'The brain is constantly searching for patterns to make sense of its experience. Inside your brain is the story of you.' (Nick Marson)
We all have a story.
As we look back over our lives, some people, relationships, events and experiences really stand out. Everything else fades out of memory, as if into an invisible backdrop. We subconsciously draw lines between those things that stand out to us, like dot-to-dot, and the picture that emerges becomes, for us, our life story. In this sense, the story is always a summary, an edited version, a glimpse.
What stands out is often that which carried strong emotional content for us, or represented who or what really mattered to us at the time, or resonates deeply in some way with who or what really matters to us now, or with how we are feeling now – often out of awareness. In this way, the story-past we tell ourselves may well reveal someone or something important about our story-now.
A story is one possible construct-configuration. Imagine, for instance, if we were to work with a client in such a way that raises the not-noticed into view, or that enables them to explore the same people, relationships, events and experiences from different vantage points, or to surface and evaluate the underlying hopes, fears, beliefs, values and cultures they could signify.
What then becomes possible?
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Awareness is the key to insight and to change. But how easily we seem able to deceive ourselves. This New Year, I tell myself an imaginary story. It’s so convincing that I actually believe it to be true. I feel sure that I cycled frequently throughout December 2015. I remember the rides vividly and they merge into a filmstrip that depicts almost continuous cycling last month. And, yet, somehow the weigh scales in the bathroom tell me a different story.
So, I’m curious. I wonder if I really cycled as frequently and as far as I’m telling myself I did. I check the sports tracking app and discover that I only went out on the bike half a dozen times for a total of around 8 hours. Not exactly ‘continuous’. The revelation leaves me puzzled and intrigued. It’s as if I noticed when I did cycle…and didn’t notice when I didn’t…then subconsciously extrapolated the did-cycle experiences to create a self-convincing scenario.
What we’re talking about here is a sort of dissonance, a contradiction between my perceived reality and my actual experience. And this is fruitful territory for coaches and therapists too. How to work with clients and groups to enable them to explore beliefs, values, constructs, realities and experiences, especially where there are tensions or potential for distortions, in order to create space for new awareness, meaning, choices and actions.
A cognitive behavioural approach can be particularly effective here. The coach helps the client to identify limiting beliefs and to examine them, as if holding objects up to the light to see how far the client’s ideas about them correlate with reality. This calls for a willingness and ability to wonder even for a moment, to suspend what we believe we know to be true and to be test alternatives. The result can be a revelation – and a great opportunity for change.
It’s Christmas Day and I could have better used the title Christmas mess-edge for this short piece. The story of Jesus Christ isn’t just a sweet and sentimental account of a baby boy born in Bethlehem 2000+ years ago. If it’s true, it’s about God entering the very real messiness of our lives and world and offering the potential to transform them into something completely new. Something beyond our wildest dreams, hopes or expectations. Something that stretches and transcends the boundaries of all human existence and experience.
I’ve known something about this notion of stretching boundaries over this past year, about extending the edges of my own experience. I bought a new bike in the spring, challenged myself to cycle over 1000 miles in 6 months and over 50 miles in a single ride. I had never done anything like that before and yet I did it. I also challenged myself to swim 1 mile 3 times in the same week. And I did it. It felt like I had crossed over an important physical and psychological line, achieving things that had previously felt impossible for me.
I wrote and had published my first article with the British Association for Counselling and Psychology (BACP). I’d written lots of articles for different publications before but this felt like the next step up in a professional field that sits close to my heart. The editor of Coaching Today invited me to write on spirituality and I jumped at the chance. To top it off, I did my first ever series of radio interviews on spirituality too. It was a great opportunity and a novel experience so sit in a recording studio and to share my beliefs openly on air.
And if that was the end of the story, there would be no need for a Jesus, at least for me. But it’s far from the end. I’ve struggled and failed on so many fronts. Sometimes, I haven’t even struggled when I have known I should. I’ve known deeply and personally what Francis Spufford aptly calls the universal ‘human propensity to f* things up’ (Unapologetic, 2013). At times, I’ve failed in relationships, made mistakes at work, fallen short of my own standards, spoken when I should have kept quiet and kept quiet when I should have spoken.
What’s more, one of my closest friends has fought courageously with terminal illness. I’ve felt hopeful and helpless, trying to offer support where I could yet knowing I can’t make it OK. I’ve yearned to take the anxiety away but known that I can’t. I’ve watched Syria in the news, the damage that human beings are able to inflict on each others’ lives, on whole countries and regions. I’ve felt impotent and confused. Not all the time, but enough to know that redeeming the world is something I can take part in yet, ultimately, lies well beyond me.
