Updated: Feb 10, 2021
In my previous post, we explored what coaching means (For me), and we saw that the object of coaching is not you, but rather the relationship between you and the world, and that my work consists of sampling how you adjust to the world many times over during the journey… and we pick up our journey at this stage.
It’s not that simple…
When I interact with you my client, I do not directly experience your adjustment to the world, you do. I rather experience how I adjust to you and the world, while you are adjusting to the world and me.
Practically, the way it works is your behaviour will resonate with me in many ways. For example, if you are stressed, I might struggle to find my lie on my chair… If you are sad, maybe I will feel some light sadness as well. There is no magic in this. We humans are born to automatically attune to our environment, and we naturally mirror what is happening with other humans around us [i].
Coaches use this ability and work to sharpen it.
This is an effective approach, but since it is indirect, it raises some questions like:
How do I know that what I feel is related to my client and not to my own life?
Do I feel enough?
How do I exploit what I observe and feel?
These are the three questions we will explore now.
Our experience of the world
One’s perception of others and the world around us never starts from scratch. We rather layer it on our past experiences, what we have assimilated from them, and then see what is new and needs to be experienced and assimilated. This is what adjusting means. All of this happens permanently, in real time, many times a day [ii].
In this context, to be effective as a coach, I need to discern what in contact with my client comes “from me” and what comes “from them”. In other words, the key question is: Am I using the situation to help my client, or am I using my client to help myself? (More on this in next post as well).
To be able to discern this, I need to train my own perception and conscience of the “from me” part, and better learn in which specific ways I relate to others, what my needs, resources, and tendencies are. This is what therapy is for.
Therapy is not a medicine of the mind reserved for the sick. It is a discipline which trains us to discover, accept and evolve our own contact with the world.
Imagine for example that when I was young, I had painful experiences at school. From these experiences, I assimilated many lessons about life in groups that have been very useful for me to survive then, but over time have become counterproductive, affecting my ability to evolve easily and feel secure in group settings. In therapy, I can revisit how I interact with others in groups and learn new lessons. This becomes useful material for me to base my practice on.
You catch my drift. The foundational training of a coach is psychotherapy. Therapy alone is not enough, but given the choice, I would sooner work with a coach who had a long/thorough therapy journey, than one who had an expensive and highbrow coach training with little self-development.
How does therapy help me be a better coach?
Training to be a coach certainly has to do with learning a method. But not without first laying the groundwork of understanding my own patterns. Here are some of the key benefits of therapy:
1. Therapy helps me acquire new relational material.
Through therapy, I learned new relationship competences, or creatively evolve attitudes and behaviours that are no longer adjusted. Written like this it almost sounds like going to a fashion store and finding new attire for a new career. Not so.
Therapy requires courage, endurance and humility. It proposes to face your worst fears, visit the most uncomfortable corners of your life, explore how you organize yourself to live in this world, and understand your limitations in ways few other life experiences can. It allowed me to take responsibility for how I respond to life.
We are not responsible for what happens to us, but we are responsible for what we do, with what happens to us. It is easy to say and do for bad weather or traffic jams on your commute, much much harder when dealing with deep suffering or trauma.
Having pushed that journey very far for myself helps me to accompany others on theirs.
2. Therapy teaches me to love.
The whole point of therapy is to open and make visible to the therapist(s) what in our life is not well adjusted, it is very confronting. What makes that confrontation possible and even liberating, is the non-judgmental attitude of the therapist. Being listened to by somebody who does not judge us, yet pushes us to own our life, is a heart opening experience.
Not being judged when we feel at our worst, reconciles us with our own humanity, and with humans in general. It enables us to open our mind and heart to the reality of the other, to accept them as they are.
Therapy enhanced my ability to love, and that as well is incredibly important for a coach.
3. It enabled me to feel more, and more accurately.
As we grow and suffer, we experience some of the less palatable emotions. Maybe we harbour deep anger or fear about something or someone. Since we cannot permanently live in fear or anger, we humans have evolved intricate ways to not feel these distasteful emotions when they come in excessive dosage. The problem is, what we cannot feel in ourselves, we can also not feel in contact with others.
The more therapy we do, the more our harboured, hidden, non-conscious emotions get acknowledged and embraced, the more and the better we can feel.
Therapy is to my emotional sensitivity what tool sharpening is to wood carving, thus essential for a coach.
4. Learning how to co-construct the experience.
When we are comfortable engaging with others in contact, we also become better able to make every moment of life an artful co-construction. This is one of the key elements of effective coaching. Coconstruction feeds into our conscience of what is ours and what is from the other, whilst making us experience the contact more deeply. And thus a virtuous cycle is started.
Therapy gave me access to higher levels of emotionnal flexibilty and approachability.
In conclusion: therapy (not coach training) is how we learn to discern between us and the other and enhance our ability to feel.
