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Part 3 of a series on personal development in coaching 

In the first part of this series of posts, I summarised the primary task of personal development as getting to know and mastering our personality, through exploring all levels of our consciousness. I also like the phrase our Italian psychosynthesis partners (IIPE) use to describe personal development: “know yourself, accept yourself, transform yourself”. This undertaking, both for ourselves and in support of our clients benefits from having some good maps of the territory. My aim in this third post on this topic, is to overview some useful models of the personality as well as to contribute something new that might be of value to coaches.  At the same time, we must remember that any maps are simply there to support the real work of exploration and discovery taking place at the individual level in coaching and other personal development activity. As much as possible I will illustrate how to apply the models using the example of my own personal development journey.

I start with Jung’s personality typology and Assagioli’s psychological elements, which together provide a fairly comprehensive overview of the territory of the personality.  I then introduce some of the better-known tools for identifying personality issues, before working towards my own model of psychological health that combines (i) individuation – how we are in our relationship with others, with (ii) self-sense – how we are in our relationship with ourselves. It is important to remember that our interest is in exploring the territory of what we call healthy neurosis here rather than pathology, so our perspective is rather different to that of conventional psychology or psychotherapy.

Jung and Assagioli – personality type and psychological functions

The most common approaches to describing or analysing personality are type and trait theories, of which I will focus on the theory of psychological types developed by Carl Jung, which has been used as the foundation for some of the most commonly used psychometric profiling tools in organisations, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Insights and DISC.  

For those of you who are not familiar with the Jungian typology, below is a very basic summary taken from material I was given on my MSc CASS in the 90’s (original source unknown, apologies):

The Jungian typology is concerned with individuals’ preferences for four cognitive activities and provides a dichotomous scale for each of these activities as summarised below:

Where you focus your attention    –        Extraversion (E)  or  Introversion (I) 

The way you take in information    –        Sensing (S)  or  Intuition (N) 

The way you make decisions       –        Thinking (T)  or  Feeling (F) 

How you dealwith the outer world –        Judging (J)  or Perceiving (P)

People will tend to have a preference towards one or other end of the scale for each of these four scales, which creates 16 different basic combinations or typologies.  Each of the 16 types will tend to be associated with different leadership characteristics and styles.  If you have completed a Myers-Briggs (or similar) questionnaire and received your profile, you should know what your Jungian typology is (e.g. ESTJ or INFP). 

 There are many ways and places to find out more about any of the various flavours of the Jungian system and to generate a profile as a way of getting to know yourself better (e.g. free online at personalitymax, or for a fee at discover your personality, or with Insights or DISC, etc).  As with most psychometric tools, I find them both frustrating and intriguing in equal measure; frustrating because of the binary way they are presented, often asking you to make choices between seeming opposites, whereas just as often I find the answers are ‘it depends’ or ‘neither’, as opposed to one or the other. At the same time, there is a value to profiling that comes from the self-recognition and identification with a type or types which allows you to see yourself more clearly for who you are and how you are, as well as how others who are not your type(s) are different. Although I would not discourage you or your clients from using such tools, rather than getting too hooked on identifying with a type (e.g. I am 7 and 5 on the Enneagram!), I would encourage you to use them more qualitatively, creatively and flexibly to explore yourself in different ways.  For example, asking yourself: in what ways am I introverted and in what ways am I extroverted?  What might it mean to recognise my feeling nature more? In what way might I be suppressing my feeling and limiting my emotional intelligence?  What are the implications of my seeming bias towards intuition over sensory information as my source of information about the world?

Jung’s popularised the trait of extraversion-introversion as a dimension of human personality, although unfortunately it’s use in popular psychology has become distorted into binary types – e.g. are you an introvert or an extrovert, do you like to stay in and read a book or go out to socialise? To quote Wikipedia on this:

Carl Jung and the developers of the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator provide a different perspective and suggest that everyone has both an extraverted side and an introverted side, with one being more dominant than the other. Rather than focusing on interpersonal behaviour, however, Jung defined introversion as an “attitude-type characterised by orientation in life through subjective psychic contents” (focus on one’s inner psychic activity) and extraversion as “an attitude type characterised by concentration of interest on the external object” (focus on the outside world).[3]

Assagioli also saw introversion and extraversion as useful primary ways of exploring and mapping our personality, for example: 

As Jung pointed out, an individual may be both introverted and extraverted according to the different psychological functions; for instance, introverted in the feeling function while extraverted in the thinking function (Assagioli, 1965, p148)

I find this attitudinal perspective more useful than the now common behavioural focus. As a coach, what do I notice most about the people I am coaching from a psychological or personality perspective?  I notice the extent to which they are focused on their inner world and their outer world and whether they are able to include and move between the two. And I often encounter clients at both extremes – either where they are so preoccupied with the outer world of doing, with concrete goals and achievement that they find it hard to articulate their inner world – or they are so caught in their inner world that they find it hard to link personal development to observable and measurable achievement and progress in their lives or work.  The former situation is more common in leadership coaching with successful leaders who are outer-oriented and reluctant or unable to explore their inner world.

Assagioli drew upon Jung’s theory of psychological types and added depths and dimensions with his own model of psychological functions. Jung considered there to be four primary psychic functions: sensation, feeling, thought and intuition (250, 1974), to which Assagioli adds imagination and impulse or desire and importantly places the will and the self at the centre of psychological functioning.  

This gives us a map we can work with more dynamically as coaches, with a focus on supporting the healthy engagement and expression of will through mastery of the psychological functions.

Personality issues and edges

FIRO-B is often used to complement Jungian types, with its’ focus on relational preferences; in terms of our needs to express and receive inclusion, control and affection. This can indirectly point towards potential issues to work on, for example where our need to exert structure and control is much greater than our acceptance of structure or control from others (as is the case for myself), but this still needs to be combined with other work such as in coaching in order to personalise the meaning. 

I sometimes use a TA Stress Drivers questionnaire as a quick way to help a coachee identify psychological patterns and edges to work on. The five stress drivers are: be perfect; please others; hurry up; try harder; be strong – the great thing about these is that they are easily recognisable in ourselves and that everyone will have their own unique stress drivers profile. They also combine well with subpersonalities and mindsets approaches to working with clients.  My very strong ‘Hurry Up’ driver, for example is associated with both my ‘rebel’ authority-rejecting subpersonality and my mindsets about never having enough time.

Another approach I have drawn upon is the Gestalt cycle of experience, which indicates pathologies that can occur if healthy completion of cycles of experience are interrupted for an individual (also true for an organisation).  We will tend to form patterns of behaviour in the way that we don’t work through complete cycles of experience, and you might recognise points along the cycle below where you get caught and fall into a pattern.  For a proper introduction to Gestalt and the cycle of experience within an organisational context I refer you to a resource I have made available on our website here.  

For example, I tend to get caught at the point of contactin the cycle of my engagement in the world and instead of ever achieving satisfying resolutions, I am onto the next thing that mobilises my energy. Recognising this has led me to focus on the need to contain and allow experiences, projects or situations the time and space to come to fruition. I have also increased the attention I give to the start of the cycle – sensationand awareness, and my ability to respond appropriately to needs arising in my consciousness (whether inner or outer in origin) rather than reacting out of habit or outdated patterns.   

There are also a number of ‘derailer’ type approaches (such as Hogan derailers) which highlight the ways in which leaders trip themselves up through unconscious and unexamined aspects of their personalities (derailers). I have used these on occasion with uneven success, although I know many leadership coaches who find these tools a very useful way in to working with the unconscious or shadow side of their clients.

Towards a model of psychological health for coaching

In search of a more accessible map to explain our personality edges or distortions, I turn towards the work of Manfred Kets de Vries (2014) and others who have applied the body of material about attachment theory (following psychoanalyst John Bowlby) to the field of work organisations and leadership. He suggests that many people including highly successful leaders and professionals, develop dysfunctional attachment patterns in early life which “in later life lead to repetitive patterns of unhealthy thoughts and conflictive relationships”. He goes on to describes how:

More recent works on attachment behaviour propose four attachment styles based upon two dimensions: the anxiety dimension – which focuses on the anxiety we may feel about rejection and abandonment – and the avoidant dimension – which reflects the discomfort associated with closeness and dependency”.  

The graphic below is my attempt to illustrate this, drawing upon Kets de Vries’ paper:

Gervase Bushe tackles similar territory by talking in terms of self-differentiation patterns, contrasting extremes of fusion and disconnection, which are associated with separation anxiety with suffocation anxiety respectively.  The Fusion polarity is characterised by too much connection, a lack of boundaries and an over-dependence on what other people think or experience. The Disconnection polarity tends towards keeping separate, through maintaining rigid boundaries and not thinking about what others are experiencing (Bushe p80). Bushe goes on to describe the ideal of self-differentiation where we are separate but connected, have choices about boundaries and how we react to others in interactions and want to know what others are experiencing but stay true to our self. 

I have added the key terms used by Gervase Bush, separation anxiety and suffocation anxiety on the graphic of Kets de Vries’ model. On balance, I prefer the language used by Bushe and will adopt his model of self-differentiation going forwards as one axis of my overall model of psychological health, i.e. individuation and how we are in relation to others.  Bushe’s Clear Leadership (2010) is the best book I have come across at explaining important psychological ideas in a way that is accessible to the organisational world and I recommend reading it to leaders, coaches and OD professionals alike.

The psychosynthesis triphasic model of development (developed by Joan Evans and Jarlath Benson, see Simpson and Evans, p21 2014) provides a more detailed and nuanced road map for coaches working to support the differentiation and individuation process. It shows how we are all evolving from fusion, to symbiosis to differentiation at three nested levels – building a strong enough ego, a healthy independent sense of I (as in Bushe’s model) and an emergent higher Self.  This model is taught on some advanced training programmes in psychosynthesis and we are currently exploring how to apply it more explicitly to coaching. 

The second axis of my model of psychological health concerns how we are in our relationship with ourselves – our self-orientation or self-sense. One way to think about this dimension is in terms of three separate but inter-related aspects of self-relationship: self-esteem, self-acceptance and self-confidence.

From Wikipedia: Self-esteem “reflects an individual’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth… it is the decision made by an individual as an attitude towards the self. Smith and Mackie (2007) defined it by saying “The self-concept is what we think about the self; self-esteem, is the positive or negative evaluations of the self, as in how we feel about it.”[2]:107”.  

Rational Emotional Behavioural Therapy advocates self- (and other-) acceptance as a healthier and more useful alternative notion to self-esteem.  Self-acceptance is an easier and cleaner attitudinal muscle for the coach to help the coachee focus on than self-esteem, which has the potential to activate unconscious judgements and criticisms, whether about self of others. In this way, practising self-acceptance (and holding compassion for yourself) can be seen as an antidote to low self-esteem.

Self-confidence can be seen as an outcome or consequence of self-esteem and self-acceptance. As coaches, we are more overtly focused on self-confidence in terms our coachees willingness and ability to act and take steps towards their goals.  Coaching is intimately concerned with building self-confidence for the coachee over time and the coach is probably holding some awareness of their clients’ self-confidence much of the time they are working together. 

Low self-esteem is increasingly common in a world in which we are judging or comparing ourselves to others both consciously and unconsciously in different ways much of the time. Ego-inflation or excessive self-esteem is less common in the general population but is not unusual in very senior and successful leaders. Most of us as coaches and the people we find ourselves coaching are likely to lean towards the low side of self-esteem or self-confidence. Much of the time in coaching what we call healthy neurotics, we are working with a small or large deficit of self-esteem, self-acceptance or self-confidence or all three. Sometimes you may find this needs working on directly and explicitly, at other times the experience of exercising and developing the Will and the achievement of stretch goals naturally builds self-confidence.

The ego-inflated leader is less likely to ask for coaching in the first place.  The more extreme the case of inflation, the more likely it is to be holding a shadow of insecurity and low self-esteem that often appears on the rebound (what psychoanalysts call negative inflation). The relationship between ego-inflation and narcissism is complex and although they often come together, they can also be found separately. The topic of the narcissistic leader is important if you are working with the most senior leaders and is explored fully by Kets de Vries in his excellent “Leader on the Couch” (2012).

I am not trying to present myself as an expert on these psychological concepts and there are sources and courses where you can go to build a deeper understanding of them.  My purpose here is to provide an overview of the territory and introduce useful concepts for you to work with as a coach in relationship to yourself and the people you are coaching. The point here is to be able to recognise general personality types, leanings and inclinations that help us get to grips with the psychological issues and edges we need to work with in personal development.  With this in mind, I will now put the two dimensions together, our relationship to ourselves and our relationship to others, giving us this model of psychological health:

The model is dynamic in a number of ways which can’t be easily depicted in a two-dimensional graphic.

