This may hurt.

by | Oct 2, 2020

Coaching continues to experience phenomenal growth, infiltrating every aspect of modern life and becoming the must have technology for successfully navigating crisis and uncertainty. It is now also easier than ever to become a coach, and why not? With an overwhelming choice of courses that offer “quick steps to proven success” and endless potential income for entrepreneurs and the aspiring self-employed. It of course makes sense to introduce coaching skills into any managerial tool kit. 

What attracted me (Garath) to train in a psychologically informed model of coaching was my own experience of being coached as a leader. I knew that what made the biggest difference to my own personal development was my coach’s ability to work at depth and enable me to suffer consciously. Her compassionate and searching approach allowed me to safely meet with the shadow side of my personality and learn to bear the unbearable. It was at times a painful process and also a source of lasting contentment.

Sometimes effective coaching is ugly, painful and like wading through treacle…

Clients inadvertently arrive at coaching with expectations of a clear road map that allows them to go around these shadow areas straight to their goal. Perhaps coaching this way can be effective, but deep rooted psychological factors invariably arise vying for attention and exploration. Beliefs, values, morals, culture, habits, childhood experiences and influences if left unexplored can constrain client’s coaching goals. Yet exploring them for the purpose of change and growth can bring about tears and turmoil, a reaction not typically shared, yet prevalent when coaching the whole person. Sometimes effective coaching is ugly, painful and like wading through treacle… Even the most successful and accomplished of executives have been known to be overwhelmed by emotion. 

James Hollis, the Jungian author, said when in the process of self-development one should ask daily:

“in what way am I so afraid that I’m avoiding myself, my own journey?”

This avoidance is of course common to us all, so it makes sense that to learn and grow as human beings, we need to learn to consciously engage with what we find difficult. 

Never is this more true when coaching with leaders navigating organisational change. We know from the formidable body of research that change has a huge psychological impact and presents its own leadership challenges.

Hollis, again said:

“In every passage (of change) there is a death of something, there’s rebirth and often a very horrible ‘in between’”.

Perhaps then the task of truly effective coaching in times of change is to simply hold clients during the ‘in between’? To not force forward with goals and action, rather to facilitate a conscious engagement with what is difficult to look at. Such a ‘holding’ would involve helping leaders access their inner-resources, fostering awareness of one’s self-destructive patterns and habits. These resources are pivotal to one’s ability to lead without getting tripped up by the stuff we’re afraid of, the stuff we’re avoiding. 

With this in mind, even the most innocuous of coaching scenarios, i.e.; coaching to get ‘that promotion’, becomes less about the business of interviews and CVs, and more about self-worth, vulnerability and resilience. We recognise that every client has a different experience of change and its kissing cousin loss. The professional exploration of the client’s experience of change that enables them not to be overpowered by it every time they go through another change. 

This self-awareness may not be enough

A coach using a psychologically informed approach may begin sessions with a phrase like “what would you like to work on?” This deliberate opener indicates to the client we are ‘working’ – a nuanced acknowledgement to the depth of personal psychological insight work about to be undertaken. So, the nature of this coaching work is bringing into awareness the client’s unconscious process. To shine the light of awareness onto that which the client couldn’t previously see, the stuff that may have been blocking their progress throughout their whole life but is certainly at play now. This self-awareness may not be enough, Thomas A. Harris, the Transactional Analyst said:

“It’s not true that merely bringing conflicts into conscious awareness guarantees that people will resolve them”. 

It is though, as Harris went onto explain in his 1973 classic ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’, a necessary start. 

We have noticed that getting to this point of awareness in coaching typically incorporates a client’s story about where they are stuck. The exploration of ‘stuckness’ will often involve talking about the client’s first family, investigating the message that was so deeply recorded in childhood that it is now showing up and getting in the way of their leadership. This is not the healing process of therapy, it is a psychological approach to coaching, an effort to help leaders examine their own psyche to see what is really going on. What’s more, it is an opportunity for client’s to examine those messages recorded during childhood from the lens of their ‘Adult’ self, accessing the reasonable, measured, intelligent capacity we all have within. 

Coaching psychologically provides the space to reconnect with your self-compassion, vulnerability and your most important relationship, the one with yourself. More profoundly, it is the analysis of our outdated childhood messages that takes us beyond mere awareness to a place where present change is possible and future action more likely. This process of self development is explained beautifully by Carl Rogers when he wrote:

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change.” 

We may caveat that with it may hurt a bit.


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