I was once invited by a coaching supervisor to depict a live piece of work with a client. I focused on a forthcoming assignment in Asia and drew a diagram representing the different people involved, the relationships between them and the explicit and implicit agendas. I drew a solid line between myself and the key client representing ‘strategy’ (explicit agenda) and a dotted line representing my underlying expertise in ‘psychological dynamics’ (implicit agenda).
She challenged me to re-draw my dotted line as a solid line, to do it and not simply to imagine how I might feel if I was to do it. This proved to be a profound and pivotal moment for me in grasping Gestalt. As I picked up the pen and drew the line, I felt a sudden, powerful and unexpected surge of confidence arise within me. It convinced me to approach the contract with the client in more confident, proactive mode and to raise my implicit value to the explicit level.
In a later coaching session, I worked with a client who explained she felt stressed working with a particular colleague on a board of trustees. I noticed how physically animated she was as she spoke and so I suggested we might explore the issue using a physical experiment, drawing on Gestalt. She was keen to try it out so I invited her to recreate the board room where we were, to sit me where her colleague sits and to brief me on how he behaves.
She left the room, re-entered and immediately stiffened and looked tense. I reflected this back, along with how tense I now felt as she approached me in role. In order to create and evoke a contrasting experience, I invited her to practice physical loosening before entering the room. She discovered a dance-like movement that helped her relax, increased her confidence and provided an alternative entry style. The difference and impact was transformational.
Something I've noticed in my coaching practice has been a tendency to default to rational analysis as my dominant style. It’s about reflective thinking. I once spoke with a coaching colleague about some tensions I was experiencing vis a vis a forthcoming trip to Myanmar, about concerns I had about placing a national colleague there at risk. I commented that I was struggling, ‘to get my head around it’ and, apparently, gestured towards my head.
As I continued to talk about it, this colleague observed that I was now gesturing towards my heart. I wasn’t aware of doing this at the time. He challenged me: “You describe this as something you need to get your head around whereas it actually touches on emotional concerns and deeply held values. It’s something you need to get your heart around.” I suddenly became aware of how I was rationalising an emotional struggle and felt confused about why I might do this.
At a later coaching workshop, I was invited to draw a systemic view of an issue I was dealing with at work. I drew the system, using circles to depict the different parties involved. My coaching partner drew my attention to this and challenged me: “I wonder how it might be if you were to draw people instead of circles. It’s as if you are depicting the scenario in rational conceptual terms rather than expressing and exploring it as a human emotional experience.”
I want to continue to learn how to be more aware of what I am feeling in the moment in order to make greater use of self, of counter-transference. My dominant modality is thinking, hence my instinctive focus on rationality, even if I’m aware of the client’s emotional state when I choose to focus on it. I’m often only aware of what I was feeling during the session when I reflect back on it afterwards. It can feel like an opportunity lost.
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.
Strategic thinking is about keeping the big picture in view. It’s often about asking the right questions, questions that frame or reframe an issue and place it in a broader perspective. It’s about stepping back, raising awareness, challenging assumptions, discerning what’s most important. This demands listening to God, our environment, ourselves and each other.
In order to do this well, we need to develop an ability to step back from immediate detail, plans and activity. Imagine yourself with a camera. It’s about zooming out to see the wider landscape, the ‘what else’ that can go unnoticed. It’s often the bigger frame that makes sense of what we’re seeing when we zoom in. It provides context, a basis for meaning-making.
The value of stepping back mentally, metaphorically zooming out in this way, is that we can re-evaluate our priorities, our direction, what we’re spending time and resources on, how we’re approaching things, whether we’re focusing on the right things, whether we’re allowing ourselves to become distracted by things that are not adding optimum value.
One way to develop our strategic thinking ability is to jot down sample questions that can help draw the big picture into view. ‘What do our customers or beneficiaries value most?’, ‘What are our competitors planning and doing?’, ‘What are the major forces driving change in our environment or sector?’, ‘What challenges and opportunities are emerging over the horizon?’
Be open and curious. ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like for our different stakeholders?’, ‘What do we do best?’, ‘What do we feel called to do?’, ‘Who are our potential allies?’, ‘What assumptions are we making?’, ‘What are we avoiding?’, ‘How are we constraining ourselves?’, ‘What might someone else see that we’re not seeing?’
Another way is to start with a day to day issue, perhaps something you’re working on at the moment. At an operational level, the key concern is how to do it well to achieve the desired results. It’s as if the frame has already been set. ‘This is what I need to do. I will spend my time, effort and resources on working out how best to achieve it, then do it.’
Now step back from the same issue a little and ask yourself or invite someone else to ask you some wider tactical questions. ‘What is it that makes this task so important?’, ‘What other ways could I achieve the same, or even better result?’, ‘How does what I’m doing dovetail with related tasks that others are doing?’, ‘How well does this serve our overall team goals?’
Take successive steps back until the questions you are asking draw the wider external environment and future considerations into account (as above). Now you are likely to be approaching a strategic level. The further you step back, the more research it is likely to entail. It’s about moving outwards from your normal frame of reference to consider wider issues that may prove pivotal.
What all these questions do so far is to develop an awareness of ‘what else is in the picture that we should take account of in our key decisions?’ In other words, they focus on the ‘what’. The next stage involves discernment, or the ‘so what’. What does all you’ve been thinking about, looking at, exploring and researching point towards that could be significant?
Facing multiple issues, knowns and unknowns, clarity and ambiguity, can feel bewildering. In light of this, moving forward may best involve working with others, drawing on shared thinking, experience, intuition, listening and prayer. ‘What are we hearing?’, ‘What should we pay attention to and what can we safely ignore?’
The final phase, the ‘now what’, involves making strategic decisions. These are the fundamental decisions that will form the basis of subsequent strategising and planning. The best decisions provide focus and clarity. ‘This is how the strategy will achieve our vision’, ‘This is what we will do and not do’, ‘This is how we will resource the organisation to achieve it.’
The process as a whole is about learning to plan with our eyes open. It’s about seeking to be open, exercising wise judgement and making sound decisions. In light of the fluid, rapidly changing and often unpredictable environments that many organisations are facing these days, strategic review and re-focus is now more often an on-going than periodic venture.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.