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.
It’s curious, the unexpected impact teachers can have in our lives. How they shape our experiences, our perspectives, our choices. I had one teacher who was a sadistic bully. He used his power punitively to evoke terror. As children, we felt fearful and powerless before him. It galvanised within me a later commitment to civil rights, to defend the oppressed from powerful oppressors.
I had other teachers who opened up the world to us. One was French, attractive with a sweet accent. She believed in me and fuelled my interest in languages. Another was English but taught us German. He showed us photographs from his visits and evoked a sense of adventure, an exciting world beyond our horizons of experience. He inspired me to explore abroad.
I had another teacher who protected me. I switched classes without permission and, when an angry tutor came to check where I was, this teacher covered for me. It was a moment of unexpected and undeserved grace. He put himself at risk in order to protect me from punishment. It taught me to step out for others, to put myself on the line to protect those who are vulnerable.
One teacher had a passion for language. He could create magic with words, enabled us to capture and express ideas with creativity and precision. He enabled and inspired me to write, to play with words, to reach for excellence. I had another English teacher who toyed with us, manipulated the class for his own entertainment. He taught me to avoid misuse of position.
In all these cases, I was influenced as much by the person as the subject. It was the people who shaped my world, fanned my passions into flame or served of warnings of what to avoid. In particular, I learned important lessons about power and humility, the power to liberate and the potential to abuse. Central issues in Christian faith and important lessons for leadership.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.