Coaching – a hopeful art

I entered coaching more by intuition than by decision. I found myself drawn to a professional practice that aligned with my father’s legacy and with my own 15-year journey in exploration of the political possibilities of gentleness. From my course of study I now understand that, practised ethically and sensitively, coaching can be a gentle art. Coaching can be a celebration of withness. Coaching can invite people to the richness of possibilities in the art of being human. Coaching can, at best, invite people to a deep and shimmering, relational presence, in the moving embrace of the ineffable. Coaching also sits as a practice in that space between individual change and collective change, having the potential to catalyse those kinds of changes that ripple out through the pulses and echoes of individual hearts and human relationship. Unlike psychotherapy, coaching does not reach back into the darkness and stir. Sometimes it’s as simple as introducing someone to themselves, their possibilities, and the more hopeful realities of their life. To practise the profession of coaching is to practise a hopeful art.

For me, one of the clearest statements on hope comes from Roger Simon, a radical pedagogist, who writes,

“Hope is the acknowledgement of more openness in a situation than the situation easily reveals: openness above all to possibilities for human attachments, expressions, and assertions. The hopeful person does not merely envisage this possibility as a wish; the hopeful person acts upon it now by loosening and refusing the hold that taken-for-granted realities and routines have over the imagination” (Simon 1992:3).

This seems to me to speak to the very essence of the coaching profession. Hope is the assertion, for me, that stuck is never really stuck. Coaches, in effect, become catalysts for hope, inviting openness to possibilities, helping people to loosen the binds of taken-for-granted realities and routines. Through a coaching alliance, the coach and the person being coached commit themselves to a coaxing-forth of openness in and through dialogue, presence, and time spent in the company of a spirit of inquiry: “Once the inevitabilities are challenged, we begin gathering our resources for a journey of hope” (Raymond Williams 1985; cited in Hutchinson 1996:2). Of course, a successful coaching relationship will depend in large part on a coachee’s openness to feedback and willingness to change (Bacon and Spear 2003).

Very little has been written about hope in academic literature outside the contexts of theology, psychology, and education (see Halpin 2003). Most work approaches the subject of hope from a utopian or eschatalogical perspective – where hope tends to be conceived of as being ‘somewhere else’, beyond the here-and-now, situated just beyond reach, but always reached-for, in a there-and-then.

In response to such approaches, in Habits of Hope: A Pragmatic Theory (2001), Patrick Shade undertakes a critique of particularly theological conceptions of hope that locate the agency of hope elsewhere, often in a salvific external absolute power. Shade draws upon the work of pragmatist philosophers, in particular C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, in order to move towards more embodied and personally relevant understandings of hope, grounded in what’s available, what’s near, what’s at-hand.

This is the kind of hope that interests me, and the type of hope that I feel coaching aspires to. This is the kind of work that I want a concept of ‘hope’ and the profession of coaching to do for me. I’m interested in hope that is most helpfully considered a consequence of a deeper presencing of the self in relationship.

It is important that any such consideration of hope doesn’t allow us to simply assume that an attitude of hopefulness will leave us free to do whatever we want or be whoever we want to be. I don’t think this is what coaching invites us to think, despite some popular conceptions of coaching as a doorway to ‘get the life you want’ philosophies. Life tends to be more complex than that, and coaching at its best works from the realities of life.

One of the key questions of theoretical inquiry in the social sciences is whether individuals can freely and autonomously initiate action, or whether what we do is in somehow determined by the ways our lives and identities are constructed. From Darwin onwards we discover that we have physiological, instinctual histories linking us to the rest of the animal kingdom that we cannot escape. From Freud onwards we learn that perhaps our lives are determined, at least in part, by subconscious drives and desires. Theorists like Althusser explore the role that ideology plays in determining our possibilities as human beings. Lacan, Foucault and others have explored the ways that our actions are also a consequence of language and discourse. It might seem difficult, if not impossible, for us to escape the forces that constrain and construct us. If hope is to be real, if hope is to be present, then hope must be grounded in the realities of our lives – the constraining, determining, shaping realities of our lives that often leave us feeling stuck and unable to move. David Halpin writes,

“The state of being hopeful … is not a passive or empty one. On the contrary, it implicitly involves adopting a critical reflective attitude towards prevailing circumstances. Indeed, hope often creates discontent, inasmuch as a person’s hopes for the future may make them very dissatisfied with things as they are presently, especially if they get in the way of making progress. Consequently, discontent of this kind often draws attention to a significant absence or gap in how certain matters are currently experienced, allied to a wish to change them for the better” (Halpin 2003:15).