  • We are interested in a person’s pattern in relationship to each axis, not just their relative position on a scale. For example, is there a pattern of movement, swings from one extreme to another, or a relative stability at one place along the axis.  Kets de Vries’ attachment model shows the possibility of the Fearful-Avoidant pattern, in which an individual is caught in a tension between the polarities of Fusion and Disconnection (e.g. they desperately need people’s approval but at the same time feel suffocated by them).
  • In relationship to self, the pattern of swinging between deflation and inflation is relatively common and familiar. In extremes this might take us into the territory of the bi-polar disorder, however, many people experience swing patterns without being bipolar.  For many, self-esteem can be seen to be contingent on stimulus and events, leading to a “boom or bust” pattern.  We can swing from one polarity to another, for example from feeling energised and purposeful to empty and despondent, but rarely resting in a centred or grounded place between the two.  This can be compounded by the stresses, pressures and anxieties we experience in our lives and work, which can make us feel like we are always trying to get somewhere rather than be where we are. This describes a common phenomenon that I recognise both for myself from certain times in my life, as well as in some of my coachees, which I will call the ‘missing middle’.  This can lead to working on finding our centre, our ground of being, a place less contingent on the events and outcomes of our daily life. We expand on this theme again below.
  • The two axes or dimensions are related and inter-dependent in ways that we won’t be able to fully explore here.  In other words, the nature of our relationship with others is both informed by and informs the nature of our relationship with ourselves.  As a coach, you might intuitively decide which axis needs to be worked on as the priority and then over time, observe how this work brings about progress on the other axis.     
  • I have indicated in the four corners of the model, examples of behavioural tendencies that you might observe in yourself or your coachees.  In this way you might use the model to identify in which direction to look for psychological patterns, edges and issues. At the same time, distinguishing three zones on each axis rather than just two polarities, gives rise to a healthy central space (healthy self-sense and relationship to others), which we can use as an individualised ideal to work towards..
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Topic Series: Personal development and the leadership coach

Part 2: Seven perspectives on personal development for coaches

In my last post on this topic I described personal development as “a vast and complex topic that can be approached in many different ways… inter-woven as it is with the whole field of psychology, the story of the human potential movement, the leadership and talent development world, the popular self-help industry and of course the modern coaching profession”.

In this second post I explore seven key perspectives for coaches engaging with personal development, whilst continuing the theme that personal development is a context to hold simultaneously for both ourselves and our clients.

1: it starts with an attitude

Personal development is about an attitude, an orientation, choice and commitment to yourself and the ideaof personal growth.  In what appears to be an increasingly deterministic world, in which we are impacted by a multitude of complex external forces, your attitude is one thing you have choice and freedom about in your life. We always have the choice to nurture an attitude that embraces curiosity, openness to learning and some humility. Without these we can easily start to crystallise and become fixed in our view, shape and pattern in the world. Indeed, our capacity to contain ambiguity, uncertainty and not-knowing alongside continuing to inquire, discover and explore both the inner and outer world, shapes not just our path of personal development but also our ability to survive and adapt within an increasingly complex world.  

There is a paradox at the heart of personal development, which is that however much progress we make we are also always starting out from where we are now.  Although we might have worked on and developed ourselves over many years, it is our openness to continuing to develop and grow which makes the most difference to how we are now as a coach.  So, we are continuously facing the choice to renew our attitude, re-chose the path we have chosen.  Even the best attitudes can become tired and stale and morph unconsciously into something less helpful. Attitudes are closely connected with moods and emotions, which can be coloured and changed by any little event of the day as well as over a longer period by all manner of situations in our lives. Therefore, our attitudes need continuous or at least periodic reflection and renewal.

From this perspective, personal development can be a continuous process throughout our lives. To quote Roberto Assagioli, when asked whether there was a point of arrival or stable state at the end of the self-realisation journey: “Life is movement, and the superconscious realms are in continuous renewal. In this adventure we move from revelation to revelation, from joy to joy.  I hope you do not reach any ‘stable state’. A ‘stable state’ is death.”

2: know thyself, know thy client

Personal development starts with self-awareness and the capacity to self-reflect.  This then extends outwards to include our awareness of others, how they are different and how we impact and relate with others. Awareness and self-reflection are the starting point to knowing what ‘our stuff’ is, what our personality edges and developmental issues might be.

Essentially, we need to seek to know ourselves in order to know and work with others on their inner lives, to better understand and appreciate the psychospiritual territory in which we are working.  Inner work with others is best accessed through your direct experience of your inner work on yourself, rather than through the study and learning of theories and models (which then help in your own sense making). 

Within the psychosynthesis context, the coach is playing the role of a guide to the coachee in terms of their long term psychospiritual development. We are using the term of guidein a loose sense, in that it doesn’t necessarily mean that the coachee is following the same developmental path as the coach (they may be very different to you), or even that the coach is ahead of the coachee on the path (as a therapist might regard themselves).  Some coaches like to think of themselves as accompanying the coachee on their unique path, walking alongside them so to speak, and this can be a useful metaphor. What is important is that the coach has a living experience of what it means to be on their own psychospiritual developmental journey and therefore is able to guide and support the coachee in relationship to embarking or continuing upon their own journey.  There is also potential for synergy and a degree of reciprocity here, although not explicit – with the coach’s personal development benefiting vicariously from the work the coachee is doing. At the same time, we must be wary of becoming too identified or self-referencing with our clients and remember that what was right for us may not be right for them.

“the more I understand myself, my identity, my business and direction and wider possibilities… the more this flows into my work with clients in helping them understand themselves, what they are doing and their direction…” AY (PGCPLC student)

3: What’s my stuff, what’s their stuff?

We need to know our stuff so that we can be aware of when it is triggered and distinguish it from our client’s stuff.  If we are caught by our stuff when coaching and we are not aware of it or unconsciously react out of it, then we are not in the best place to serve our client. We need to be continuously curious, to ask ourselves as coaches in relationship to the other, what’s my stuff and what’s your stuff and how does my stuff get along with your stuff (e.g. do they play nicely together or get into a fight?). 

What do I mean by ‘stuff’? Our personality edges and issues, our blind spots and trigger-points, our unwanted patterns and preoccupations, wherever we have an emotional charge as a legacy from the past which can be activated automatically or unconsciously in different situations or by different types of people. Where are you caught?  Where do you get stuck? What reactivates you? What gets you into trouble in situations or relationships?  What is my part in these problems that I experience?These are the sort of questions that can help us inquire into our stuff and our baggage from the past. It is important to say that we should not be seeking to get rid of our stuff, rather to become more aware of it, to be able to own it and have greater choice in relation to it. Over time, we might then notice that something (e.g. my anxiety when speaking in a large group, feeling intimidated by tall people, etc.) is no longer such an issue for us and that the focus for our development takes a new direction.

The psychological concepts that help us understand ‘our stuff’ include transference and counter-transference, as well as projection and introjection.  Sometimes our client’s stuff is reactivated simply by entering the situation of being coached, which combines with whom we might remind the client of from their past.  We call this transferenceand the way that you as the coach pick up that this is happening (usually in your emotional subconscious), we call countertransference. Transference can be positive (e.g. the coachee sees a good parental figure in the coach) or negative (the coach reminds the coachee of a harsh or critical parental figure).  For the most part, the key thing to remember as the coach is to simply be aware that this is going on and not to react out to it, to hold and contain the coachee and whatever might be going on for them in the space.  These concepts are more fully explored elsewhere. For now, I am challenging you as the coach to consider situations or relationships where transference might be present for you (a clue – most authority figures tend to activate some transference, e.g. boss, trainer, coach, therapist, supervisor, etc.).

4: ways of working on yourself

There are some subtleties to the meaning of the phrase ‘working on yourself’.  On one hand, I might say I am always working on myself within the context of personal development, at least in an ad-hoc informal way through ongoing reflection and deepening awareness (and sometimes I am really not working on myself, I am taking a break, hanging out, not thinking too deeply, etc.).     

On the other hand, there are specific actions, practices and activities we can engage in to work on ourselves within the context of personal and professional development.  The most obvious are training and development courses and programmes, ranging from weekend seminars and retreats to Masters’ degree level programmes.  Then we have engagement in any kind of helping professional relationship, whether coaching, counselling or psychotherapy, both individually and in group settings, both short term and longer-term. Then we have self-directed and individual practices, including any form of meditation, contemplation or mindfulness as perhaps the most commonly followed or proscribed.  Any self-study involving reading, reflecting and writing can be contextualised as a personal development practice, as might be any artistic and creative activities. So can any physical practices and exercise routines, such as Yoga, Chi-Jong, Tai-Chi, Pilates, etc., as well as simple stretching, walking, running cycling, etc.

Self-reflection is an important part of any personal development and can take many forms or be assisted by a variety of activities, coaching being an obvious one. Journal writing is also a very common form of self-reflection and integration. Going on retreat or spending extended time in contemplation or meditation is also important for self-reflection.  Retreats can mean different things to different people and the distinction between personal development and spiritual practice can become blurred, although I don’t see this as problematic – an activity can be contextualised in whatever way is most useful to the individual. For example, for the last 10 years I have spent about an hour most days walking in nature as a way of reflecting upon and integrating what is happening in my life. At the same time, I consider this way of communing with nature as a spiritual practice, often finding myself in what I would describe as transpersonal states of consciousness. These are all just examples and ideas for personal development activities and practices but really the options are endless and nothing should be excluded.

Ken Wilber has espoused an approach to integral practice and development is which we simultaneously include a range of different practices in our self-development. As he says in One Taste (p77-78); “anybody can put together their own integral practice. The idea is to simultaneously exercise all the major levels and dimensionsof the human bodymind — physical, emotional, mental, social, cultural, spiritual…. Pick a basic practice from each category, or from as many categories as pragmatically possible, and practice them concurrently – “all-level, all-quadrant… In short, exercise body, mind, soul, and spirit in self, culture, and nature.”

Working on our personal development can also be part of our everyday lives and work without engaging in any special activity, to the extent we might bring awareness and self-reflection to what we are doing, experiencing and learning. Clearly this is more likely to be true for some professions and types of work than others. Coaching is obviously a profession that is suited to people who are interested in their own personal development and our central theme is that developing as a psychosynthesis coach and engaging in your own personal development are mutually supportive and inter-dependent.  One of the amazing things about the coaching profession is that it provides continuing opportunities for the coach to further their own personal development – we need never stop learning from coaching our clients. However, we still need to give time and space to the self-reflective process in which we make meaning for ourselves, which is why supervision is so important for the coach and can be as much about your personal development as your professional practice. For myself, in this phase of my life, the most fruitful form of personal development seems to be working to support the professional development of others, as a teacher, facilitator, coach and supervisor.  And yet I notice the need to be in individual and group supervision relationships in which the roles are reversed.

5: finding your edges to work on

One the hardest parts of personal development in my experience is identifying and focusing the psychological issues and personality edges that I need to work on. The nature of the issues we might need to work on is that they can be elusive and slippery, our minds don’t want to acknowledge or remember them because they are part of our ingrained and unconscious survival strategies! This work connects with the theme of transforming mindsets which I have written about elsewhere. This is different to creating a broad vision for your personal development and setting high level developmental objectives (which is important but relatively easy), although these two levels of focusing can and should inform each other. 

A few approaches come immediately to mind.  The first and easiest to do is journaling, writing stuff down either in the moment when the thoughts come or as a regular discipline, e.g. daily or weekly.  The second, rather obviously, is to use coaching, to talk through the edges and issues you want to work on with someone else. Sometimes we expect people to come to coaching with their goals or the issues they want to work on fully formed – whereas surfacing these this can be the first and often most important part of coaching. As a coach I have often worked with leaders to simply reflect upon, unpack and make sense of the most troubling or problematic situations and relationships they have experienced since the previous coaching session, and in most organisations, these are usually plentiful. They key here is the depth of self-reflection and the willingness of the coachee to focus on their part in the problems they experience. A third approach is to use formal or informal feedback alongside personality or leadership profiling.

6: assessing your personal development

How might we assess our personal development? Self-reflection, drawing on our own subjective experience, is the cornerstone for any self-assessment.  This is best supported by keeping a learning journal and by periodic discussion with a coach. On our courses we ask students to keep a journal of some kind and at the end of four months, to write a paper reflecting upon their personal and professional development during the course.

Any self-assessment is enhanced by setting well-formed developmental objectives and reviewing progress periodically against these, again ideally with the help of a coach. This can be supported by the use of 360 feedback and personality profiling exercises, and this is an approach I use with many of the leaders I coach. 

How about assessing the personal development of others, the people we are coaching for example? In Leadership Development, we can make the distinction between horizontal, vertical and inner development, and each of these perspectives lend themselves to different assessment approaches.  Horizontal developmentmostly concerns abilities, competencies and skills and there are well established approaches to assessing these within the organisational human resources world. Increasingly, personal development is playing a more prominent role in leadership development competency frameworks, for example the focus on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and now Social Intelligence (see Daniel Goleman’s works on these for some useful assessment tools). 

