Why it works or doesn’t

These days I’m thinking that coaching has three parts. The first is the topic/issue/breakdown that the client brings us. These come in to us in varying degrees of size and clarity—from “my boss says I’m too pushy” to  “I’m wondering what I should do with my life”—and inevitably shift, at least a bit, during the coaching process itself.

The second part is a combination of the client’s capacity to face the situation (by which I mean the wherewithal to articulate clearly and stay present with what is happening without very much denial, mitigation, blame or justification) and how much life energy and commitment the client brings to the circumstances. The intensity and flow rate of this phenomena, in its many names and guises, bring turmoil or calm, capacity for change or overwhelm, and a wide range of emotions, fear, joy, sadness, disappointment, happiness, anger, and on and on.

Our coaching skills in recognizing and responding to these first two parts will greatly affect the process and outcomes of the program, but don’t in my view determine it. That’s left for the third part.

The third part is the background from which we carve the larger world into individual “situations,” take action within these situations, generate a sense of identity and the feeling of precisely how we are connected/belong to/supported by life. This background is extraordinarily difficult to bring forward into awareness (either the client’s or coach’s), and thus cannot be described by the client and is so transparent/taken for granted in our everyday functioning that it’s rarely encountered or known. Nonetheless, as the title of this entry declares, this element, that I’ll call “existential feeling,” determines whether the coaching will have full effect or not.

What I’m describing is in some ways close to the notion of mood, a pervasive feeling of what is possible in life that shapes our sense of whether the future will go well or ill for us. But there’s more to what I’m saying than that. The feeling I’m pointing to sets us out on a project to resolve the discomfort, the disruption it causes. For example we might feel distant from life, that we can’t quite feel connected to what we’re doing or feel intimate with the people in our everyday world. This feeling happens in the background, below what we are normally able to articulate or observe – nonetheless it’s disconcerting, unsettling and we find ourselves wanting to do something about it. Consequently we take up a project of doing something about our discontent—which could likely show up as a lack of meaning—with great intensity. This is a project seen to have great importance – we might start a company or run for office or take up a big social cause. Then, anything that we met in life we would see as a  “situation” in which to be intense and address the other elements of our project. We would then act in this situation as if it constituted all of reality. We would not be able to  experience anything except  the situation brought forth by our project which began with the  existential feeling.

There are times to be intense and moments to relax. When we carve every situation into one in which we must engage with full energy then we misattune to relationships and conversations, alienate others and cause trouble for ourselves. This trouble might have us come to a coach. We wouldn’t be able to tell the coach what our project is or how it happens that we make every event into our particular kind of situation or the feeling that we are trying to resolve. Instead we might say, “My boss tells me I am not empowering my team. Can you help me? I think I need to learn some leadership skills.” Attending only to the leadership skills wouldn’t keep us from stirring up the same trouble and certainly would not leave us feeling resolved. To bring about those results as a coach, we’d have to understand the client in a deeper way that begins with understanding that there is an existential feeling behind or at the root of what the client is aware of. Then we could begin to find out what it is.

 As coaches, we uncover existential feelings by examining many many situations the client brings us, tells us about, and listen for what unifies them, what the underlying intention is. Even when the scope of the coaching program doesn’t allow directly working with the existential feeling, nonetheless we can take it into account and find small ways of addressing it. In this situation described above, for example, we might ask the client to take up practices every day that put her in direct contact with the immediacy of experience, request that she describe the experience so that it deeply registers (and not go on a wild goose chase of trying to find out what is most meaningful for the client— as indicated above that’s, not the real issue). After a while the feeling of distance between herself and life would likely diminish so that she could drop the project and consequently have the automatic troublesome behavior also fall away.

What you make of this? Do you think this way? Coach this way? What have you learned about it?