A Conversation with Sarita Chawla

Sarita Chawla’s first career spanned over twenty years at Pacific Bell in management, where she gained experience in total quality, facilitation, dialogue, diversity and leading organizations. Since beginning her second career, she has edited a best-selling anthology about learning organizations, led a three-year race dialogue initiative in the Bay Area, initiated women’s dialogues in the U.S. and internationally, and consulted for numerous corporations and not-for-profit organizations. A Master Certified Coach, Sarita is a senior faculty member at New Ventures West. She regularly leads the Professional Coaching Course, as well as the Master Class, an advanced course for certified coaches.

The following telephone conversation took place in 2010 between Sarita and Amiel Handelsman, a certified Integral Coach, when Amiel was on staff at New Ventures West.

Amiel Handelsman (AH): Sarita, thanks for joining me today. There are two areas in which I would like us to focus in our conversation. First are the experiences that have led you into coaching and into teaching coaching. Second are your reflections and comments on New Ventures West and integral coaching. How does that sound to you?

Sarita Chawla (SC): That sounds fine. We’ll see what emerges.

AH: Sarita, first question. Think back to your first contact with New Ventures West. When was that and what were you doing?

SC: I can’t remember the exact timeframe. If I went back to my old calendars, I could probably do that. Whenever James’s first class was, I was in that. My first contact of hearing of New Ventures West was when I had come out of Lifespring. I had gone through both basic and advanced Lifespring. There was a woman there who worked at Pac Bell with me and had introduced me to Lifespring. One day, she said, “There is going to
be a training happening through New Ventures West.” There was no actual organization then. She said, “You might be interested in it.”

One thing that had happened in Lifespring is that I had had a huge opening. This happened for many people. But something became very clear to me about Lifespring and EST and other similar experiences. They could create openings and initiate change, but there was nothing to support the change. So the people experiencing openings could very quickly go back into the conditioned tendencies, the old habits, that we all have. I saw this myself. I saw my voice beginning to develop in a different way. I had a real experience of who I was and who I wanted to be. I learned new concepts about language, commitment, and conversations. I was hungry, and I was ready. But Lifespring did not provide the ongoing support I needed. That is when I came across New Ventures West.

I heard about the course from my friend, and I signed up. There were several others where I worked also interested, and we all signed up together. That was the first coaching course James taught. It was called Coaching I and was held in Sausalito. James was creating it as we went along. That is how I came to be part of New Ventures West.

One memory that stands out for me hugely in that class is that at one point in Session One, James asked us to go home and come back the next morning with an answer to the question: “What is your purpose?” I sat there and thought, “I don’t know what my purpose is. I don’t know what my purpose is.” Having been in the corporate world for about fifteen years, I kept thinking about the question and came back and sat on my chair. I
remember the feel of whispering to myself – I didn’t say it out loud at all at that time – this voice saying, “I want to do what he is doing.”

It wasn’t the teaching. It was what was underneath that. The words that came out of my mouth when I had to stand up and answer the question were something like, “My purpose is to be there for other people in a way that I can see and experience the potential that they didn’t know they had and help them achieve it.” It was something like that. And it stayed with me. Because that is who I am.

AH: When you were taking this course, where were you professionally?

SC: I was a second level manager at Pacific Bell. A middle manager. I had been in a line organization before, and now I was in a staff position. I did still have people reporting to me and projects that I was responsible for.

AH: You have also had experience in and written a book about organizational learning.

SC: That came later.

AH: The organizational learning came later?

SC: The book came later. However, organizational learning was in the field of what I was working on at the same time as I was learning to coach. Slightly prior to the first course with James, Pac Bell engaged in what it called leadership development – a company-wide program – and I served as an internal resource to that. Leadership development was – I don’t know if you remember the Krone technology, Charlie Krone. There was a lot of philosophy in it. It was thinking about thinking. There were a lot of frameworks and design. They didn’t call it that at the time, but it was about the development of individuals and organizations. This really spoke to me: not just developing people, but developing them toward what they were passionate about.

I then encountered Peter Senge’s work. Peter hadn’t yet written the book, The Fifth Discipline. I went to Boston for a class that Peter was teaching. He was still part of Innovation Associates, the company he founded with Charlie Kiefer and others. Peter was teaching this course. I was again blown away by the concepts of learning, aspiration, creativity and development. I remember going up to Peter and saying, “I am absolutely
mesmerized by this. What do I do to learn more?” I was instrumental in bringing Pac Bell into the MIT organizational learning work. We were one of the first companies. This was before SOL [the Society for Organizational Learning.] So that was another thread.

And then James’s work came. I went through all the coaching work. I kept my hands and feet in the organizational learning work – dialogue, in particular. To me, they were all woven together. They were about different parts of development, individual and organizational.