Vertical developmentis less straight forward in that a ‘paper’ self-assessment of vertical development isn’t always reliable and 360 feedback is problematic if assessors are less vertically developed than the person being assessed.  Harthill’s Leadership Development Framework, which involves sentence completion analysis by experts, is the most widely accepted approach to this, but now feels somewhat outdated and exclusive. Leadership coaches need to develop their own capacity to assess and evaluate the vertical development of their coachees and there is work to be done to support this.

Inner development– the core development of self and will, building our awareness and capacity to act, that is eventually expressed both in terms of horizontal and vertical development – is even harder to assess, and I would suggest is best grounded in the coach’s subjective awareness and observation.

Let me illustrate what I mean by this. I notice that when I start coaching a new leader, I tend to automatically and unconsciously start formulating a view of their level of self-awareness and ability to self-reflect, as the most significant aspect of their inner development. For example, how easy is it to start to create an aware relational space with them? I then start looking for signs of their how aware they are of others and the differences in people, as well as recognition of how they impact others. I am wary of coachees telling stories about problems they have with others in their lives that do not include some awareness of their part in it. I might also start to assess how aware they are of the bigger picture they are part of and the systems forces that are impacting them. Can they see and respond systemically to what is going on or are they the unwitting victim? Alongside the leader’s levels of awareness (of self, others and the wider system), I am also looking for indications of their capacity to act in the world, the availability of free will in their lives. This tends to take longer to assess and comes partly from seeing evidence of acting upon the realisations, choices and decisions that take place in the coaching space. Finally, I am interested in their attitude and openness to learning (as described in the first point in this piece) and their willingness to ask for help where appropriate. Can they invite and be open to feedback, can they show any vulnerability or are they too well defended? The more senior the leader, the more wary I might be of the egotistic or hubristic leader, who knows it all and can do it all.

I have just described the five dimensions of a developmental model which can be used as a way of gauging inner leadership development.  This is Roger Evans’ Five Dimensions of Leadership (2019), which is more fully elaborated elsewhere, along with Roger’s approach to scoring yourself and others along these five dimensions. For now, here is a quick summary:

1DL – Ability to self-reflect – self-awareness
2DL– Awareness of one’s impact on others, understanding difference and group dynamics
3DL– Ability to consistently see the whole picture and the dynamics between the ‘parts and the whole’. The art of ‘thinking systemically’ and understanding system forces.
4DL– Free will, individual freedom to make clear decisions and to deliver in the face of resistance – ‘to be blown in the wind, to bend but to stand firm’
5DL– Ability to ask for appropriate help and support – internally and externally to the organisation. Humanity, humility and openness to feedback.

7: knowing it’s always personal

Being a coach is always both personal and professional, especially so for psychosynthesis coaches. Personal, in that we can never leave ourselves out of the picture in our reflective professional practice – our subjective experience is the ever present filter through which we engage in the professional relationship, so paradoxically in order to achieve some degree of objectivity in our perspective, we need to be ever attentive, curious and inquiring about who and how we are, about what is going on with us in relationship to the other.  Beyond this, as coaches we are also always learning about how to use the self as an instrument of change – and there is more scope to be actively and personally engaged in the coaching relationship than in therapy (see Stacey Miilichamp’s recent bookfor more on this theme), at the same time as always maintaining the context of the professional helping relationship.

What’s next

The primary task of personal development is getting to know and mastering our personality, through exploring all levels of our consciousness. In my third and final post on this topic, I will offer an overview of some maps and models to help us recognise our personality types, our psychological preferences or biases, and given these, our likely edges or issues to work on.

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The first Annual Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching symposium was held at the National Council for Voluntary Organizations (NCVO) near King’s Cross in London on 14thNovember 2018.

Tong-len means ‘giving and taking’ in Tibetan.  Keith Hackwood led a Tonglen meditation as part of a plenary session on Selfcare for Coaches Using Mindfulness, immediately after lunch at the first Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching symposium on 14thNovember. “A difficult slot to fill”, he noted. There were around 60 people in the room, from the Institute of Psychosynthesis, Psychosynthesis Trust, various psyschotherapy and coaching associations, and from Psychosynthesis organisations from as far afield as Norway and Italy.

Lunch had been replete with conversation and ideas. I felt a buzz of excitement in the room as we settled down, shaking out the tension from arms and legs. For some reason, I could smell orange blossom.

Tong-len is a meditation practice from Tibetan Buddhism that uses breathing to explore feelings of altruism and compassion. The in-breath connects you with suffering – your own, others – and the outbreath with compassion for the world. Keith explained the concept, touched on the paradox of effortless effort in practicing meditation, and quoted a poem by Antonio Machado, translated from the Spanish by Robert Bly. The rest of the session was experiential, reconnecting with our feelings, letting them go, reconnecting with thoughts, letting the mind go still. I felt shocks of anxiety at the start, but after a while that gave way to a feeling of tidal movement, an ebb and flow, the traffic noise outside and the cry of seagulls.

The mix of experiential and conceptual was a strong point of the whole day, which was superbly organised by Rachel Houghton, Paul Elliot and Aubyn Howard of Psychosynthesis Coaching Limited (PCL).

Roger Evans, director of the Institute of Psychosynthesis, introduced the Symposium in the morning with a paradox:

Seeing with the heart = seeing and working with the will.

Roger explained something called the Six Session Model and the use of Trifocal Vision in coaching. Many of those attending, including myself, were familiar with these models from the Certificate course in Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching organised by PCL and run at the Institute, and Roger brought them alive with what I felt was a unique and passionate engagement with each individual in the room.

Roger’s talk on psycho-spiritual coaching gave a flavour of why psychosynthesis works at such a deep level, by focusing on meaning rather than just performance. I was moved by Roger’s commitment and passion, and the tribute he paid to his family. Then there was a brief moment when I felt that the world stopped turning. Roger asked the question: “What do you feel when you open your heart to another?” Various words were shot out from the audience – I seem to remember joy, openness, waiting, loneliness, but when someone responded “pain” it felt like an arrow had hit its target.

After Roger’s plenary session, we split into two workshops. In the morning, Keith Silvester and Heather Wignall from the Psychosynthesis Trust talked about coaching in a VUCA world, while Ruth Rochelle gave a workshop on systemic coaching and constellations. The same pattern was followed in the afternoon. After Keith Hackwood’s plenary, Harriett Hanmer and Laira Gold gave a talk with the title The Body Speaks while Aubyn Howard explored the theme of Developmental Thinking for Coaching.

The workshops sharpened my awareness of the paradox at the heart of coaching. I felt this most explicitly during Ruth Rochelle’s exploration of constellations, which used Post-it notes as the main prop. Ruth’s workshop comprised two constellations: the first revolved around depicting ’where I live‘ on the Post-it, and exploring how place and movement can affect the felt experience of that; the second involved representing three phases of your life on Post-its, and then exploring the feelings associated with these with the help of a coach.

While the experiential nature of the workshop was very powerful, space felt rather tight in the room, with more than 30 people in a circle of chairs, so I did not slip easily into this, feeling bombarded by others. I noticed my body getting slightly hot and then my mind rushing to compensate. As I settled down I was able to get a sense of being back in the moment, but I kept on trying to make mental sense of what was going on around me as people milled around the room without any words. My mind grabbed at thought as a way of filling these gaps. But as the workshop evolved, I felt more tuned into myself and somehow that left me feeling more in sync with other people.

The paradox of meaning that struck me then, and throughout the day, was the notion that you can be most deeply in touch with your Self when the self dissolves; that you can experience the Self of others most profoundly when you are most in touch with your own Self.

Somatic coaching is increasingly being used as a pathway to deeper levels of self-awareness and of experiencing others. Later in the day, a workshop on equine-guided learning introduced the statistic that only 7% of personal communication is through spoken words, while 38% is dependent on voice and tone, and 55% on body language.

From the feedback after the constellations workshop, people had experienced a huge range of emotions through the constellation, but at a much deeper level than the cognitive-rational. And the workshop resonated with many in terms of how they could use their experience with their own coaching clients.

Moved to tears by horses

From Ruth’s workshop I got a sense of the power of using the entirety of Self in coaching, and how constellations could be used to explore the Self at a deeper level. This theme was picked up in the afternoon in Harriet Hanmer and Laira Gold’s workshop The Body Speaks (they will be holding a day for practitioners of Equine-Guided Learning on 16 March 2019).

Harriet and Laira work with horses to help senior executives explore systemic interactions in their organisations. Many managers are simply unaware of these. I found myself strangely amused by the idea of company directors milling around in the mud at Manor Farm House in Colston Basset in Welly Boots, where Harriet and Laira work, exploring the Mind-Body split. But I was moved when I saw a photo of the sympathetic body language between one horse and the MD of a company, and we learned that he had been moved to tears by the human-horse interaction.     

Harriet introduced the theory of the ’triune‘ brain, with its human (neocortex), mammalian (limbic system) and reptilian layers, which although nowadays under scrutiny from neuroscientists, provides a framework for moving beyond the conscious ’thinking‘ part of our brains and into the less charted realms of the limbic system and more primitive sub-conscious layers.

After the talk I spoke with Laira about whether equine-guided learning could be used in schools. I had watched a documentary about a ’failing‘ school (Ofsted’s word, not mine) and I was struck by how discipline in schools focusses primarily on verbal affirmations by young teenagers. I felt from the documentary that their body often contradicted their words and, although I don’t know horses, I occasionally had felt a similar kind of resentment and dissonance when walking with donkeys.

I can imagine many other uses for equine work. “The world needs this,” Harriet and Laira affirmed.

Are we in the soup?

One of the last slides in Harriet and Laira’s deck asked the question: “Are we in the soup?” I use this question as a segway to mention the two workshops I was unable to attend.

Keith Silvester from the Psychosynthesis Trust talked in the morning on Coaching in a VUCA world, with Heather Wignall. I felt there was synchronicity in the fact that Keith’s talk coincided with the day a Brexit agreement was finally thrashed out by the May government and the European Union.

VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Keith and Heather suggested that the four aspects of VUCA map on to psychological themes that are taught in psychosynthesis and other therapeutic models. From the programme notes, these are: lack of object constancy, which maps from Volatility; existential survival anxiety (from Uncertainty); systems thinking and mind development (from Complexity); and relative meaning and interpretation (from Ambiguity).

In a session that provided impressive thought leadership, Heather and Keith also talked about VUCA in relation to ‘adaptive leadership’ (as developed by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, through a book of that name). As one workshop participant observed: “The VUCA model …links to a really useful leadership model [adaptive leadership] and the workshop included a practical tool to use in coaching related to this” which a number of participants said would be useful in their current coaching work. As noted by Heather and Keith: “Adaptive leadership is specifically designed to support personal and organisational leadership” in a VUCA context.

The VUCA theme linked naturally to the evolutionary perspectives discussed in Aubyn Howard’s session in the afternoon on the current crisis in leadership. Aubyn introduced Frederic Laloux’s evolutionary paradigm, familiar from the book Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage in Human Consciousness. Laloux’s book is premised on the idea that corporate culture has evolved from highly hierarchical top-down structures to more ethically-driven self-governing and self-regulating structures build around committed teams; in the book’s colour scheme, from red to teal organisations.

Those attending the workshop split into groups and discussed how coaches could support leaders to make a developmental shift in their consciousness. This is what Aubyn calls ‘The Big Question’. He challenged: “How can we as coaches nurture, activate and encourage the evolutionary paradigm in emergent leaders in organisations and society?”

But back to my earlier question: are we in the soup? My impression from those I spoke to after they attended both the VUCA and developmental sessions is that the answer is a resounding yes. The world is in a mess.

But at least psychosynthesis offers hope that we can find a way out of the crisis we are in. The day ended with a brief discussion on neuroscience, and we were lucky to have an expert in the field in the audience.

Aubyn talked about neuro-plasticity, the idea that the brain is an adaptive organ that can evolve and develop over the course of an individual lifetime.

Roberto Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis, set great store by the exercise of Will in the emergence of Self. I found it mind-blowing that neuroscience is discovering mechanisms by which consciousness can evolve over the space of a lifetime, as a result of individual purpose and the pursuit of meaning, rather than passively as a series of random mutations. It seemed like a powerful link to Assagioli’s heritage and teaching.

As Aubyn said at the start of the Symposium: “The whole world of psychosynthesis is rejuvenating. It feels like it’s flourishing and it’s in touch with the zeitgeist”.

I look forward to next year’s Symposium and the opportunity to take these conversations into yet newer realms!

Peter Stewart



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20 November 2018

[ I ran a session on this topic at our Psychosynthesis Coaching Symposium on Wednesday 14th November and this is the full article I referred to then.]


Is neuroscience telling us anything new? How do we reconcile scientific and psycho-spiritual perspectives?

Most coaches will have come across neuroscience or neuropsychology in some form or other. Unless you have explored the field extensively for yourself, you may be wondering what there is to learn from this rich new seam of discovery and how you might draw upon it in your coaching practice.

