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.
If you would like more on the ideas I've developed here about Heidegger, existentialism and so on, and are into multimedia then I strongly recommend a film by Tao Ruspoli Being in the World.
If you decide to buy it make sure its in English, not one dubed in German. If you buy the DVD through Amazon it's likely to be in German. If you buy or hire it through Amazon Prime then I think it will be in English
So, back to the blog, this on thinking ...........
The Place of Thinking
In a previous blog, I said we are ‘captured by a picture’ and that picture comes from Descartes, a picture of the mind as a distinct ‘entity’ situated in the head, an entity which is radically different from the body and world. This picture plays a vital part in our current common-sense understanding of the place of thinking.
Descartes philosophical enquiries had a specific aim, finding secure grounds for knowledge, a bedrock which was indubitably true and upon which all else could be built. His methodology was one of radical scepticism – he withdrew himself from the world, sat quietly in his study so as not to be disturbed by the world outside and then systematically and deliberately doubted everything that could be doubted.
He came to doubt his senses (we are all subject to illusions) and all received beliefs Indeed he concluded that there are no secure grounds for believing anything other than one thing - that he was thinking. Even if he doubted he was thinking he could only do this by thinking. Hence his famous phrase ‘Cogito ergo sum’I – ‘I think therefore I am’. For Descartes, a human being is a ‘thinking thing’. With this move thinking is installed as the quintessential human attribute, the defining characteristic of human nature.
If to be human is to think, what is it to be human at its best? It’s when we are thinking at our best; pure thinking not contaminated by other influences such as emotion or received cultural beliefs. Thinking at its best is rational, objective, detached, as epitomised by the picture of the philosopher or scientist.
This formulation also makes the mind, and thus thinking, the prime-mover, the source of agency in human affairs. It all begins with our thinking – our beliefs, attitude, assumptions or, in more recent terminology, mindset. In popular language “it’s all the mind”. And therefore, if we are experiencing difficulties, it is because there is something amiss in our thinking (in the language of therapy - “faulty thinking”); we have become irrational. This may be because we are over-emotional, over-involved, prejudiced – all the various ways our thinking can be contaminated.
If we want to change then again it’s all about thinking: it’s about changing beliefs, mindset and assumptions. And unsurprisingly the difficulties with change are referred to thinking – again about beliefs, mindsets and assumptions. For example, the currently popular ‘Immunity to Change’ approach, which locates resistance to change in deep-seated assumptions we have about ourselves and the world. The approach provides a methodology for digging out the troublesome assumptions, testing them and freeing the mind from their grip so as to enable change.
The Existential Challenge to the Cartesian Picture
Descartes picture of the mind has held sway for the past few centuries and still has us in its grip today. It seems so obvious that my mind is located just behind my eyes looking out upon the world. In his book Being and Time Heidegger critiqued this picture and offered an alternative view which situates thinking in a different way.
His starting point, his ‘picture’, was different; not a solitary person withdrawn from the world sitting thinking, but rather people engaged in their everyday activity, as in Renoir’s ‘Dance at the Moulin de la Galette’, or the craftsperson absorbed in their work. His methodology was also different. It was phenomenological, that is, he focused on our everyday experience. From this perspective, he noticed something which may seem surprising, but also very important. For much, if not most of our time, in our everyday activity, we are not thinking rather are doing what we routinely, habitually do – getting out of bed, getting dressed, having breakfast etc. etc. And, to repeat, mostly we don’t think about this, we just get on and do it. The great thing about phenomenology is that you can check it out for yourself – take a moment to consider how you spend much of your day. Do you spend time thinking about the ordinary things you’re doing, or just do them?
So, what is the place of thinking in this existential picture?
