What is real, what is true, how can we know? These are questions that have vexed philosophers for centuries. In more recent times, we have seen an increasing convergence between philosophy and psychology in fields such as social constructionism and existential therapy. How we experience and make sense of being, meaning and purpose is inextricably linked to how we behave, what we choose and what stance we take in the world.
As a Christian and psychological coach, I’m intrigued by how these fundamental issues, perspectives and actions intertwine with my beliefs, spirituality and practice. Descartes once wrote, ‘If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ It’s as if we must be prepared to suspend all assumptions about ‘what is’, to explore all possibilities and dare to think the unthinkable in order to grow and make our best contribution.
Things are not always as they at first appear. There are sometimes multiple explanations for the same phenomenon, depending on the frame of reference we or others use to interpret it (see, for instance, Gareth Morgan’s seminal work, Images of Organisation, 1986). We are sometimes blinded to what’s in front of us by our prejudices, preconceptions, cultural constraints or rigid views of the world. It can be hard to maintain healthy scepticism without cynicism.
I see it with clients, sometimes in myself too. A sense of being trapped by a fixed Gestalt, a cognitive distortion, an inherited or learned belief system. An inability to see, to recognise the box that we’re in, never mind to see or think outside of it. An avoidance of deep, difficult questions because of the discomfort, confusion or anxiety they may evoke. If we’re not careful, if we can’t find the right help when we need it, it may limit our lives and our learning.
I think this is where coaching can play a very important role, helping pose and address some deep questions. Nick Bolton commented insightfully in Coaching Today that, ‘To explore a coaching issue existentially is to understand the relationship that the presenting problem has to the human condition to which it is a response, and to remain focused on enabling a change of perspective that allows the client to move past their current challenge.’
He also provided some helpful examples: ‘For instance, how is a client’s procrastination around something that seems to matter to her a failure to remember that life comes to an end? How is a client’s need to be unconditionally loved by his partner an attempt to deal with existential rather than interpersonal isolation? (And the solutions are very different things). How is someone’s lethargy simply a part of their fear of taking responsibility for their life?’ (July 2013, p17)
A metaphysical, existential or theological dimension can shift the entire paradigm of the coaching conversation. The question of whether a client should apply for this or that job is influenced by her sense of purpose. If she is willing to consider that God may exist and have a plan for her life, the whole situational context will change. It can be a dizzying and exciting experience, yet it’s really a question of how courageous and radical we and the client are prepared to be.
I had a new, short, mini-article published online in About Leaders this week called, ‘What is really going on here?’
It introduces examples of different frames of reference we may use when working with people as a leader or coach. I would love to hear what you think, what frames you use and what experiences you have in this area. Looking forward to hearing from you!
The ICF defines coaching as, ‘a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires the client to maximize their personal and professional potential.’ The ICA defines it as, ‘dialogue between a coach and a client with the aim of helping the client obtain a fulfilling life.’
I’m interested in these definitions because of how they focus primarily on coaching as relationship, process and goal.
The relational dimension is intrinsic since coaching is something that takes place between people, even if the nature, function, value and rules of engagement within the relationship vary between different coaching traditions.
There is a process dimension too, typically an interactive process between a coach and one or more clients where models, skills and techniques are deployed. This is coaching at its most explicit, the dimension that can be observed, learned and practiced.
Most coaching has goals too, whether these be explicit from the outset or implied and emergent. The goals point towards intentionality, focus, boundaries and outcomes that can be at some level monitored and evaluated.
What’s missing for me is the notion of belief. Coaching assumes certain implicit beliefs about the coach, the coachee, the context and what words like ‘personal’, ‘professional’, ‘potential’, ‘helping’, ‘fulfilling’ and 'life' imply.
This is the arena, the open turbulent space, the swirling ground, where questions raised by fields such as spirituality, theology, philosophy, economics, sociology and politics reside and collide to create meaning.
Against this backdrop, coaching itself can be seen as both socially constructed and as a process of social construction. It typically assumes and pursues certain beliefs about identity, value and purpose that are open to challenge.
These assumptions becomes evident when trying to introduce coaching into, for example, a cultural framework where core shared beliefs concerning, say, individuality and autonomy contrast with those of one's own culture.
I have encountered this experience during coaching and action learning sessions in countries where very different beliefs and cultural values around, say, authority, social legitimacy, conversational protocols and saving face apply.
When, therefore, people approach me keen to learning coaching skills and techniques, I try to explore underlying beliefs first. Why is this important to you? Why a coaching approach? What issues could it raise in your coaching environment? What change are you hoping to see?
Coaching that flows from personal awareness, ethical authenticity and clear intention is more likely to result in profound human and contextual transformation than approaches based on tips, skills and techniques alone.
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.