Coaching as Self-therapy.
The other day I was suffering one of my punitive super-egoic attacks, the super-charged version peculiar to those of us with a Presbyterian background. Suitably cowed but fighting back valiantly, I was making some headway, but the event that transformed my morale was a successful coaching session.
The obvious causal links are the confidence instilled by success, the pleasures of altruism, and the deployment of one’s skills, intuition and experience. A less obvious but arguably more important factor lies in the link between the coach’s own ‘issues’ and those of the client, magisterially limned by Robin Skynner: ‘[we] automatically select the ideal clientèle in which to study [ourselves].’
The implication is that when we help a client to disinter and reflect on underlying issues, we are also addressing the subterranean elements that perturb us. This could lead to the question: ‘can I only help those like myself?’ Here I would expand upon Skynner’s thesis: Walt Whitman wrote ‘I contain multitudes’ and surely part of our task as coaches is to find these often suppressed aspects of our identity and use that discovery to expand our repertoire of empathy and sympathy.
Without buying into structuralist fundamentalism – that we are entirely the product of the social, historical and economic structures in which we are embedded – it is helpful to us as coaches to realise that we are not hermetically sealed, with only limited capacities to change the individual character of which we in the West are so proud: we are influenced and shaped by a variety of external and unconscious elements and are much more malleable than we might suppose. The situationist psychologist Mischel argued that we effectively change personality according to the situation we find ourself in, and we know from personal experience that particular individuals or contexts shape and shift us.
But…..the kind of exploration that we are talking about requires work, honesty and incessant reflexivity: in the Tavistock Institute tradition each coach embarks on a journey of self-understanding which not only allows him or her to empathise and work issues through with a wider range of clients, but also alerts us to unconscious over-identification with the client – for example, when we unhelpfully share the sense of victimhood a client may feel vis-á-vis a third party – and to the hazards of projection (ascribing to others what we cannot admit about ourselves).
This latter illustrates the danger of not being aware of what we share with our clients, and how far a coaching programme should genuinely be a process of joint exploration. We can end as we began, with Skynner: until we realise and acknowledge that our clients often stand proxy for us, we ‘evade the truth about ourselves’ and are lesser coaches for that.
James Mackay, Course Co-Director and Founder, Coaching for Leadership and Professional Development.
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