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  • Writer's pictureLucy Qian

Play at your best: shifting out of protection mode

Note: The details of the coaching examples provided in this blog are composites based on real situations. Some names may have been altered to respect the confidentiality of my clients.


What does it look like when you are at your best? What do you think and feel when you are really yourself? What do you observe yourself feeling, thinking, and doing when you are at your worst? We all experience two categories of modes: learning mode and protection mode. The more aware we are as to when we are in one of the modes, the better we understand and manage ourselves.

Last month, my colleague and I delivered a workshop to a group of leaders in the China branch of a large international company and facilitated those leaders in exploring their best self at work and in life. Part of that involves identifying what causes one to enter protection mode and prevent them from being at their best self. Everyone from that workshop not only have better understood themselves but also shifted their thinking to allow them to live more authentically going forward. Seeing the impact that it had on that group of leaders, I decided to write a post specifically around the learning mode and protection mode. Hopefully you will also reflect on your own self.

When we are in learning mode, we play to win. We put our best self forward with little fear. We are curious and open-minded. Even though there are difficulties, we tend to see them as opportunities. We place our attention on what we have instead of what we don’t and make most out of our strengths. When we are playing at our best, we are fully immersed in the current moment, losing track of time (refer to the psychological concept of “flow”). We tend to remember the moment of learning mode very well, because it creates positive experiences in us. Take myself for example, I still remember one of my best moments that happened seven years ago. I was delivering a training workshop on coaching skills to a group of sales managers. I remember vividly that I shared several examples of coaching with a big sense of humor. I never considered myself humorous, but at that time, I carefully observed the group’s energy, adjusted my prepared stories accordingly, and followed what was coming to my mind. I am usually shy in front of groups, but in that moment, I enjoyed myself so much that the feeling of shyness didn’t even occur to me. Do you recall your best learning mode? What were you feeling and thinking? What difference did you make when you were in learning mode?

Opposite to learning mode, when we are in protection mode, we play to not lose. We have many fears, such as fears of failure, losing control, being disliked, being not good enough, etc. Driven by fears, we tend to display behaviors that are not our normal self. We may withdraw from the situation, thinking small. We may also pretend that we know more and are better. Either way, we disconnect with who we really are and let our emotions take control. A coaching client shared her experience in protection mode:” In a work meeting, some of my peers tend to speak a lot. It feels like they have a bigger role and that their topic is more important, although we are equal in our ranking. When they take most of the airtime in the meeting, I tend to be quiet, thinking that my topic isn’t worth mentioning in the meeting. Afterwards, I always beat myself up for not speaking up.” Through our coaching sessions, that client manages to shift out of her protection mode and is now able to play to her strength in those times. However, the first step to shift out of protection mode is self-awareness.

To be self-aware in this context we must notice the signals that tell us that we are in protection mode. For those who pay attention to their body, they can notice when they have negative emotions. The most common signals I hear from my clients are feelings of tightness in the stomach, shoulders, and throat. For example, one client said when he feels pressure from his boss, he usually has some discomfort in stomach that further drives him to withdraw from conversations with his boss. Knowing his signals allows him to pause and tell himself that things will be fine however hard it looks. The pause makes him feel calm and apply rational thinking. With that he returns to learning mode where he can ask questions to understand what exactly his boss needs from him.

Sensing what’s happening in our body is not the only way to be self-aware. Another approach is to develop a better understanding of our emotions and what usually triggers them. Our emotional triggers can be a particular person, situation, places, words, memories, etc. Knowing what triggers your negative emotions will allow you to be able to take preventative actions so that you don’t fall into protection mode. A client notices that her boss seems to be dismissive when discussing work topics she brings up. She feels hurt every time her boss says “ok, let’s move on” after hearing her report. It feels as if her work is not interesting to her boss. Consequently, she subconsciously avoids meeting her boss. If she has to attend a meeting, she tries to speak as little as needed. Through exploration in a coaching session, she realized that her boss actually habitually does the same behavior to all his team members, when he has a busy day. But she has been making it all about herself rather than about her boss. Taking it personally caused her to distant herself from her boss, which was not helpful to her and their relationship. In this example, her emotional trigger is her boss’ seemingly dismissive words “ok, let’s move on.” Knowing that it could well trigger her into protection mode, my client can mentally prepare herself for each meeting with her boss. In the moment when that trigger comes up, she can tell herself that it’s not about her, which keeps her in learning mode.

By now you probably have realized that learning mode vs protection mode is a highly subjective concept. It’s up to each individual to decide which mode they are in and want to be. What’s really important is that you become self-aware when you are in protection mode and develop your own approach to shift out of it so that you can perform at your best.

What are your signals of learning mode / protection mode? What works best for you to shift from protection mode to learning mode? Feel free to share your thoughts.

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