So, coaching. It’s what, exactly?

When people hear the word ‘coaching’ in Northern Ireland they often think of sports.

The type of coaching I’m talking about here has historical links with sports coaching, but it also has affinities with things like counselling and psychotherapy.

Some people talk about ‘Lifecoaching,’ which bemuses me somewhat. I didn’t think there was any other kind.

Call it what you like, Coaching is really just you and me sitting in a quiet room having a conversation. One session can last up to 90 minutes.

I sometimes think of my work as, ‘any excuse to get people in a room and let the magic happen.’ Coaching certainly fits.

Coaching offers you a chance for a confidential conversation with me about things in your professional life that you might not get to talk about much. These can be focused around work potential – projects, ambitions, dreams – or around challenges you face in your work – frustrations, conflicts, difficulties, or feeling stuck.

Either way, I’m trained to have a conversation with you that focuses on possibilities, on helping you find a helpful way forward. My hope is that you walk out of the room feeling life makes a bit more sense than it did before you walked in.

In some cases this might lead to what people typically expect from a coaching session – an action plan with achievable goals – but that’s not the only way to go. It all depends on the conversation.

The way I coach these days is based on (surprise, surprise) the principles of the Garaíocht Manifesto. Being in the room (or turning up for the videochat) is the most important thing. After that, the feel of the conversation is what opens up the possibilities. I aim for low-key, gentle, and ordinary.

If it starts to feel like you have more room to breathe and think, that’s to be expected. If it starts to feel like you’re discovering helpful parts of yourself you didn’t know were there, that’s good, too. If you start seeing white light or glimpsing flying saucers through the window, we’ve gone a bit far.

Coaching has been around for a while, and is widely used for professional development. Some of the helpful things that might come from going through a coaching process include:

  • Feeling personally and professionally grounded
  • Better self-reflection
  • More creative and innovative work
  • Higher productivity
  • Improved self-care
  • Higher motivation
  • Enhanced performance
  • Less stress

If you’d like a complimentary 10-minute chat about coaching and whether it’s right for your situation, please get in touch. (Thig liom comhrá a dhéanamh trí Ghaeilge.)

If you’re curious to know more about my approach to coaching, what follows is a more formal piece I wrote a few years ago.

Crafting Gentleness in the Practice of Coaching

Coaching can be a vital change tool for a more hopeful world. Through a coaching relationship people can be invited to become more themselves, in the sense that they can come to a greater awareness of the part they play as actors and agents in the conditions of their lives. Coaching draws people into an alchemist’s cauldron, where transformations are not only possible, but expected, remembering that “When all is said and done, the only change that will make a difference is the transformation of the human heart” (Joseph Jaworski, in Senge et al. 2005, p. 26).

I entered coaching more by intuition than by design. I found myself drawn to a professional practice that aligned with my philosophical journey in exploration of the political possibilities of gentleness. For me, coaching can be a gentle art, when practised ethically and sensitively.

Coaching can invite people to the richness of possibilities in the art of being human.

At best it can invite people to a deep and shimmering embrace of the ineffable, those things in life that cannot be quantified, or, sometimes, that cannot even be expressed. Coaching also sits as a practice in that space between individual change and collective change, having the potential to catalyse those kinds of changes that ripple out through the pulses and echoes of individual hearts and human relationship.

Unlike psychotherapy, coaching does not reach back into the darkness and stir. Sometimes it’s as simple as introducing someone to themselves, their possibilities, and the more hopeful realities of their life.

To practise the profession of coaching is to practise a hopeful art.

Back in the 1980s I remember that visiting a supermarket was usually a fairly unthinking activity. We would take down cans of food, or what approximated to food, and place them rather carelessly in the shopping trolley. Then we’d cart them home and eventually consume the mysteries within.

These days I tend to be quite a bit more discriminating about what we buy. Checking the ingredients list on the side of a can or a packet has become almost automatic for me. I may live with ADHD and an extreme sensitivity to sugar, but I suspect I’m not the only one who has developed a keen sense that what I eat and the effect it has on my body, my mind, my emotions, and my quality of life. Really, don’t give me sugar. Seriously.

And we don’t stop there; we also check where our food has come from, in light of anything from airmiles to sweatshops to the policies of national governments.

