I’ve recently started blogging as a way of getting some ideas out, and hopefully getting a debate going. I’m new to this way of doing things and realise that my intention may not line up with the usual approach to blogging, because I’m seeking to develop a line of thought over a long series of blogs rather than each blog being about its own separate subject.
The image I have is of a jigsaw, with each blog being a piece of the picture. I realise, however, that it is my jigsaw and my picture, and I’ve not communicated this to you. A bit like sending people bits of a picture without telling them the bits are part of a bigger picture, and they have no idea what the picture looks like anyway.
So my overall interest, the big picture, in these blogs is to lay out an existential approach to coaching (which will also be relevant to other disciples, like mentoring, therapy), which is rooted in the philosophy of Heidegger. As I write I realise I’m not just ‘laying out’ the ideas but also working them through in the very act of writing – so to get a response and a dialogue/conversation going would be really good.
The blogs so far have focused on Heidegger’s notion of ‘being-in-the-world’ as this is a vital starting point for then addressing what it means to ‘take a stand on your being’. At the heart of exploring being-in-the-world you’ll find throughout the blogs the repeated challenge to the usual western, Cartesian, starting point of a separation between mind and body/world, a challenge which is fundamental to the Heideggerian approach.
With each blog I’m seeking to make the link, find the relevance, to coaching. The direction of travel is to move soon to the more explicit existential themes, and the context of the always present tension between being-in-the-world and going along with what ‘one’ normally does in the culture, and ‘taking a stand’ on what really matters. I think this tension is at the heart of coaching.
So back to the blogs …………………………..
Changing Practices, not Minds
This blog gathers up the strands and develops the ideas of previous blogs around the Heideggerian notions of being-in the-world, familiarity, mood, and so forth. The previous blog focused on ‘change’ and argued that change is not about changing minds but changing our being-in-the-world. In this blog I want to ground this alternative approach in something more tangible, in the notion of practices.
Much has been written about the notion of practices. My working version is that a practice is ‘a way of doing something’ that is usually shared in a particular culture. Some simple examples: brushing teeth; getting dressed; riding a bicycle; joining a queue, greeting a friend. More complex examples (which are likely to be the integration of many practices) are teaching a class; writing a book; conducting a choir, managing and leadership.
One thing to notice immediately about practices is that they cannot be split into the familiar Cartesian categories of subject and object, inner and outer. Practices are a way of being-in-the world such that the person and their activity in the world are all of a piece. For example, riding a bicycle involves myself on a bicycle. I can choose to focus on one aspect of the practice, maybe my anxiety as I learn to ride, or the way to change gears on the bike, but the practice of bike riding comes into existence as I get on the bike, start to peddle, and deal with what happens.
There are a number of important aspects of practices;
This same sense of ‘disclosing new worlds’ happens in coach training. The practices of coaching open up (discloses) a whole new way of relating to others, that, for many people, simply had not existed before (“but what can I do, what can I offer, if I don’t give advice, use my expertise”). They also begin to notice things they hadn’t ‘noticed’ before, such as the client’s subtle body language, the emotional tone of what they are saying, the significance of their own feelings as they work with the client. New possibilities emerge, for example a manage or leader realising that coaching practices ‘disclose’ a new ‘picture’ of what it means to be a manager/leader – someone whose role is to develop the capabilities of others rather than tell them what to do.
Change: the scale of the challenge.
The notion of practices helps us understand why change can be so difficult. They are a union of the person and their world. On the one hand, such practices are deeply embedded in the person. ‘Ingrained patterns of behaviour’ has become a familiar expression that catches this embeddedness. Such ways of being do not operate in the ‘mind’ but as tacit, habitual, skilled ways of coping in the world. On the other hand, practices are culturally embedded, the familiar way ‘one’ does things (which is why we can understand what others are doing), and each practice is nested within a complex network of practices that together constitute a way of life. From this perspective we can more fully understand the aptness of Merleau-Ponty’s cryptic phrase: "Inside and outside are inseparable. The world is wholly inside and I am wholly outside myself “.
Furthermore,I cannot change one practice without affecting all the practices within which it, and I, are embedded. Adopting the practices of coaching impinges upon existing management and leadership practices and are likely to be experienced, initially at least, as strange, odd, discomforting.
A further dimension in all this is practices are ‘mooded’; they are emotional through and through, and the moods/emotions are ‘personal but not just personal’; again ‘inside and outside are inseparable’. There are powerful social processes that hold people to ‘doing what one does’ i.e. the expected norms and conventions, and the smallest deviations can induce instant searing sense of shame whilst adherence to what’s expected can bring the pleasure of praise and reward. At the same time, we emotionally adhere to involvements with current practices. Imagine for a moment what it’s like to leave your mobile phone at home, or switch off your internet connection for a day – what is that like for you emotionally?
Stephen Mitchell, a psychoanalyst, catches all this when considering the difficulties of change from within the disciple of psychotherapy: “Psychopathology, in its infinite variations reflects our unconscious commitment to stasis, to embeddedness and deep loyalty to the familiar” (Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis p.273).
It is apparent that this blog has not got to the question of how to bring about change. Rather I’ve tried to develop the notion of practices as a key ‘unit of analysis’. I’ve also tried to explore the magnitude of the challenge of changing familiar personal/cultural practices.
To finish off its worth noting that the focus has been on change for an individual, but all that has been said here is just as relevant for change at a broader social level, for example change in organisation. The well know saying ‘culture eats strategy for’ becomes self-evident from the perspective of this blog, and resonates with the challenge to the usual Cartesian view of things. Strategy is about thinking, and thinking ‘from the top’ which is then passed to those below. Culture, as we’ve repeatedly said here, is the implicit, taken-for-granted habitual practices that taken together constitute a way of living, practices that we are viscerally and emotionally key into, and which won’t change because of the thinking of those at the top of the organisation. It’s like trying to get a flea to move an elephant. Organisational change is not about changing minds (or ‘mindset’) it’s about changing practices.
Coach, Psychotherapist and Supervisior