Walking a path of light
Wright, N, (2022). 'Walking a Path of Light', Coaching Today, British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy, Issue 42, April, pp18-22.
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119 vs 105)
I will start at the finish, then return to the start.
During the final module of my post-graduate studies in coaching psychology in the UK, we were invited to give and receive feedback to one other. I was humbled, encouraged and amazed by how many people said such words as: “You are a shining light”, “You brought a beacon of light”, “You brought light to the group, to all of us.” As a follower of Jesus, whom the Bible describes as Light, this felt very significant for me. The whole experience represented a journey towards light and enlightenment, from uncertainty towards hope.
In Gestalt, ‘contact’ describes the quality of psychological presence, relationship and connection with a person or experience (1). I had started the course feeling under-confident about my performance as a coach. This self-preoccupation risked interrupting my contact with the client and, therefore, paradoxically interfering with my performance. I learned to let go, to take my attention off my own thoughts, feelings, techniques and to ‘just do it’. This freed me to pay attention to the client, to enhance the quality of contact and, thereby, created a virtuous cycle.
I chose this particular course for a number of reasons: (a) I have a natural fascination with human psychology and experience; (b) it led to a formal university qualification; (c) it had a Gestalt orientation which I felt keen to explore and practise; (d) I felt a sense of connection with the course leader (2) and (d) it provided opportunity to build on my previous knowledge, skill and experience in this field.
Those are the rational reasons. At a deeper emotional level, I had just moved into a new leadership development role and hoped the course and qualification would improve my personal confidence and organisational credibility. I had done coaching for years but, without having had formal training, I felt an underlying concern, “Would I be good enough?”, “Would I be found wanting?” In cognitive behavioural work, this experience is known as social anxiety (3). I wanted to feel more confident and capable in my own eyes as well in the eyes of others.
I began to explore this anxiety further. I remember the first coaching practice session in front of the group where I felt a fear of humiliation and of collapsing confidence. This feeling may result from insecure attachment (4). As a child I had, apparently, cried a lot and my mother had struggled relate to me. As a result, I felt rejected and didn’t know if I was loved. In adulthood, this experience can influence my relationships as ambivalence: I may risk zigzagging between ‘moving towards’, needing intimacy, and ‘withdrawing from’, to avoid rejection.
I felt preoccupied with my own knowledge and technique. My attention was drawn inwards, “Was I getting this right?”, and this risked distracting me from the client and interfering with the quality of contact between us. Psychodynamically, it’s possible I was experiencing countertransference, that is, a reverberation with the emotional experience of the client, although I didn’t recognise it at the time (5).
Idealisation is a psychodynamic process of projecting and attributing perfect qualities to another person and failing to notice their imperfections (6). At some points, I idealised some others in the group and, by comparing myself to them, I felt self-conscious. As a result, my coaching style felt stiff and mechanical so I decided to let go, to imagine I was in a relaxed environment and to simply do what I would do in that environment. The impact felt dramatic. I became less internally focused, more focused on the client and my coaching felt more impactful.
I noticed a recurring theme during the first half of the course: my default to rational analysis. This was consistent with my ‘Thinking’ preference (7; 8). At the start of the programme, I spoke with a fellow participant about some tensions I was experiencing about a forthcoming work trip to Myanmar, about concerns I had about placing a colleague there at risk. I said I was struggling to get my head around it and, apparently, gestured towards my head.
As I continued to talk, this partner observed that I was now gesturing towards my heart. He challenged me: “You describe this as something you need to get your head around whereas it actually touches on emotional concerns and deeply held values. It’s something you need to get your heart around.” Rationalising can be a psychodynamic defence against anxiety (9). I became aware of how I was rationalising an emotional struggle.
At a later workshop, I was invited to draw a systemic view of an issue I was dealing with at work. I drew the system using circles to depict the different parties. My partner challenged me: “How might it be if you were to draw people instead of circles. You are depicting the scenario in rational conceptual terms rather than expressing and exploring it as a human emotional experience.”
As a result, I returned to work, reframed the scenario and re-contracted with the client to focus my assignment on interpersonal dynamics. This enhanced the work by surfacing and addressing actual human-relational issues that lay hidden behind apparent structural and process problems.
