I had precautionary tests this week for a potentially life-threatening condition. Thankfully, the results turned out to be OK but it’s experiences like this that often bring existential issues into sharp relief. Existential coaching focuses on helping a person explore his or her own sense of ‘being in the world’, that strange psychic awareness that we are in the world before what we are in the world. At times, such awareness can feel mysterious, unfathomable, disorientating and anxiety-provoking. It’s like one of those moments when, as a child, I gazed up into the night sky, saw the stars and the enormity of space, imagined space and time going on forever and felt dizzy and perplexed by it. It can also raise deep questions to the surface such as, ‘Who am I?’ and 'Why am I here?’
According to existentialist thought, our essence as a person isn’t fixed but we become who we are through the choices we make. Our choices are influenced by factors such as the assumptions, beliefs, judgements, hopes and fears etc. we hold about ourselves, the same we hold about others and how we experience and act in our relationships with others, in our everyday circumstances and in the decisions we face and make. Existentialist writers sometimes refer to this as our ‘stance in the world’, that is, how we perceive, position ourselves and act in our everyday lives. Our stance both reflects something of our sense of and our way of being in the world and shapes who we are and become in the world. I can share a personal example to illustrate this phenomenon.
When my youngest daughter was 7 years old, I took her to a theme park that had a very high and steep ‘death slide’. I was surprised and impressed to see her quietly but resolutely psyche herself up to leap down its harrowing slope. When she finally did do it, I asked her how she managed to bring herself to push herself off its terrifying edge. She responded in a way that humbled and amazed me: ‘Firstly, when you told me it would be OK, I trusted you that it would be OK, even though it looked so scary. Secondly, when I write about what we did today in my diary tonight, I want to be able to write that I went on the slide even though I was afraid of it, not that I didn’t go on the slide because I was afraid of it. That’s the kind of person I want to be.’ I felt awe-struck and speechless.
Curiously, we are often unaware of making choices, or deny to ourselves that we are making choices in order to avoid the responsibility that choice implies, and unaware of the underlying metaphysical world view we hold that both influences and is influenced by our choices. It’s as if we can live at a superficial level, sometimes choose to live at that level as a form of self defence or life-coping mechanism. The problem is that if we only live at that level, we may fail to be who we can become in the world; deny ourselves and others a deeper and more fulfilling life experience; struggle with contact in intimate relationships; expend our time, energy and resources on distractions that aim to suppress or avoid facing the discomfort and anxiety that existential issues can evoke.
One of the goals of existential coaching is therefore to raise world view and choice into awareness in order enable clients to live more authentic lives. It’s about enabling clients to acknowledge and deal with underlying anxiety, tensions and conflicts that could be experienced symptomatically in psychological, emotional, physical or relational difficulties or in problematic patterns of behaviour. Duerzen summarises this approach in Skills in Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy (2011) as, ‘to help people to get better at facing up to difficulties with courage instead of running away from them’. It necessarily involves a willingness to explore issues beneath the surface, a willingness to face anxiety and a willingness to explore alternative ways of being and acting in the world.
This reminds me of a volunteer assignment I did with a Christian social worker and psychologist in Germany not long after the Berlin wall came down and East and West were reunified. We were working in a social work project with young people, often from fairly poor and dysfunctional family backgrounds, who were being seduced by the far right to join new neo-Nazi groups. The groups provided these young people with a much-needed sense of identity, belonging and purpose in the world. As part of his practice, the social worker would touch sensitively on spiritual issues and questions where it seemed appropriate. A secular humanistic colleague challenged him vehemently on this, insisting that social workers should never stray into the spirituality arena.
The social worker empathised with his colleague’s concerns about professional ethics and the risks of pressurising and indoctrinating vulnerable young people. At the same time, he believed that true spirituality speaks to life’s deepest questions, experiences and actions. The social worker responded, ‘These young people often talk in therapy about their deepest fears, about life and death, issues that are very real for them. It’s often such fears that lead them to seek a sense of identity, security and purpose in these sinister groups. We cannot afford to separate our thinking or our practice into neat, distinct, spheres of influence. The matters we and they are dealing with bring profound psychosocial, existential and spiritual issues face to face in the room.’ I agree.
So what could existential coaching look like in practice? Firstly, the coach will invite the client to share their story, particularly focusing on issues that led them to work with a coach in the first place. The coach’s role at this stage is primarily to listen and, over time, to reflect back any beliefs and values that surface implicitly or explicitly in the client’s account, particularly in terms of how the client perceives themselves, others, issues and their situation. In this sense, the coach is acting as a sounding board and a mirror, enabling the client to grow in awareness of his or own world view. The coach will go on to focus on specific tensions that may emerge, e.g. between the client’s underlying beliefs and values and the stances or actions they are choosing in practice.