And what about the method?
Now that we have started the journey of training our conscience and that we are better attuned to our own idiosyncrasies in contact with others, we are ready to tackle the next training stage, and that is acquiring a philosophy and building a practice from it.
My choice of word is conscious, philosophy, not method.
If all there was about coaching was a methodology, the art of coaching could be learned from checklists. But to base our practice, we need a theory that credibly explains human behaviour and shapes our interventions as practitioners.
And that means a theory that explores subjects such as human perceptions, knowledge, ethical choices, language and expression, relationship to time, human development, spirituality and the human condition. That is the very definition of philosophy.
What makes a difference in practice is not exactly which philosophy I use, but more how I use the philosophy I have. If I put it at the service of a solid coaching alliance, then it will work.
What is my Philosophy?
I am a gestaltist. It means I base my practice on Gestalt-philosophy, also known as the philosophy of contact. I will maybe develop further on Gestalt another time, but here are some pointers. Gestalt is a German word which means “shape”.
The basis of my work is a philosophy that explores “what takes shape” in the contact experience between me and you.
It was founded 70 years ago by a team of philosophers and researchers in the field of psychotherapy. Its founding book was published in 1951 by Fritz Perls, Ralph Hefferline and Paul Goodman [iii].
Gestalt draws from many different heritages, integrating them into a coherent whole. The main ones are Gestalt-psychology and the perception theory, Phenomenology, Existentialism, Holism, Pragmatism, and some small elements of Freud’s Psychoanalysis. Also, it adds to these a new innovative element called Field theory [iv].
Gestalt has now evolved into a global movement and become an effective vector for all sorts of occupations, like teaching & training, consulting, coaching, and of course psychotherapy. Its body of research and publications is very significant.
I have followed several hundred hours of therapy both in individual and group setting, since 1997.
I started professional training in September 2018 at the Parisian school of Gestalt (EPG). I followed 2 years of cycle 1, which contains some didactic courses, and many hours of group therapy. Since January 2021, I have started the 2nd cycle, a 2-year study of Gestalt philosophy itself and its practice, which leads me to become a certified Gestalt-practitioner end 2022.
Finally, the last building block of how my practice is organized is supervision. Therapy is a never-ending journey, because for as long as there will remain new situations, we will need to adjust, and therefore we will sometimes be less well adjusted, coaches like the rest. To start with, many professional therapists or coaches retain a therapist for themselves long into their careers, just to keep the basis fresh and current.
But coaching is also very complex art, and sometimes we will get a bit stuck. We then need help to decypher situations. All professional coaches have a supervisor, someone they see usually on a regular basis, who helps them clarify what they could not by themselves.
Supervision is a colleague-to-colleague mentoring relationship where a more senior practitioner helps a younger one to discern in a particular situation what is hindering progress. Supervision is also something that gets learned… and maybe one day I will do that too.
My practice has been continually supervised since January 2018.
Famous last words… Being sufficiently good.
With all the complexity involved, the idea that there would be an ideal coach is frivolous. Each coach experiences the world in their own way, just like clients do, so there are no more ideal coaches than there are ideal clients. I am not sure that greatness in coaching really exists (How would we evaluate it to start with?). Terribleness and mediocrity on the other hand definitely do.
A coaching relationship is a relationship of equals in terms of the dialog between coach and client, but responsibilities in the relationship are dissymmetrical. A coach has a form of power, and it, like any power, can be abused. We will explore this question in my next post about deontology.
As a coach, all I must do is my very best to ensure that I will be sufficiently good. Then I must take precautions to protect my clients in case I was not (like supervision, and/or being a member of a professional association that can, among other things, handle complaints).
And, for coaches, and everybody else on earth, sufficiently good is… sufficient.
[i] The discovery of mirror neurons, and how we have evolved to imprint empathy in our brain circuitry is an area of neurophysiological research that was born in the 1990’s, much remains to be discovered in this area, but in the XXIst century, what we know of emotions in Gestalt-therapy and coaching is starting to be supported by hard scientific evidence.
[ii] To adjust to the constant novelty of life, everything the coach/client/person is, affects the experience. Our personal history, interpretations, our culture, our personal opinions and convictions, our belief, our own perception of the world, who we love, who we dislike, who our partner/spouse is, whether we have kids or not, how we see, hear, touch, feel etc., all of that is unified in us, and forms a whole, and that unified whole is adjusting. Whilst all the elements mentioned above have an impact on our way to adjust to the world and learn from it, there is no discerning in what measure each one individually contributes to our experience. It is far too complex. We as humans are not reducible to causality…
[iii] F. Perls, R. Hefferline, P. Goodman, 1951, Gestalt Therapy, Julian Press, 466 pp.
[iv] One of the key authors in this arcane field is Kurt Lewin. For a teaser on this subject: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Field_theory_(psychology)