‘To the existentialist, life is like a small child, lost and alone in a deep, dark forest. And the child means nothing to the forest.’ (Peter Hicks)
Hicks’ bleak depiction of the human condition, of an unresolvable existential angst that we face and experience as we find ourselves thrown into this world, is a despairing vision of life without hope. It reflects vividly Jürgen Moltmann’s view that ‘hell is hopelessness’. Yannick Jacob comments that, ‘there is a way to live without this anxiety, at least temporarily, by deceiving ourselves, by closing our eyes to some of the realities of our existence.’ It’s as if we can numb the pain, make ourselves feel better for a time, by distracting ourselves, or drugging ourselves, to feel safer and more alive.
This is, perhaps, a deep root cause of addictive behaviours, of aligning ourselves with extreme positions, of engaging in some forms of extreme sports or of taking medication that seeks to dampen our too-painful-to-handle thoughts and feelings. Instead of being willing to pause, pray and peel back the curtains to reveal what may lay behind our personal and cultural actions and routines, we grip and hold them tightly shut. Over a lifetime, we glue them, stitch them and tape them together. We build barricades to support them, reinforce them and hide them, even to ourselves. Out of sight, out of mind.
At least for a while. Sooner or later, we may inadvertently catch a glimpse, experience an unnerving feeling, find ourselves fighting, falling or failing as the walls creak, crack and start to crumble down. It could be sparked by an accident, a break-up, a failed promotion, an illness, a mid-life crisis, a war. Our defences are weakened, no longer able to withstand the swirling, turbulent pressures that have built up behind them. It’s as if suddenly, as if by a flash of lightning, everything is revealed. Our self-assured confidence collapses and, perhaps for the first time, we experience terrifying vulnerability.
This is the existential backdrop to the Christmas story: an intensely dark crisis that can’t be resolved with a quick-fix solution. For followers of Jesus, it’s a piercing and dazzling hope-filled account of a profoundly transformational encounter between God and humanity, where God takes the first step and enters our reality. When the Bible says ‘Light shines in darkness’, we catch a glimpse of radiant light, life and love now made possible. Whatever your experience as a coach, whatever the experience of your clients in 2021 – let’s face truth gently, with courage and humility – and make hope real.
The brutal murder of Samuel Paty, a teacher in France on Friday, spun freedom of expression back into the media spotlight. Freedom of speech is, after all, a bedrock of Western democracy – not only the safeguarding of the expression of thoughts, feelings, and opinions but also, critically, the right and opportunity to be exposed to those of other people and groups too. The same principle applies in liberal education: learning, development, creativity and innovation emerge from the interaction of diverse insights, experiences and ideas; sometimes awkwardly or angrily if they clash, yet vital for healthy growth.
Emmanuel Macron has described the current Kairos moment as an existential crisis: a fundamental conflict between secular, liberal European values and those of radical Islam. A broader cultural backdrop is, however, a struggle between freedom of speech and freedom from harm, where the latter includes freedom from offence. Brendan O’Neill commented last weekend that, in France, “cancel culture turned murderous…the (teacher’s) beheading was a militarised expression of (it).” The silencing of a voice, the no-platforming of a dissenting view, can lead to dire unintended consequences.
Coming from a very different place politically to O’Neill, Douglas Murray struck a strikingly similar chord in, ‘The Madness of Crowds’ (2019/20): “We are going through a great…derangement”. Cultural and technological upheavals are driving humanity at breakneck speed into uncharted territories where many hitherto beliefs, values and assumptions are being stress-tested to their limits. Grasping at simplistic and polarising stances – no matter how irrational – is one way to feel safer and more purposeful in the world. So, question: What do these feverish times call for from us, as leaders, coaches, trainers and OD?
‘Kairos moments’. Pivotal experiences. What have been the turning points in your career? What happened and what impacts did they have? How have you learned to ride the waves?
I wasn’t trying to be difficult. It felt like an issue of justice. I was in my late teens and this was a trade union meeting in a local town hall. The room was packed full and I sat upstairs in a balcony. The union leaders were in powerful positions, sitting in a row at the front table. Nobody dared to speak or to raise a challenge. To lose membership meant to lose one’s job. ‘We have mortgages to pay and mouths to feed.’ I valued the trade union ideal but, somewhere along the way, this body had lost its visionary, democratic principles. I disliked the way its leaders abused power and traded on fear.
After making long, tedious speeches, reminiscent of a bygone communist era, the main leader stood up and asked if anyone had anything to say. A tense and tangible silence filled the room. I could feel my heart pounding and nerves straining throughout my body. I had to say something, I had to speak. So, much to my colleagues’ amazement, I stood up, took a deep breath and advocated a proposal for democratic reform. The whole room gasped…then fell back to stunned silence. The leader, now red with rage, shot me down for daring to challenge his authority – and inadvertently proved my point.