I have approached this topic from the perspective of the psychosynthesis coach, a perspective which values inner inquiry and experiential observation as a valid knowledge path alongside behavioural observation and scientific discovery in the material world. We work with the inner lives of our coaching clients throughout all levels of consciousness and realms of the psyche (e.g. body, feelings, mind, spirit, etc) as well as their outer lives of action, behaviour and goals.  From this perspective, I am asking, is neuroscience:

  • telling us what we already know about the mind and human behaviour, by using an explanation of what is going on in the brain?
  • telling us something significantly new or different that we should listen to and incorporate in our coaching? or
  • telling us that we have got some things wrong and need to work in a new or different way?

The quick answer, is a bit of each of these. To answer this question more fully, I delved primarily into two sources; Paul Brown and Virginia Brown’s ‘Neuropsychology for coaching’ and Sarah McKay’s ‘Your brain health’ website, where she unpacks the ‘Seven principles of neuroscience every coach should know’. I also looked at ‘Neuroscience for Coaches’ by Amy Brann which appears to be doing a similar job to the ‘Neuropsychology for Coaching’, and Deb Elbaum’s blog post on ‘How Neuroscience Enhances Executive Coaching’, which covers similar ground to Sarah McKay’s.

I have also drawn from my own reading in the wider field of neuropsychology (e.g. David Eagleman, Thaler and Sunstein, David Rock) and experimental psychology (e.g. Daniel Kahneman, Daniel Goleman, David Brooks) over the last ten years of so (see more titles below). Whatever, we may think of neuropsychology, we certainly can’t ignore it and in this post I will tell you why.

Overview of neuropsychology for coaching

The neuroscientists and neuropsychologists who are speaking to the coaching profession appear to be doing a combination of three things.

  1. Educating us in the neuroscience of how the brain works, for example, explaining the mechanics of neurology and brain chemistry and how these determine our functioning and behaviour – which can be interesting but is not essential for a coach, it depends upon your appetite for the science.
  2. Telling us about neuroscientific discoveries in terms of insights into human nature and how human beings work, and the implications of these for coaching – which is both interesting and important. Some of this provides scientific evidence to support what we already know from other knowledge perspectives. And some offers new and valuable insights that we should be incorporating in the way we work. This is what I will focus on in this article.
  3. Developing a new approach to coaching based directly upon neuroscientific evidence and principles – so far the attempts I’ve seen to do this don’t work, in my view. I hope I remain open to new ideas about coaching, but will challenge those which are blind to underlying philosophical and epistemological biases and inconsistencies. One of the traps of the modern age is how easily science slips into scientism or materialistic reductionism (i.e. only the physical world is real), often without any awareness. To fully explain the issues I am referring to here would involve an academic detour that doesn’t fit this blog post, but to appreciate the nature of the problem I would refer you to Wilber’s integral model*.

To generalise the last point above, some neuroscientific proponents show little awareness of the wider knowledge context within which they are contributing their discoveries. Many are also poor at distinguishing between (i) the science (does a coach really need to know about how the amygdala works?), (ii) the insights from the science about human nature, our minds, behaviour, relationships, etc. and (iii) the implications of this for leadership and the coaching profession.

Of the sources I read, the best at avoiding these traps and recognising other perspectives was Sarah McKay’s blog post, in which she includes some of the science but focuses more on the insights and implications for coaches. Her seven point summary of Kandel, Cappas and colleagues thoughts on how neuroscience can be applied to coaching is:

  1. Both nature and nurture win
  2. Experience transforms the brain
  3. Memories are imperfect
  4. Emotion underlies memory formation
  5. Relationships are the foundation for change
  6. Imagining and doing are the same (to the brain)
  7. We don’t always know what our brain is ‘thinking’

These are expanded upon in her post, which is where I recommend you look next to deepen your understanding of this topic.  Below I incorporate these and other insights into my own summary.

* For those not familiar with Wilber’s integral model, he shows us how there are four essential and irreducible perspectives that can be taken on any field or topic, which are created by making the distinction between interior and  exterior reality at individual and collective levels. This gives us four types of knowledge; objectiveand subjective, inter-objectiveand inter-subjective. Ignoring or denying one or more of these perspectives causes all sorts of problems (e.g. performative contradictions) particularly when you step outside one discipline (e.g. neuroscience) and attempt to show how this knowledge applies in a broader context (e.g. the coaching profession).

Key insights from neuropsychology and the implications for coaches

Enough preamble, this is my high level synthesis of what I take from all the sources mentioned.

1. Human nature

We need to fundamentally recalibrate our understanding of human nature – for example, recognising the primacy of emotions over rationality, the extent to which we are social animals and relational beings and less individually autonomous than we think.

Brown and Brown (2012) explain how emotions are triggered through chemicals and neural pathways much more quickly than conscious thought, so that our reactions, choices and decisions are largely emotionally driven and post-rationalised.

Experimental psychology shows how systemic cognitive biases make us poor decision makers (e.g. cognitive dissonance, the halo effect, I-hindsight-bias, risk-aversion, over-optimism) as well as how easily influenced we are by others without realising it (following fashions, herd behaviour).  We are much closer to the animal world and more influenced by our biological and genetic inheritance than we admit.

What is worse, we are for the most part, unconsciously blind to our human nature and will continue in a state of self-delusion even when the wider reality has been revealed.  This capacity for self-delusion is also pervasive throughout our organisations and societies. Most typically, organisations believe they make rational rather than emotional decisions more than they do.  Societies also tend to assume people make rational decisions based upon the information that’s available. Recent global events are shaking us out of this self-delusion. The discoveries of neuropsychology potentially offer a antidote to our tendency for self-delusion, but need to be administered skilfully if they are to work.  

Implications for coaching?

Seek to see the individual and the systems that they are part of in relationship and work to support the coachee become aware of the human systems they are influenced by. 

Hold lightly and be curious about the rationalisations and justifications our clients tell us, helping them to reflect upon their own cognitive biases and emotional undercurrents and be curious about rationality bias and other collective self-delusions that exist within their organisational system.

Hold a holistic context for your coaching – e.g. awareness of the whole person including soma, feelings, mind and spirit, all levels of consciousness and unconsciousness, engaging with past, present and future.

There is a wider message about human nature to hold in our awareness, which is well summarised by Michael Shermer (2008): “Most people misjudge what would make them happy. Happiness stems from love, meaningful work, community participation and spiritual practice. To be happy, engage in these things and support a society that allows others to do the same”(Source: Getabstract.com).

Anything new to the psychospiritual perspective?

The core models of psychosynthesis, e.g. Assagioli’s models of the psyche and the psychological functions, already provide the theoretical foundations for working with an expanded view of human nature – the new discoveries give us material to work with in shifting consciousness within today’s organisational and societal context.

Assagioli says: “…the human tendency to find apparently good justifications for actions that are not good; justifications to ourselves and justifications to others. This tendency could be compared to the pleading of an inner attorney who defends the cause of the more intense urges operating in the unconscious.” And also “the knowledge of the existence of these ‘lower’ elements in ourselves need neither surprise nor depress us; they exist in all human beings!”

2. The mind

Alongside this, at the individual level, our understanding of how the mind works is developing rapidly based upon findings of both brain science and experimental psychology. The headline is that the unconscious, automatic, emotionally driven and habit forming part of our mind is much more pervasive and in control than we realise.  The conscious, deliberative, slow and energy consuming part likes to think it’s in charge but for the most part it’s not.

Daniel Kahneman describes these two cognitive systems as the fast ‘System 1’ and slow ‘System 2’. Daniel Goleman also recognises these two systems that are not always in sync – the low road of immediate emotional response and the high road of rational thought.  Sarah McKay summarises the neuroscience as showing that “unconscious processes exert great influence on our thoughts, feelings, and actions”, whilst Deb Elbaum emphasises the “struggle between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex… also known as the amygdala hijack” – basically saying that leaders can easily get hijacked by hasty emotional reactions and need to find a way to take a step back and reflect before acting.

Implications for coaching?

Working with an awareness of the ‘parts’ and supporting the coachee to develop this awareness is essential for coaching.  The most basic distinction between the conscious self on one hand (e.g. System 2), and the unconscious, automatic mind on the other (System 1) is an important starting point.  Beyond that, we can look to build the coachees awareness of a multitude of parts within their consciousness and to see the tensions or conflicts that can arise between them. From a psychospiritual perspective, we are also seeking to develop the capacity to disidentify from these parts (although paradoxically one must recognise and identify first in order to disidentify) and build our sense of self – the place of awareness from which we can observe our identifications with different parts.

McKay also tells us how “the brain can process nonverbal and unconscious information, and information processed unconsciously can still influence therapeutic and other relationships. It’s possible to react to unconscious perceptions without consciously understanding the reaction”.  This validates any holistic approaches to coaching in that it endorses that everything going on in the coaching space, whether conscious or unconscious, is relevant and has transformative potential. 

Anything new to the psychospiritual perspective?

I’d like to think that we are already working from the principles underlying the truth being discovered in these new ways.  However, this new language of the unconscious mind (e.g. Kahneman’s Systems 1 and 2) and the evidence base about how it works, can help bring the mainstream with us.  Psychosynthesis offers the systemic model of subpersonalities as a way of understanding the nature and relationship of different parts of our personality.

Assagioli said: “There are conscious motivations and unconscious motivations; or rather one might say more accurately that there is almost always a combination of the two, in very variable proportions!” And also: “We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified.  We can dominate and control everything from which we disidentify ourselves”.

3. Behavioural change

There is both bad news and good news coming out of this field concerning change. On one hand, “the brain hates change” (Brown and Brown) and becomes grooved in habitual responses that require conscious will and repeated practice to regroove.

On the other hand, the concept of neuroplasticity (my one concession to the jargon!) explains how the brain is always capable of relearning and developing new behaviours. McKay elaborates the principle: “the areas of our brain associated with emotions and memories… are not hard-wired, they are ‘plastic’. Circuits in our brain change in response to experiences, not just during development…”

Our brains have a drive towards normalisation, quickly adapting to any new circumstances with new routines that can be consigned to the automatic, unconscious part of brain functioning.  In the Power of Habit (2012), Charles Duhigg explains how ‘habits are actions people first decide to do deliberately and keep doing subconsciously. The “habit loop” has three stages: a “cue” propels a person into a “routine” to reach the goal of a “reward.” Understanding how your habits fit these habit loop stages can help you change them” (Source: Getabstract.com).

Implications for coaching?

Neuroscience endorses that all relationships, including coaching or therapeutic relationship, can be important in enabling positive change.

Neuroplasticity confirms that deep change, throughout our lives, is more possible than we thought.  For example, the long held assertion that psychological type (e.g. using MBTI) is relatively fixed through our lives, has been shown to be inaccurate.  

Anything new to the psychospiritual perspective?

Neuropsychology brings something new in terms of understanding how change takes place and what is needed to bring about successful change.  This can be combined with the psychosynthesis approach to transforming mindsets (see here) or other more cognitive behavioural approaches such as Kegan’s ‘immunity to change’ (2010).  

Amongst other things, Psychosynthesis is a psychology of Will. The importance of our will and the role of coaching in developing, finding and activating free will is only increased by the evidence from neuro- and experimental psychology. Without will, we are at risk of being lost in a sea of unconscious powerful processes and forces at play at individual, relational and collective levels that are only exacerbated by ever increasing complexity in modern life. Neuropsychology, as far as I can tell, has nothing useful to say about the will (maybe, like the self, it can’t find a place in the brain in which it resides) and in this respect psychosynthesis is still fairly unique as a psychology that helps us to support coachees find and develop their free will (not just strong, skilful or good will).

Assagioli says about the will: “the discovery of the will in oneself and even more the realisation that the self and will are intimately connected, may come as a real revelation…”

4. Memory and narrative

Our memory is basically faulty!  Neuroscience show how memories, emotions and feelings are closely interconnected neural processes in the brain. Memories are recreated each time we recall them, and as we do so we weave in new narratives, alongside new emotions and feelings. “Autobiographical memories that tell the story of our lives are always undergoing revision precisely because our sense of self is too”, as McKay puts it.

Kahneman tells us how “people prefer to make simple stories out of complex reality. They seek causes in random events, consider rare occurrences likely and overweight the import of their experiences” (Source: Getabstract.com).  He also makes an important distinction between what he call our two selves – the experiencing self, which lives in the present and our remembering self, which evaluates the past and decides about our future.

We are also highly selective in our remembering – and yet don’t realise it. Bruce Hood (2012), citing Daniel Kahneman explains that “we have about 600,000 experiencing moments a month, each of which lasts about 2 or 3 seconds, but most are lost. That is why our memory is always fragmented, and why we often believe so strongly that our recollection is correct when it is not” (Source: Amazon.com review).

Implications for coaching?