The initial approach a person makes to a coach in a personal coaching context might be considered, in these terms, a deeply hopeful act. A sense of dissatisfaction with the present, a sense that something is getting in the way, a sense that something is out of balance, a sense that there is nowhere to go, will come together with a wish to effect meaningful change, even if the desire for change is muddied, and the nature of that desired change unknown.

People seek out a personal coach often through some felt sense of self-estrangement,  confusion, or paralysis. Hence, the first relationship to be the focus of an invitation to a deeper presencing through coaching is the relationship a coachee has with themselves and the potential for movement in their own life. In some sense, coaching is a way of introducing a coachee to themselves. This is most obviously done by mirroring the coachee back upon themselves: “The coach acts as a mirror, reflecting back the coachee’s thoughts, words and ideas to enable the coachee to see things more clearly and, in doing so, to work out how to move forward”  (Bresser and Wilson 2012:16). This can be done through catalytic and challenging questioning, bringing the coachee closer to the core movement and dynamism of their life. The coach becomes a sounding board to reveal the hidden, the unnoticed, and the unspoken.

Fran Peavey speaks of the importance of not only bringing our unique worldview to consciousness, but also our unique changeview, that, “comes from what we’ve been taught about change, our understanding of history, and our own observations and experiences.” (1986:164). To invite a coachee to a greater understanding of their own changeview may also be to invite them to consider the ways in which their understanding of change and how it works in their life may not be serving them very well. Their changeview and their reality may be at odds: “Most change initiatives that end up going nowhere don’t fail because they lack grand visions and noble intentions. They fail because people can’t see the reality they face” (Senge et al. 2005:29). In effect, people become stuck not where they are, but where they are not.

It is the always-already hopeful structure of the coaching relationship which supports the exploration of such tensions in safety and a challenging comfort. Kimsey-House et al. discuss these two dimensions of safety and challenge within the context of what they term Co-Active coaching:

“In Co-Active coaching, we talk about two core characteristics of an effective coaching environment: one, it is safe enough for clients to take the risks they need to take, and two, it is a courageous place where clients are able to approach their lives and the choices they make with motivation, curiosity, and creativity. By the way, “safe” does not necessarily mean “comfortable.” Significant change may be highly uncomfortable, and yet there are ways to ensure that the experience is safe” (Kimsey-House et al. 2011:17).

A key aspect of coaching practice, and of the hopeful call to a relational presencing, is the invitation to the coachee to turn discussions about goals and ambitions  from dialogue, clarification, and reflection into clear plans for actions, particularly small, doable actions that are easily accomplished: “To be effective, a goal must be inspiring, challenging, measurable and have a deadline” (Bresser and Wilson 2012:20). The practicality of doability makes the stuck unstuck. For Patrick Shade, this quality is an essential quality for hope and a precondition for the fostering of agency:

 “If it is to be realizable, hope must be practical in being continuous with current conditions. And yet, hope is itself practical in that its pursuit changes us and our environment, thereby transforming and taking us beyond current conditions. Hope signifies the growth of agency. [emphasis in original]” (Shade 2001:22).

I see coaching as a vital change tool for a more hopeful world, a way to make the stuck unstuck. Through the alliance of a coaching relationship people can be invited to become more themselves, in the sense that they can come to a greater awareness of the part they play as actors and agents in the conditions of their lives. Coaching draws people into an alchemist’s cauldron, where transformations are not only possible, but expected, remembering that “When all is said and done, the only change that will make a difference is the transformation of the human heart” (Joseph Jaworski, in Senge et al. 2005:26). To practise the profession of coaching is, indeed, to practise a hopeful art.

http://www.anthonymccann.com

References

Terry Bacon & Karen I. Spear. 2003. Adaptive coaching: The art and practice of a client-centered approach to performance improvement. Mountain View, CA: Davis-Black Publishing.

Frank Bresser and Carol Wilson. 2012. “What Is Coaching?” In Excellence in Coaching: The Industry Guide. Jonathan Passmore, ed. Pp. 9-26. London: KoganPage.

David Halpin. 2003. Hope and Education: The Role of the Utopian Imagination. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Francis Hutchinson. 1996. Educating Beyond Violent Futures. London: Routledge.

Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl, and Laura Whitworth. 2011. Co-Active Coaching: changing business, transforming lives. Boston: Nicholas Brealey.

Peter M. Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers. 2005. Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Patrick Shade. 2001. Habits of Hope: A Pragmatic Theory. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Roger Simon. Teaching Against The Grain: Texts for a Pedagogy of Possibility. Toronto: OISE Press.

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