Mindfulness plus narrative awareness equals critique

By Martin Vogel

mindful revolution
Time for a mindful revolution?

This is the third and final part in my series on being and doing in coaching. In Part 1, I explained how I draw on mindfulness and narrative awareness in my work. In Part 2, I discussed the symbiotic link between being and doing, and the challenge to bring more of a sense of being to our doing.

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the critique of organisations that we have developed here: the idea that organisations could be less toxic places to work and could play a more positive role in addressing society’s problems. I don’t want to rehearse those arguments again but instead look at how they come out of the approach to coaching that I have been describing in this series. If coaching is, as I maintain, a way of facilitating unfamiliarity, it follows that it is potentially disruptive of the received wisdom in organisations – the things that are so taken for granted that it’s otherwise almost impossible to question them. By putting a premium on connecting with our embodied wisdom, our gut instincts and nagging doubts, it creates space to acknowledge the ways in which the things organisations ask of us might make us uneasy.

Where does received wisdom come from? Narrative theory tells us that it is shaped by the dominant culture of the age. In our age, the common sense is defined by neoliberalism: the idea that the market is the natural way to do things and, if we live with the consequences of the market, this will be better for everyone in the long run. More than that – and more pertinent to this conversation – it’s a common sense characterised by hyper-rationality in which the insights that comes from emotion, values and embodied wisdom count for little.

Since the crash of 2008, it has been self-evident that the promises of neoliberalism and hyper-rationality aren’t delivering. Look at the phenomenon of economic growth which leaves most people worse off. Look at the predicament of the tenants in the New Era estate in East London who face eviction form their homes so that their new landlords, an American investment fund, can charge a more profitable market rent.

At work, people bring constructs of what it is to be a manager and how the managed can be treated that are absorbed from the culture rather than rooted in their own sense of what it is to be human. Even the managed collude in this. We split our working values from our personal ones and abandon our sense of agency at work as we conform to what we think employers require of us.

Business has largely shed any sense of loyalty to or stewardship of the communities in which it locates. Plants close down and people lose their livelihoods according to the needs of profitability. New employers come but with punishing conditions – as the stories from Amazon fulfilment warehouses, and the vagaries of life on zero hours contracts testify.

It’s obvious that there’s a rage at the way the political and economic order is letting us down. The rise of UKIP, and the Occupy movement of a few years ago, are manifestations of this. There is a terrible sense of helplessness that as societies, we can’t find ways to address big challenges like climate change, the barbarism of movements like ISIS, or the spread of ebola in Africa. The dominant narrative, of neoliberalism and hyper-rationality, has no compelling answers. We’re so stuck on autopilot that we can’t see a way out of our predicament.

What has this to do with the question of being versus doing? Because being is awakening to what is. It’s one of the most subversive things we can do to challenge this mess. People may hunger for something better. But if we don’t make ourselves aware, how can we step back from the common sense which defines our thought – defamiliarise it – and imagine what that something better might be?

When we cultivate being, we awaken to what it is to be human – we connect with our sense of fellowship, compassion and awareness of deeper currents beyond a life on autopilot.

Holding this view does not mean that, when I’m coaching, I’m manning the barricades and agitating for revolution. It’s deeply important to me that I respect my client’s ability to work things out for themselves and make their own choices. But I’m more on the side of change than conformity. It’s inevitable that my values will inform how I work. But, for the most part, what I am trying to do is to help my clients bring more of themselves to their working lives than they are accustomed to see as relevant.

Coaches often talk about the tools and techniques which they employ, as if our clients are malleable materials to be knocked into shape. For me, how I work is less about tools and techniques and more about trying to work experientially to facilitate awareness, encouraging clients to face difficulty and uncertainty, and find their heart.

I try to be relatively modest about my own contribution, working instead with the influence of the client’s motivation. When people seek help, they bring a powerful motivation to move towards whatever is bringing them into coaching. If we do nothing else as coaches but show up, listen and trust we’ll come up with the right response, we help.

Two writers on mindfulness influence this disposition.

One is Karen Wegela who is a therapist drawing on her foundations in Buddhism. She talks about recognising the immaturity of one’s awakening. Rather than deluding myself that I have great wisdom to offer my clients, I tried to reside in not know and bring an enquiring sense of scepticism to what I hear.

The other is Gregory Kramer who has developed an approach called insight dialogue. Applied to coaching, this encourages practitioners to show up and be fully present to whatever their clients bring and to trust that you will come up with a sensitive and appropriate response. Trusting emergence is a huge challenge. I would not say that, in my practice as a coach, I model this disposition all the time. But in cultivating the discipline through my practice of mindfulness meditation, I strengthen my ability to hold the disposition when I meet clients.

More broadly, when I work, I bring a conviction that the context is material. Coaching theory tends to emphasise primarily the psychological. But the social, political and economic are also relevant. People tell me that to bring these things into the room is to be political – as if somehow, by ignoring them, we can be apolitical. But the context is in the room already. Organisations are operating in the wake of the biggest economic crisis in live memory. If we ignore it, if we collude with the common sense of the age, we align with the status quo: we are still being political – we just may not be aware of it. Our role, at least, is to hold out the possibility of other ways of doing things. This isn’t just about the big socio-politico-economic context at the macro level. It’s also about questioning the assumptions of the organisational environment, and how things function at the team level.

I bring an awareness of the systems in which people operate. But I’m not one of those who see systems are immutable. The idea of homeostasis tells us that any system will try to push back against change that it considers hostile – as antibodies marshal against viruses and bugs. But while systems are resistant to change, they are not given. Organisations are really only the sum of the human interactions within them. If one is awakened and acts differently that, by definition, impacts on the system.

It is sensible to be modest about possibilities, but always invigorating to act with ambition. The abiding idea in my head is that I’m trying to help people manage elegantly in the face of complexity. Organisational life is full of pressure on us to be the best at this or the world leader at that. And, if we aspire to bring some sense of emancipation and justice, we put pressure on ourselves to effect change in a seemingly hopeless situation. That’s a very doing mode. I try to bring a sense of proportion: just being the best we can be, given the circumstances. It feels more human and achievable – and, counter-intuitively, in that odd tension between being and doing, if we can reside here, in being, we can effect much more in the long run in our doing.

Image courtesy Jason Devaun.