Gervase Bushe offers some useful perspectives on this topic.  In Clear Leadership (2010) he speak to the human inclination to make up stories to fill gaps in our understanding and how we tell these stories to gain agreement for our ‘positions’.  He shows how common and problematic our partial perceptions and faulty memories can be and how this contributes to interpersonal mush within organisations. Much coaching involves untangling this interpersonal mush for our coachees. Bushe suggest ways in which we can communicate our experience more effectively by more explicitly acknowledging our observations, feelings, thoughts and wants.

The importance of stories or narratives in human life is becoming clearer – they are central to our sense making and understanding of ourselves. They are therefore key to the coaching process in more than one way. Psychosynthesis has always emphasised the importance of stories and we use the metaphor of the journey as an important device within our story telling.

Anything new to the psychospiritual perspective?

I would suggest that the extent of the unreliability and selectivity of our memory is new knowledge.  Knowing how our memory and emotion functions are closely interconnected in the brain, helps our understanding of how we constantly reshape our memories.  Of all the insights from neuroscience, I find those concerning memory to be of greatest potential significance.  

As human beings, we are always in the process of developing our own mythology, consciously or unconsciously.  By this I mean we are finding meaning and significance in our past and looking for purpose and self-expression in our future. There is an extraordinary and even mystical dimension to this, which we can only touch upon here (note to self to develop this further).  We are effectively changing the past in the way we do this, as well as creating the future. That is not to say that we can fictionalise or fantasise the past to our liking, just as fantasising about the future is only useful when we also engage our will.  From a psychospiritual perspective, we seek to weave our mythology in ways which are connected with the higher Self, that bring about healing of the past, transformation of the present and inspiration for the future. Importantly, the coach can and should support this process for their clients.

5. Imagination and creativity

Imagination was one of two psychological functions that Roberto Assagioli explicitly added (the other was impulse or desire) to Jung’s four primary psychic functions: sensation, feeling, thought and intuition.  The capacity for imagination and creativity has tended to be side-lined by the rational-behavioural bias within our organisations, or at least consigned to specific roles and activities. Neuropsychology is helping to bring it back centre stage and it should play a vital role in leadership coaching. Elbaum speaks about the need for ‘whole brain wisdom’ by engaging the right hemisphere of the brain (e.g. by drawing upon metaphor and imagery) alongside the analytical left brain, in a process of synthesis that many leaders are not familiar with.

As touched upon with the previous theme of memory, our imagination works in all temporal directions.  As Sarah McKay puts it: “consciously or not, we use imagination to reinvent our past, and with it, our present and future.” She adds “mental imagery or visualisation not only activates the same brain regions as the actual behaviour but also can speed up the learning of a new skill. Envisioning a different life may as successfully invoke change as the actual experience.”

Brown and Brown support this view of coaching as including all temporal domains: “any client brings to any coaching session… him- or her- Self. The whole of the person is always present in the room. This includes their past, present and future”.

Implications for coaching?

The value and power of visualisation, imagery and even guided mediation in coaching has been validated by neuropsychology. Psychosynthesis explains the psycho-spiritual principles underlying the efficacy of these tools as well as bringing an expanding repertoire of techniques and ideas for coaching practice.

Anything new to the psychospiritual perspective?

McKay’s quote above resonates with Assagioli’s words from more than forty years ago “images or mental pictures and ideas tend to produce the physical conditions and the external acts that correspond to them”. Assagioli’s psychological laws then take this to a much more sophisticated level, see Chapter 5 in The Act of Will..

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16th September 2018

Aubyn Howard

‘The unexamined life is not worth living…’ Socrates as reported by Plato

Why are personal and professional development inseparable in coaching? Within psychosynthesis coaching, we view the coach’s ability to practice a psychospiritual approach as a function of their own level of personal development, psycho-spiritual training and coaching skills. In this post, I explore what we mean by personal development and how it combines with professional development for the psychosynthesis coach…

Part 1: establishing the context

Most coaching approaches will put some attention on personal development for the coach. Sometimes this can be little more than lip service and in other cases it represents a more serious commitment.  It is interesting to note that APECS is unique amongst the coaching professional bodies in asking potential members to describe their previous development in terms of professional and personal development (which they term CPPD).

Psychosynthesis coaching involves working with the inner as well as the outer world of our clients and always holding a developmental context alongside other agendas and goals. The inner world concerns our interior lives of thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties, our light and our shadow, the heights and depths of our unconscious, not just our everyday awareness. The territory includes working with the psyche and the Self in all its dimensions, which I have described in a previous post. Within this context, personal development is both essential and central to the development of the coach and their professional practice. Personal development isn’t an add-on or optional extra to professional development, it is what makes coaching in this way at deeper levels possible and increases our capacity to do it well. It is important that we show why this is the case and explore what we mean by personal development in this context – that is what this post is about.

I am inviting you as the reader to take a closer look at your relationship with your own development and to challenge you to reflect upon it in new ways. I will go further and suggest that it would be fairly pointless to learn about psychosynthesis coaching as an approach which encompasses various methods, models, tools and skills, without continuously drawing upon yourself and your own experience of development as an inner reference point.

Psychosynthesis can itself be described as an holistic approach to personal development, involving what Roberto Assagioli called personal and transpersonal psychosynthesis, as we follow our individual journeys towards self-realisation and self-actualisation.  Following a brief introduction to the topic of personal development, I will expand upon this psychosynthesis context with specific reference to Assagioli’s work.

What is personal development?

Personal development is a vast and complex topic that can be approached in many different ways.  It is inter-woven with the whole field of psychology, the story of the human potential movement, the leadership and talent development world, the popular self-help industry and of course the modern coaching profession. You are likely to have your own understanding of what personal development is based upon your history and experience, so whatever your starting point and whatever perspectives you bring are valid and relevant to the theme we are exploring here.

I choose the work of Abraham Maslow and his concepts of self-actualisation and the hierarchy of needs as a useful starting point for defining personal development, not least because many others have done so before me.

As early as 1943 Maslow defined self-actualisation as “… the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” Adding to this, the ‘Skills You Need’ website says:

Self-actualisation refers to the desire that everybody has ‘to become everything that they are capable of becoming’. In other words, it refers to self-fulfilment and the need to reach full potential as a unique human being. Maslow also says (1970, p.383) that all individuals have the need to see themselves as competent and autonomous, also that every person has limitless room for growth.

This website then offers a number of practical steps and resources for creating your vision, planning, starting, recording, and reviewing your personal development. This is certainly a useful introduction to the discipline of personal development for many people working in organisations.

In an on-line blog post, Myrko Thum defines Personal Development as ‘the conscious pursuit of personal growth by expanding self-awareness and knowledge and improving personal skills’ and quotes Jung’s “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate”, as a way to focus personal development on working with the unconscious. He goes on to cite the well-known four stages of competencemodel (first articulated by Martin Broadwell in 1969) – where we start in unconscious incompetence in our relationship to a skill or capability (it’s not on our radar), then move to conscious incompetence as we recognise the need to develop the capability (we want to be able to do it), eventually build our conscious competency (we can do it but we need to think about it) before this becomes habit and part of our unconscious competence (we do it automatically). I have often seen trainers explaining this sequence using the example of learning to drive to illustrate the stages, but really it can be applied to anything, including coaching skills and models.

Another well-known tool for working with the conscious and unconscious in relation to personal development is the JoHari Window – created by psychologists Joseph Luft (1916–2014) and Harrington Ingham (1916–1995) in 1955, as a model that helps people better understand their relationship with themselves and others. A simple four quadrants grid is created by combining what is known to self and unknown to self on one (X) axis, and what is known to other sand not known to others along the other (Y) axis. This creates four ‘windows’ (or ‘rooms’ as Charles Handy used to say), namely the open space, the hidden area, the blind spot and the unknown. The objective in terms of improving relationship with others is to maximise the size of the open arena through exercising the key skills of appropriate self-disclosure (to reduce our hidden area) and asking for and receiving feedback (to reduce our blind spot area). Of course, this is easier said than done and takes a life time of practice, but this represents another useful starting point for engaging in personal development alongside team and organisational development.

The JoHari Window (created by Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham)

When I first encountered this model in the 1990’s, I was always curious about how we might explore the unknown or unconscious area more fully and was never very satisfied with the answers I received at the time.  Amongst other things, this led me to study psychosynthesis which uniquely seems to provide a holistic map of the psyche which can help us recognise and navigate all the dimensions of our consciousness and unconsciousness, including what is sometimes called the shadow. To quote Robert Bly, “Shadow” is one of Carl Jung’s most useful terms for a part of the human psyche… it conveys a visual image – we might call the shadow “the dark, unlit and repressed side of the ego complex”.

My own conception of personal development is that it concerns the continuing development of the person, the whole human being, of our personhood, however we might say it*. Personal development is loosely synonymous with self-development and personal growth, although as a term it is now the most commonly used to refer to the discipline, practice and professional field of working on ourselves. It is important to remember that this practice is always owned by ourselves, by the individual, and that we hold agency and responsibility for it.  I cannot have a personal development objective for you, only for myself, although I can support you in your personal development, as we do as coaches.

The implication here is that we need a theory or model of the person, of the whole human being as a reference point for personal development.  Without this, different approaches tend to work unconsciously from a received set of assumptions about the psyche that have not been made explicit. Psychosynthesis offers such a model, as well as a more nuanced understanding of where personal development might take us, and this is now where I will turn.

* A brief aside – we are using the word personal in several different ways, which may cause some confusion. As well as meaning of the person, as described above, it also confers the meaning of individual, so when we refer to personal development we are really referring to our unique individual development (as opposed to team or organisational development). Within this broad sense of the person, we focus on the personality, as with the use of personality profiling tools and addressing personality edges and issues. Finally, within psychosynthesis we are using personalto describe the middle or most accessible realm of the human consciousness, as opposed to the lowerunconscious or prepersonal, or the higher unconscious or transpersonal.  Personalcan also be used to mean the private (or off-limits in leadership coaching) aspect of our lives (as contrasted with business-personal), but we are not drawing upon that meaning here.  Phew, this can be complicated!

Psychosynthesis as a path for personal development

The relationship between Maslow’s and Assagioli’s work and how they informed each other is a recurring topic in my writing. Assagioli recognised ‘that people are not equally developed from the psychological and spiritual point of view’ (1988, p107) and offers a way of understanding how personal development takes place along two inter-related but distinct dimensions.  He recognises and endorses Maslow’s work concerning self-actualisation but shows how this only takes us so far in terms of understanding how people develop and grow psycho-spiritually.

Drawing upon his map of the psyche (the Egg diagram), which distinguishes between prepersonal, personal and transpersonal levels of consciousness (see here), Assagioli distinguishes these two dimensions of development (1974, p121):

In the terminology of psychosynthesis, self-actualization corresponds to personal psychosynthesis. This includes the development and harmonizing of all human functions and potentialities at all levels of the lower and middle area in the diagram of the constitution of man. Instead, Self­-realization concerns the third higher level, that of the superconscious, and pertains to transpersonal or spiritual psychosynthesis.

Maslow’s later work recognises this distinction as he starts to speak in terms of transcending self-actualisers as well as non-transcending self-actualisers. Assagioli’s model of individual self-actualisation and self-realisation is our orienting model for psychosynthesis coaching in relationship to personal development. There has been much debate within psychosynthesis world about the relationship between the two dimensions of development; whether they are sequential (personal psychosynthesis broadly preceding transpersonal psychosynthesis), concurrent (we are working on both aspects much of the time) or follow a pattern that is unique to each individual (which I tend to favour). In the graphic above I have drawn a spiral as an example of the way we might illustrate a personal journey alternating between the two dimensions.

The important thing is that this model helps us hold the tension between self-actualisation and self-realisation and to be curious about the developmental journey of ourselves and our clients. For example, some of us might lean towards self-realisation (transcenders) and others towards self-actualisation (actualisers) in our personal development journey. This gives us a clue as to the type of challenges and crises we might encounter along the way. Transcenders tend to encounter crises of duality as they struggle with embodiment, with being spirit in matter, with making their way in the world and dealing with the practicalities of life.  Actualisers tend to encounter crises of meaning as they strive to achieve and succeed, often evoking considerable stress in pursuit of actualising their potential in the world. Some of us will recognise both states from reflecting upon different periods of our life, and we might start to trace a pattern which resembles the spiral above (see my example below).

The focus of personal psychosynthesis is on developing a strong and healthy personal “I” (sometimes referred to the I-self, small self or the personality), as the centre of our everyday awareness and self-consciousness, the psychological container and vehicle through which we experience our higher Self and actualise our potential in our lives through engaging our will. This is about being able to function happily and effectively as human beings, both in our inner experiential lives and our outer lives of relationships and actions.  This part of personal development is about working on ourselves and the personality edges, blind spots and distortions that are unwelcomed and unconscious echoes of the past. The key here is building a level of self- awareness, knowledge and acceptance that gives us sufficient psychological and behavioural freedom to activate our will, rather than necessarily changing the way we are, which is not always possible or even desirable!

