Anger (and other emotions) in Coaching.
Years ago I coached a man who made me hopping mad…by frequently cancelling appointments, often at the last minute, and by remaining unavailable even to his secretary – so it was hard even to re-arrange sessions or make contact. Eventually, I confronted him and an interesting story emerged: he was a physically big man and as a young man had got into a fight where the other person had broken their arm. Since then he had had difficulty in acknowledging his aggressive feelings and this transmuted also into a reluctance to hold his team to account or to confront others in any way. The repressed returned as passive-aggression and the cancelling of appointments and unavailability allowed him to express his feelings in indirect ways. It was my emotional response to this which opened up a way forward, in a way Blake would have understood.
William Blake is dear to us at the Tavistock Institute, for his grave lies across City Road in Bunhill Fields, and his understanding of the complexity of our natures is an 18th Century foreshadowing of key elements of psychoanalysis and even philosophy. He was well aware of emotion as a creative force, writing that people achieved greatness ‘not because they have curbed their emotions, but because they have cultivated their understanding.’ (He felt that ‘without Contraries there is no progression’: thus in his illustration for the poem Tyger, the tiger is given the face of the lamb, embodying the elision of experience and wrath with innocence and sweetness)
Interestingly he associated the darker drives with energy, and there is something to be learned here not only in terms of what Jung called our ‘shadow side’ or Freud’s chaotic Id, but as a guide to how we coach. Coaches, (as with therapists) are sometimes hamstrung by an image – and self-image – of the helper, the Rescuer, a somewhat saintly figure who exists to help others. We may also pride ourselves on our learning, our education and training in psychology.
Owning up to and respecting the vagaries of our own personalities and sensitivities is essential, as is a working through of issues with a supervisor. But mobilising the supposedly negative emotions of anger, irritation, boredom, or simple dislike in the service of your client is equally important. (As is the feeling of being beguiled by your client: he/she may be dans la séduction a useful French phrase which doesn’t necessarily imply sexual seduction but also a quasi-strategic campaign to charm another. Evelyn Waugh noted that ‘charm kills’ by which he meant that someone who relies on charm to get through life, eventually allows their essential qualities to atrophy and die. Sometimes a client has simply run out of charm and has little to fall back on.)
Freud used the term ‘counter-transference’ to describe the feelings engendered in the analyst by the patient, and for him it was a useful way to explore: feelings the client might have about past authority figures, the kind of emotions he/she might evoke in others more generally, and what might be happening in the here and now of the analytic session – what message might the client be trying to send? As coaches, we can use it in much the same way.
To operationalise your feelings, as it were, three factors need to be borne in mind: have you ‘contained’ the client, which means creating an atmosphere in which difficult feelings and issues can be processed? Secondly, how sensitive is he/she – what level of challenge can they take? Finally, although your real emotions may seep out on occasion, mostly they need to be sublimated or filtered through civility – nasty comments or yawning don’t help….So, ‘God, you are irritating’ becomes ‘how do you think a colleague might feel if you made that remark?’ or even ‘what message are you trying to send me with your attitude?’ Boredom may be evoked not only by the content but by the client’s delivery, which gives you the cue to say ‘you sound rather listless as you tell me this story. What’s that about?’
To return to Blake: ‘in the universe there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between, there are doors’. In coaching one of the portals is emotion: our own and that of the client. If we remain only at the intellectual level, or if we are overly seduced by a self-image of kindliness and serenity, our understanding is limited and our coaching sessions become anodyne: a list of instructions and a narrow repertoire of overly familiar theories and models.
James Mackay is a Director and Founder of the Tavistock Institute’s course in Coaching for Leadership and Professional Development.
For more details of the Certificate in Coaching for Leadership and Professional Development including more details about module dates, the fee and venue or if you have any questions, please contact Rachel Kelly, Professional Development Manager.