Imagine this not so unlikely scenario: a coaching client has access to four different coaches in one day, all identically trained. The coaches are comparably gifted and experienced. The client will contract to work on the same issue with each coach for one hour. At the end of the day, the client will choose which coach they want to work with. What is it that informs their choice? Coaches run ‘chemistry’ sessions all the time – potential clients have chemistry sessions with several great coaches and choose only one; the coaches know well that ‘who they are’ is an important part of that conscious and unconscious decision. ‘Chemistry’ points to the earliest stages of forming of a relationship that gives safety, juice and vigour to the work of coaching. I have supervised coaches for 10 years and it is obvious to me that the most impactful coaches – the ones who get ‘chosen’ – are those who bring a ‘ space of conscious presence’, are knowledgeable about the self/other axis as they work and who can co-create a learning context that has genuineness, warmth and deep respect for the other.
Words are secondary... far more important is the space of conscious presence that arises as you listen. That space is a unifying field of awareness in which you meet the other person without the separate barriers created by conceptual thinking.
The Paradox of Presence
Every client, whether they are aware of it or not – is affected by ‘who we are’ as we engage with them. Our presence, in the most subtle ways, has a powerful effect on the person in front of us and can be the key to co-creating either marvellous or cramped conversations. I am glad therefore, that as coach training develops, it is becoming more usual to find significant focus on developing the presence and person of the coach. Our capacity to ‘be with’ our clients, to attend fully to the whole field of relationships in which coaching is occurring, greatly increases the possibilities for learning and for resourcefulness in sessions.
Creating presence requires that we are able to ground ourselves in a mindful, embodied way, truly open to what might emerge in the session and are able to bring ourselves back to that mindful place at any time during a session; the quality of our interventions comes directly from ‘who we are’:
The success of an intervention depends on the inner condition of the intervener.
Coaches in supervision often present moments in their sessions when the impact of the material or the pressure from their client, takes them away from being unconditionally present. At such times, they note that clarity is diminished and their interventions can become clunky or more like guesswork – we have all been there!
And yet, the ‘pure presence’ which we can inhabit at times during sessions, is at first glance, at odds with the notion that it is our relational capacity makes the work sing. The paradox resolves somewhat if we consider that our real skill resides in first being able to be unconditionally present and that from that awareness, we choose to engage verbally with the client in session. We do not lose the deep attention of presence; it guides the rhythm of silence and speech and gives space for both cognitive and intuitive interventions. It seems that the internal choices of the coach, include knowing when to be present and empty, and when to be robustly engaged in dialogue – moving back into spacious awareness and forwards towards the ‘other’ – these choices are what drive coaching conversations. The coach’s internal dance precedes and guides the conversational dance. Our clients’ feel’ this rhythm as we engage with them – unwittingly, they pick up the energetic connection that we are co-creating with them.
Creating a relational context that is conducive to learning and change is a pre-requisite of effective coaching practice…Change occurs in the crucible of relationship.
Coaches need to know how best to relate to the person they are working with – keeping the space clear of ‘clutter’ and being aware of how this space functions best. This requires that we are not caught in transference and countertransference and that we know ourselves well enough to manage our own feelings about the client or about the other players in the situation. It is important that we do not fall under the spell of a client’s transference. We are sometimes imagined to be ‘magical’ in providing successful outcomes for clients (never true!) or a client might put us on the ‘wise person’ pedestal. Equally, we may be perceived as being ‘in authority’ and in cahoots with the paying client or other stakeholders. In these examples, perception and power is distorted, responsibility is not appropriately shared; the client’s authority is subtly undermined when we do not challenge these perceptions and work within the relationship to bring about trust and a true conversation.
Martin Buber gifted the talking professions the notion of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship, characterised by generosity, respect, mutuality and reciprocity. This understanding of professional relationship is central to powerful coaching conversations. It is superbly amplified by the discoveries in neurocardiology. One of its key scientists says,
Leading with the heart in our present moment encounters is the only wise way to approach life, because the heart as a present-moment sensing organ is our very best system for knowing the truth about a situation.
At this stage of our understanding of what illuminates our conversations, it is clear that working consciously with the energies and intelligence of the heart is key.
Example: A coach brings a ‘difficult’ client to supervision; let’s say that the client appears to learn in coaching sessions and agrees to try changing certain behaviors regarding team members. In spite of considerable coaching, there is no real attempt at change. The coach is frustrated and concerned for the work and that their contract with the commissioning client may be going up in smoke. At this point, it is likely that the coach will focus on what is NOT happening, on what the client is NOT doing. Or on how bad a coach they are! However, if the coach can bring heart intelligence to the situation, there is much better chance that compassion for the client will allow the coach to see the client’s predicament for what it is and work with where the client is caught. This staying connected to the client, not judging either the client or oneself, tnot giving in to frustration, is often the means to accelerating change. It takes the courage – la Coeur – to get there.
Working this way – allowing the ‘who we are’ to be animated by heart intelligence, irradiates the coaching conversation. James Hillman has noted that, ‘the heart is the seat of the imagination’; it is therefore central to a coach’s impactfulness. If a coach can bring the wise compassionate observer to themselves and their client, if they can harnass the imagination in any of the situations where coaches can get stuck or confused, then there is possibility that the client will also be able to imagine resolution.
Bringing the intelligence of the heart into professional relationships and getting the heart around critical moments in coaching is one of the best ways to reach true solutions. It ensures that the space between our clients and ourselves is kind and open, that there is every possibility of ‘enhanced mental clarity, intuitive discernment and cognitive performance’.
Edna Murdoch 2010
Originally published in Personnel Zone