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.
Think back to your early childhood. What was your favourite story? What was the plot? How did it begin, what happened in the middle and how did it end? Which character did you most identify with? Can you see themes and patterns from the story reflected in your own life?
Some psychologists believe childhood stories can act as life scripts. It’s as if there is something in a favourite story that resonates with the child’s experience and expectations to date which then becomes formative in how the child experiences and approaches their own life.
It may be a story from a book. It could equally be a story in a song, or perhaps the real story happening around the child, the observations, interpretations and early sense they make of what they notice in people and situations as they experience them.
The child subconsciously acts out the script, with the script functioning like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ask a person, ‘what keeps happening to you?’ and they can often identify and articulate repeating patterns, as if trapped in recurring cycles of experience.
‘I keep falling into the same kind of relationships.’ ‘ ‘No matter what I do, I end up on my own.’ ‘Whatever happens, I always land on my feet.’ ‘I always achieve what I want in the end.’ ‘I often get rescued by others.’ ‘People always betray me.’
I find this hypothesis intriguing. I’m curious about it because I’m interested in the stories we construct retrospectively of our own lives, the way we join dots between what we perceive as significant events or experiences to create our own coherent life story.
How far is our life story created by our own expectations? How far do our expectations shape how we experience people, relationships, objects and events? How do our expectations focus or limit what we notice, what we don’t notice and the meanings we attribute?
In transactional analysis, coaches and therapists may help a client to surface their life script with a view to evaluate it and, if they wish, to change it in order to experience greater freedom and autonomy as the client approaches the future.
I’m not sure its possible or desirable to live a script-free life. It’s often our hopes and expectations that draw us forward, inspire us, energise us with the courage we need to face fresh challenges. Nevertheless, I do like the idea of increasing awareness and choice.
So, what’s your story?
Who am I? From a social constructionist perspective, it's a difficult question to answer.
In fact, it’s problematic to say anything meaningful about an essential ‘me’ without thinking about myself, how I am, within a particular context. After all, we never exist in an existential or experiential vacuum. Perhaps it’s a bit like 'figure' and 'ground' in Gestalt: I am who I am against a backdrop of culture, experience etc. and, of course, God. So, if the context changes, who I am
So again, who am I? Lots of things, partly depending on my ego state at the time. The notion of ego state has been developed in transactional analysis (TA) as a way of understanding how we are in relation to ourselves and others. It suggests we are in constantly shifting psychological states which influence how we are, feel, perceive and behave towards others and, therefore, what we correspondingly evoke in and experience of them.
You may have heard of TA’s parent/adult/child model. Sometimes I relate to another person a bit like a nurturing or, alternatively, punitive parent, at another time I may relate to the same person as an equal (‘adult’), at another time I might relate to them as a playful or mischievous child etc. How I relate to the other evokes a response in them, potentially shifting their ego state too and
creating all sorts of interesting dynamics between us.
I was asked recently which ego state I like most, which feels most like the ‘real’ me. It’s a great question and it begs all sorts of other interesting questions, e.g. what does a real me actually mean? How can I know which is the real me? I can prefer to be in certain ego states at certain times but what influences that preference, i.e. why do I prefer to be in it rather than in another state?
It’s quite possible that in any given moment, one 'me' would like to hold a sensible adult-adult conversation, another 'me' might simultaneously reject that and prefer to be more playful, like a free & cheeky child, another 'me' may frown on my own behaviour like a critical parent...all at the same time. This is one reason why social constuctionists challenge the notion of a single, unified
Perhaps we are more fragmented, inconsistent, potentially self-contradictory and conflicted then we normally feel aware of or comfortable with. It’s challenging to think of ourselves in this way, to imagine the boundaries between our selves and our contexts being less firm, less fixed, more permeable, than we normally assume. It’s challenging to think of ourselves, the person we are, as fluid, shifting, evolving...what do you think?
I find the notion of shifting ego states very compelling. It certainly resonates with my own personal experience. I’ve often thought, it only takes a moment to change the whole world. Here I am one moment feeling low, fragile, anxious, under-confident then, unexpectedly, someone smiles warmly and reassuringly and – hey – the whole world instantly brightens. It’s like the blazing sunshine appearing suddenly from behind a dark cloud.
We have a postcard on the kitchen wall at home with an expression in German, Jeder Moment ist ein neuer Anfang, every moment is a new beginning. Sometimes new beginnings are of our own making, we make a new decision, take a new course of action, choose to see things differently. Other times it feels like new beginnings happen to us, as if caught unawares and finding ourselves propelled by inner feelings or outer circumstances.
A social worker friend of mine in Germany would sometimes say, ‘Es ist eine Frage der Wahrnehmung’, it’s a question of perception. Our perspective changes as we shift between ego states. It’s a phrase borrowed from transactional analysis – how one minute we can feel clear, adult, in the present but in another moment can feel and behave more like parental figures from our past, or how we felt and behaved as a child.
I remember one occasion when I was feeling very tired and stressed at work, but trying to push on ahead anyway. I met with a senior leader and could see a look of surprise and concern on his face as we spoke. It took me by surprise too. I hadn’t been aware of how I was feeling, how defensively I was responding, until I saw his expression. It felt like looking into a mirror, seeing an inverted reflection of myself, a moment of raised awareness.
We can regress into experiences and patterns of responding from our past. We find ourselves feeling off-balance, acting out of character, sometimes surprised by our own reactions. I’m curious about how this happens, what triggers it, how to be aware of it happening in the moment, how to shift back consciously into adult state when it does happen. It’s an ongoing challenge and yet a great opportunity for personal growth.