I've written 3 earlier blogs about mood. This paper, which I wrote a few years ago, draws together many of the themes about mood and coaching.
“Mood always has its understanding ... Understanding always has its mood” 1(p182)
Practitioners who come to coaching from a counselling and psychotherapy background tend to have a significance advantage over those without such a background. They are usually more ready to pay attention to, and work with, the emotional aspects of what the client brings. This enables them to work at more depth, to address the “inner” as well as “outer” game2, often to great effect, because of the fundamental significance of emotion to the issues they bring.
As a therapist and subsequently as a coach I often had a sense of ‘job done’ when the client came to understand their emotional involvement in creating, maintaining and changing their situation. For example a client tells me that the first time he saw his new CEO he thought “there’s my dad” and with that thought can a range of powerful feelings. Here we have what seems like a classic example of transference, and the client and I did some good work on this basis, working through the strong reactions he was having to the CEO in terms of his own personal history. So job done?
Well no, I think its more ‘job half done.’ There is no doubt that his emotional reactions to the CEO are his, but I also believe they are not just personal, they are also telling him something about the situation. For my client the job was more fully done when we also explored what his feelings might be saying about that situation, including the impact of the CEO on the culture and dynamics of the organisation. From this perspective emotions are a source of ‘intelligence’, in the sense of the ‘intelligence services’ having a deeper understanding of what is going on behind the scenes; a source of understanding not yet available to thinking. So in my practice now I always wonder about both aspects of the client’s emotions – the personal and the situational.
The shift in my understanding of emotion came through reading the existential – phenomenological philosophy of Martin Heidegger. He sought to overcome the traditional split in western philosophy between subject and object, a split that is deeply ingrained in our everyday, taken for granted, understanding of ourselves. People are mostly viewed as self-contained individuals confronting an external world which includes other similarly self-contained individuals. In this view emotions exist within the individual and are personal and subjective. There is often a sense that they cannot be trusted and somewhat dangerous. They can well-up and cloud proper judgment, which is based, in western culture at least, on rationality and reason. I regularly see the impact of these attitudes in coach training practice sessions when I encourage coaches to pay attention and work with coachees’ emotions when these are clearly present but not being addressed. The response is often one of anxiety and concern, a sense that it would be somehow dangerous to do so: “Opening Pandora’s box” is a frequently used metaphor, often followed by the challenge “this is coaching not therapy”.
Heidegger had a very different view of emotion. In some extraordinary pages of Being and Time1(pp 172-182) he argued that mood is a fundamental aspect of human existence, phenomenologically an aspect of the total situation, but which we then attribute to an internal state. For example, if I am excited then excitement pervades my experience; the world is an exciting place. Then, without noticing the move we make, we attribute that excitement to an internal state, a personal subjective state separate from the ‘outside’ world.
Heidegger coined his own word for his analysis of emotion: Befindlichkeit. The word is notoriously difficult to translate into English, but it conveys a sense of ‘mood’ and also ‘attunement’. A literal translation is something along the lines of “how do you find yourself?”, or more colloquially in English “how are you doing?” When that question is asked it invites the person to check in about what is going on for them ‘in their world’, reflect upon how they doing in particular situations, and attend to the overall sense of their mood. An answer might come back, perhaps with a bit of a sigh, “well a lot is happening; work is stressful but we are managing” or perhaps a different mood with a more up-beat vitality: “yeh life’s good; I’m excited, the kids are doing well and I’m really enjoying work”. The question “How are you doing” does not prioritise or separate the inner and outer worlds of the person, rather it invites a response that gathers together the total situation before a separation is made, with mood and emotion fundamental to this totality. Another way of putting this is to view emotion as a ‘field’ phenomenon, not as something contained within an individual. The everyday example of all this is when we experience the mood of a group, team or organisation. We can often feel it the moment we enter these ‘fields’, where it is clear that the mood is not purely personal, but something shared which provides immediate ‘intelligence’ about the situation.
Heidegger’s analysis of Befindlichkeit draws out a number of different aspects of mood:
(6)Finally, Heidegger writes about the way we typically engage with mood and what they disclose about ourselves and how we are in the world – by evading it: “... in the manner of an evasive turning away” 1(p174).
