fails, leaving a mess to deal with.  Too much pressure, and the casting mold can overflow and potentially cause an explosion in the worst case and a mess in the best case.  Good pressure or tension control is essential to get the desired result.

The above example provides an excellent metaphor for behavioral change. In coaching, constructive tension is created with the intention of reaching a positive outcome.  Too little tension will lessen the motivation to change.  Too much tension can be debilitating and lead to behaviors that will potentially sabotage desired change.   Negative tension in coaching can also create problems.  Such is the case when a person in authority is forceful in demanding change.  This not only creates negative tension but displaces tension toward the wrong objective, the person creating the tension.

I will use Ray’s examples to help people understand my coaching process.  And I will continue to identify the tension between what coachees aspire to and their current state in order to move them closer to their goal.  It helps to have examples from other fields that amplify and explain how coaching works to create change.

1 thought on “Physical Tension as a Metaphor for Behavioral Change

  1. Good illustration Alan on tension. I understand it better, that tension comes in various forms of resistance, back pressure etc., the byproduct of which is energy……that is then used in creating a desired result. Thanks for sharing!

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