I was treated like a hero as I left that day, work mates crowding around, punching my shoulders and patting my back with looks of surprise and admiration. It was a defining moment for me. I had stood up to authority, taken a public stance on my beliefs and values and, by God’s grace, managed to stay diplomatic and assertive. There could be no going back now. I organised a union-wide petition and, as a result, came under threat from union reps who warned me that I was ‘playing with fire’. I resigned, left my job and entered human rights and community development work.
I can see a trajectory in my life that had led up to that point, e.g. from when, as a young school boy, I had hated bulling and cruelty to animals and had created an animal rights activist group at school. I can also trace a clear trajectory through my life and career in subsequent years, e.g. in leadership, coaching and OD roles in charities and INGOs, based on my spiritual-existential-humanistic beliefs and values. I still hold that same passion to support people who are poor, vulnerable or oppressed in the world. What have been the defining moments in your life and career? How did you get here?
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I woke on the floor by the front door with blood on my head. I had no idea how I had got there or how long I had been laying in that position. I tried to lift myself up, weakly, and saw pieces of wood all around me. I was puzzled and confused, disorientated. It turns out I had fallen unconscious and fallen through a wooden table. I half-crawled, half-staggered, to a different room and collapsed.
This experience taught me vividly how suddenly and dramatically our circumstances can change. In this case, I had a contracted a severe infection and was rushed into hospital in an ambulance. In other situations, it could be e.g. a sudden loss of a relationship or a job, a loss of someone or something important to us. It can come out of nowhere, leaving us lost, shocked and reeling.
There’s something about loss that can fundamentally challenge our sense of security and certainty, especially in wealthy nations where we cushion and insure ourselves against all kinds of pain and hardship. It can force us to face deep spiritual and existential questions that lay out of reach of simple ‘positive thinking’, e.g. who are we, why are we here, who and what really matters?
So a reflection and challenge for leaders, OD, coaches and trainers. How far do we face and address profound life questions in our work? How far do we allow ourselves to stay on the surface, the superficial, without going deeper? How far are we willing to travel with people, if they want to, into spiritual and existential places? How well do we handle it if people pose such questions to us?
Ouch! Sooner or later, something hits us in life. It could be a broken relationship, an accident, loss of employment, sudden ill health. It could be anything. But we know it when it hits us. The impact can feel physical like a thud to the chest, a sharp pain that leaves us gasping for breath. It hurts, it aches…and, for a time, it disorientates everything we know, believe, expected or hoped for. It can leave us spinning, angry, scared, numb. We feel vulnerable. We may feel anxiety, despair.
You do know it if you’ve had this experience. You may be having it now. The usual optimism and positive thinking that have served you so well in the past suddenly feel empty, shallow somehow, lacking substance. You reach out for help but if feels like grasping at thin, intangible mist. All you know is a persistent, uneasy, gnawing feeling, deep inside and the light of hope looks hopelessly dim. Family and friends offer support but, in the midst of it you feel – alone. Painfully…alone.
It’s moments like these where existential and spiritual questions may come sharply into view. I’ve know that feeling of falling, sinking, so deep that I thought I would drown. It felt like slipping into deep darkness, overwhelmed by a pain-filled fear. I couldn’t see a way to stay alive. Sitting on a fence in a cold field one night, all I could discern was a feint pin prick of light in the farthest distance. I tried hard to cling on, however weakly. That night, I discovered the light was - Jesus.
Why think outside of the box when you could dispense with the box altogether? Rosabeth Moss-Kanter commented recently on Twitter that ‘To lead real change, it’s not enough to think outside of the box. We need to think outside of the building.’ It reminded me of Chris Argyris who, some years ago, coined the phrase ‘learning loops’ to describe different levels of learning and application:
Single loop learning asks the question, ‘Are we doing this right?’, e.g. ‘Do we have a clear agenda for today’s meeting?’ Double loop learning steps back to ask, ‘Are we doing the right things?’, e.g. ‘Is a meeting really the best way to do this?’ Triple loop learning steps back further still to ask, ‘How do we decide what is right?’, e.g. ‘Are we focusing our attention on the most important things?’
Each step back brings new dimensions into the frame, surfacing and thereby opening assumptions to challenge. I think of it like concentric circles, ripples on a pond, ever moving outwards from the initial point of impact or concern. It exposes wider systems. It shifts the focus onto broader cultural or contextual issues in order to make sense of and take decisions within a narrower domain.
There are some parallels with strategic, tactical and operational lenses, aimed at ensuring effectiveness. Peter Drucker commented: ‘Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.’ How much resource do we waste in organisations inadvertently paying one person or team to burn the proverbial toast and another to scrape off the burnt bits?
So we are really looking at how to ask fundamental questions. ‘What is the purpose of our organisation in the world?’ I mean existentially or spiritually, not just pragmatically. 'Why are we here?', ‘What is shaping our values?’, ‘What are we aware of?’, ‘What are we blind to, filtering out?’, ‘What matters most to us, and why?’, ‘Why are we doing things this way?’, ‘Who or what is really driving this?’