The focus of transpersonal psychosynthesis is on the higher Self – who we are most essentially, the source of our being and our becoming. Without getting too technical about this more spiritual domain, this is the territory of all the ancient and modern paths to self-realisation, self-discovery or enlightenment. This part of personal development is about learning to listen to, resonate with, reach towards and recognise our essential being and unrealised potential. This is particularly difficult because most of the time we are too identified with different parts of our experience, personality, or outer lives to be able to listen to the Self. Hence the need to start with personal psychosynthesis and the practice of disidentification and identification. This work is about discovering meaning and purpose for our lives from within rather than externally.

To explain more fully what Assagioli meant by self-realisation in a psycho-spiritual context, I will paraphrase from Psychosynthesis (1965, p21-22):

attaining the goal of self-realisation begins with getting to know and mastering our personality.  This involves an inner exploration of our lower, middle and higher unconscious, in other words, working on ourselves at different levels, to discover our true abilities and higher potentialities, and thus engaging self-actualisation. This leads to the recognition and realisation of our true or higher Self, which becomes the unifying centre for our further development – transpersonal psychosynthesis.

Within this, the starting point and main focus of the work of personal development is best summarised as getting to know and mastering our personality, through exploring all levels of our consciousness.  This is an important message both to ourselves as coaches and for those we are coaching and gets missed in more superficial approaches to personal development that only emphasise developing skills and behaviour.

Finally, let me use my own life as a (highly simplified) example of the interplay of these two dimensions – following every appearance of outward success at school (1), I hit a crisis of identity and meaning as a young adult at university (2), that led to an inner search for truth and understanding of who I was (3), in which I embarked upon a path that led to a series of peak experiences and profound self-realisation (4), liberating me to express myself fully and experience an extended period of career achievement (5), culminating in a gradual return to self-doubt and questioning at a deeper level (6), leading me to engage in a rich period of personal and professional development (7), fuelling a new phase of actualisation in the organisational world (8), before responding to a pull towards my current work with psychosynthesis coaching, bringing inner healing and resolution (9), which I am now channelling into my courses and writing (10).  Elsewhere (in the book I am writing), I will unpack this journey in a little more detail, colouring in my personal development in terms of aspirations, strengths, issues and edges during each of these phases, as well as how this translates into Assagioli’s language of personal and transpersonal psychosynthesis. For now, I simply want to show an example of how these phases illustrate cycling between periods of working on self-realisation and self-actualisation.

What next?

Having established this contextual foundation for how we might approach personal development as psychosynthesis coaches, in my next post I will introduce a model to help us and our clients recognise the psychological issues and personality edges that most need working on. I will then explore the following seven perspectives for coaches engaging with personal development:

1: it starts with an attitude –why attitudes need continuous reflection and renewal

2: know thyself, know thy client –appreciating the psychospiritual territory in which we are working as a guide

3: what’s my stuff, what’s your stuff? – and how does my stuff get along with your stuff?

4: ways of working on yourself – formal and informal, obvious and not so obvious

5: finding your edges to work on – this tricky part of personal development

6: assessing your personal development – ways of reviewing progress

7: knowing it’s always personal – not leaving ourselves out of the picture

The second post on this topic of personal development for the leadership coach will follow soon!

Thanks for reading.


P.S. Tickets for our Psychosynthesis Coaching Symposium on 14thNovember are now on sale at:



Assagioli, Roberto (1965), ‘Psychosynthesis’

Assagioli, Roberto (1974), ‘The Act of Will’

Assagioli, Roberto (1988), ‘Transpersonal Development’

Bly, Robert (1988), ‘A little Book on the Human Shadow’

Maslow, Abraham (1968), ‘Towards a psychology of Being’

Maslow, Abraham (1970), ‘Motivation and Personality’, (2nd Edition)

Myrko Thum: http://www.myrkothum.com/what-is-personal-development/(2012)

Skills Your Need: https://www.skillsyouneed.com/ps/personal-development.html(2018)

The post Personal development and the leadership coach appeared first on Psychosynthesis Coaching.

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8 April 2018 

Aubyn Howard

It is now fairly widely accepted in the coaching world that good coaching needs to be under-pinned by coaching psychology in some way, in terms of the education and training of coaches, their understanding of themselves and their clients, the approaches and methods they bring to their practice. Beyond that, there is not much consensus about what that looks like and there is much variety and experimentation in both theory and practice.

In this post, I’m going to present the case for psycho-spiritual psychology for coaches who want to want to work at the deepest level and in the most impactful way with their clients within the context of today’s emergent leadership challenges.  The first part is a little theoretical and complex because it involves making some subtle distinctions using language, but it is also very important.  I invite you to stay with it and promise we will show its relevance to coaching!

What is psycho-spiritual psychology?

Psychosynthesis is a psycho-spiritual psychology of Self and Will that was developed by Roberto Assagioli. Quite a mouthful, so what does that mean? First of all, it is concerned with the whole human being, with the human psyche and all levels of our consciousness and unconsciousness. Explicitly this includes (i) the higher unconscious or superconscious, otherwise described as the transpersonal or spiritual realms, (ii) the middle unconscious or realm of our personality and personal psychology, (iii) the lower unconscious, the realm of history, trauma and prepersonal psychology.

We sometimes describe Psychosynthesis as a holistic psychology for including all these levels (whereas say, psychoanalysis only focuses on the lower level) and at other times integrative for its capacity to bring together different psychologies into a relational whole; but psycho-spiritual says it most distinctively, because it emphasises the relationship and interplay between the psyche (lower, middle and higher consciousness) and the spiritual, transpersonal or higher Self. Psychosynthesis (see Assagioli’s Egg Diagram below) offers an explicit model of the human psyche that includes the Self. Psychologies that have no such central model of self often lack coherence (viz. NLP, Gestalt or TA – having worked with all three of these modalities, I will describe the problems they encounter because of this another time). It is important for coaches (and therapists for that matter) to have a model or concept of the psyche that includes the Self, because without one, we can lose sight of the being and get caught in the processes and contents of the mind.

Transpersonal and psycho-spiritual psychology are often conflated but there is an important distinction. The former focuses on working at the transpersonal level, the latter with all levels. As Assagioli says “I would like to stress the validity of a basic principle of psychosynthesis, that “we can benefit from, and utilize every function and element of our psyche (lower, middle and higher unconscious), provided we understand its nature and purpose, and place it in its right relation with the greater whole”.

[A quick aside about the use of the word spiritual – we are using it here in the phenomenological sense to describe higher aspects of subjectively experienced consciousness.  We are not concerned here with religion or even spiritual practice and psychosynthesis as such is neutral with respect to these. It is also neutral in relation to new age or alternative conceptions of spirituality that tend to be over-associated with what is called the pluralistic or relativistic paradigm.]

Structure of the psyche – Roberto Assagioli

What do we mean by Self (with a capital S)? Assagioli explains, the “transpersonal Self is basically “ontological”. Onthos means being – which is not process, but is something standing in itself. Self is the unchanging, enduring reality; a stable centre of life on its own level, which has functions but is not a function”. Perhaps a more familiar way of talking about this is in terms of our being – who we are most essentially, how we experience ourselves when we are most present.  This is a question we encourage psychosynthesis coaches to reflect upon when working with someone; “who is this being most essentially? If I open my heart to them, who do I see? What is emergent?” Thus, we start with the Self, who this person or being is most essentially and we remind ourselves that we are coaching the being, before the doing or the behaviour. How are we coaching the being? We work with Self and Will and how these are experienced and manifest in the world, for example towards self-realisation and self-actualisation.  Of course, any coaching also involves working with action and behaviour, but the context for psychosynthesis coaching is to first hold awareness of and to reflect upon the being.

Psychosynthesis is also a psychology of Will, again using capital W to indicate our Transpersonal Will as distinct from our everyday strong will, skilful will and goodwill, which are aspects of will.  We often say that ‘Will’ is the first expression of Self, it is the way in which who we are comes into the world, the essential act of will that also manifests with our conscious experience of I or everyday self. Will is therefore next to Self and comes before the various psychological functions of the mind.  Healthy and well-rounded will has the capacity to focus and direct the psychological functions of our minds – thinking, feeling, sensation, intuition, imagination, desire, etc., in service of Self.  However, much of the time we experience the reverse, with our will blocked or distorted by aspects of our personality and the way that our minds work.

Will is not the same as motivation – motivations can be come from any part of our personality or mind and don’t necessarily spring from our Will to realise or actualise ourselves in the world.  So a major difference between psychosynthesis coaching and more behavioural approaches is that we are seeking to help the client release or activate their Will in relationship to their purpose and goals; rather than helping them find their motivation for doing things (although this may be a consequence of activating will).

How is this essentially different from conventional psychology?

Psycho-spiritual psychology challenges and changes the basic orientation of conventional psychology; from human doing, looking at “the mind and how it dictates and influences our behaviour” (British Psychological Society definition), in other words, from how humans work and what they do; towards human being – who we are most essentially, how we function as human beings and within that, how the mind works and influences our behaviour.  This shift re-orientates the direction of psychological inquiry into a new sequence: from who we are (Self/Being), to why we are (Will), to how we work (mind/body) and what we do (act/behaviour).  Rather than; from what we do (behaviour), to why we do it (motivation), to how that works (mind), and then to who is doing it.  It may be easier to follow this in the diagram below:

With the conventional way around, the Self is lost or never found. Neuroscientists cannot find a place in the brain where the Self/self/I exists and end up concluding that it is an illusion or a figment of our imagination created by our ego functioning. The evidence of our subjective experience of consciousness and the value of inner inquiry are discounted or ignored and we end up in a world where the Self no longer exists. This can have consequences for us all, not just individually, but in society as a whole.

The original meaning of the word psychology (from the greek – psyche and logos) was the study of the soul. I suggest modern psychology has somewhat lost its way through successive attempt to become more scientific, which ironically have led only to it becoming more partial and philosophically at least, less scientific (see Ken Wilber’s ‘A Theory of Everything’ if you are new to this argument and want to explore it). Ramesh Bijlani (in a post on SpeakingTree) tells a succinct version of the story of how this happened: “psychology, in order to assert its status as a science, underwent a voluntary amputation.  It got rid of those elements which did not fit within the framework of science.  The first thing that it got rid of was the soul, because science denied the Divine, of which soul is the essence.  Consequently, psychology became the study of the mind. However, even the mind is difficult to quantify. Hence psychology gradually became the study of behaviour.”

Neal Goldsmith (in a post on Psychology Today) seeks to “bring psychologists, my clients, and us all back to psychology as the study of the psyche, to a focus on the ground of our being, to the soul, because it is this part of us that is the earliest, deepest, and the most authentic part of us.”

Psychology has deep roots and perhaps it can find a way back to include the soul or Self again.  We can also go back to draw upon shamanic wisdom which looks in the four points of the medicine wheel and invites us to ask the questions ‘Who am I?”, ‘Why am I here?’, ‘Where have I come from?’ and ‘Where am I going?’ – although not quite the same as my questions, they follow a similar direction of inquiry.

What do you think?  How might this realignment of the questions that psychology answers, fundamentally shift our understanding of human beings and being human?  What does this mean for leadership and coaching?

Why do we need psycho-spiritual psychology now for leadership coaching?

Put simply, there is an emerging and growing crisis of leadership that I suggest calls out for a psycho-spiritual perspective. I recently touched upon the nature of this crisis in a post on the leadership gap.  The crisis of leadership can generally be explored at three levels: individual, organisational and societal. The societal crisis of leadership, in particular in politics both nationally and globally, continues to be widely observed and commented on in our media and beyond.  This whole topic and how a psycho-spiritual approach can help, deserves a fuller treatment than I can give here, so below I focus on what it means at the individual and organisational levels for coaches.

Individual leadership crisis

The organisational and leadership landscape has changed significantly since coaching first started to become accepted and even commonplace in our organisations.  As we all know and are frequently reminded, organisations are being increasingly impacted by change, uncertainty and complexity and need to become more innovative, collaborative and adaptive.  What isn’t talked about so much is how the fundamental relationship between the individual and the organisation is changing and what this means for both leaders and coaches. The typical individual leader is facing mounting organisational challenges and performance pressures that bring corresponding personal stress and psychological pressures.  The boundaries between business and personal are becoming blurred and harder to manage.  More to the point, being a leader these days has a very personal dimension that needs to be recognised and supported.

What does this mean for coaching? Most coaching has been focused on performance improvement, modifying behaviours or managing change, with a secondary focus on personal development that may support the leader to achieve their objectives in these areas.  To the extent that psychology or psychological approaches have become part of the coach’s context, method or toolkit, the emphasis has been on behaviourally oriented psychologies, such as CBT and NLP or the newer positive- or neuro- psychologies that can also be highly effective at supporting performance improvement.