A challenge for me was that I was often only aware of what I was feeling during a session when I reflected back on it afterwards. I could become focused so intently on the client that I would lose contact with my own experience in the here and now. It reminded me: a Gestalt coach had once observed that I can sometimes appear to, ‘step so far into the client’s shoes that I step out of my own shoes’. I need to be aware of over-identifying with the client and thereby risking confluence, an unhealthy loss of clear psychological boundaries (1).
As I grew in confidence, I experienced less intrapersonal interference and, thereby, established more real-time contact with myself and the client.
During the Gestalt module of the course, we were invited in pairs to depict a piece of work with a coaching client on flipchart. I focused on a forthcoming assignment at work and drew a diagram representing the different people involved, the relationships between them and the explicit and implicit agendas. I drew a solid line between myself and the key client representing ‘strategy’ (explicit agenda) and a dotted line representing my underlying expertise in ‘psychological dynamics’ (implicit agenda).
My partner challenged me to re-draw my dotted line as a solid line, to do it and not simply to imagine how I might feel if I was to do it. This proved to be a pivotal moment for me in grasping Gestalt. As I picked up the pen and drew the line, I felt a sudden surge of confidence. It challenged me to raise my implicit value to the explicit level and to re-contract with the client accordingly.
I applied experimental Gestalt principles immediately to coaching a leader at work who described it afterwards as one of the most powerful experiences of his life (10). This significantly increased my confidence, both in Gestalt as an approach and in my ability to apply it to my coaching practice.
I subsequently used the Gestalt cycle of experience as the inspiration and guiding framework for my coaching of an executive team. Team members were experiencing considerable interpersonal tension and recognised it was affecting their motivation and effectiveness. I invited them to comment on what they were noticing in the here and now as we met together.
At first, some struggled to be honest for fear of raising the tensions further. I reflected this observation back to them and posed questions including, “What do you need, to move forward?”, “What do you need, to enable you to contribute your best?” The conversation around ‘what I need’ released them to be more open with each other. It felt less threatening, less confrontational, more honest.
I encouraged them further to consider and discuss, “What would improve the quality of contact between you?” and they agreed to speak up more and to listen more. I also encouraged the team to pay attention to what was figural for them, “What is in your focus at the moment, what is holding your attention?” and challenged them to consider, “Are you focusing on the most important things?”
As a result, they created and agreed new ground rules: to speak, to listen, to notice, to focus. I introduced brightly coloured cards as a mechanism for behavioural reinforcement: “Raise a card when you notice a good example of the behaviour you have agreed to work on together, or if you notice an example that needs to be challenged.” This approach is consistent with Skinner’s behavioural modification techniques (8). The bright cards have become an integral part of the team’s new culture.
The executives reviewed their experience three months later and reported back that, as a result of these interventions, positive changes to the team’s engagement and effectiveness, “have been radical”.
The Heidegger module resonated deeply for me (11). The phenomenological sense of feeling ‘called’ in the moment to act or respond in a certain way expresses well what I was experiencing on the course and in my work. I am using phenomenological in this context to express how a person actually experiences something, in contrast to how a person may observe or reflect on it in a more detached manner. At times, I feel an almost irresistible desire and energy to act in certain way and moment. It feels intuitive, a knowing-beyond-knowing, a calling forth from beyond myself.
My sense is that such insights often emerge from tacit knowledge, subconscious or bodily knowledge gained through years of life and work experience, a rationally unprocessed form of knowledge that emerges as intuition (10). I’m interested in how this correlates with my Christian beliefs about the activity of God’s Spirit and, in particular, spiritual discernment.
My interpretation of my experience, the meaning I attribute to it, is that God sometimes reveals insight that feels intuitive and prompts action in the moment that can prove transformational. Transformational coaching, for me, involves listening to four ‘voices’ and discerning, moving with, exploring the interplay between them: (a) the voice of the client, (b) the ‘voice’ of his or her situation, (c) the voice of God’s Spirit and (d) my own voice as coach. It’s not something I can make happen. It’s a deeply mysterious belief and conviction and, when I experience it personally, a purely psychological explanation feels inadequate.
A challenge in coaching is how to navigate conversations about existence, identity and meaning without taking clients into places they really don’t want to go. I believe it’s about acting ethically and authentically; contracting and negotiating the depth and scope of the coaching agenda openly without imposing or manipulating a client to accept my own metaphysical beliefs.