Sometimes when I think about how my thought influences my life, I think about shopping in a supermarket.

In mind of the spirit of Marx (Karl, not Groucho) who commented (more or less) that we make our own history but not quite as we please, I would say that when I think our thinks I do indeed think my own, but not quite as I please. We are born into conditions of thought not of our own making, and, for the most part, we tend to take our cans of ready-packaged thought down off the supermarket shelf with little regard to content or provenance or ethical import. Ready-made thought, ripe for consumption. We often give little thought to the ways that particular kinds of thinking can affect our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and our quality of life. And they can.

“Presence” is a term that is gaining caché in coaching, and one which I find useful to explore as a gateway to my reflections on garaíocht. Interestingly, as a positive term it seems to be finding more fertile ground in reflective professional practice (for example, in coaching, the performing arts, management, and healthcare) than in the more abstracted realms of philosophical academic thought. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the emphasis in professional practice on literally ‘being present’ in the company of another or others. Professional practice, practised ethically, invites a pragmatist immediacy of grounding and response on account of the quality of work-calling-to-be-done in and through relationship.

Writing on presence and presencing seems to fall into two main camps, which might be characterised as optimistic and pessimistic, respectively.

In the optimistic camp, writers present presence as an available quality of existence and relationship in the here-and-now. For such writers, presence is both possible and desirable. It tends to be experienced in gradations; more presence, it is assumed, is better.

Presence can also be cultivated; it is something we can train ourselves to do better. This is exemplified, for example, by the writings of Silsbee, Topp, or O’Neill within the field of coaching. Elizabeth Topp (2006) writes that “Presence” is “one’s quality of relating to the here and now or present-moment”. Silsbee likewise writes, “Presence is a state available to all of us at any moment. While acquired habits and tendencies greatly constrain our experience of presence, our access to it can be intentionally and systematically cultivated” (2008, p. 3).

The pessimistic camp provides a useful foil with which to temper the possibility of romanticism. In the pessimistic approach, those who consider presence desirable are doomed never to achieve it, as we can never fulfill the promise of an unmediated or non- representational existence. As Cormac Power writes, in discussing the work of Derrida, Fuchs, Blau and others in the context of theatre studies, “Perhaps the idea of presence – of whatever kind – is itself a kind of fiction, an example of theatre’s capacity to create the ‘powerful illusion’ of the ‘unmediated’” (2006, p. 128).

A more developed version of this approach can be found within philosophical discourse on “metaphysics of presence”, as found within poststructuralism and deconstructionism, building on Heidegger’s critique of temporality within Western philosophy from Aristotle to Nietzsche. Derrida and others characterise and critique the “metaphysics of presence” as the foundationalist tendency to anchor truth, reality, and being in a privileged fixed point of presence, essence, or identity.

From the perspective of coaching practice, such critiques cannot be brushed off lightly. Indeed, even within the work of presence-based coach Doug Silsbee there is a hint of circumspection about the stability of access to presence, “Realization, and the state of presence, disappears as soon as we observe and name it” (2008, p. 53).

My own position lies somewhere between the two.

I am happy to optimistically think of presence as a way of talking about the proverbial water in the lives of the proverbial fish, to repeat a story my Dad liked to tell. Two little fish are swimming along, and a big grouper swims by slowly, saying, ‘Good morning. The water’s lovely and warm today, boys.” The grouper swims out of sight, and one little fish turns to the other fish and says, “What’s water?”

For me, presence is the water. I take presence to be an available quality of existence and an existant quality of relationship. I don’t, however, consider presence desirable. It’s not that I think we are doomed never to experience or achieve presence, it’s just that I don’t see any point desiring that which you cannot avoid.

I find it helpful to step away from the notion of presence as being helpful in and of itself. For me, presence is a more or less descriptive term, referring simply to the qualities of hereness (‘being present’) and withness (‘being with’) that I assume are part and parcel of the experience of being human. Any claims made for presence beyond hereness and withness are, for me, not only beyond the scope of the concept but also distract us from the more political dimensions of relational life. If presence is always-already present (!), then it is not so much a background of presence itself that interests me as a coach but rather the different qualities of relationship we experience and how they work that is in play.

