‘Sawubona.’ I was at a change leadership event in Canada with colleagues from around the world. It was the first time I had heard this Zulu greeting. ‘Sawubona’. I was curious so asked my South African colleague to explain it. ‘It means: I see you.’ I was immediately struck by his emphasis on see. He explained it further. ‘It means I honour your presence. It’s as if I am calling you into my focus, into existence, against the background of everything else that lays around you. I really see you.’ He said this simple word with such warmth and sincerity that I felt genuinely moved by it.
There are resonances for me in the dynamic of this greeting with Gestalt psychology. Gestalt uses its own language of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’, where figure is that which holds our attention at any given moment in time and ground is the background which, in that same moment, lays largely out of awareness. In other words, figure is what we are noticing and ground is what we are not-noticing. How often when we meet and work with people, our attention is drawn away from the person so that what we notice instead is the issue, the story, the task, whatever it is we are there to do.
In my experience, most transformational work in leadership, coaching, group work etc. occurs when we learn to shift our focus, our attention, to the person, the relationship, to what is happening here-and-now. In this context, Gestalt poses a great question: ‘What is the quality of contact between us?’ where contact signifies presence and attention, as if almost literally touching one-another. Picture a meeting where the leader or coach enables team members to learn do this well. ‘What is holding our attention?’, ‘What are we not noticing?’, ‘What is the quality of contact between us?’
Sawubona, my friend. Notice what you are noticing - and not noticing. Never lose sight of the person.
I took my mountain bike for repairs last week after pretty much wrecking it off road. In the same week, I was invited to lead a session on ‘use of self’ in coaching. I was struck by the contrast in what makes a cycle mechanic effective and what makes the difference in coaching. The bike technician brings knowledge and skill and mechanical tools. When I act as coach I bring knowledge and skills too - but the principal tool is my self.
Who and how I am can have a profound impact on the client. This is because the relationship between the coach and client is a dynamically complex system. My values, mood, intuition, how I behave in the moment…can all influence the relationship and the other person. It works the other way too. I meet the client as a fellow human being and we affect each other. Noticing and working with with these effects and dynamics can be revealing and developmental.
One way of thinking about a coaching relationship is as a process with four phases: encounter, awareness, hypothesis and intervention. These phases aren’t completely separate in practice and don’t necessarily take place in linear order. However, it can provide a simple and useful conceptual model to work from. I’ll explain each of the four phases below, along with key questions they aim to address, and offer some sample phrases.
At the encounter phase, the coach and client meet and the key question is, ‘What is the quality of contact between us?’
The coach will focus on being mentally and emotionally present to the client…really being there. He or she will pay particular attention to empathy and rapport, listening and hearing the client and, possibly, mirroring the client’s posture, gestures and language. The coach will also engage in contracting, e.g. ‘What would you like us to focus on?’, ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like for you?’, ‘How would you like us to do this?’
(If you saw the BBC Horizon documentary on placebos last week, the notion of how a coach’s behaviour can impact on the client’s development or well-being will feel familiar. In the TV programme, a doctor prescribed the same ‘medication’ to two groups of patients experiencing the same physical condition. The group he behaved towards with warmth and kindness had a higher recovery rate than the group he treated with clinical detachment).
At the awareness phase, the coach pays attention to observing what he or she is experiencing whilst encountering the client. The key question is, ‘What am I noticing?’
The coach will pay special attention to e.g. what he or she sees or hears, what he or she is thinking, what pictures come to mind, what he or she is feeling. The coach may then reflect it back as a simple observation, e.g. ‘I noticed the smile on your face and how animated you looked as you described it.’ ‘As you were speaking, I had an image of carrying a heavy weight…is that how it feels for you?’ ‘I can’t feel anything...do you (or others) know how you are feeling?’
(Some schools, e.g. Gestalt or person-centred, view this type of reflecting or mirroring as one of the most important coaching interventions. It can raise awareness in the client and precipitate action or change without the coach or client needing to engage in analysis or sense-making. There are resonances in solutions-focused coaching too where practitioners comment that a person doesn’t need to understand the cause of a problem to resolve it).
At the hypothesis stage, the coach seeks to understand or make sense of what is happening. The key question is, ‘What could it mean?’
The coach will reflect on his or her own experience, the client’s experience and the dynamic between them. The coach will try to discern and distinguish between his or her own ‘stuff’ and that of the client, or what may be emerging as insight into the client’s wider system (e.g. family, team or organisation). The coach may pose tentative reflections, e.g. ‘I wonder if…’, ‘This pattern could indicate…’, ‘I am feeling confused because the situation itself is confusing.’
(Some schools, e.g. psychodynamic or transactional analysis, view this type of analysis or sense-making as one of the most important coaching interventions. According to these approaches, the coach brings expert value to the relationship by offering an explanation or interpretation of what’s going on in such a way that enables the client to better understand his or he own self or situation and, thereby, ways to deal with it).
