Anita asked during a coach training workshop this week if it’s appropriate to address emotion in coaching. After all, isn’t that stepping too far into a person’s personal space or risking a drift into therapy? Curious, I asked which dimension of the issue she was feeling most concerned about. Anita replied that she felt anxious about straying into what could feel like a counselling relationship. If she did, she said, she would feel both out of her depth and as if she had breached a professional boundary. I paused, then asked if it had felt inappropriate when I posed that question to her, or if she had felt compromised in how she answered it. She looked up, smiled and said, ‘No.’
Another coaching workshop and Brian, a colleague, was introducing reflecting back as a core skill. One participant looked increasingly frustrated and eventually blurted out, ‘You call this a skill but it’s like playing a game with someone, using techniques on them rather than holding a real and respectful conversation.’ Brian listened then responded calmly, ‘So, reflecting back feels to you like toying with someone, and that clashes with your value for authenticity.’ 'Yes – that’s it exactly!’ he replied with a burst of positive energy that took everyone in the room by surprise. After a brief moment, he and everyone else broke out in fits of laughter. ‘OK, now I get it.’
The principle here is that of modelling an idea, an approach, a method or a technique, rather than simply describing or explaining it. There’s something about experiencing that can feel profoundly and qualitatively different to understanding a concept purely intellectually. This insight lays at the heart of Gestalt coaching and experiential learning. It’s primarily about doing, not thinking, and seeing what emerges into awareness when we do it. I worked with a leadership team that agreed a set of and behaviours to govern its practice. It looked neat on flipchart paper but its potential for transformation didn’t emerge until they grasped the nettle and practised it.
What have been your best examples of learning by experience? How do you model this principle in your work with others?
We sometimes associate 'rescue' with a danger of creating unhealthy dependency, and it does carry that risk. Yet what when a person, team or group faces a crisis that is absolutely beyond their capacity to resolve?
Henry stood with his wife, along with the other prisoners, with their backs against a cold wire fence. In front of them, camp guards were mounting machine guns on tripods and aiming at them. It was early morning and they had been forced outside in a hurry. There was an uneasy tension in the air and the guards were looking both menacing and stressed.
In that moment, Henry knew they were about to be shot down in cold blood. He gripped his wife’s hand, looked upwards and prayed silently to Jesus. Then, as if out of nowhere, Allied plane after plane flew low over the camp with ‘RESCUE’ painted white on the undersides of their wings. The camp guards panicked, dropped their guns and ran to escape. Saved.
As Henry recounted this memory, I felt transfixed by the intense drama he and his wife had lived through. I tried to imagine that moment when all seemed lost, and then the sudden, unexpected and immense relief of seeing those planes appear. The feeling of hope in the midst of such complete and utter helplessness must have been incredible.
I felt caught up in a similar yet very different drama today when I heard of a young student in the Philippines who is critically ill and whose family is too poor to pay for his medical bills. A poor Filipina prayed to Jesus, raced to his help, gave what little she had and inspired others to get involved too. They pooled enough money to pay for an emergency transfusion.
I try to imagine how he will feel when he wakes up to this news. It’s not just practical assistance. It’s being seen, valued and loved, including by total strangers who chose to act. When have you been rescued from a situation that felt impossible? How did you feel? What difference has it made in your life? How do you bring hope to those without hope?
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