The Heidegger module also resonated with my interest in social constructionism and, in particular, the relationship between language and meaning (12; 13). After one practice session, the observer commented how often I reflected back to the client specific words they had used, prompting further exploration to uncover the meaning such words held for the client and her cultural environment. This is characteristic of my coaching in the workplace too, drawing attention to language to explore implicit paradigms, constructs and experiences.
At a later module, one of the participants commented in private how angry and frustrated she felt that some people in the group were bringing high levels of emotional content into the room, using the course for therapeutic purposes, and how inappropriate she felt this was. “This isn’t coaching!” She expressed this objection in ‘critical parent’ mode, as if she was scalding the ‘naughty’ group in its absence for behaving ‘badly’ (14).
I commented that different people within the group seem to have positioned themselves differently along a consultant-coach-therapist continuum. In doing so, I responded in rational-analytical mode. On reflection, I could have responded in person-centred empathetic mode, e.g. to explore whether her resistance was a result of, say, underlying performance anxiety (15). At the same time, I felt an underlying desire to persuade her to acknowledge her own subjectivity; e.g. to reframe, “This isn’t coaching” to, “That isn’t how I think of coaching” or, “That isn’t where I would draw the boundaries between coaching and therapy.”
In doing so, I realised on reflection I was seeking to challenge and convince her to share my own constructionist outlook. In Transactional Analysis’ terms, this could represent a Parent-Child stance (14; 16). It made me wonder how far my coaching practice was influenced by a desire to persuade people that a constructionist outlook is a more ‘true’ or honest way of perceiving and articulating their experience, rather than simply enabling them to explore their own reality within their own frame of reference. This reflects a paradox at the heart of social constructionism: that social constructionism itself is socially constructed (12).
This raises questions about goals of coaching and the ethics of intentionally exerting influence. The important issue for me is how to bring challenge of potential benefit to the client in what Transactional Analysis describes as Adult-Adult rather than Parent-Child mode (14; 16). In order to avoid hidden agendas, I needed to check I am clear about my own intentions beforehand and pose my insights or perspectives along the lines of, “This is how I see it...how do you see it?” as an invitation to explore.
A final challenge
As the course progressed, I noticed how we developed our own cultural norms as a group; e.g. how during check in we would sit in a circle, each only speak once and not say anything in response to each other’s comments. During group supervision sessions, we would always return to the same circle and default to conversation mode.
During one module, a participant challenged the status quo. Instead of talking about an issue facing the group, he suggested we all stand and sculpt it instead. The impact felt very powerful. The physical movement energised the group and the configuration that emerged revealed insights that I don’t think we would have reached or experienced through conversation alone (10).
In a later group session, one of the participants whispered to me how she would feel more comfortable lying on the floor. I said, “Hmm...I would feel more comfortable sitting against the wall.” I decided to propose this to the group. “How about we each sit, stand, lie in whatever way would make us feel most comfortable as we engage in the group activity?” Speaking up intuitively, freely, by the end of the course contrasts starkly with how I felt and acted at the start, marking a significant shift in confidence and behaviour. The group responded positively and most people moved into entirely different places and postures in the room.
The quality of conversation that followed felt completely different to that of earlier meetings. Moving freely to places where people felt physically comfortable, attending to the group’s ‘needs’, appeared to affect the relational quality between people, enhancing the contact and the openness, honesty and insight that emerged (1).
This intervention represented a significant development in my thinking and behaviour: (a) to trust my intuition when I have an idea for an experiment that could prove beneficial; (b) to be courageous in speaking up and challenging norms where fresh approaches could prove valuable and (c) to pay attention to how physical posture, configuration and movement can affect and potentially support the coaching process.
As I reached the end of the course, I noticed how my anxieties at the start had dissipated. I felt a greater and deeper sense of self-confidence. I had discovered that I can grow in insight and create powerful shifts for the client using experimentation, something that I hadn’t felt the creativity or confidence to do previously (10).
I now feel more comfortable with my own style, more aware of my strengths and limitations, more free to try new ideas and approaches. I have applied learning to my work with positive effect. In individual and team coaching, I trust my intuition and spiritual discernment more. I have completed a personal ‘cycle of experience’ (1).
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(This article appeared in the April 2022 issue of Coaching Today, which is published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (c) BACP)