There is a place for all of this and performance improvement is not a bad place for a coach to begin their practice, particularly when working with Achievement-centred leaders.  At the same time, many leaders now need a more balanced approach, which places equal emphasis on the inner and outer dimensions of their lives as leaders, that can support them in dealing with the business and the personal, with the light and the dark, with depth and height, with higher purpose and meaning, as well as with day-to-day challenges and sometimes the shadows. Some coaching focuses exclusively on the positive and ignores these shadows, the parts of ourselves and our consciousness we are less ready to acknowledge; echoes of trauma, suffering and our history, how we have learned to survive as a personality. I am not suggesting the coach should work on healing the past, but these aspects can be very present and relevant to the coaching conversation and as such may need to be recognised, acknowledged and included.

Organisational leadership crisis

Readers of this blog will be familiar with how the developmental psychology perspective provides a map of how individuals, teams and organisations evolve and develop over times, as described in terms of organisational paradigms and leadership styles (e.g. see post on Frederic Laloux).  In a nutshell, Laloux describes seven organisational paradigms that broadly follow the emergence of human consciousness and societal worldviews over thousands of years of human history, and mirror the developmental stages that individuals work through as they grow up and mature in adulthood (at least in potentiality).  These are; Reactive, Magic, Impulsive, Conformist, Achievement, Pluralistic and Evolutionary.  It may help to think of these as ways of thinking and operating in the world, which are more or less activated within an individual, group, organisational or society depending upon history, circumstance and situational factors.  With his book “Reinventing organisations’ Laloux explores examples of the emerging ‘Evolutionary’ paradigm and examines the three common principles of self-organisation, wholeness and evolutionary purpose that he finds helps to activate this paradigm.

One simple way of characterising the current leadership crisis in organisations (and there are many) is that the current challenges and crises organisations are facing (e.g. complexity, agility, purpose, engagement, etc.) require an Evolutionary response, but are largely met with leadership centred at the ‘Achievement’ or ‘Pluralistic’ paradigms. Laloux focuses on organisational development towards the ‘Evolutionary’ paradigm, whereas it is often more relevant and practical to think about how to develop pockets of Evolutionary leadership (e.g. in key roles) within largely Achievement-Pluralistic organisations.

If you are working with a leader who is awakening to the Evolutionary paradigm, you will benefit from the context and methodology of a psycho-spiritual psychology, both when working with issues of wholeness and evolutionary purpose and when helping leaders in their vertical development.  Often such leaders experience a crisis of transition, whether a crisis of meaning or duality or some form of spiritual awakening.  Training in a psycho-spiritual psychology is important both for recognising what is happening for the client and knowing how to support them. More generally, there is a growing need to include and address the whole human being in organisations – so we need a psychology that includes the whole human being that helps us do this.

How do we apply this to leadership coaching?

What do we mean when we talk about applying, or bringing or drawing upon any psychology in relationship to coaching?  We actually mean some quite different things which are usually not well distinguished and can lead to confusion and even poor practice.

I have found that it helps to distinguish three different spaces in which we can apply a psycho-spiritual psychology as a coach. These are the coach’s space, the client’s space and the coaching space.

The coach’s space

First, we should attend to how any psychology we are studying applies to us and our personal and professional development.  This is particularly true for psycho-spiritual psychology where our subjective knowledge and experience of the territory is so valuable when it comes to supporting the client. All self-aware professional practitioners already know that the work always starts with themselves, that inner development informs outer inquiry and practice.  In hindsight, this is how I first drew upon psychosynthesis for many years before I started using more explicit models of psycho-spiritual coaching (such as Roger Evans’ Trifocal Vision, which we touch upon in this post but warrants a further post of its own).

A mature, vastly experienced and highly competent student on one of our coaching courses recently shared that for her, personal development never ceases and that her experience of effectiveness and mastery as a coach has directly increased in proportion to her work on herself. My experience is the same. From this perspective, as coaches we work on ourselves to increase our capacity to be with and know ourselves; which transfers directly to our capacity to be with and support our clients – what an amazing profession to be in!  Contrast this with conventional academic psychology that seems to miss the practitioner entirely except as a thinking machine that observes, analyses and diagnoses what is going on over there.

The client’s space

Second, we can consider how psychology can be used directly in working with or on the client’s personal process or development; for example, using a specific technique, exercise or method, either formally or informally, working at the prepersonal, personal and transpersonal levels described earlier. For example; using guided visualisation to catalyse transpersonal creative expression; mindset reframing for addressing personal level blocks to change; and identifying and owning projections in difficult relationships, as a simple prepersonal level intervention.

Working at the prepersonal level is where the greatest caution is needed and there are boundary issues between coaching and therapy or counselling to be recognised (see my post on therapy versus coaching) – for example as coaches we do not engage directly in the therapeutic process with our client, although we may contextualise it, refer to it and even support action towards it.

Many practitioners rush too quickly and eagerly to use their chosen psychology to work on the client and I tend to caution against this – don’t bring a technique to coaching for the sake of it – only in response to an emergent need or working in the gap to address blocks or impasses. The most common example I have come across is the zealous NLP practitioner using technique after technique with a client, intoxicated by the magic of instant apparent change. With some clients, I may never formally introduce a technique because all the important work happens naturally and informally in the coaching space.

The coaching space

So, thirdly and perhaps most importantly, our understanding of psychology can consciously and unconsciously inform and influence the coaching space, the coach’s engagement with the coachee in the coaching session; the coaching conversation, dialogue, process or journey – however you want to characterise it.  This alchemical space naturally touches upon and weaves between all levels of consciousness, all dimensions of time and the inner and outer lives of our clients, as we follow the coaching process in service of the client’s goals, purpose or needs.  As psycho-spiritual coaches, we hold awareness of the Self of the other as we explore the current reality and work in the gap to release available free will (Trifocal Vision).  This creates a right-relational being space, which is where the mystery can be present and magic can happen, mixed up with more prosaic progress towards good outcomes from hard work, usually involving helping the client identify and take the next small step towards their goal. You may recognise this transformative space (sometimes experienced as a state of grace) that can enter the coaching space in the way that you work – it obviously doesn’t need you to have studied psycho-spiritual psychology, but I recommend it if you want to develop your understanding of and capacity for recreating the transformative space.

Much more can be said about working in this transformative space as a coach, and how it differs from working on the client’s process. For a start, we bring our authentic presence as a coach, we can use ourselves as an instrument of change, we can bring ourselves as a resource – but always within the context of the coaching process and in service to the client’s Self and Will, or as Sir John Whitmore contextualises, for increasing the client’s awareness and responsibility.

The three spaces are summarised in the graphic below, which shows that in effect we are working at three levels in three spaces – so there are nine dimensions in all for applying psycho-spiritual psychology!

Three spaces for applying psycho-spiritual psychology in coaching

Why is this important?  For new or inexperienced coaches, it helps to break down the task at hand for bringing psychology to their learning and practice, to gain perspective and prioritise their own learning. For more experienced coaches, this model helps us identify where we are strong and..

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10 January 2017

When running courses on coaching, we are frequently asked questions about the relationship, boundaries and differences between therapy or counselling and coaching. This topic is fraught with difficulty and complexity and is prone to trite or superficial treatment, so I want to have a go at shedding some light on it and set it within the larger context of shifting sands within the therapy and coaching worlds.

The prevailing narrative

If you google “what is the difference between therapy or counselling and coaching?” or something similar you will find plenty of mostly superficial answers to the question that seek to delineate territory in ways that end up limiting the scope of both counselling and coaching to fit the authors agenda (disclaimer – I too have an agenda for this piece! See later).

Michael Bader in Psychology Today (The difference Between Coaching and Therapy is Greatly Overstated, April 15, 2009) identifies this problem pretty well from stories he often hears from coaches, e.g. they work with the future and therapists with the past, coaches work to make healthy clients better, therapist work with pathology and problems, etc.  He suggests “that this is a mythic narrative that aims to insulate coaching – a profession in its infancy – from claims that it’s therapy without a license. It seeks to protect the egos and wallets of coaches while appeasing therapists on the same grounds”. He goes on to lay some of the blame for this at the door of the therapy profession for practicing “a model of psychotherapy that is so ridiculously narrow and theory-driven”.

A good example of this ‘dodgy’ narrative can be found on Tony Robbins’ website – “life coach vs therapist, learn the difference”, in which although he acknowledges overlaps, he then proceeds to define coaching in very narrow terms of client agendas (e.g. working to improve communication skills or work-life balance) that fit his target market of “ambitious achievers” (e.g. Laloux’s Achievement paradigm).

Even worse offenders (which I won’t name) of this dodgy narrative make sweeping distinctions (in addition to the common future and past delineation), along the lines that coaching deals with the conscious mind, rational behaviours, measurable goals, involves positive thinking and focusing on solutions (i.e. all the good stuff), whereas therapy or counselling works with the unconscious mind, with emotions, subjective goals, pathologies and problems (i.e. all the murky stuff).  This narrative is usually espoused by coaching schools that offer a very prescriptive method for young or inexperienced coaches on the basis that if they follow the method this will keep them (and their client) safe from straying off the path and into deep waters. The problem with this very delineated approach (this belongs to coaching, that belongs to counselling) is that people (i.e. all clients) are whole human beings who bring the good stuff as well as the murky stuff with them, their light and their dark, their conscious goals and their unconscious drives, whether to coaching or counselling.  There is another fundamental problem with any attempt to separate rational and emotional domains – all the recent neuropsychological research (e.g. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow) points towards a much greater role of the unconscious and our emotions in all our behaviour and decision making than previously acknowledged by the modern western worldview. Particularly in business and organisational life where the rational and individual agency has been elevated at the expense of the emotional and the human system, a new awareness is beginning to be established (a topic for another blog).

Some better approaches (from my google search) tackle the distinction by working through themes such as; the objectives, agendas or focus (of the activity); education, training and qualification (required of practitioners); ethics and governance (of the profession); approaches and methods (e.g. psychologies) used. The most useful commentary along these lines I found at https://www.sacap.edu.za/blog/coaching/whats-difference-counselling-coaching/, describes the relationship between professional counsellors and coaches as comparable to that of stepsiblings. The author goes on, “The emphasis in a coaching relationship is on goals, action and accountability, although an experienced coach will know when to look at the past should it inform the present and help pinpoint limiting belief systems. So, while counselling is geared towards understanding and resolving the past for healing, coaching works with functional people and uses the past only insofar as it provides a context in which future goals can be set.” This goes some way to teasing out the subtleties needed, but is still part of a static approach and as such has limitations.

A Dynamic Practitioner Framework – the Four C’s

I suggest a more dynamic approach for differentiating counselling and coaching that will (i) help us understand differences within coaching and counselling practice as well as between coaching and counselling and (ii) also help coaches and counsellors alike think critically about how they frame the work they do. We have developed an orienting framework called the Four C’s:

  • Context – what is the context of the relationship?  How has it come about? What is the wider systemic context? Are other parties involved?
  • Contract – what formal or informal goals or outcomes are the focus of the work?  How is the relationship structured and what agreements are made? What is the understanding between practitioner and client?
  • Client – what needs, issues and agendas are they bringing? What is their ego strength and stability? What is their level and depth of personal development, self-awareness and self-responsibility?
  • Capability – what is the coach’s level of education and training, professional and personal development? What is their experience and level of confidence of working in different domains or dimensions or with different types of client?

This framework further breaks into two parts:

Part One: Context and Contract determine the nature of the professional relationship or the ‘container’ – whether counselling or coaching, or what kind of coaching, e.g. life coaching within an individual or personal context or leadership coaching within an organisational context, along with a more complex multi-party contract.

Context and contracting are all important in any practitioner relationship.  We are not just saying that coaching and counselling will have different contexts, but that the practitioner (i) needs to be aware and able to hold the context of the relationship and (ii) needs the skills to contract with the client (or client system) in a way that is congruent with the context.  This doesn’t mean that everything needs to be written down and formally agreed, but the practitioner and client relationship does need a level of clarity or problems may occur.  Having established these principles, we can start to distinguish how the context and contract might differ between coaching and counselling. This is where we will generally characterise the coaching context as forward looking and outcome oriented in purpose, although this can involve working across temporal dimensions, past present and future.

I like to hold Sir John Whitmore’s (see the 5th edition of Coaching for Performance!) principles of awareness and responsibility as part of my coaching context with clients. There is something of paradox here, in that the coach can take responsibility for holding the context that the client is responsible for their own process, actions and outcomes. One thing we stress as a possible difference with counselling is that the coach doesn’t need to diagnose the client’s issues, rather they are helping the client reach an understanding or diagnosis for themselves with a view to finding solutions or taking actions. As psychosynthesis coaches our focus is on Self (who is this being most essentially and what is emergent for them?) and finding available Will – what small steps or actions will take the client forwards and release more will?  Something we notice with counsellors making the transition to coaching is the tendency to over psychologise and want to fully diagnose the client’s issues for themselves (and therefore spend too long in sessions working on their understanding rather than the coachees). This doesn’t mean the coach shouldn’t be curious or formulate hypotheses, but that they hold these lightly and leave the primary responsibility for understanding with the client.

