Coaching has been defined and described in many ways, which I won’t review here. I’ve previously described it in terms of helping the client find their own next step, which reflects my existential starting point.
I’d like to offer an additional viewpoint here, which is not so much a definition of coaching, but something that highlights an important aspect of coaching. It’s the notion of coaching as disruptive conversations.
A disruptive conversation is one that disrupts the client’s habitual, familiar, taken for granted ways of being in the world (often called ‘in-grained patterns of behaviour’ in the coaching literature). It is the disruptive quality of the conversation that opens-up the possibility of transformation, as the client comes to realise that their deeply embedded ways of thinking, feeling and behaving play a fundamental part in creating the situations they bring to coaching, and more generally, the life they are leading. Suddenly (and it is often suddenly) there is an ‘aha’ moment, or a series of such moments, as the client comes to see themselves in new ways and new possibilities for the future emerge.
I have seen such a transformation happen many times, and I think it’s fair to describe this in terms of disruption. The impact is often visceral; a bodily response that is variously anxious, disturbing, disorientating, upsetting, exciting, humbling, and so forth. This disruption opens-up the possibility of significant changes that can profoundly affect clients’ lives, possibilities that may, or may not, be acted upon. A fundamental question seems to underlie the disruption – am I leading the right life? The follow up is – what do I need to do to get on the right track? Then – am I up for and have I what it takes to make the changes? These last questions are no small matter as a whole way of life can be in question.
How does a disruptive conversation come about?
The word disruptive may suggest an approach laced with challenge and confrontation, and though such interventions may have a place they are not the key ingredients of a disruptive conversation. My understanding of such conversations is rooted in the gestalt approach to perception and raising awareness.
The gestalt theory of perception demonstrates that we always attribute meaning to whatever we perceive (I hear a car passing; a tap dripping; a politician telling lies), and that such perception has a figure/ground structure. The ‘figure’ is the meaningful ‘something’ (the tap dripping) that is the focus of my attention. The ‘ground’ is the background, the situation from which the figure emerges. The ‘ground’, the context, is vital, is integral, to the meaning of what is figural. People laughing at a comedian is different to people laughing at someone being assaulted in the street. If you are decorating a room you’ll know that colours ‘change’ as the light changes during the day, or in the presence of other colours. Whether I perceive a politian as a liar or a saviour depends upon the my own (back)ground.
What’s this all got to do with coaching and disruptive conversations? Well, the client comes with something they want to talk about, their agenda, which is figural for them. A disruptive conversation begins where the client wants to begin, but as well as holding in mind what is figural for the client, their stated agenda, the coach seeks to raise awareness of the ‘ground’, both the situation as described by the client but also how they are in it – their thinking, feeling and behaviour (which can be described as the ‘psychological dimension of coaching’). The possibilities of disruption lie in raising awareness of the ground. How so?
This ground is mostly initially out of awareness and necessarily so because it is mostly of a tacit nature, the familiar, habitual, taken-for-granted ways of being and doing that we’ve learned from birth and embodied along the way, and which we’ve mostly never deliberately thought about, mostly ‘absorbed’ from the culture(s) of which we are a part.
The scientist/philosopher Michael Polanyi had a nice phrase that catches what I’m trying to get at here: “We can know more than we can tell”. Or again the poet Yates: “Man (sic) can embody truth but cannot know it”. Raising awareness brings into awareness the ‘unthought known’ (Christopher Bollas), the ‘ground’ which we know but have never articulated before, though maybe recognise it in a mostly inarticulate way, such as unease or excitement about something.
Briefly put, raising the client’s awareness of their ‘ground’ is likely to change the meaning of their figure(s), and in so doing create the possibility that new figures, new ways of understanding self and situation emerge.
I like to put it this way – raising awareness of the ground ‘frees’ the client from their ‘fixed gestalts’, their familiar, habitual patterns of sense making and relating to others, and in so doing frees them for new possibilities.
This foray into gestalt theory may seem a bit abstract, but as Kurt Lewin said: “nothing is quite so practical as good theory”. The theory helps us hold our attention to what is important (in this instance the figure/ground) and how to go about our work (raising awareness).
Of course, not all coaching has the quality of disruptive. I find myself thinking of the distinction that is often made between ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ learning. Horizontal learning is learning within a person’s current way of going about things, in a sense, enabling them to do what they already do but do it in a more effective way. Through coaching a manager might learn how to better manage their time, or network with others. The coach might invite the client to prioritise, or introduce models, techniques or apps that would assist them. I would not consider such horizontal learning the territory of disruptive conversations.
Vertical learning is not about assisting someone to do what they’ve always done better, rather its learning that radically shifts how people are in their lives, so they understand themselves and situations, and then act, in very different ways. For example, a person who has achieved success through being a specialist/expert is likely to have to radically change their way of relating to others to make a success of management and leadership. They may have to let go of being in control, of being the one who knows, and learn how to trust and reach out to others. This is what has been described as vertical learning and is the territory of disruptive conversations that ‘open new worlds’ to people. It will almost certainly be emotionally challenging to the client with an impact that’s likely to be felt across all aspects of their life. This is why disruptive conversations can truly be called transformational.
Coach, Psychotherapist and Supervisior