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?
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.
Heidegger's philosophy of experience strikes a chord for me. The sense of feeling ‘called’ in the moment to act or respond in a certain way expresses well what I often experience in my coaching practice. At times, I feel an almost irresistible desire and energy to act in certain way and moment. It feels intuitive, a knowing-beyond-knowing, a calling forth from beyond myself.
I believe that such insights often emerge phenomenologically from tacit knowledge, subconscious or bodily knowledge gained through years of life and work experience, a rationally unprocessed form of knowledge that emerges as intuition. I’m interested in how this correlates with my Christian beliefs about the activity of God’s Spirit and, in particular, spiritual discernment.
My interpretation of my experience, the meaning I attribute to it, is that God sometimes reveals insight that feels intuitive and prompts action in the moment that can prove profoundly transformational. It’s not something I can make happen. It’s a deeply mysterious belief and conviction and, when I experience it personally, a purely psychological explanation feels inadequate.
A challenge in coaching is how to navigate 'spiritual' conversations about existence, identity and meaning without taking clients into places they don’t want to go. It's something about acting ethically and authentically, contracting and negotiating the depth and scope of the coaching agenda openly without imposing or manipulating a client to accept my own metaphysical beliefs.
Heidegger's philosophy also resonates with social constructionism and, in particular, the relationship between language and meaning. After one coaching session, my supervisor observed how often I reflected back to the client specific words they had used, prompting further exploration to uncover the meaning such words held for the client and her own cultural environment.
During a subsequent coaching training programme, one of the participants commented to me in private how angry and frustrated she felt that some people in the group were bringing high levels of emotional content into the room, using the course for therapeutic purposes, and how inappropriate she felt this was. “This isn’t coaching!”, she complained.
I responded that different people in the group seemed to have positioned themselves differently along a consultant-coach-therapist continuum. I felt an underlying desire to persuade her to acknowledge her own subjectivity; e.g. to reframe, “This isn’t coaching” to, “That isn’t how I think of coaching” or, “That isn’t where I would draw the boundaries between coaching and therapy.”
In doing so, I was seeking to challenge and convince her to share my own constructionist outlook. It made me wonder how far my coaching practice is influenced by a desire to persuade people that a constructionist outlook is a more ‘true’ or honest way of perceiving and articulating their experience, rather than simply enabling them to explore within their own frame of reference.
The important issue then is how to bring challenge of potential benefit to the client in what Transactional Analysis describes as Adult-Adult rather than Parent-Child mode. In order to avoid hidden agendas, I need to check I am clear about my own intentions beforehand and pose my insights or perspectives along the lines of, “This is how I see it...how do you see it?” as an invitation to explore.
He's a philosopher, psychologist, social worker and friend. On this occasion, Rudi as mentor posed a question to me. 'What does it mean to a tree to die?' It was summer in South Germany and I was about to go for a walk in the nearby woods. Rudi is a deep thinker, a profoundly spiritual man who poses socratic questions as a way of provoking insight, so I took his question seriously.
As I walked through the trees, I thought about consciousness and meaning. The trees don't possess consciousness, therefore it makes no sense to ask what it means to a tree to live, or die. So I returned and reported back to him. He was gardening and looked up at me, trowel in hand. 'Did you find the answer?' I replied confidently, 'Yes, the answer is nothing.'
I could see by the look on his face, in his eyes, that I was missing something. He responded simply, 'Are you sure?' I returned to the woods a second time and thought further. What was it I was missing? Perhaps he thought I was being too certain, too confident in how I replied. I returned and tried to sound more open minded, more tentative. 'Probably nothing?' He gave me that same look.
Now I felt confused, frustrated. I walked back up the hill into the woodland and this time tried to imagine, see and perceive through fresh eyes. In doing so, I somehow became aware of how limited my awareness, knowledge, thinking and experience is and returned feeling humbled. I spoke more thoughtfully this time. 'I don't know.' Rudi smiled at me. 'Now you have found the beginning of wisdom.'
We make so many assumptions about life, reality, truth, God, ourselves, others etc, arrogant assumptions based on limited perspective, understanding and experience. A tree does't have consciousness in the way we understand it, it doesn't cry out when chopped down, it doesn't act in the same way as we might and so we conclude it doesn't experience living or dying in a way that is meaningful for it.
How can we really know that? How can we really know how a tree experiences 'being in the world'? What if a tree has a form of awareness that is alien and unknown to us? It's not just about trees, it's about holding our presuppositions, ideas and constructs lightly. It's about delving deeply into our not-knowing. It's about rediscovering wonder, curiosity, possibility, imagination.
At this point, Rudi introduced me to Plato's Cave. 'In this story, Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality.
He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.' (Wiki)
This conversation, encounter, experience has always stayed with me. I can still see Rudi kneeling in his garden with trowel in hand, posing his questions patiently and with conviction, provoking insight. He prompted a seeking, a journey akin to the agnostic's quest in Mark Vernon's After Atheism.
It reminded me that things are now always as they seem, that reality and truth can be so much more intriguing, complex, fascinating and bewildering than we tend to assume, that God does reveal and touch us but that we should beware of imposing our human constructs and limitations onto him, that to approach life with open mind and heart can be a truly enriching adventure.