Spirituality in coaching
An Interview with Nick Wright, Christian Coaches Network, 6 March 2014.
CCN: First, share a little bit how you got into coaching?
I started out by working with an organisation that helped long-term unemployed people get back into work. As part of my role, I provided non-managerial supervision for around 25 individuals, helping people to make sense of their experience and grow through it. The team of us who were providing supervision met weekly for ½-day peer-supervision which was fantastic.
Later, I did some basic counselling skills training, took a year-long course in supervision and consultancy, did a masters in human resource development and, more recently, a post-graduate diploma in coaching psychology. I’ve now worked with lots of individuals and teams in coaching roles. This background in non-managerial supervision has certainly influenced my own coaching perspective and practice.
CCN: What was the motivation for your article Spirituality and Coaching?
I was approached by the editor of Coaching Today to write an article on this topic after she had read some of my blogs. She commented that she had found my insights and perspective unusual and interesting and thought that the journal’s readers would too.
To be honest, I felt excited about the possibility of writing something for the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy. It was a great opportunity to present a Christian perspective and approach in such a prestigious forum. At the same time, I felt daunted. I felt concerned and inadequate about how to present such an important topic well in a secular forum, especially where Christians hold different views on this issue and it’s so easy to be misunderstood. I wanted to convey a personal perspective authentically, to convey my meaning and ideas well, without coming across as dogmatic or preachy.
CCN: In your article, Spirituality in Coaching you present a case for how a spiritual dimension can influence the coach’s outlook on the coaching relationship and even influence the coaching conversation itself. Some coaches would argue that if you interject anything of your own personal beliefs into the conversation that you’re not following the client’s lead. How to you handle that tension?
I think that’s an important question. Every coach brings beliefs to their coaching practice, whether consciously or subconsciously, implicitly or explicitly. The coach’s beliefs could be influenced by, for example, their own cultural or professional background and experience. I mentioned how my own coaching beliefs have been influenced by my own background in non-managerial supervision.
The coach’s beliefs impact on, for instance, what they notice or don’t notice in the coaching relationship and conversation, what they focus their attention on, what issues they believe are most significant, what sense they and the client make of those issues, what interventions or actions they consider appropriate or inappropriate etc. In this sense, one of the most important things for the coach to grow in awareness of is his or her own beliefs and to explore the foundations and implications of those beliefs
Perhaps a question that lies behind your question is how far it’s ‘OK’ for the coach to make their own beliefs explicit to the client. This is a tricky one. On the one hand, the coach may want to be open about their stance and where they’re coming from. It can feel most honest and authentic. On the other hand, the client may find the coach’s beliefs off-putting, constraining or confusing.
I think this is a particular issue where Christian beliefs are concerned. ‘Christian’ carries different connotations for different people, even within the Christian community. In light of this, a Christian coach may well need to deconstruct the term to explain what they mean by it and how the client could expect to see it in practice. As I mentioned
earlier, there are real challenges with doing this in such a way that the client can really hear what you mean.
In my experience in the UK, most clients have been less interested in my personal beliefs (unless they are Christians who believe that I can bring additional value by being a Christian too) and more interested in what I will do with them as a coach, how I will approach the client’s issues with them. They tend only to be interested in my Christian beliefs, at least at the outset, if they think they may impinge negatively on the coaching relationship, e.g. by judging or preaching at the client.
CCN: In your article you list some of the ways our faith can manifest in the coaching relationship? Take us to a couple of those real world examples.
OK, I’ll take you through the two examples I cited in the article because I think they illustrate what incorporating a spiritual dimension could look like in practice.
In the first example, Lydia was an experienced manager but felt nervous when presenting to senior leaders. She couldn’t understand this because, at a head level, she knew they appreciated her work and considered her to be very competent. We discussed how she would like to approach this issue together and agreed to use the 7-whys technique (otherwise known as a ‘laddering technique’). The conversation went something like this:
I started by asking what she would hope for from this time together. Lydia explained that she felt fearful every time she was due to present to the senior leadership team. She explained that she wanted to be able to handle it differently, more confidently. So I reflected this back to her, ‘You want to handle presenting to senior leaders more confidently’, then asked, ‘Why is that important to you?’ Lydia said, ‘Because if I could handle it differently, I would come across as more competent, more professional.’ Again, I reflected this back, followed by the same question: ‘You want to come across as more confident, more professional. Why is that important to you?’
We repeated this process a number of times until Lydia became quite tearful. She explained that she didn’t want to let the leaders down because, if she did, it would also feel like letting God down. Lydia believed that God had led her into this job and was worried she might fail Him. As the conversation progressed, it became apparent that Lydia was worried that if she let God down, he wouldn’t love her any more.
We could have approached her confidence issues at a surface level but, by probing deeper, she was able to identify core spiritual issues and to work through them to find a different way of being, feeling and acting. She commented afterwards that if felt like a great release.
