Why coaching works

By Martin Vogel

Coaching reaches parts of the brain other approaches don't
Coaching reaches parts of the brain other approaches don’t

During these past three months, I’ve resumed my Masters studies in coaching – which partly accounts for the lack of posts here.  Aside from earning a living and maintaining family life, most of my spare capacity has been absorbed by keeping across the reading.  So it’s high time to put the studies aside and renew my acquaintance with my blog.

One of the things that strikes me is how my attitude to coaching has subtly shifted since I was last here.  I’ve always paid a lot of attention in coaching to my clients’ conscious sense of self.  I often tend to explore people’s values and aspirations, and what it would take to achieve better alignment with one’s values.  What this often flushes out is that we tend to hold a range of values that may contradict each other – such as the perennial tension between work and personal life.

Sometimes people are barely conscious of contradictions in their values and, when challenged to prioritise them, find it hard to do so.  We hold in mind at any one time only a small part of our sense of self.  The rest tends to be filed away or even difficult to reach.  The person we are tends to be different according to context and the expectations people have of us in each context – at work, at home, with friends, and so on.  Even within a context, we play different roles: at work, for instance, how we are depends on whether we are dealing with our boss, our colleagues or people we lead.

Coaching can help people achieve better integration of these diverse aspects of ourselves.  But my view about how this is achieved is changing.  In the past, I would put a greater emphasis on rational analysis, setting a personal strategy and striving for it.  Now, I tend to allow things to emerge much more organically.  I see coaching as providing a space in which people can luxuriate in reflection, and become more aware of the person they are.  It is a shift in emphasis from doing to being.

Now here’s the strange thing.  Most clients seek coaching because they want to change something with which they are not comfortable and you would assume that you achieve that through diagnosing the problem and setting a plan of action.  But more lasting and deeper rooted change flows from taking one’s attention off the objective and agenda for action and looking instead at where one stands and one’s orientation to the challenges life throws up.   We can try to behave differently to achieve our hopes and aspirations, but this is more likely to yield results if we are comfortable first of all with who we are, what matters to us and why.  And if we do this work first, we may find that the hopes and aspirations which were originally causing some unease were actually misconstrued and if anything needs to change that may be quite different from what we originally envisaged.

So much did I learn from my practice as a coach.  What I have been learning through my academic studies is there’s a sound reason why this should be the case.  From a neuroscientific perspective, there seems little ground for maintaining a belief in a conscious, rational self that gives us a sense of agency in life.  Consciousness is an artefact of evolution, and a somewhat over-developed one at that.  Much of our mental processing happens beneath the level of consciousness and our self takes credit for it retrospectively.  There’s a whole spectrum of physical, emotional and intellectual activity which governs how we respond to situations.

We literally embody the wisdom of our diverse selves in different contexts.  The challenge is to bring a greater part of this embodied wisdom to bear across the range of contexts in which we operate.  This is what I think of as achieving a better sense of personal integration.  It comes through surfacing associations between these different versions of “me”.   And this is best done tangentially than through head-on rational discourse.   Commonly used triggers to these kinds of associations include drawings, mindmaps, role models and simple questions such as “What does this remind you of?”   These are routes to informing ourselves by a broader and richer awareness than we routinely draw upon.

But I’m increasingly interested in pushing this further through approaches to coaching which, on the face of it, seem beside the point: learning through art, working in nature, developing stories.  It seems to me that one of the gifts that coaching can offer is not so much the opportunity to think in depth about something that is on your mind, but the chance to think about something else – the more off-topic, the better.  And from there, work back to the things that you’re grappling with.

By locating ourselves in our responses to things that mobilise our our other selves, that generate a rounded sense of who we are, we understand better what we bring to the things that are predominantly on our mind.

Image courtesy Liz Henry