‘Human existence is always directed to something, or someone, other than itself – be it a meaning to fulfil, or another human being to encounter lovingly.’ (Viktor Frankl)
Existential coaching is a powerful and introspective approach that can empower individuals and groups to confront life's fundamental questions, find meaning and embrace personal and social responsibility. Rooted in existential philosophy, this coaching method guides clients through self-exploration, enabling them to confront their fears and uncertainties and make authentic choices aligned with their values. Here are some examples of existential coaching questions:
Existential coaching recognizes that we all face inherent dilemmas, and embracing these challenges can lead to personal and social growth. Using this approach, the coach serves as a supportive ally, helping clients to confront their concerns, explore their inner personal-cultural truths and develop a deeper understanding of themselves. The client can learn to navigate life's complexities with greater clarity and intention, leading to a more meaningful and purposeful life.
[Further reading: Monica Hanaway, The Handbook of Existential Coaching Practice (2020); Yannick Jacob, An Introduction to Existential Coaching (2019); Emmy van Deurzen & Monica Hanaway, Existential Perspectives on Coaching (2012)]
‘The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference. That’s what it is to live and to have lived well.’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Life is hard-edged for the poor.
The last person who reached out to this marginalised community was stabbed. That was an unhappy ending to a hope-filled good intention. Not deterred by this, a Filipina saw the unseen, the unloved, the people considered criminal, unworthy and unlovable. She was warned to stay away from this mixed group of families who eek out a living among the dead, and the dangerous gangs who wouldn’t hesitate to end her life. Nevertheless, she heard Jesus' call so she went.
Not long afterwards, she stepped off public transport near this place only to witness, beside her, a woman shot dead in a hail of bullets. She learned later that the woman was killed by drug dealers, concerned she might disclose their identities to the authorities. Scared yet persevering, this Filipina has persisted in reaching out in love, building friendships, ‘sacred encounters’, as she calls them, and providing food and simple mattresses for those in greatest need.
I ask her why she does it. ‘I want to show them the living Jesus walking among them, the Jesus who loves them and cares for them. I want them to know that they matter to God.’ I’m humbled, challenged and inspired (from a safe distance) by her courage and self-sacrificing love. I keep reflecting on Bob Hunter’s (founder of Greenpeace) radical stance: ‘Put your body where your mouth is.’ That’s what Jesus did – the Incarnate divine – and that’s what she’s doing now.
‘How is that human systems seem so naturally to gravitate away from their humanness, so that we find ourselves constantly needing to pull them back again?’ (Jenny Cave-Jones)
What a profound insight and question. How is that, in organisations, the human so often becomes alien? Images from the Terminator come to mind – an apocalyptic vision of machines that turn violently against the humans that created them. I was invited to meet with the leadership team of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in East Africa that, in its earnest desire to ensure a positive impact in the lives of the poor, had built a bureaucratic infrastructure that, paradoxically, drained its life and resources away from the poor. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
I worked with a global NGO that determined to strengthen its accountability to its funders. It introduced sophisticated log frames and complex reporting mechanisms for its partners in the field, intended to ensure value for its supporters and tangible, measurable evidence of positive impact for people and communities. As an unintended consequence, field staff spent inordinate amounts of time away from their intended beneficiaries, completing forms to satisfy what felt, for them, like the insatiable demands of a machine. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
A high school in the UK invited me to help its leaders manage its new performance process which had run into difficulties. Its primary focus had been on policies, systems and forms – intended positively to ensure fairness and consistency – yet had left staff feeling alienated, frustrated and demoralised. We shifted the focus towards deeper spiritual-existential questions of hopes, values and agency then worked with groups to prioritise high quality and meaningful relationships and conversations over forms, meetings and procedures. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
Academics and managers at a university for the poor in South-East Asia had competing roles and priorities, and this had created significant tensions as well as affected adversely the learning experience of its students. The parties had attempted unsuccessfully to resolve these issues by political-structural means; jostling behind the scenes for positions of hierarchical influence and power. They invited me in and we conducted an appreciative inquiry together, focusing on shared hopes, deep values, fresh vision and a co-created future. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
Where have you seen or experienced a drift away from the human? Curious to discover how I can help? Get in touch!