And so as I reflect on Christmas, I know what it is to be an aspiring yet fragile human being. I’ve felt exciting moments on the edge of success and have known what it is to screw up and need forgiveness. I have felt the amazing love of others, often undeserved yet tangible all the same. At that first nativity, I believe God himself entered the messy complexity of our lives and world with the most profound message of love and hope possible. Not just in words but in a life well-lived and a promise of presence and eternal life. Merry Christ-mas!
How do we make sense of situations when it all goes wrong? How do we help clients do the same? I had one such incident this weekend. Having psyched myself up for a long cycle ride, the valve on my rear tyre broke just as I was setting off. I couldn’t fix it so I replaced it with a new tube. When I started to pump that up, however, the tube burst. I couldn’t believe it. End of ride. I felt surprised and frustrated. Why do these things happen? A couple of hours later, however, I felt relieved as the heavens opened with an unexpected downpour of cold rain. If I had made it out on the bike, I would have been caught out in the open, soaked to the skin with no waterproofs. Was this providential? Did the tyres mysteriously go wrong so that I would avoid this storm?
Alison Hardingham cites a Chinese Taoist story that fits the theme well. It describes a farmer in a poor country village. He was considered very well-to-do because he owned a horse that he used for ploughing, for riding around and for carrying things. One day his horse ran away. All his neighbours exclaimed how terrible this was, but the farmer simply said, ‘Maybe’. A few days later the horse returned and brought two wild horses with it. The neighbours all rejoiced at his good fortune, but the farmer just said, ‘Maybe’. The next day the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses. The horse threw him and broke the boy’s leg. The neighbours all offered their sympathy for this misfortune but the farmer again said, ‘Maybe’.
The story continues. The next week, conscription officers came to the village to take young men away for the army. They rejected the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. When the neighbours told him how lucky he was, the farmer replied, 'Maybe’. (Psychology for Trainers, 1998, p116). The meaning of the story is clear. We are never quite sure of the future consequences of actions or experiences in the present. How we experience events, how we feel about them, is also influenced by how we frame them, how we construct them, what we believe about them. It’s the focus of a number of fields of research including cognitive behavioural psychology and social constructionism.
In this same vein, I’m fascinated by an enigmatic place in the Bible where it describes the Spirit preventing people doing what they had set out to do and, presumably, were convinced was the right thing to do. (If you’re interested, check out Acts 16: 6-8). The point it conveys is that God may at times intervene in human lives to stop us doing something, e.g. if the unforeseen consequences may be harmful to us or others, or if there’s something else that’s more important for us to do. The Bible doesn’t attribute the direct intervention of God to every human experience. Nevertheless, for me, this example opens an intriguing window into a spiritual dimension that has important implications for how I make sense of what happens to and around me.
Quite a while ago, I studied at a college. I really struggled with the whole thing and, since then, have felt a passion to support students going through similar experiences. Two years ago, the college sent out a flyer asking for coaches and mentors for its students. I felt delighted. This was my moment. I sent an email explaining my background and coaching experience and qualifications, including coaching and mentoring students from other colleges. No reply. I sent another email to the same person. No reply. Bemused, I sent an email to the college administrative team. No reply. Now feeling frustrated, I sent an email to the college registrar. No reply. Was this just a terrible system with poor client care, or was there a deeper principle at work?
I’ve had other similar experiences. Some years ago I worked in a Palestinian hospital in the Middle East. The experience really screwed me up but, on return, I felt desperate to go back. I tried and tried, applying for job after job and yet every one drew a blank. I tried volunteering with various organisations and still drew a blank. However, in the back of my mind, in my spirit, I had this growing intuition, a 'spiritual discernment', that this wasn’t the right path for me. I don’t know what the consequences might have been if I had gone but this felt more than coincidence. So tell me. Have you had similar experiences where your or a client’s best efforts have failed? What sense have you made of it? What new insights or opportunities emerged as a result?
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.
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?
It only takes one experience to reconfigure the whole story of our lives. I was approached by a Dutch person this week to consider a regional job in eastern Europe, the Middle East and central Asia. It hadn’t been in my mind before but suddenly all kind of past experiences flashed before me.
The Dutch kids I made friends with as a child, the stint I did in a Palestinian hospital as a young adult, the visit to reconstruction projects in Beirut, the trip to Albania during the Kosova crisis, the time I almost made it into Afghanistan, the work I’ve done with leaders in the Asia region.
It was as if all these experiences and others, which until now had appeared random and disconnected, instantly constellated themselves into a coherent life story, a sequence of events leading to this and now. A pattern emerged, clear and unexpected, it suddenly all made sense.
I don’t know yet how things will work out. The possibility is curious, intriguing and exciting. Two things strike me as significant. Firstly, the way God can use a single insight, experience or event to radically change our perspective, secondly, how He guides our lives mysteriously without us even knowing it.
Nick is a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 20,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org