If Heidegger is right that most of our time we are not deliberately thinking, then what is the place of thinking, because there is no doubt that it has a vital place in our lives? Thinking comes into play in situations where there is an interruption to our usual taken-for-granted habitual behaviour and we ‘stand back’ from the involvement to consider the situation. It may be, for example, that I’m sending an email – just getting on and doing it – when the internet connection is lost and I have to step back and consider what’s gone wrong and what to do about it. Of course, this may not take much thinking if this is a familiar problem which I can easily fix and I just do what I normally do. But if the usual solutions don’t work I may have to more deliberately step back and think through what’s happening and what to do. Or maybe it’s that I’m travelling to work in my car, without any particular thoughts about the journey, and the road ahead is jammed, or my car breaks down. Now I must think.
Of course, the circumstances when I have to step back and think may be more complex. For example, it may be that I’m confronted by difficulties in my professional practice; things aren’t going well in certain situations or I am challenged to develop my capability. I then need to step back and think, to review my practice. You can see all of this in the notion of ‘reflective practice’ where thinking is embedded in cycles of involvement and stepping back. Thinking has its place in a process which is rooted in the tacit, taken-for-granted routines of practice; as reflection upon practice (not the prime mover of practice).
Thinking also has a place when we are first deliberately learning something new (though often we learn without this deliberate step, for example as we ‘join’ the culture of an organisation). For example, when learning to drive we consciously and deliberately learn about the different things we need to do – clutch, mirror, gears, steering etc. Thinking helps to hold our attention on the what needs to happen. We also know that acting on the basis of deliberate thinking can be very ‘clunky’ and that skilful performance requires the letting go of thinking, replacing it with absorbed involvement in the activity, with embodied habits of practice that enable us to just do what’s needed in the situation.
This account of the place of thinking, rooted in Heidegger’s Being and Time (1926), has resonance with contemporary accounts of thinking, such as Daniel Kahneman Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, Malcolm Gladwell Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, and Charles Duhigg The Power of Habit; Why We Do What We Do and How to Change.
This account also resonates with Gallwey’s account of the inner and outer game. He gives a great phenomenological account of the movement back and forth between skilful absorbed coping and thinking. His ‘Self Two’ is the routine habits of practice that enable us to skilfully deal with whatever we are involved in. ‘Self One’ is what happens when we stand back and start thinking about what we are doing. Gallwey focuses upon how Self One (thinking) can step in and override and interfere with developing skilful habits of practice (Self 2), and in doing so disrupt performance.
Applying all this to professional practice
What is the relevance of all of this to practice, for example, for a coaching? The first point is not to start with thinking as the prime mover and source of agency, rather that it has its place in the cycle of reflection on practice. Thinking is vital as we stand back and reflect upon our familiar, taken for granted habits of practice. Indeed, coaching can be viewed as an activity whose primary function is to facilitate that standing back and reflection. From this perspective, the coach is helping the client raise their awareness, bring into awareness, their tacit, implicit habits of practice; bring to the fore what has withdrawn through familiarity. When the implicit practices come more into view the coach helps the client think through how they’d like it to be in relation to the purposes and goals of their coaching agenda. The coach can then assist the client to challenge and change their current habits of practice (maybe how they speak to their direct reports, or the kind of presence they have in meetings), and hold them in these new practices until they become, in turn, embedded as new habits of practice.
The coach can be particularly important in raising awareness of familiarity, when that familiarity is of practices of habit that are deep rooted in the culture of the organisation, but they are practices that need to change if the organisation is to survive and thrive. The coach helps their client become more aware of, step back from and think about, how things are now and the vision for the future. Then hold the client in the implementation of that vision until it becomes the new familiarity, the new taken for granted way things are done here.
To sum up, thinking finds its place alongside ingrained patterns of behaviour. It involves a standing back from, and reflection on, habits of practice which are tacit, skilled ways of dealing with situations. The misperception of thinking, which is deeply embedded in our culture, is to give thinking special status as the prime mover, the key attribute, of that separate, self-contained entity ‘mind’.
Change is not about changing minds; it’s about changing habits of practice.
Coach, Psychotherapist and Supervisior