In the second example, Johannes was an unemployed teenager in Germany and he came to me for coaching because he was struggling with family relationships and had joined a neo-Nazi group. I had spent years as a human rights activist so Johannes’ affiliation with neo-Nazis left me feeling really uncomfortable. Fortunately, I had a perceptive supervisor who helped me process how I felt so that I could stay focused on the client and the underlying issues that were affecting him. The conversation with my supervisor went something like this:
The supervisor’s name was Rudi and he asked me, ‘What’s on your mind and heart today?’ I replied, ‘To be honest, I’m struggling with Johannes because of his neo-Nazi ideology. I don't want to impose my own values on him but I find his attitude and behaviour towards the local immigrant people really upsetting and alarming.’
Rudi reflected back, ‘You sound pretty antagonistic towards Johannes’ beliefs and behaviour. It’s as if his feelings of hostility towards those who he perceives are different to him are somehow resonating with your own feelings?’ I hadn’t thought of it that way but he did have a point. So I said something like, ‘I do feel antagonistic and I’m at risk of modelling the same attitude and behaviour towards Johannes that he is acting out in his behaviour towards the local Turkish people.’
Rudi challenged me with, ‘What need do you believe Johannes’ affiliation with the neo-Nazis is fulfilling for him?’ I said, ‘He’s feeling insecure at home and the neo-Nazi group is providing him with a sense of belonging. Perhaps he’s acting out what the neo-Nazis expect of him in order to be accepted by them. He’s worried about being rejected by them as well by as his family.’
Rudi simply reflected this back: ‘So he’s insecure, fearful of rejection. How do you believe Jesus would respond to him in this situation?’ I responded, ‘I believe Jesus would reach out, touch him at his point of insecurity, show him acceptance and love.’ I then realised I needed to be careful not to reinforce Johannes’ insecurity by inadvertently mirroring his behaviour.
CCN: How important, in your perspective, is it that a Christian coach be sensitive to the Holy Spirit in coaching another Christian?
I believe it’s very important for a Christian coach to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, irrespective of whether the person being coached is also a Christian. There is always an element of influence in a coaching relationship and I pray that I will influence and be influenced in the ways that God desires. As a general approach, I try to listen for four
Firstly, the voice of the person I’m coaching; for example, his or her thoughts, feelings, interests, hopes and concerns. This is the traditional focus of coaching and counselling, trying to hear the client, ask questions and reflect back, helping the client to hear his or her own voice more clearly.
Secondly, the voice of the client’s environment. In my experience, this is much less common in coaching practice. It could be, for instance, echoes of assumptions or cultural norms that are shaping the client’s outlook and experience. If a client is feeling anxious, it may reveal something important about the environment itself; for example what is considered acceptable, what is rewarded, what is frowned upon or what the pressures are.
Thirdly, my own inner voice. For example, what I’m noticing or what feelings the client’s story or behaviour are evoking in me. Coaches sometimes refer to this as ‘use of self’. For example, if I’m feeling protective during the coaching conversation, it could be that the client is feeling vulnerable, even though he or she is not expressing it explicitly. If I listen carefully to my inner voice and reflect it back to the client, it could raise valuable things into awareness.
Finally, the voice of the Holy Spirit. One of the challenges is how to discern God’s ‘voice’ in the midst of so many other voices clamouring for my attention. There is no simple formula or magic solution so I find it important to approach this prayerfully whilst paying attention to my own relationship with God. If the client is a Christian, I may encourage him or her to explore an issue from five interwoven perspectives:
Mission: Which course of action is most consistent with what God has already been doing in through the client’s life or work?
Values: Which course of action is most consistent with biblical ethical principles?
Impact: Who will be affected by the client’s decision and how?
Identity: How would this decision affect the client’s sense of identity and relationship as a child/agency of God?
Intention: What's the client’s intention in taking this course of action?
CCN: How would you classify Christian coaching? Is it a niche, a speciality, an approach?
As in Christian counselling, I think there’s a spectrum ranging from practitioners who focus specifically on overtly Christian issues (similar to pastoral counselling or spiritual direction) through to Christians who practice coaching as a broader secular discipline whilst holding onto their Christian beliefs and values. I tend to fall into the second category because most of my work is with people who wouldn’t regard themselves as Christians.
CCN: Give us some insights into the coaching world. How is the field of coaching doing? What do you consider to be its challenges and opportunities?
In recent years, coaching (like counselling) has sometimes struggled to define itself. Different people and schools hold different views about where to draw the line between coaching and, say, consultancy, mentoring, supervision or therapy. It really depends on which type or coaching we are involved with because each has its own set of assumptions, methods and goals.
The increasing professionalization of coaching through bodies such as the International Coach Federation is helping to set common standards of good practice. This helps clients to know what they might reasonably expect from a coach. However, I would find it disappointing if coaching was to become too tightly defined or prescriptive because that would limit the diverse range of approaches currently available.
In the UK and in my own practice, I’ve noticed a movement from purely coaching individuals towards coaching teams. I think this can be a healthy development, bringing wider systems into the room. My sense is that this trend will continue, especially in organisations that aim to address organisational rather than purely individual challenges and opportunities. So overall, I expect to see a move from a predominant individual orientation in coaching to a wider system orientation.
CCN: Thank you.