There was one other thread. A year before I took my early retirement, I went into a major depression. I was in the hospital for three weeks. My whole world fell apart. That was the best thing that happened to me and the worst thing that happened to me. When I came out of the depression, it was as if everything had been stripped down to nothing. I was recreating myself. Then I took the early retirement. The first project I worked on after retiring was the book. [Pause] I’m trying to come back to your question. If I’m going into too much detail, please stop me.

AH: I will. Tell me about two people who have had a great influence on your life.

SC: The first person that comes to mind is my father. When I was very young, when I was a kid, I always wanted to be a doctor, just like my Dad. It was about healing people, about making life better for people. I really wanted to do and be that. This was because I saw Dad make such a difference in people’s lives. I remember all my essays about “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” It was always, “I want to be a doctor.” As I look back now, I see why he was so important to me and made such a difference in my life. I didn’t know it then but can see it now. He embodied for me what it means to be an integral man, even at the end of his life. The week before he died, we asked him, “Where are you going in your dreams?” He said, “I’m going to Lahore.” Lahore was the place he went to college and medical college. “And what are you going to do there?” “I’m going to get an education.” This was his spirit of learning and his commitment to service and healing. But not only that. He was also the life of all parties. He read literature and art. He sang beautifully. He was not just working, working, working. Although he did work – what did he call it – twelve hours a day plus emergencies.

AH: [Laughs]

SC: Every weekday he would come home, take a power nap, and then be ready to go to the club with my mother. It wasn’t about just work. He was a whole person.

Another person who was really important in influencing my love of people was Dr. Mehra who was the advisor for my graduate thesis. He believed in me in a way that I didn’t believe in myself. It was through his inspiration of beginning to love the work I was doing that I ended up topping the university and getting the gold medal for my graduate work.

AH: Did they actually give you a gold medal?

SC: Yeah, I have it. I’ll show it to you sometime.

AH: Do you wear it?

SC: I don’t wear it. [Laughs] It’s in a locker.

AH: Is it something you could wear if you were so vain?

SC: Yeah. It is a medal made of gold. It’s all engraved. I can’t remember what it says. But it was because of his belief in me that that happened.

And then I would say Ken [Murphy, Sarita’s husband]. Ken has been extraordinarily inspiring in several ways. One was how he created conditions in the organization [Pacific Bell]. I remember that even before I met him I knew of the conditions he had created in the organization in which development and coaching can happen. And where results happen, because you actually live out these principles. And just the way he lives his life.

Those are the people that come to mind. I could name a whole lot more.

AH: Thank you. I would like to spend a few minutes talking about your experience now teaching the Professional Coaching Course and also the two-day course, Coaching to Excellence. What does teaching a course with twenty people call you to do and be that coaching one person doesn’t?

SC: That’s a great question, Amiel. The simple answer that first comes when you ask that is consciousness of the system and its dynamic nature. What I mean by those words is that one has to pay such close attention to all the tiny moving – and I’m using this as an analogue – tiny moving parts. I do not mean to equate it to the world of machines. There are so many nuances happening in the inner and outer worlds of individuals that in the collective it becomes even more complex. What it calls forth in me is a tremendous balance of rigor and compassion for the group and myself and a constant asking of “How to sustain the learning environment and an open mood in every single one and in myself?”
And: “How to not collapse during the breakdowns that inevitably occur?” In some ways, it is system-sensing: sensing the system as it continues to change moment by moment. And holding the container in which anything can happen. So first creating it and then holding it.

AH: Sometimes when speaking of you, people use the words “soft” or “soft tone.” I’m wondering: do you think of yourself in that way?

SC: How I think of myself is that I have a soft voice. I have been told this. I can see it. I know that when I get really serious the volume of my voice goes down.

AH: When you get really serious, the volume goes down?

SC: It can go down. I have to be conscious to keep it up.

AH: This is not true of everybody in the world.

SC: No, it’s not. I have observed it in myself. I have to keep on top of it. And sometimes I don’t remember. But I don’t see myself as a soft person. I see myself as a person who has over time developed an inner strength that marries well with the love I have for people. I see myself as appropriately soft.

AH: I want to invite you to talk about another word, one associated with the Professional Coaching Course. That word is “rigorous.” Why would somebody in this course say, “Gosh, this is a really rigorous experience”?

SC: Another great question. I am finding the right balance for that – between being rigorous and being appropriately soft.

AH: When students in the program call it “rigorous,” what are they referring to?

SC: Upholding the standards of coaching. [Pause] The reason I am hesitating is: am I talking about who I was six months ago or who I am today? There is a difference. So to answer your question, one of the elements is to know how much someone can take. I think I’m landing on that in a more refined way than I was six months ago. Knowing when to stop. So maybe rigor might mean too much feedback.

AH: You’re referring to the times in class when you are coaching someone?