The intention here is to surface the client’s underlying personal and cultural metaphysic rather than simply his or her way of perceiving and responding to an immediate issue. This approach is based on a belief that the client’s general world view or stance-in-the-world will influence e.g. what issues the client perceives as significant; how they perceive, experience and evaluate them; what their subjective needs and aspirations are; what approaches and actions they will consider valid or appropriate; what actions they will be prepared to commit to and sustain etc. This approach also enables the client to explore any tensions within their world view, between that world view and those of others in their situation and between their world view and their actions.
The problem with the language of ‘world view’ in describing such an approach is that that it sounds too conscious, too cognitive, too coherent. The focus of existential coaching is profoundly subjective and phenomenological, that is, how the client actually experiences and responds to his or her being-in-the-world at the deepest psychological levels. In that sense, it’s as much about how a person feels, the questions they struggle with and what they sense intuitively as what they may think or believe rationally. Again, there are important links for me with a spiritual dimension. As I faced my own health-related tests this week, for instance, I experienced my faith in God as something more like a subconscious, mysterious, inner ‘knowing’ than a rational assent to a set of beliefs.
As the coaching conversation progresses, the coach may help the client identify choices he or she is making (including by default), potential choices he or she could take in the future and how to integrate the client’s choices with his or her chosen being and stance in the world in order to live a more authentic and thereby less conflicted life. At one level, this enables the client to become more aware of and honest about their decisions and actions and to act with a greater sense of freedom and responsibility. At another level, it opens up more opportunities for the future than the client may have perceived previously. It can feel very liberating and energising to discover fresh ways of perceiving and acting in situations that have previously felt stuck or entrapping.
Sample coaching methods could involve helping the client reframe experiences as choices or to change their language from passive to active voice. For example, ‘I have to write this report for my boss by Friday’ or ‘This report needs to be written by Friday’ sound and feel less empowering than, ‘I will choose to write this report for my boss by Friday’. It enables the client to take ownership of their choices and to weigh up alternative courses of action. After all, if it’s a choice, I can choose differently, although I will need to weigh up the relative pros and cons of different choices. My best choices are congruent with my underlying beliefs and values, e.g. in this case, respect for authority, the sense of a job well done or a desire to keep my job so I can pay my bills.
The coach is likely to help the client connect their choices with their underlying world view. One way to approach this is to use the ‘7 whys’ technique whereby each time the client explains why they are choosing a certain course of action, the coach responds with, ‘…and why is that important to you?’ until the client’s deepest values, aspirations and anxieties surface. I will end this piece by posing some brief existential questions for personal reflection: Who am I? What personal stance do I want to take in the world? How do I handle contradiction, ambiguity, uncertainty and paradox? What is most important to me? What is God or this situation calling for from me? How consistent are my choices with my values? How well do my actions reflect the person I aspire to be?
It was minus 7 so I got up early to scrape ice off the car windows. The journey to the train station that followed felt like torture. I got stuck behind a JCB for 10 miles with nowhere to pass. It reached a peak of 20mph and I kept glancing at the clock anxiously. Was I going to make it? I could feel the frustration like a tight knot in my stomach. Every passing moment felt like slow motion. I kept looking ahead, hoping for a clear stretch to overtake. It took forever. When I finally did get past, I felt like waving an angry gesture at the JCB driver. ‘How could you be such a *£%!&$* pain?!’
I left the car and jogged the final 10 minutes to the station. According to the clock, I’d missed the train but adrenaline spurred me on. On arrival, breathless, I discovered the train was running late. I caught it, stepped on board just as it pulled into the station. I sighed with great relief. Yet what a waste of nervous energy. The pressure I put myself under not to miss the train. The imagined exaggerated consequences if I were to arrive late. The risk of dangerous driving in icy conditions. My ungracious attitude towards the JBC driver. The life draining stress of an impatient journey.
How much of my life I live under self-imposed pressure. The deadlines I create for myself. The expectations I place on myself. The determination to arrive on time, never to be late. The avoidance of risks that could lead to a mistake. The drive to do everything perfectly. The unwillingness to let a ball drop. The desire always to do well, never to fail. Such pressures can drive me inwards, close me down, cause me to lose contact with God, lose contact with people. It leaves me tired, stressed, anxious, irritable, frustrated and self-centric. It’s not the kind of person I want to be.
I can almost hear God whispering to me, ‘Stop…look...listen...look up and around you…breathe…’ It’s about regaining perspective, keeping the most important things in view. Not losing sight of the people, the things, the issues, the actions that matter most. It’s about loosening my grip, learning to prioritise, learning to negotiate, increasing flexibility. I know these things in my head, I practice them in my work, but the experience this morning has flashed into consciousness with renewed energy and vision. It’s something about learning to live, to love and to know peace.
