Coaching: an Antidote to the Assault on Thinking

Coaching: an Antidote to the Assault on Thinking

If one can bear to read the news these days, it is only to feel further depressed by the sheer inanity and infantility of public discourse.


1 July 2019

If one can bear to read the news these days, it is only to feel further depressed by the sheer inanity and infantility of public discourse.

Whether it is the sub-Churchillian rhetoric of a candidate for Prime Minister (‘to do or die’, as though we were in the midst of WW2), or the recent exchange between the Mayor of London and the President of the United States – ‘six foot three baby’, ‘stone-cold loser’ – the poverty of thought is glaring. None betrays a wish to communicate in other than the crudest terms or to reflect. There is a paucity of thinking as those supposed to know better grasp the nearest cliché and sound-bite – often indulged by a grateful headline-happy media – and feel their work is done for the day. But there is a price to be paid.

Descartes famously wrote ‘I think therefore I am’ but the modern version is ‘I feel therefore I am’ with roots in the Sixties mantra of free expression and a palpable misconception of therapy. To Freud and other pioneers of psychoanalysis, a failure to think was a regression from the reality principle, back to the infantile pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of the painful. In the Freudian perspective the infant develops the capacity to think through tolerating the frustration of desire and in (unconsciously) accepting that reality often requires the deferral and modification of gratification. According to Bion, for infants who are incapable of this tolerance, thoughts become oppressive ‘internal objects’, to be avoided and never engaged with. (The theory suggests that these infants may grow up to have serious psychiatric disorders.)

But even so-called ‘normal’ adults, when under pressure or stress, or simply when overloaded with information in a way our parents and grandparents weren’t…..or when external reality becomes too hard to bear, may try to cope and make sense of their environment by regressing to emotional responses and simplistic concepts. Not thinking is easy and allows us to go straight to our feelings and stay there, without having to tolerate the frustration of thinking things through.

(By the way, we may pride ourselves on our open-mindedness, and intellectual and social flexibility, but are we right to do so? We hear a lot about engaging with the Other, but in practice, most people prefer the Same: they play variations on familiar ideas, have intense discussions with people who in essence believe as they do, have the same values and share the same interests. Other tribes are infrequentable, an excellent French word which loosely means ‘wouldn’t be seen dead with them’. We exchange platitudes with those who share our views, are communally outraged at those who don’t and only allow ourselves to encounter those Others whom we can patronize, ‘rescue’, or somehow reduce to the Same. In short, we never really acknowledge their Otherness, which is precisely that which we can’t colonise within our understanding.)

True thinking requires us to reach out towards, while never fully grasping, the unknown; it means accepting that truth is multifaceted, often provisional and subjective. It involves hard work as you make your way painstakingly forward. True thinking, as Bion (following Klein) realised, involves linking often disparate or even oppositional entities – good and bad – to arrive at positions which are uncomfortable, full of ambiguity, uncertainty and duality. And yet this reflects the complex world we live in, which constantly overloads us with information which in a cognitive panic we often attempt to reduce to dichotomous categories and ‘cartoons’. (The simplest cartoon features us and our group as repositories of truth and goodness and other groups as emblematic of untruth and evil.)

To those of us who operate as coaches in the Tavistock Institute tradition, a complex and nuanced awareness of what is going on opens up a way forward for the client. They become aware of links between aspects of themselves they are happy with and aspects they would like to disown, facets of colleagues they can respect as well as those they find difficult. And this work often reveals the hidden benefits of the shadow side. (E.g. the ‘nice’ person mobilises their aggression as assertiveness.) Through this analysis, we help them to maintain agency, a willingness to take decisions and action even where – as almost invariably – there is insufficient data for certainty.

And most interpersonal issues – the life-blood of coaching – involve an absence of thinking in favour of feeling. (As noted in the seminal work ‘Difficult Conversations’ by Patten, Stone and Heen, emotions are one of the three key elements in troublesome conversations – and by extension, relationships – and the other two, identity and each side’s assumption that they have the monopoly of truth, are psychic at root.)

The Tavistock-trained coach works to discover where the emotional substrate comes from: why does a boss, particular colleague, team-member evoke such strong feelings, feelings that not only make working life unpleasant but undermine the primary task?; how has the client ‘narcissistically wounded’ a colleague by subverting a key plank of their identity? (A crude example would be a non-financial manager arguing with the Finance Director over arcane financial issues.) Understanding the other – via empathy – provides a fresh perspective on an issue in question and the relationship dynamics, and a way forward. The coach notices unhelpful patterns of behaviour and can discuss their likely source – which is the first step to changing them.

The modern world privileges the instant, the image, and the superficial: tweets, Instagram, spin, sound bites. Organisational life is a microcosm of this, but the coaching encounter can provide a container for exploring the reality of what is happening between people and within a culture, so that feelings are tempered by thinking, and so become a rational basis for action. What is sometimes missed in the literature on coaching is how enjoyable it is! There is an opportunity to take time out to reflect on deeper issues, and how they affect life at work and without, to explore the endlessly fascinating culture of organisations, to plan the future….all with a sympathetic but sometimes challenging coach who can offer other takes on what is happening and is prepared to think creatively with the client.

James Mackay, Co-Director and a Founder of the Tavistock Institute’s Coaching for Leadership Course

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