If you’re a coach, have you ever reached that moment you and the ‘coachee’ both realise that you’re strayed into ‘the therapy zone’?
Coaching is supposed to be the forward-facing conversation right? Therapy on the other hand, has you looking back at your past and why you are the way you are.
However, aren’t they really the same conversation? They’re both conversations for growth.
Let’s say I’m that steely Ivan Lendl for the day. I’m coaching tennis ace Andy Murray. I wouldn’t make some hard distinction between a shot he played in the past and a shot he might play in the future. If I’m working on Andy’s backhand and think it‘s useful to review some shots from his latest Djokovic bout, I wouldn’t stop mid-session and say ‘sorry Andy — can’t go there, that’s in the past.’ No, if I need Andy to rehearse how he might have fired back that cross-court splice differently, then of course we’d go there.
So, why have this distinction in coaching? Why the ‘oh, I think we’re getting into therapy territory’ as soon as we start, say, straying into childhood?
Here’s how I see it. Let’s say I’m coaching a client to handle a boss differently. Now, I can coach her on how she might deal with that scenario on the face of it — what she’s going to say, how she’s going to say it, how she’s going to prepare. However, if say that boss is, at some level, representing her father from her past, then — let’s go there.
If that boss forces her — consciously or unconsciously — to travel back to a time when she was confronting her overly authoritarian father, then that’s the place to go, in pursuit of the bigger goal. If it’s really the father of her past that’s the deep issue, and not the boss — that’s the destination. That’s where the fear is deepest and that’s the richest source of growth potential.
The phrase ‘face your fear and do it anyway’ has become a cliche. But it’s become a cliche for present-moment scenarios. Sometimes, perhaps mostly, are biggest fears are not about that future event of pitching to the board, or delivering that speech to the crowd, they’re about standing up to Daddy when we were seven, or telling that Uncle ‘no’ when where five.
Here’s a modified version of the mantra: “feel the fear, wherever it comes from, and face it now”.
Whether we do the thing we’re scared of now, or whether we re-do the thing we were scared of back then, the body doesn’t care. We grow anyway. When — in re-living mode — we hit back at Daddy, or tell that playground bully to ‘f off’, the body and mind grows as if we’d been that kid. And that kid becomes part of who we are in the present. We immediately inherit the strength of that child in the present — and the material results surely follow.
“Why go back to old stuff? Draw a line under it. Leave the past in the past!” The common cry.
Why deal with Daddy back then, when we could just deal with The Boss right now? The answer is this: Daddy of the Past is a much tougher opponent, a much more effective sparing partner. You see back then, we were so much more vulnerable. If we fight the Scary One as a seven year old and win, grieving all the loses on the way, then fighting The Boss as a full-grown adult becomes a walk in the park.
An example from my own work: I was facilitating a group a while ago which included a particularly fierce French guy. I found it impossible to maintain my authority whilst coaching with this man in the room. Whenever he spoke to demand “why are we doing this?”, or protest “where’s the structure, I see nothing organised”, I was immediately back at the dinner table with my rage-o-holic father*. In the face of this guy’s protests, I was powerless. I took this challenge to my coach (he calls himself my therapist – I haven’t sold him on this yet.)
In working with him on this issue and my reaction to this guy, it soon became clear that the Frenchman represented my father. In my therapy (/coaching) session, I was soon screaming at Dad.
In my therapy session, I’m screaming “Shut up! F*ck you!” Punching cushions, kicking my bed etc, etc. Having got through the tears, I exited the session as a markedly different 11 year old and a very different 40 year old. My relationship to our man from across The Channel was transformed. In the next session with him in the group, I was much more effective.
So let’s drop the coaching/therapy distinction. I get it, it’s difficult. For one, taking our clients ‘back there’, can get ‘messy’, for the client and sometimes for us. The ‘coachee’ breaking down tears in the meeting room. We end up triggered into our own stuff. That corporate facade wrecked.
This shift isn’t going to happen over night. I’m suggesting this as a direction of travel, an evolution. We’ll need different support structures**, different expectations of work behaviours, different professional demarcations and maybe different workspace architectures. What I am saying is that I see a future where, at work, we put everything on the court, from any period in our lives. Total temporal freedom: past, present, future. Let’s accommodate our wild, grieving selves — everyone growing to their maximum potential.
I envision padded meeting rooms for ‘raw’ coaching sessions. With places like this cropping up in our cities, how long until we bring this into our office spaces? Whole humans at work? Absolutely. Here’s to the crazy ones: all of us!
* He’s mellowed considerably now — a veritable pussy cat.
** I’m writing this piece somewhat provocatively. I know that anyone seriously delving into someone’s past must be sure to have the right support structure around themselves and the client, whatever they call themselves.