Critical reflexivity…hmm…what’s that? Sounds complicated. I was re-reading one of my favourite books, An Invitation to Social Construction (2009) by Kenneth Gergen this morning which introduces this concept with the following explanation:
‘Critical reflectivity is the attempt to place one’s premises into question, to suspend the ‘obvious’, to listen to alternative framings of reality and to grapple with the comparative outcomes of multiple standpoints…this means an unrelenting concern with the blinding potential of the ‘taken for granted’…we must be prepared to doubt everything we have accepted as real, true, right, necessary or essential’.
I find this interesting, stimulating and exciting. It’s about journeying into not-knowing, entertaining the possibility that there could be very different ways of perceiving, framing and experiencing issues or phenomena. It’s about a radical openness to fresh possibilities, new horizons, hitherto unimaginable ideas. It’s a recognition that all assumptions and preconceptions about reality could be limiting or flawed.
I’ve found this critical reflexivity principle invaluable in my coaching and OD practice. How often people and organisations get stuck, trapped, by fixed ways of seeing and approaching things. The same cultural influences that provide stability can blind us to alternative possibilities. The gift of the coach or consultant is to loosen the ground, release energy and insight, create fresh options for being and action.
It certainly resonates with my reading of the gospels. Jesus Christ had a way of confronting the worldviews, traditions and apparent ‘common sense’ outlook of those he encountered in such a way that often evoked confusion, anger or frustration. It’s as if he could perceive things others couldn’t see. He had a way of reframing things that it left people feeling disorientated. He operated in a very different paradigm.
This is one point at which spirituality meets philosophy and psychology. I too get easily trapped in my own constructs so I pray to God to open my eyes, to reveal new insights and unrecognised opportunities. Jesus’ words speak to me with renewed impact. He came ‘to proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set captives free.’ It’s about fresh awareness, deep liberation and a renewed life.
People sometimes become stuck and struggle to find ways forward in their work and relationships because of how they perceive and respond to people and situations. I ran a workshop recently to help managers develop insights and skills in cognitive behavioural coaching (CBC). CBC is based on cognitive behavioural psychology. It is interested in how a person’s thinking influences his or her feelings and behaviour. It aims to improve a person’s effectiveness by reducing stress and opening fresh possibilities for the future.
Cognitive refers to mental processes: what we are thinking and what we believe.
Behaviour refers to what we do: how we act in relationships and other situations.
Coaching refers to helping a person enhance their life quality and effectiveness.
CBC aims to help a person surface, examine and challenge limiting or self-defeating thoughts and beliefs. It is not just about positive thinking but more about reality-orientation. It focuses on what’s happening ‘here and now’ and on helping the person approach the future differently. A CB coach invites a person to talk about an issue, a challenge or something they are experiencing. Often, it is something that is causing the person frustration or stress. Sometimes, however, it could be simply that a person feels limited by a way of working or is struggling to find a way forward.
In order for the person to be honest, the coach needs to demonstrate genuine interest and trustworthiness. The person needs to feel free to be open, without being judged, and to know the coach has the person’s best interests at heart. Listening and confidentiality are very important. If the person is feeling anxious, stressed or highly emotionally-charged, it’s unlikely that he or she will feel able to engage in a conversation about thinking patterns without calming down first. Creating the right cathartic space, perhaps over a coffee, can help the person relax and engage.
A CB coach will allow a person to introduce an issue or situation he or she is dealing with and listen out for indicators of ‘cognitive distortions’, that is, ways in which the person is thinking about the issue or situation that are out of synch with reality or proving counterproductive. Common examples include polarising issues into extremes; over-generalising from specific experiences and ignoring all evidence to the contrary; predicting the future and excluding all alternative possibilities; assuming what other people are thinking or feeling; anticipating the worst possible outcomes.
The coach will draw attention to these thinking patterns, invite the person to examine them, and offer supportive challenges that help the person think in new ways (e.g. ‘what assumptions are you making?’, ‘how far is what you’re thinking supported by the facts?’, ‘what are you not noticing?’). Finally, the coach will help the person plan a way forward to deal with the issue or situation differently. This could involve e.g. conversation, vividly imagining new scenarios or role playing to practise and reinforce new ways of thinking and behaving.
I watched Inception late last night and woke thinking about the power of imagination. This hi-tech film plays dramatically with the idea of manipulating dreams. Dreams are one way of experiencing our image-ination at work, quite literally by experiencing images that appear, within the dream, as reality. Ordinarily on waking, we feel able to differentiate what we perceive and experience as ‘actual reality’ from what we perceive and experience within a dream state as ‘apparent reality’.