‘The people living in darkness have seen a great Light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a Light has dawned.’ (Matthew 4:16, the Bible)
‘Death is a thick black wall, against which every soul is hurled and shattered.’ I don’t now remember who said that, but I do remember my philosophy lecturer quoting it when we studied existentialism. These are very dark words indeed and have, for me, a deeply foreboding and chilling feel to them. I sat down and avidly wrote an essay in response, doing my best to present what, I believed, were convincing rational arguments to counter such a nihilistic and hope-less outlook.
When I got my paper back, the mark was nowhere near as high as I had hoped for or expected. The lecturer had commented simply yet profoundly that an existentialist writer would have absolutely no interest in my reasoning. It’s not about objectivity or logic. It’s about how it is and feels to be in the world; a phenomenological cry of angst in the face of fragile, fathomless, futility. It was as if, in my attempt to offer ‘correct’ thinking, I had totally missed the point. It never was about thinking.
As the years have passed by, I too have known that angst, at a times an almost irresistible magnetic-like pull towards my own death. Sometimes, it has felt like half-clinging on weakly to avoid being pulled over the edge. In the face of unbearable and irreparable heartbreak, suicide can feel like a least-painful solution. Tom Walker’s moving song, Leave a Light On has deep emotional resonance here. Jesus is my life-saving Light. ‘At the end of the day, it’s either God or death.’ (James Wallace).
Whatever Advent means to you, Light shines in darkness. Hold onto hope.
‘I turned my head and saw yet another wisp of smoke, on its way to nothingness…’ (King Solomon)
On three separate occasions, a female grass roots activist in the Philippines was followed at night by strangers: men on motorbikes. As she walked alone, they would ride slowly and menacingly behind her, aiming to threaten and intimidate her into silence. She had taken a very public stance against corruption in high places – a stance that, for other activists in her country, had resulted in a deadly blade or a bullet in the back from a passing motorcyclist.
Undeterred, this young woman turned around and confronted the bikers, fearlessly: ‘Even if you kill me, you can’t take my life.’ She’s a radical follower of Jesus who has chosen a determined, startling and courageous life stance at the cutting edge of faith. It stands in stark contrast to the greyness of nothingness that the writer of Ecclesiastes speaks to at the start of this blog. It’s a spiritual-existential stance that holds the potential to transform…everything.
Zoom out now, back to our own lives. Strip back the trappings and tear away the superficial facades. What lays behind and beneath for us? This is the deep stuff of spiritual and existential coaching. It touches on fundamental questions: identity, meaning, purpose and stance. ‘Human life must be risked if it is to be won.’ (Jürgen Moltmann). ‘If you risk nothing, then you risk everything.’ (Geena Davis). I don’t want my life to be a wisp of smoke. You?
(See also: Deep; Spirituality in coaching; Existential coaching)
‘Work-life balance’. What's that all about? Picture this: I have my work perched at one end of the see-saw that somehow represents my life and my…erm…my life perched precariously at the other. On the face of it, it signifies that my work is completely and utterly devoid of anything that comes close to life and, similarly, that my life is hermetically sealed off from work. I guess I could re-draw the image so that there’s a blurry, permeable bit between the two ends but, even so, it still depicts my work and my life as a polarity, distinctly different and at opposite ends of a spectrum.
OK, I’m being a bit playful here. I get the idea – to help ensure that we pay attention to different aspects of our lives, in particular to avoid work taking over our whole lives. There are echoes of biblical principles of Sabbath in this, safeguarding a space for spiritual, psychological, physical and social refreshment, enrichment and restoration. It poses important questions in modern day, post-modern life, especially against a backdrop of increasing mental and physical health costs of a non-stop lifestyle, e.g. how to do ‘Sabbath’ meaningfully in the midst of 24hr connectivity?
Now here’s a weird thing. When I typed ‘work-life’ into my phone, it auto-corrected to ‘worm-like’. I know what you’re thinking: I really need to get out more – and you may well be right. But what occurs to me is that a worm lives most of its life inside a tunnel in total, relentless darkness. By contrast, there’s something for us here about how to discover and create light, freedom, meaning and purpose in whoever we are, in whatever we are doing. The question then is how to be alive in its widest, deepest, most holistic sense in all aspects of our lives - including in our work. How do we do it?
I unexpectedly found my eyes 'sweating' as I first saw my Twitter feed this morning. First shock. Deep breaths. Then disbelief. Then numbness. Then fighting back tears. Stepping onto the train in a daze. Lost for words. David Bowie is dead.