An example may help to bring all this together:
I have made an important decision to support someone close to me who is seeking to make a major change in her life. Taking this decision has great significant for my life too, it will radically change my circumstances. Over the summer life seems good and preparations are beginning to make the change. Yet in the background there is something not right in my mood – a flatness. I find myself kind of frustrated and annoyed with this mood as there is excitement around and this is spoiling it. Eventually I decide to pay attention to this mood, to bring it more to the fore and I feel it more intensely and notice other strands such as a kind of resentment and a sense of withdrawal. Words come to mind: “what about me” and those words resonate strongly with the mood and change it to one of kind of relief. I have “found the words to say it”. I realise that although one part of me deeply wants to support this other person, there is more to the decision than I had acknowledged. The move is not right for me and the rest of the family, it will have a significant detrimental effect that I am right to give voice to. I decide to talk this through with the intention of finding a way forward that is right for us both
Let’s have a look at this example in terms of the six aspects discussed above.
Implications for practice
The understanding that our feelings are personal but not just personal has had a significant impact on my practice. I am always interested in the background mood of the work, which is ever-present but, like the atmosphere, often hardly noticed. I attend to the mood the client brings into the room and how that shifts in the session. Simply asking a question like ‘and what might that feelings also say about the situation’ opens the door to a whole new conversation, as in my first example of the coachee and his CEO. I am also attending to my own mood and the mood we co-create in the session. I’m sure you’ll see how this way of working connects with concepts like counter-transference, use of self and parallel process
My particular area of interest is that background, ever-present but hard to name feeling or mood, as in my example above of a ‘flatness’. Attending to and articulating that background ‘something’ has proved to be particularly powerful. Eugene Gendlin is one of the few people who have written about Befindlickheit3 and his ‘focusing’ approach is tailor-made to articulate that tacit knowing embodied in what he calls a ‘felt sense’, which is what I’ve been calling mood. I recommend Gendlin’s ‘Focusing’4 (a small, very inexpensive ‘how to do it’ manual) to clients who can then learn for themselves how to focus upon and make sense of that mood.
How might this work in practice? I met with a client who was a member of the leadership team in a retail organisation. She seemed full of optimism and determination as she talked about a forthcoming business development meeting in which she intended to put forward proposals to drive the business forward. Though she seemed fully committed to her plan I noticed in myself a ‘felt sense’ that did not align with her mood, akind of detachment which I could not understand but persisted as she spoke. Though unsure if it was significant I shared my experience with her. She was initially surprised by my comment but nevertheless ‘sat with herself’ for a while, paying closer attention to her own background feelings, and, somewhat to her surprise, noticed a similar feeling which evoked an image of herself as “a computer in safe mode”. Unpacking the analogy she realised that though publicly she was committed to driving the business forward at another level she was overloaded and exhausted, and that feeling of detachment, which she recognised in herself, was a form of self-protection. Though ‘showing up’ as positive and committed’ another part of her was holding back, withdrawing, and she should respect this. The new awareness shifted her understanding of herself, her situation and what she might need to do going forward. She also realised, however, that there might be more at stake here. The theme of ‘personal but not just personal’ alerted her to what might be happening in the wider team and she left our meeting resolved to attend to the background mood of the team and what the team might need to attend to, to sustain themselves amidst the relentless pressures of the business environment.
As you may see, this approach can open up possibilities in 1:1 coaching. I am also really interested in its implications in other areas, particularly leadership. A primary task of leadership is evoking and sustaining the mood that is needed in the situation. The approach to mood and emotion offered here, alongside the focusing methodology, offers a practical way of developing leaders’ capability to tune into and make sense of their feelings, and on that basis understand and perhaps shift the mood of the group, team or organisation. Of course, there is a challenging personal and professional development agenda here. Each of us has our own ‘default attunement’ to the world (the mood and emotion we typically bring to situations) and self-awareness around this is vital in this work. Then there is developing the capability to focus on, articulate and use that ‘felt sense’ attending to both its personal and situational significance. This involves a kind of gestalt switching of attention, often working in the moment, back and forth from the personal to the situational significance of the feelings.
If you are interested in the ideas here I recommend you try them out for yourself. Whenever I have a sense that there is ‘something there’ in my mood which I cannot quite grasp but persists I ‘sit with it’ for a while, attend to it, and see if a word, image or something else comes up that gives meaning to that ‘felt sense’. Once I can articulate what’s there (e.g. a computer in safe mode) I wonder what it says about me AND the situation. On occasions it takes a long time (maybe days) to really grasp the meaning in the mood, but it is always worthwhile.
For a fascinating and moving account of Heidegger and Befindlickheit by one of the founders of intersubjective psychoanalysis see: Storolow, R. World, Affectivity, Trauma. Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis Routledge 2011
Coach, Psychotherapist and Supervisior