I want to propose however that our perception and experience of reality while we are awake are, similarly, mediated by imagination. I want to challenge the notion of our ability to perceive and experience ‘actual reality’, as if we are in some objective sense able to perceive and experience reality as it is, reality per se. I want to suggest that our imagination acts as the interface between our selves and reality, that is, we perceive and experience reality as filtered and projected by our imagination.
The distinction between dream state and wake state may not be as clear and definitive as we normally assume. What does it really mean to be awake? Does awake mean to be fully conscious, to be fully aware of what is happening in and around us, to be able to take deliberate decisions and actions? This begs further questions that are difficult to answer. For example, what does it really mean to be conscious? What does it really mean to be fully aware? How do we know what’s really driving our decisions?
An example. I once had a dream in which I discovered my brother was having an affair with my girlfriend. It was a powerful and painful emotional experience and, even when I woke and realised it was only a dream, it still affected how I felt about and behaved towards my brother the next day. It’s possible that what we experience in dreams, in this case emotional insecurity, could reveal something of what we are experiencing in the current awake state, yet which lies out of our consciousness.
The notion that we are not conscious of some aspects of what we are experiencing challenges the notion of awake-ness as ‘fully aware’. If we think about our ordinary day-to-day experience, we can see how we are only ever selectively aware. For example, as you read this blog entry, notice how you have tuned out of other things happening within and around you, e.g. things you were thinking about previously, how you are sitting, your breathing, sounds outside of the room.
This ability to selectively perceive, to filter out stimuli that would otherwise be distracting or in totality overwhelming, is the same ability that enables us to focus, to concentrate. What we choose to focus or concentrate on links to interesting questions of motivation. In the present moment, what is motivating me to focus on A rather than B or C, why am I more interested in X rather than Y or Z? We’re sometimes aware of what is motivating us, sometimes we simply don’t know.
According to psychodynamic theory, we can be motivated to move towards or away from experiences by unconscious or subconscious forces that lie outside of our awareness. Sometimes it may be an intuitive gut instinct, a learned response that we somehow experience physiologically yet find it difficult to understand, rationalise or explain. I believe sometimes it could be a spiritual intuition, a knowing from outside ourselves that feels mysterious yet compelling, a revelation from God.
The psychodynamic tradition proposes that our subconscious memory draws connections between what we experience in the now and what we have experienced in the past. We perceive and experience each new person, relationship, situation etc. through the filter of what we have experienced previously and what meaning we have derived from or attributed to it. We encounter objective reality subjectively, that is, we never really perceive or experience people and things fully for what they are but always, to some degree, as distorted by what we project onto them.
This is a great example of the power of imagination. Picture for a moment holding a projector on your shoulder each time you meet a new person. The encounter evokes subconscious memories and emotions within that you automatically project, like an image, onto that person. What you then experience of the person is a product of the actual person, the actual encounter, combined with metaphorical ‘images’ and feelings you project onto them, resulting from previous encounters with other people.
By way of illustration, I once met a co-leader of a study group for the first time. I found myself relating to him warmly, confidently and humorously, and, after a while, noticed that he looked a bit bemused by this. I realised on reflection that there was something about how he looked, talked and behaved that reminded me of a very close friend. It was as if I had projected an ‘image’ of my friend onto this stranger and then, subconsciously, perceived and related to him as if he was that friend.
Social constructionist theory proposes that what we notice, how we perceive the world (e.g. how we categorise things), what images we hold of it, what sense we make of ‘reality’ and the meanings we attribute to it are created through interactions with others. In other words, our perception and experience of reality are socially and culturally constructed. We use language to reveal our maps (or images) of the world within and around us and, in doing so, shape and reinforce those things with others.
In this tradition, to be aware means to be conscious, as far as it is possible, of the various influences that shape our beliefs, our assumptions, our worldview and to be open to other possibilities, other ways of perceiving and experiencing reality. According to this tradition, reality is perception; that is, our experience of reality is inescapably governed by what we imagine it to be, how we have learned to perceive and experience it, how we shape it by the way we think and talk about it.
The psychodynamic and social constructionist traditions combined lead to a conclusion that human perception and experience of ‘actual reality’ is mediated by memory, imagination and interactions with others. We never fully experience reality in an objective sense, for what it is, but as a curious mix of what’s in here, what’s out there and what value and meaning we superimpose onto it. At best we perceive reality in terms that the New Testament describes as, ‘a poor reflection’.
This is consistent, I think, with Kant’s (paraphrased) reflections on spirituality: ‘God reveals himself objectively but we experience him subjectively’. It’s as if God reaches into our human constructs, shaping, challenging and reframing them to reveal a glimpse of himself in terms we can grasp. Our images of God are nevertheless created and constrained by the limits of human language, culture, experience and imagination.
In light of this, we do well to approach God and all aspects of reality and truth with humility and an openness to fresh challenge and possibility.