Tributes pour in from across the world to a man, an artist, who touched so many people’s lives. From my earliest teens until now, so many life memories are etched with his music, his imagery, his artistry. Words, often veiled in mystery, expressing hopes, fears, dreams – life.
I didn’t know Bowie personally. Yet for those who loved his gift to the world, his astonishing talent, he became woven intimately into the fabric of our lives. His death is a sharp tearing of the fabric, a feeling that something of our own lives has died with him.
So public and personal grief touch here, hand in hand. This evening, this day, we mourn the loss of an extraordinary man. I know: tomorrow the news and our lives will move onto different stories. Yet, in our hearts, something - somehow - will have changed.
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!
‘What is most important about any event is not what happened, but what it means. Events and meanings are loosely coupled: the same events can have very different meanings for different people because of differences in the schema that they use to interpret their experience.’ These illuminating words from Bolman & Deal in Reframing Organisations (1991) have stayed with me throughout my coaching and OD practice.
They have strong resonances with similar insights in rational emotive therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. According to Ellis, what we feel in any specific situation or experience is governed (or at least influenced) by what significance we attribute to that situation or experience. One person could lose their job and feel a sense of release to do something new, another could face the same circumstances and feel distraught because of its financial implications.
What significance we attribute to a situation or experience and how we may feel and act in response to it depends partly on our own personal preferences, beliefs, perspective and conscious or subconscious conclusions drawn from our previous experiences. It also depends on our cultural context and background, i.e. how we have learned to interpret and respond to situations as part of a wider cultural group with its own history, values, norms and expectations.
A challenge and opportunity in coaching and OD is sometimes to help a client (whether individual or group) step back from an immediate experience and reflect on what the client (or others) are noticing and not noticing, what significance the client (or others) are attributing to it and how this is affecting emotional state, engagement, choices and behaviour. Exploring in this way can open the client to reframing, feeling differently and making positive choices.
In his book, Into the Silent Land (2006), Laird makes similar observations. Although speaking about distractions in prayer and the challenges of learning stillness and silence, his illustrations provide great examples of how the conversations we hold in our heads and the significance we attribute to events often impact on us more than events themselves. He articulates this phenomenon so vividly that I will quote him directly below:
‘We are trying to sit in silence…and the people next door start blasting their music. Our mind is so heavy with its own noise that we actually hear very little of the music. We are mainly caught up on a reactive commentary: ‘Why do they have to have it so loud!’ ‘I’m going to phone the police!’ ‘I’m going to sue them!’ And along with this comes a whole string of emotional commentary, crackling irritation, and spasms of resolve to give them a piece of your mind when you next see them. The music was simply blasting, but we added a string of commentary to it. And we are completely caught up in this, unaware that we are doing much more than just hearing music.
‘Or we are sitting in prayer and someone whom we don’t especially like or perhaps fear enters the room. Immediately, we become embroiled with the object of fear, avoiding the fear itself, and we begin to strategise: perhaps an inconspicuous departure or protective act of aggression or perhaps a charm offensive, whereby we can control the situation by ingratiating ourselves with the enemy. The varieties of posturing are endless, but the point is that we are so wrapped up in our reaction, with all its commentary, that we hardly notice what is happening, although we feel the bondage.’
This type of emotional response can cloud a client’s thinking (cf ‘kicking up the dust’) and result in cognitive distortions, that is ways of perceiving a situation that are very different (e.g. more blinkered or extreme) than those of a more detached observer. In such situations, I may seek to help reduce the client’s emotional arousal (e.g. through catharsis, distraction or relaxation) so that he or she is able to think and see more clearly again.
I may also help the client reflect on the narrative he or she is using to describe the situation (e.g. key words, loaded phrases, implied assumptions, underlying values). This can enable the client to be and act with greater awareness or to experiment with alternative interpretations and behaviours that could be more open and constructive. Finally, there are wider implications that stretch beyond work with individual clients.
Those leading groups and organisations must pay special attention to the symbolic or representational significance that actions, events and experiences may hold, especially for those from different cultural backgrounds (whether social or professional) or who may have been through similar perceived experiences in the past. If in doubt, it’s wise ask others how they feel about a change, what it would signify for them and what they believe would be the best way forward.
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'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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