How do you feel?
Emotion in coaching
Wright, N. (2020), 'How Do You Feel - Emotion in Coaching', Coaching Today, British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy, Issue 34, April, pp30f.
“What are you feeling?”, “Where do you feel it?”, “Whose feelings are you feeling?”, “What lays behind how you are feeling?” These types of question may be common in psychological coaching practice, yet the responses that our clients offer could be far more revealing, complex and significant than we at first imagine. In my experience, this is particularly the case when working systemically or cross-culturally. I explain these ideas below and suggest applications to practice.
“What are you feeling?” A client could respond to this question with something like, “I feel happy” or, “I feel sad”. These are examples of labels that people use in the English language to express certain types or categories of experience. I say ‘types’ because, on the face of it, happy or sad are only general descriptions. To develop this point, we could consider, for instance, how happy is happy? What does being happy feel like? How is happy different to, say, joyful, exuberant or content?
A client may also use other words to express nuance or increase accuracy. For example, “I feel very happy” expresses a level of intensity. “I feel generally happy” says something about continuity of experience. In coaching, we may dig deeper by posing scaling questions that enable a client to reflect, focus or evaluate their experience or aspiration further, for instance, “On a scale of 1 to 10..?”; perhaps by enacting the scale to explore what they feel and become aware of as they do it.
We can see here at once, though, how a client is both enabled and constrained by language, by the use of words to express subtle shades of emotional experience. In principle, the wider range of words the client has available to them, the better they should be able to articulate what they feel. In this sense, the client is using language descriptively, to distinguish between different emotional states. It’s as if an emotion simply is, and the client is seeking to find the best label to describe it.
However, it is tricky to use words to describe and differentiate emotions in this way, as if emotions exist and are experienced by people as discrete, distinct entities. Firstly, an emotion isn't an object with fixed shape, dimensions or form. It's a feeling, a felt experience, a fluid dynamic, a sense of something that is experienced deeply, psychologically and physically. It's often a shifting state, hard to pin down or grasp hold of and yet, nevertheless, powerfully present, influencing and impacting.
Secondly, language not only expresses what a person feels, but shapes it too. A client draws metaphorical lines to distinguish between their different emotional states and assigns a label to each state. Where a particular client draws the lines is governed by the cultural-linguistic categories they have inherited and are aware of. Since language is socially-constructed as such, we can consider that how a client articulates their emotional experience is an implicit indicator of that client’s culture.
We are also able to observe that, developmentally from an early age, children notice how others respond to experiences. They copy others’ reactions when faced with similar situations and thereby find themselves subconsciously and culturally expected to respond, or inhibited from responding, in certain ways. In some respects, therefore, what a client feels and expresses is partly a learned, conditioned response. Emotion is both personal and an indicator of their relational background.
This leads us to the third question: whose emotion is a client feeling? We are aware, for example, by ‘use-of-self’ in coaching that, as human beings, we can tune into others’ emotional states, albeit often subconsciously. A client may pick up on unexpressed feelings held by a person, family, group, organisation or community and experience them as if their own. The boundary between what the client is feeling and what others are feeling can be permeable-blurred and, therefore, confusing.
We can find similar and useful insights along these lines in related fields such as psychodynamics (transference, countertransference, parallel process); Transactional Analysis (evoked ego states) and Gestalt (field dynamics). I have found that paying attention to these dimensions can invite broader cultural, relational and systemic influences into the frame and, thereby, can offer potential for transformation. It means noticing and drawing on our own feelings as well as those of the client.
Focusing on emotion is more than cathartic. The idea that a client’s emotional state can function like a mirror, shedding light on wider issues and influences, suggests that, when a client expresses how they are feeling, it can be useful to explore that feeling within the client’s own cultural and relational context – not simply as a personal feeling or state but as something that points towards significant people, relationships, beliefs and values that shape their experiences and stance in the world.
So, what is the client feeling? It depends on the language available to them, the categories they have learned to assign to emotional experiences and the ways they have learned from others to feel and respond. Why are they feeling it? It's a partly personal and partly a social response to psychological, relational, cultural or contextual influences. Whose emotion are they feeling? It's their own, but sometimes it's not only their own. We can work with emotion to enhance energy and awareness.
*Burr V. Social Constructionism (3rd Edition). London: Routledge; 2015.
*Gergen K. An Invitation to Social Construction (3rd Edition). London: Sage; 2015.
*Goleman D. Emotional Intelligence: Why it Matters More than IQ. London: Bloomsbury; 1996.
*Pelham G. The Coaching Relationship in Practice. London: Sage; 2015.
*Plaister-Ten J. The Cross-Cultural Coaching Kaleidoscope: A Systems Approach to Coaching Amidst Different Cultural Influences. London: Routledge. 2016.
This article appeared in the April 2020 issue of Coaching Today, which is published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy © BACP: https://www.bacp.co.uk/bacp-journals/coaching-today