When people write optimistically and aspirationally about presence in and of itself, they seem to me to be more writing about a particular quality of being present, a particular quality of awareness, a particular quality of relationship, a particular quality of participation in relationship. Take this statement from psychotherapist James Bugental, for example,

“Presence is a name for a quality of being in a situation or relationship in which one intends at a deep level to participate as fully as she is able. Presence is expressed through mobilization of one’s sensitivity – both inner (to the subjective) and outer (to the situation and the other person(s) in it) – and through bringing into action one’s capacity for response” (1987, pp. 26-27).

Bugental is advocating not just being present, but a particular way of being present with someone, a particular attitude with a honed awareness and a deep quality of listening, listening both to one’s self and to one’s situation.

Similarly, executive coach Mary Beth O’Neill speaks of presence in the context of the coaching relationship as a particular kind of orientation. She writes that presence involves the development and sustenance of tolerance for “ambiguity, daunting challenges, the anxiety or disapproval of others, and your own personal sources of stress” (2007, p. 20). For O’Neill, the cultivation of presence is also the cultivation of courage and strength in the face of challenges. In the context of a framework developed with the aid of systems thinking, what she calls “signature presence” is the quality of being most yourself when your self is most needed, “moving through these moments in your own unique way, thus making the most of your own strengths, interests, and eccentricities” (ibid).

It seems to me that something more than “presence” is needed to speak of the variabilities of affect, power, and movement at play within relationship. One way to think about different kinds of presence, or different qualities of being present, is to consider presence (hereness and withness) in the context of proximity to others and the conditions in which we live. Within coaching literature relating to presence we find the concept of relational or social interactional field in the work of both Doug Silsbee and Mary Beth O’Neill. O’Neill’s understanding of the term is the closest I have come to my own understanding of proximity:

When any two or ten or one hundred people interact with one another over time, they create a social interactional field. It operates through the relationships of those involved, but it develops a character, shape, and set of rules transcending any of the individuals who contributed energy to its creation. … It has its own anchor points, resiliency, and breaking point, and it is most often invisible to the members within it. When anyone within the field moves, all members feel the effect, though differently, based on their positions. Other metaphors for the interactional field are the gravitational and magnetic fields. We are immersed within their invisible forces and we feel their influence, though most often that influence is unconciously experienced (2007, p. 49).

Proximity, then, is a way to speak about the continuous play of influences in a particular situation, the dynamic poetics of difference and differentiation whereby the personal experience of hereness and withness combines with a dynamic and relational ‘nearness’ of attraction and aversions, movement and currents.

Like any profession, coaching can be practised badly. We have the potential to do harm. It is not enough to know that we are on the side of the angels. We also have to be clear about what helpfulness means, so we can better evaluate our work with people, and continually revisit whether it’s as helpful as we’d like to think it is.

This is where garaíocht comes in. For me, garaíocht is the epitome of the best that our experience of proximity has to offer, and an obvious aspiration for any coaching conversation.

Bibliography

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Butler, L.S.J. 1999. Registering the Difference: Reading literature through register. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Foucault, M., 1990. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1. New York: Vintage Books.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1978. Language as social semiotic: The social interpretation of language and meaning. London: Edward Arnold.

Johnson, S. 2010. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. London: Allen Lane.

McCann, A., 2002. Beyond The Commons: the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, the elimination of uncertainty, and the politics of enclosure. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Limerick. URL: http://independent.academia.edu/anthonymccann

O’Neill, M.B., 2007. Executive Coaching With Backbone and Heart: a systems approach to engaging leaders with their challenges. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Power, C., 2006. Presence in play: a critique of theories of presence in the theatre. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow. URL: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/3428/1/2006PowerPhD.pdf

Senge, P.M., Scharmer, C.O., Jaworski, J., and Flowers, B.S., 2005. Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Silsbee, D., 2008. Presence-Based Coaching: Cultivating Self-Generative Leaders Through Mind, Body, and Heart. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Topp, E.M., 2006. Presence-Based Coaching: The Practice of Presence in Relation to Goal- Directed Activity. Ph.D. Dissertation Summary. Institute of transpersonal Psychology. University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. URL: http://www.slideshare.net/shiftalliance/presence-