This type of critique is where things get tricky and, potentially, revolutionary. Organisations, as people, shape their own perception of reality, what is real and what is true, by the way they construe situations, the narratives they create to explain their experiences, the rationalisations they use to justify their actions etc. And most of this is subconscious, hidden behind cultural filters and defences.
Deconstructing the box entails a willingness to acknowledge it first – to explore and reveal the unspoken, the unspeakable, the not-yet imagined. As leaders and coaches, it calls for vulnerability and courage. It demands a preparedness to challenge and be challenged, to open our eyes, perhaps pray, to expose our limits, our assumptions, our implicit collusion with what is and what appears to be.
How would you describe your coaching style? What questions would you bring to a client situation?
In my experience, it depends on a whole range of factors including the client, the relationship, the situation and what beliefs and expertise I, as coach, may hold. It also depends on what frame of reference or approach I and the client believe could be most beneficial. Some coaches are committed to a specific theory, philosophy or approach. Others are more fluid or eclectic.
Take, for instance, a leader in a Christian organisation struggling with issues in her team. The coach could help the leader explore and address the situation drawing on any number of perspectives or methods. Although not mutually exclusive, each has its own focus and emphasis. The content and boundaries will reflect what the client and coach believe may be significant:
Appreciative/solutions-focused: e.g. ‘What would an ideal team look and feel like for you?’, ‘When has this team been at its best?’, ‘What made the greatest positive difference at the time?’, ‘What opportunity does this situation represent?’, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how well is this team meeting your and other team members’ expectations?’, ‘What would it take to move it up a notch?’
Psychodynamic/cognitive-behavioural: e.g. ‘What picture comes to mind when you imagine the team?’, ‘What might a detached observer notice about the team?’, ‘How does this struggle feel for you?’, ‘When have you felt like that in the past?’, ‘What do you do when you feel that way?’, ‘What could your own behaviour be evoking in the team?’, ‘What could you do differently?’
Gestalt/systemic: e.g. ‘What is holding your attention in this situation?’ ‘What are you not noticing?’, ‘What are you inferring from people’s behaviour in the team?’, ‘What underlying needs are team members trying to fulfil by behaving this way?’, ‘What is this team situation telling you about wider issues in the organization?’, ‘What resources could you draw on to support you?’
Spiritual/existential: e.g. ‘How is this situation affecting your sense of calling as a leader?’, ‘What has God taught you in the past that could help you deal with this situation?’, ‘What resonances do you see between your leadership struggle and that experienced by people in the Bible?’, ‘What ways of dealing with this would feel most congruent with your beliefs and values?’
An important principle I’ve learned is to explore options and to contract with the client. ‘These are some of the ways in which we could approach this issue. What might work best for you?’ This enables the client to retain appropriate choice and control whilst, at the same time, introduces possibilities, opportunities and potential new experiences that could prove transformational.
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.
Calling has long-standing roots in theistic spiritual traditions, often associated with being ‘called by God’ to a certain way of life or to a specific course of action. Existential psychologists have commented on how sometimes it feels like a situation is calling for its own response from us. In both cases, the source of the calling is attributed to someone or something beyond us. It’s a phenomenon that can feel like an evocative pull, tugging at something deep within us.
I’ve experienced this many times since becoming a Christian, a strange intuition that feels beyond me, prompting or leading me in a certain direction. Sometimes it seems very clear or inspiring, at others it’s more of a vague notion, a restlessness that compels me to move or change. I’ve often experienced it in coaching relationships too, an almost irresistible impulse to speak or act that feels like revelation, an energising compulsion from the situation itself.
It’s not magic, something I can make happen, something I can manufacture for myself. It’s sometimes unexpected, sometimes challenging and sometimes involves scary risk-taking. It’s not definitive either, something I can measure, test or prove in a lab. This can make the experience of calling feel mysterious, sometimes spiritual, a step in faith in response to a curious, invisible stimulus. It’s as if something ‘out there’ connects with something ‘in here’, setting up a dynamic resonance.
So how to apply this in leadership and coaching? How to listen for and discern calling in the midst of so many other tasks and preoccupations that clamour for our attention? How to weigh up calling in order to act wisely? In my experience, there is no simple formula. It’s mostly about learning to be still, to live with awareness, to tune into my intuition, to be sensitive to prompts from the situation itself, to experiment and see what happens, to be open to God in prayer.
I wish I could say I always follow this call. Sometimes I'm sceptical, sometimes I pull back for fear of embarrassment or failure. Nevertheless, I've seen and felt amazing things happen when I do listen and act. I would love to hear from others on this topic of calling. When have you felt called? What was the situation? What did the experience of calling feel like? What did you attribute the calling to? How did you act in response? What happened 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?
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