As a Biochemist, my approach to baking bread started out as a recipe and a process to be followed and if I took care of these details then all would turn out as expected. When I trained as a coach, I approached coaching in a similar “process to outcome” manner. Now as an experienced coach and a coach supervisor, I am appreciating the art and craft above the science. It’s the same with baking bread. I love the whole craft of making bread with my own hands; every loaf is an exercise in accepting rather than expecting.
Awareness of body and bread
I recently took part in an online relaxation and gentle yoga class run by my friends Will and Rebecca. After the second or third class I made some bread. As I was kneading the wet dough this time, I noticed that I was so relaxed and at one with my physical being, that it felt as if my hands were in contact with every particle of the dough. I could feel the gluten stretch out as it absorbed water, and I could feel the yeast hydrate and get ready to ferment. Simultaneously I noticed my attention shift to those who would share this bread with me; my wife and son, and what the loaf represents – a token of my love – a token of the promise I made years ago to love them and care for them.
I shared this with them and with Will to thank him and Rebecca for the classes that had enabled me to be in this state of awareness. It was his suggestion that prompted me to write this to share with you. We are both coach supervisors trained at CSA, and the conversation with him made me think about how the craft of bread making is a metaphor for coach supervision. So, let me share what came up for me.
The miracle of bread
In bread making there are two critical steps, first the transformation of the flour and water from a loose, sometimes sticky, wet mixture into a silky, elastic, pliable dough. Second is the fermentation of the yeast that fills the dough with air and lightness.
It’s this first step I want to focus on. Kneading the mixture brings it together and enables the gluten (protein) in the flour to absorb water and with the stretching action of my hands elongate the gluten to give the dough its marvellous elasticity and silky texture.
As a beginner baker I was really anxious about working with very wet and sticky dough. It gets everywhere as you try to knead it and feels like it will never become workable. The bread book I was following described how to knead the dough and warned that on no account was I to add more flour to make it less sticky! Adding more flour, to make this sticky wet mess even a little drier and easier to work with, was not going to make a better loaf – it might look all right at first, but the ratio of flour to water will be altered and it will not rise properly, will too be dry and the texture too dense. The second part of the transformation will be significantly impaired!
However, I just got into a sticky mess, the work top was covered in wet threads of dough and I got more and more tentative, spent more and more time cleaning my fingers between attempts and eventually, and perhaps inevitably, added more flour - the book was right about the result – and I had made a very dense poorly risen and overly heavy loaf.
Commit to the process
What I have subsequently learned through practice, and asking experienced bakers for help and advice, is that by committing to just kneading the wet sticky dough and trusting that by just kneading it, with commitment and acceptance of how it is, the sticky messy mass will gradually absorb the water and activate the gluten. The gluten will stretch and transform into a workable dough that will change into an elastic pliable material that cleans your hands and the work surface. Then after 8 or so minutes of just kneading, a silky springy bread dough will emerge that is ready for the yeast within to do its magic – filling the bread with bubbles and lightness, as it rises and grows into its full potential without any further action from me.
Creating the conditions for transformation
Why am I sharing this with you? As a coach and a supervisor working with clients who bring complex, challenging situations, sticky problems, ethical dilemmas, uncertainties and ambiguity, there is a great temptation, maybe even a natural human instinct to want to help. To get them to a solution to their problem or take them to a “better” place; to make their sticky mess resolve into a nice dry workable answer. And the temptation is to add some extra flour of our own – just a little word of advice; or push towards what we think is best for them - to ease them towards transformation.
Or maybe we feel it’s too messy and that we need to wash some of the stickiness off our fingers and not get into that stickiness again. Maybe we even give up on this bread and have a go at another recipe that is a bit easier or more familiar instead.
The magic of coaching and supervision is that the real transformational magic happens when our clients connect to themselves and their own resources. As coach and as supervisor I’ve learned that my job is largely to hold the space, to be in relational presence with my client; to co-create the temenos – the conditions in which they can find what they need. No need to add extra flour, just be with the messiness, the uncertainty of how it will turn out, trust it will come together. And often, like for the kneaded dough left to prove, the client’s visible transformation happens without me being present, in the time between sessions.
Into the oven with trust and acceptance
Every loaf I make is a unique experiment. The taste, texture and flavour of the bread is unpredictable and exciting to experience. My supervision and coaching sessions are similarly unique, experiments in which the outcome is not in my control and which rely and trust in the magical transformative potential of my client. With both bread and work, I am willing to be surprised every time.