The meaningfulness method
The book “Existential Perspectives on Coaching”, edited by Emmy van Deurzen, is a collection of essays that aim to demonstrate how existential philosophies and thinking can be used effectively to illuminate clients’ existential concerns, conflicts, challenges and life choices. It outlines the approach, framework and method for coaching existentially, and explores the wide range of settings in which existential values and themes are used in coaching sessions. It also includes examples of how existential ideas are integrated with other coaching methods, such as NLP, CBT and embodied coaching.
Although the existential concepts can be complex, the main method used extensively in the British existential school (namely phenomenology) is quite straightforward. The reduction applied to the process of consciousness, the object and the subject is an effective way to slice and dice a complex issue and to allow perspectives to shift organically. In my opinion, the art of existential coaching is to find the right balance of head and heart; being directive and spontaneous, bracketing out assumptions and being collaborative, being philosophical and pragmatic, and so on.
The founder of Animas Coaching School, Nick Bolton, describes the existential crisis within the coaching space as “paradigm meets circumstance”. Our worldviews aren’t challenged until we are confronted by “boundary moments”. This adds another dimension to the phenomenology approach, in particular dealing with “here and now” experiences, and it’s extremely effective to help a client to “make sense” in the moment. I often find that a major shift occurs when a client reflects critically, thinks creatively and becomes fully aware of their emotions in those “boundary moments”. As a result, it leads to desirable changes and gives clarity and new directions.
I’m particularly interested in one of the main existential conditions: meaning. As humans, we are hardwired to search for meanings; they link directly to one of the fundamental questions ‘how should I live?’ It’s not surprising that the crisis of meaning is spreading fast in our modern society when we have the freedom to define meanings however we wish, in a world with no intrinsic meanings. These days, more and more people and organisations have realised the importance of meaningfulness. It has a direct impact on our authenticity, fulfilment and happiness.
Inspired by various existential schools and by other disciplines I’ve studied over the years, I have developed an integral approach called the meaningfulness method to explore meaning-related issues for coaching or self-inquiry.
The meaningfulness method
We possess three great powers: will, awareness and action; elements of subjectivity from a phenomenological perspective. When the three powers are not integrated or in balance in a particular situation (objectivity), we experience the negative effects of these powers: conflicts, blockages, restrictions, and frustrations.
The meaningfulness method is designed to explore one of the core human conditions: meaning. How do issues with meaning relate to the three great powers regarding I/we/social/cosmic?
The meaningfulness method consists of three powers (will/awareness/action), four spaces (I/we/social/cosmic) and three stages (being/reflecting/transforming) to explore the meaningfulness in a wide range of settings, such as spirituality, career development, relationships, well-being, leadership.
Although the three-stage process is intended to be used in a linear way, it is only there to give direction, and not to obstruct the flow of spontaneity. Therefore, depending on the preferences of individuals, it does not have to be followed strictly.
The first stage in the process is “being”. Understanding the issue/situation (objectivity) from multiple perspectives; being aware of physical, emotional and cognitive responses; observing how an issue or situation shows up in the different spaces (I/we/social/cosmic) if relevant. The phenomenological and somatic approaches work well together to give a “whole” picture that is neither dominated by pure thinking nor by emotion. The aim of this stage is to expand one’s awareness in all dimensions.
The second stage in the process is “reflecting”. The clear separation of “being” and “reflecting” gives space and time to see the full picture before coming to any rushed conclusions. At this stage, a client is encouraged to use the knowledge gained from the first stage to deeply examine the situation, reflecting critically and thinking creatively. It is crucial to work with clients collaboratively, working side by side. The willingness to show up with authenticities and openness will greatly strengthen the relationship, and help clients to tap into their wisdom. The aim of this stage is to gain insight and clarity.
The third stage in the process is “transforming”. The manifestation of insights and clarities can take very different forms. Sometimes realisation itself will create the shift, whereas sometimes certain steps are required to see the change happen. The aim of this stage is to take those necessary actions. It is also a validation of whether a real change has taken place. Ultimately, if there is no behavioural change, maybe a real shift is yet to come.
After completing one round of all three stages, the process can either end there or carry on to the next level. A client can either choose to look at another aspect of their life that they would like to work on, or they can choose to a deeper level of meaning. The process has many levels in a spiralling up pattern.
When the meaningfulness method works in conjunction with the self-enquiry through the meaningfulness meditation method (a method created by two founders of the meaningfulness movement), it creates a safe and spacious space for people to dive deeper into their inner world of being; a necessary and important space in this noisy and distracting world.