At the intervention phase, the coach will decide how to act in order to help the client move forward. Although the other three phases represent interventions in their own right, this phase is about taking deliberate actions that aim to make a significant shift in e.g. the client’s insight, perspective, motivation, decisions or behaviour. The interventions could take a number of forms, e.g. silence, reflecting back, summarising, role playing or experimentation.
Throughout this four-phase process, the coach may use ‘self’ in a number of different ways. In the first phase, the coach tunes empathetically into the client’s hopes and concerns, establishing relationship. In the second, the coach observes the client and notices how interacting with the client impacts on him or herself. The coach may reflect this back to the client as an intervention, or hold it as a basis for his or her own hypothesising and sense-making.
In the third, the client uses learned knowledge and expertise to create understanding. In the fourth, the coach presents silence, questions or comments that precipitate movement. In schools such as Gestalt, the coach may use him or herself physically, e.g. by mirroring the client’s physical posture or movement or acting out scenarios with the client to see what emerges. In all areas of coaching practice, the self is a gift to be used well and developed continually.
It stands around the corner from an authentic Thai restaurant in central London. On the face of it, it’s an elegant building. As you walk past, however, you realise with surprise that the frontage is a façade, an elaborate shield concealing a plain office building that lies behind it. It’s a striking metaphor, a symbol of sorts for an inauthentic life. It challenged me powerfully yet silently to consider the masks I wear, the images I project to disguise my real self.
Some years ago, John Powell published a popular, short self help book, ‘Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?’ He explored how we attempt to protect our fragile egos and avoid our fear rejection by acting out roles or playing games. These are defensive routines aimed at minimising social anxiety or negative evaluation. By putting on a front that we believe will impress others, we attempt to feel better about ourselves and to win others’ approval.
At one level, these strategies can prove successful in life and work. It’s one reason why we pay attention to our physical appearance, the way we behave and conduct ourselves in public, the way we present ourselves at job interviews etc. From our earliest childhood experiences, we learn what wins love and affirmation from others within our key relationships, social environments and culture. We learn how to play the game.
At another level, however, keeping up appearances can prove self-defeating. Over time we may feel alienated from ourselves, not sure how we really are, and alienated from others, not sure if we are really loved and accepted. We can feel lonely, frustrated and tired. It’s as if, paradoxically, the façades we create to develop and maintain relationships can have the opposite effect, preventing authentic and intimate contact with others.
This presents us with a dilemma, an anxiety-provoking risk. What if I remove the mask, tell you what I’m really thinking, show you how I’m really feeling? Would you love and accept me for who I am or would you look at me with disappointment in your eyes? Will making myself vulnerable release you to be vulnerable too? Can we find a new way of connecting that feels more real, more authentic, less defended, less like a façade?
It can feel like a breathtaking step. The possibility feels exciting and yet the potential feels daunting. I’m reminded of Jesus’ call in the gospels: ‘remove the mask and come into the light’. There is further New Testament teaching too: ‘perfect love casts out fear’. If God can love and accept me as I am, perhaps I can learn to love and accept myself and to love and accept others too. Perhaps that’s where it starts, feeling truly safe with God.
So therein lies the challenge. As a leader and a coach, am I willing to make myself vulnerable so that others can be vulnerable too? Can I demonstrate unconditional love with such honesty that others feel safe to remove their masks, to take down their façades? Can I find new ways to relate to others with an increasing sense of trust and authenticity, creating ever-deeper levels of contact? It’s certainly a goal worth praying and striving for.
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?
I took part in an excellent mediation workshop this week run by Karen Bailey, a talented and experienced coach, mediator and trainer in this field (http://www.karenbaileymediation.com/). I found it interesting to explore different models and approaches ranging from arbitration and advocacy through to non-directive facilitation. It resonated for me professionally because, as an OD practitioner, I’m often invited to coach others on conflict resolution, to do teambuilding where unresolved conflict is a factor affecting team morale and performance, or to act as a third party helping others (e.g. line managers and staff, or peers) to address and resolve stuck-ness or tensions between them. It also resonates for me spiritually because the notion of mediation is at the heart of my Christian beliefs. The biblical characterisation of Jesus Christ as mediator between God and humanity is the cornerstone of Christian theology, a role that Christians too are called to emulate and follow as peace-builders in the world.
The model we explored and practised emphasised the importance of creating a semi-structured space for parties to listen to each other. If they can genuinely hear each other, there is scope for establishing empathy and reaching shared solutions. This involves the willingness of all parties to engage in open, direct and…potentially scary…dialogue. The mediator speaks to this fear dynamic explicitly: ‘This is going to feel very uncomfortable, but we’re here because we believe the outcome will be worth it.’If the mediator and participants can learn to manage their own anxiety by facing it head on, they may also feel able to lower their defences and hear each other. We looked at four conditions that enable this type of mediation to be successful: the mediator is impartial; the mediation is confidential; participation is voluntary; outcomes are self-determined. These condidtions provide a basis for establishing clarity and for contracting with oneself, participants and sponsors beforehand.