SC: Yes, it could be. [Pause] I’m outside in the back with my headset on, and fifty crows just swept over us. Anyway, that could be part of it. The other is that I have a commitment to getting students ready for certification, particularly learning to use the models. So rigor means ensuring that we’ve done enough work on that. Who knows how much enough is? I’m sensing and feeling inside what is the appropriate quantity, quality and tone.

AH: At New Ventures West we often say, “Don’t coach somebody without a body.” Why do we say that?

SC: The structure of interpretation in some ways is the body. How we interpret and construct everything we see and know is manifested through the body. Unless people take on practices that engage the body, they won’t sustain change.

AH: When you give people body-oriented practices, where do these practices come from?

SC: From a variety of sources. My constant reading, experimenting, and researching which modalities works with different people. The best part is when you come from the question: Who is this person in front of me? Where do they come from? What is their way of being in the world? What do they want to change? And what could I craft that they would be excited about doing? It is much more in the moment now than when I started.

I remember – this is sort of a funny story – the very first time I co-led a PCC Session One with James. One of my jobs was to design development plans for half of the students and then coach them. I was scared. “How am I going to do these one after the other?” And blah blah blah. I stayed up all night trying to get myself in the zone to do this – not all night, but it felt that way. I arrived the next morning with fifteen books as though I would have a chance to look at them. I really have to laugh at myself. [Laughs] The books were my security blanket.

Now, when I look back, reading and being with this material and slowly absorbing it over time is what enables me to design practices in the same way that I cook. At dinner time, I usually go into the kitchen, look in the fridge, look in the pantry, and then design what will show up on the dinner table without much planning. I start off making something, and I end up with something else. Ken sometimes says, “You’re a Picasso in the kitchen.” I don’t even know what I’m doing! I may start off thinking I am making an Indian meal. I change the spices, and it becomes a Thai meal. So that is how it now feels for me to design practices. That is how practices show up.

AH: To continue the cooking metaphor, I imagine that one competence you have – and any good coach has – is to notice when a client is having indigestion or even nausea.

SC: You bet. Or even just a slight burp.

AH: [Laughs] We’ve come to the end of our allotted time. I’d like to go for another five minutes. Can we do that?

SC: Cost you a nickel.

AH: Better. I’ll give you ten cents.

SC: All right…What else?

AH: When you finish a class you have taught, how do you know whether it has been fruitful? What do you see and hear that suggests, “You know, this was a pretty successful experience for the students”?

SC: It is a combination of things. It is the feel of the class. What is the mood at the end of it? It is the kind of questions that they are asking. It is the kind of class in which they have developed. Have they become a community of learners who no longer require me? It is the competence demonstrated throughout the year. It is the shift in their way of being. It is their level of fulfillment. It is moving toward a different developmental stage while also being satisfied with where they are. It is their ability to make a contribution to the field.

AH: We can think of coaching as a very serious matter. At the same time, people often tell me how much they have laughed during our programs. I know that you take coaching very seriously yet also at times approach it with a lightness. I’m wondering: What makes you crack up?

SC: What cracks me up? There is not a formula. It is whatever is happening. It could be a cartoon. I was cracking up this morning when I saw these two bluejays going at each other. I was thinking, “This is like a husband and a wife just at each other.”

AH: One of the bluejays didn’t like the dinner the other one prepared?

SC: Could be. [Laughs]

AH: Or maybe breakfast.

SC: Or maybe they were playing with each other. What cracks me up is the playful gesture. I know that I am serious. I have been that way since I was a tiny tiny kid. I have in fact at least twice gone on the lookout for cavorting coaches to learn how to cavort.

AH: Cavort.

SC: Yep. So I think, Amiel, that my ability to bring into my own life more humor without looking for it from outside is coming from taking myself less seriously and coming from knowing that where I am now, I am just fine the way I am.

AH: On that note, would you ever consider coaching a bluejay and, if so, what kind of opening would you need to see to make the offer?

SC: I don’t know. [Laughs] It might be tough to find an opening and understand their language. Actually, I think what makes more sense is being coached by a bluejay, because I have. I learn so much from them.

AH: Would you pay top dollar?

SC: [Laughs]

AH: Or just give the bluejay the ten cents I owe you?

SC: Well…[Laughs]

AH: I think that suggests we’re at the end of our interview.

SC: I have a question for you.

AH: Yes

SC: How was it for you to do the interview? And what did you learn about yourself?

AH: It was one of the more challenging interviews I’ve done because of the technology. I’m leaning over this thing that looks like a boomerang and speaking into it. I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation like this that was taped over one of these machines.

SC: I told you you should have come out here.

AH: Next time definitely. So, to answer your question, I learned how much I value face-to-face interaction…Thank you for schmoozing with me.

SC: My pleasure. I am now going to get in the hot tub before we hear our President’s speech.