Some counter-intuitive thoughts about Personal Development in Coaching
In a previous article, I discussed how personal development occurs through connecting “the doing self” and “the being self”. Here I’m going to look at some of the interesting things that happen when we bring the being self into the equation.
There are many ways we can connect with the being self. Coaches often work with their clients explicitly to explore values, life purpose, personality type and so on. Underlying these approaches are some implicit ideas that, at first glance, are counter-intuitive to the idea that coaching is about working to achieve change.
The first of these is not striving. When we stop to consider who we are, we implicitly stop working on what we’re trying to achieve. Not striving, ceasing our struggle against reality, allows other things to surface. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman argues compellingly that activities such as thinking, ruminating and problem-solving are tiring. We often assume these processes, whereby we apply the mind in a conscious way, are cost-free. But Kahneman shows that they use up our resources in much the same way that physical activity does. In addition, as Kahneman also shows, our rational minds are not as reliable as we tend to assume. Because mental processing is tiring, our mind tries to avoid it at all costs. So it takes mental shortcuts to reach conclusions which intuitively feel right but which often are wrong. In a real sense, then, striving to conceive a way to change reality can take us further from our goal. It hits us with the double whammy of depleting our energy and sending us impetuously down the wrong track
The second idea is acceptance. This is subtly different from not striving and it is not the same thing as resignation. If not striving is about stepping off the futile hamster wheel of struggle, acceptance is about recognising the current reality that thereby comes into view. Acceptance is taking stock of where you are, being open to all that is good and bad about the situation and how you feel about it for better or worse. It is not possible to move forward from a situation unless you understand deeply your current relationship to it. Bringing the quality of acceptance involves a degree of curiosity. It allows space for unconscious attitudes to come to awareness and you may discover contradictions there: factors that are making you seek to change things but other factors that keep you attached to the status quo. Acceptance enables access to the inherent wisdom that is sometimes shut away by the fast pace of our action-oriented culture and allows us to take the measure of what is driving the desire to change.
This brings us to the third idea which is to know your self. This is as much about knowing where you’ve come from as where you’re going. We each have many parts to us which do not always add up to a coherent whole. Who we are is influenced by our family upbringing, our cultural background, the community in which we grew up, the nation in which we live, our career choice, the friends we make, our political affiliations and so on. The values, commitments and aspirations that we develop are an amalgam of all these influences. They are not always consistent with each other. Some values that we express we may not practise; others may not be known to us as values but are recognised in how we behave. Spending time in coaching exploring values may, at first glance, seem like a deviation from the agenda of change. But it is central to understanding the being self. It sheds light on the motivation that has brought the doing self into coaching. It disengages the autopilot that is working towards a pre-defined outcome and often leads the client to reconceive the goal in quite fundamental ways. Further, if the mind is fallible, cultivating awareness of the influences on it and gaining greater clarity about the values that really motivate us is our best hope of making good decisions in relation to complex situations.
Finally, it’s really important to make space for nourishing activities. These are activities that are nothing to do with the task in hand. If we’re working hard towards an objective, the most difficult thing is to step away to have a break. But doing something like different may actually be the most useful thing you can do. The mind continues to work subconsciously in the meantime. Sometimes this results in a creative breakthrough. But, even if it doesn’t, when you return to the main task you bring freshness and produce better quality work. The things that nourish us in this way fall into the categories of either pleasure (going for a walk, watching telly or cooking a nice meal) or mastery (tidying up, keeping on top of our finances, fixing something). It’s as well to make your own list of what works for you so that it have it to hand before you sink into the blinkered focus of action orientation.
Personal development is much more than working towards a goal. It’s really valuable to have an objective. But the learning along the way may be as important as the destination. And, sometimes, this learning takes us to destination that is different to the one we set out to reach.
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