Karen explains why these same conditions can sometimes make it difficult for internal HR (or OD) practitioners to fulfil this role within their own organisation or business partnering arena effectively. (For further comment on this issue, see: http://www.karenbaileymediation.com/transforming-hr-practitioners-into-mediators/). We also looked at four aspects of participant experience and perspective that provide a content-orientated focus for the mediation: each participant’s Story; each participant’s felt Impacts; each participant’s Needs; each participant’s Goals (making the acronym SING). The mediator meets with each participant to tease out these aspects beforehand. The participant’s story is his or her own subjective experience of the situation; impacts are what he/she is feeling emotionally; needs are unfulfilled desires or challenged values; goals are the outcomes each person hopes for. ‘What’s going on for me’, ‘How this is impacting me’ and ‘Why this is important to me’.
At the start of the session with all parties in the room, the mediator reiterates the process and invites the participants to (a) be honest and direct with each other and (b) listen and show respect to each other. The mediator may invite each party to make an opening statement and then allow the conversation to free-flow. The tricky part I found as mediator-in-practice was when to intervene and not to intervene, how to intervene in such a way that facilitates rather than interferes with the process, how to manage my own anxieties if ferocious conflict emerges, if one party appears bullied or if the conflict became directed at me.
Karen offered some useful ideas…simple in principle, harder to do in practice! The mediator can summarise, reflect back…’This is what I’m hearing…’, ‘Sounds like…’, enabling the participants to feel heard before moving on. The mediator can call for a break, allowing mediator and participants to step back, take time out if they need to cool down or reflect before re-engaging.
The mediator can co-facilitate with another mediator, creating the benefit of two perspectives, insights and interventions, especially valuable if one of the mediators feels hooked, emotionally destabilised or disorientated by something in the conversation and needs to detach in order to re-engage. The real challenge, opportunity and skill lies in enabling the participants to establish and maintain high quality contact with each other, even if that contact feels loaded with intense emotion. It’s a process that involves faith, faith that if the participants will find a way to hear and connect with each other, that they may feel empathy and will move towards finding their own solutions. It also demands that the mediator be fully present in the room, fully in role and fully in contact with participants. The session ends with participants discussing and agreeing their own way forward. This kind of mediation clearly demands patience and courage but the benefits can be transformative.
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.
Gestalt psychology emphasises the value of high quality contact, where contact is about presence, attention, engagement, relationship. I'm sure you've had the experience of being with someone who appeared bored or distracted. Conversely, think of examples when someone has really been there for you, with you, really listened hard. In that moment, you felt close, connected.
In the busyness of life, it can feel hard to stay in contact with ourselves, our physical environment, others around us. It's as if we live in a blur, a semi-conscious state, that deadens us to the richness of life and real engagement. It's a survival strategy, a way of dealing with complex pressures and demands, that can nevertheless leave us feeling empty, alientated, lifeless.
We can experience the same in our spiritual lives too, vaguely aware of a Presence that lies beyond but largely drowned out by other activities and preoccupations. We get bored, restless, dissatisfied, exhausted. Christian life can feel like a concept, an abstraction, a memory rather than a vibrant, life-giving relationship in the here and now.
In order to re-establish contact, a Gestalt therapist may encourage a person to pause, sit, notice what's going on in and around them at that very moment...thoughts, feelings, breathing, sights, sounds, their own body. The aim is to help raise into awareness that which lies buried, ignored, suppressed or unnoticed. It's about exploring the 'what else' of a person's experience.
Take 5 minutes. Allow yourself to relax. Notice your breathing. Notice your body, how you are sitting, how you are feeling in different parts of your body. Notice how you are feeling, where you are feeling it. Notice what thoughts are drifting through your mind, what is preoccupying you. Look and listen, what do you notice in the room, sights, sounds, smells, what do you notice outside?
This kind of practical exercise draws our attention away from the past or the future into the present. Now practice being present, really present to another person. Allow that person to fill your attention. Notice how they look, listen to them attentively, tune into how they are feeling. Notice how giving attention affects the quality and feeling of contact between you.
These principles are really important in Christian leadership. It's about paying attention to how we arrive in meetings and enable others to arrive. It's too easy to rush in, race ahead with an agenda, without really first becoming present to and with one another. It's about how to establish high quality, meaningful contact with oneself, others in the room and God, to really hear and discern.
(I love Richard Rohr's comment in Things Hidden: 'God's face is turned towards us absolutely...it is we who have to learn, little by little, to return the gaze.' It conveys the profound and startling revelation that God is already present to us, already in deep contact with us. In this sense, spirituality is something about becoming present to the Presence, the God who is already with us.)
Take an aide-memoire into your next meeting. Ask yourself silently, 'What is the quality of my contact with myself...with the other people in the room...with God...with the subject matter we are considering?' 'What can we do to improve the quality of contact in order to bring out the best in ourselves and each other?' You may be amazed at the difference it can make.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.