Contracting is a major topic in itself and Peter Bluckert’s ‘Psychological dimensions of Executive Coaching’ is a good place to start.  Most coaching contracts involve regular monthly or bimonthly meetings and work with repeatable contractual cycles (e.g. of six sessions or three months) but leadership coaching can also allow for ad-hoc meetings or calls in response to emergent situations or crises.  Counselling contracts tend to involve more frequent meetings (e.g. weekly) at the practitioner’s premises and be open ended in terms of duration.  But again, there are no hard and fast rules, providing there is congruence across the four C’s.

Part Two: Client and Capability define the scope and nature of the work that can potentially take place within the professional relationship, the ‘contents’ – as determined by the openness, development and availability of the client as well as the nature of the needs and issues they bring, coupled with the professional capability and personal capacity of the coach. Different coaches can work at a greater or lesser level of depth, involving emotional, personal and psychological ground, depending upon their training, skills and experience.

The key boundary concerning the Client that we hold in coaching, is that we only work with functioning people with sufficient ego strength.  Another way of saying this is that we work with healthy neurotics who are able to function in the world (i.e. get to work, hold down relationships, pay their bills).  However, this doesn’t mean that successful leaders don’t have psychological problems or pathologies – increasingly our leader clients bring issues of anxiety, stress, addiction or depression alongside their leadership development and organisational agendas.  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work with them or we should pack them off to a therapist as soon as one of these issues emerges.  Nor does it mean that we will work with them as a therapist would in the area of the past traumas and unresolved history. The coach can help clients become aware of how past trauma and mirrors of the past are influencing or impeding their objectives, and help them take responsibility for healing or resolving these. The key here is that the coach is helping the client find their own strategy and way forward to dealing with their past at the level of the prepersonal unconscious (or psychodymanic).  Sometimes this can involve referral to a counsellor or therapist for specific work alongside the coaching, sometimes working with the coach in a boundaried context (if the coach has the experience and training), as well as engagement with all manner of other personal development and therapeutic resources or solutions (e.g. group work, somatic work, systemic work, healing, retreats, etc.).

I draw again (see previous posts) from Julia Vaughan Smith’s 2015 APECS paper (What has trauma got to do with coaching? Or coaching to do with trauma?) to add insight into how the coach can work in relationship to past trauma: “coaches with understanding and experience of this field (trauma and personality splits) can bring something additional to the coaching work, a greater transitional space between the inner and outer worlds, which allows for deep transformation without working directly with the traumatised self or with the past. It needs a slightly different tool kit, perhaps, particularly for those clients who are clearly under the control of their survival strategies, if they wish to address some underlying issues within the boundaries of the coaching relationship and contract.”

Mapping the territory

So, how do we describe the nature and the scope of the work that takes place with a coach or counsellor in an inclusive and expansive way, that then allows for specific emphasis to be made between counselling and coaching and between different approaches within these?

In psychosynthesis coaching, we make the distinction between the client’s inner and outer worlds and agendas that they might bring to coaching. Alongside this, we can map the different temporal domains of past, present and future, with a further distinction between near and far future.

Below we map out the territory more explicitly using these distinctions:

Orientation and domain Inner world and agendas/


Outer world and agendas/


Past Healing

Trauma, reflection, understanding



Sense making, acceptance, completion


Present Inner crisis and change

Self, personality, awareness


Outer crisis and change

Systems, relationships, solutions


Near future Personal development

Will, capacity, growth

Performance development

Behaviours, skills, actions

Far future Self-realisation

Purpose, meaning, values



Potential, career, leadership


In simple terms, we might expect conventional behavioural coaching to lean to the right hand side/outer world and counselling/therapy to the left hand side/inner world and focus more on the past than the future.  As psychosynthesis coaches, we seek to hold awareness of all these domains and are open and free to work across them as needed in response to the Four C’s; the context we hold, the contract we establish, the client’s needs and issues and our capability and skills.

However, it is extremely important to add that our capability and effectiveness to work across these domains is predicated on drawing upon a core coaching psychology (or combination of psychologies) that is holistic – one that enables practitioners to work with both the inner and outer lives of their clients, navigating the past present and future. This translates into prepersonal, personal and transpersonal levels, which are embraced within psychosynthesis psychology.

Choices and challenges

Let us remind ourselves why this topic (of distinctions between and within coaching and counselling) is important. It is key for the choices of both people seeking help from these professions, as well as those seeking to train and develop in these professions, i.e. for both potential coachees and coaches. With this in mind, I want to end this piece by challenging two conventional assumptions or orthodoxies:

  1. ‘That coaches need to train as therapists if they want to work at depth’ – twenty years ago it was assumed that any organisational practitioner who was serious about working at the most meaningful and important levels with their clients would need to go down the arduous route of therapy training. Besides the time and cost commitment, the practitioner also then needs to deal with the baggage that comes with the therapeutic paradigm (more on this another time).
  2. ‘That leaders need to go into therapy if they want to heal and resolve their past’ – rather we need more coaches that are equipped to help clients frame the healing and resolution of their past within wider context of ongoing personal and leadership development, and can support leaders to take responsibility for their own healing process, whichever resources they might draw upon.

There seems to be a long-term shift taking place from Therapy to Coaching in both the life/personal as well as the leadership/organisational environment. Many people find coaching more acceptable, accessible and available that counselling or therapy. The coaching profession needs to respond to this and find ways to develop and enable coaches to broaden their spectrum and deepen their reach. This is why we set up the PGC in Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching as an accessible first step and foundation for working in this way.  It is also supported by the Institute of Psychosynthesis’ move to offer the two-year MA in Psychosynthesis Psychology as a more realistic next step or alternative pathway (to the conventional 3-5 year counselling and therapy tracks). Please get in touch with myself or Paul Elliott if you would like to find out more about these options.

Let me end with a quote from my supervisor Fiona Adamson, in response to a previous piece I wrote on a related theme:

What is so fascinating is that some coaches are training to become therapists as they sense they need more theory and practice of working at depth. Until coaching courses can bring the methods and practices for coaches to work at depth then this will continue. So great that your course for coaches is already attending to this focus.

The post Coaching and therapy – challenging the orthodoxy appeared first on Psychosynthesis Coaching.

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17 May 2017

Change has been an enduring preoccupation of organisational development practitioners, certainly since I got involved in OD in the early 90’s. You might say that achieving successful intentional transformative change, whether at individual or collective levels, is the holy grail of our profession – desirable, mysterious, elusive, within our grasp and then lost again, with occasional standout successes. Pundits, gurus, consultants and coaches assure their audiences that if you follow their advice, method or formula you too can make the changes you want in your life, work or organisation (see these 1001 winning blog posts!). Personal experience and observational evidence mostly tells us it’s not quite so simple.

In this post, I will attempt to create clarity around this big topic of change and then share my updated model of mindset change (incorporating the somatic dimension – see my last post).

Unpacking change

First, in a Wilberian kind of way, let’s create some basic distinctions.  Change is a fat word that refers to a vast sea of different things and we tend to use it indiscriminately.  My primary distinction is between intentional and unintentional change, between change or transformation that we want to bring about, and change that happens to us, unexpectedly, often undesirably, sometimes called disruptive change.  Then, as already mentioned, there are individual and collective levels of change.

So, intentional individual change might be about developing some personal capacity or skill (e.g. I want to be better at working with conflict, or I want to develop my strategic thinking capacity) and intentional organisational change is often about shifting culture or mindsets (e.g. from a competitive to a collaborative mindset). Disruptive individual change is often caused by an unwelcomed event (e.g. losing my job, the breakdown of a relationship, a bereavement or illness), or by an unfolding inner crisis of meaning or duality. Disruptive change at the organisational level is often about a forced reaction to adverse performance or changing market conditions, or perhaps a change of ownership or a new strategy.

Then there might be different degrees, magnitudes and time scales for change and transformation.  Looking back at my life I can see a whole series of changes or developments which I didn’t see at the time (e.g. how I have become less analytical and controlling and more intuitive and emergent).

Immunity to change

There are change models that help us deal with unintentional change (e.g. Kubler-Ross or Satir’s model of change) and change models that are about making change happen (e.g. Kotter’s 8 steps or countless NLP tools).  One of the most popular new approaches to facilitating change is found in Robert Kegan and Lis Lahey’s Immunity to Change, first published in 2009. The essence of their model is that competing commitments, held in place by unquestioned assumptions or mindsets that lurk in our unconscious, may derail or block our conscious attempts to change our behaviour or transform ourselves.  They develop their model using examples of individual and organisational change, weaving together the challenge of supporting transformation through the stages of their developmental model of evolving cognitive complexity.

The book is full of insights and I like the neatness of describing developmental progress in terms of ‘making our subjective developmental stage an object of awareness, which allows us to work with it (Harryman)’. However, I found it difficult to read and for anyone having similar difficulty, I recommend the following blog piece by William Harryman, which summarises Kegan and Lahey’s works to date and offers a simple step by step version of their change model for coaches. Briefly these steps are (Harryman provides a worked example):

Step 1: Write your commitment (or goal)

Step 2: List everything you are doing or not doing that works against your commitment

Step 3: Write down what you think your competing commitment to your stated commitment might be

Step 4: Write the underlying assumption you are making about why the competing commitment is important

Step 5: Determine how best to move forwards, taking steps towards change in your life

I resonate with Harryman’s view that ‘the idea of hidden assumptions and competing commitments really is nothing new for some of us – those who have been doing parts (subpersonalities) work for more than just a little while.’

Kegan and Lahey make an important link between change, development and organisational culture: “To foster real change and development, both the leader and the organisational culture must take a developmental stance, they must send the message that they expect adults can grow”. They also refer to the age old philosophical battle concerning personal change: “are we better off trying to reflect our way toward transformation, expecting eventual changes in behaviour as the outcome of our hardworking contemplation? Or would we be better off taking up new behaviours as best we can and trusting that our minds will catch up with the realities of our new experience?” (page 319).  Thus, they contrast the insight or depth approach to psychology with the behavioural modification approach and point the way to transcending this dichotomy through praxis – “practice specifically designed to explore the possibility of altering our personal and organisational theories” (or big assumptions). This makes sense and follows the tradition of reflective practice as espoused by Chris Argyris and Donald Schon amongst others, although I am left pondering the cognitive-behavioural bias that runs through Kegan and Lahey’s work and the need to embrace systemic and somatic perspectives when approaching the challenge of change.

I am not going to unpack Kegan and Lahey’s model any more here – if you are interested in learning more about this popular approach, Jonathan Males is running a session at the 2017 APECS Symposium in June, where he will demonstrate how it works and discuss how to work with it within coaching.

Mindsets change

I work with a model of mindset change, adapted from one I first learnt about on the MA in Psychosynthesis Psychology and later used as a coach working with Roger Evans in Creative Leadership Consultants (and the basics of which can be found in Roger’s book, The Creative Manager, 1989).  There are similarities with the competing commitments model, in that our focus is to identity and become more conscious of limiting mindsets before seeking to reframe or transform them and change associated behaviour.  Crucially, I now incorporate systemic and somatic perspectives as part of exploring and releasing the mindset, which I believe increases our chances of success.

The language of Mindsets is becoming increasingly accepted within the organisational world, at both individual and collective levels.  It is important to realise that we always have mindsets (beliefs, thought patterns, unconscious assumptions, etc.) and that it is our awareness and relationship with them that we work on, with a view to giving ourselves more choice.  The same mindset can be both empowering and limiting, healthy and dysfunctional in different contexts or periods of our lives.  As we grow and develop, the mindsets that helped us survive or succeed in the past may no longer serve us, (e.g. ‘don’t rely upon others, I can do this on my own!’).  The same is true for collective mindsets, (e.g. ‘we are the best in the business!’ may serve the sales team at one point in time, but can become limiting when the organisation needs to open up to collaborative innovation partnerships. Having said that, some mindsets may point towards deeper psychological issues in our individual or collective psyches, and this is a theme which I will explore more fully in a follow up post.

For now, here is the approach referred to above, involving three parts and ten steps:

Part One: identifying the mindset

  1. What is the goal, purpose or issue you want to work on? What are you experiencing in relationship to this?  Specific blocks, barriers, failures? What are your observations?  What are your feelings, thoughts and wants?  Is this an issue that warrants deeper work to bring about change or transformation?
  2. Explore limiting mindsets which you associate with this goal/commitment/issue. These might be thought patterns or voices in your mind. Which of these feels the most significant?  Which do you want to work with? Write down the mindset, being as specific as possible and using language which is familiar to you.
  3. How does this mindset affect your behaviour and feelings? What behaviours do you associate with this mindset?  What feelings do you associate with it?

Part Two: unpacking the mindset

  1. How strong is this mind set? In other words, how much does it control you, how automatic is it? How much choice do you have around it? (10 = completely automatic with no choice).
  2. How long have you had this mind set? When and how did it first get started?  Is there a time before that you can remember?
  3. How does the mind set serve you? What do you get from it? What quality of value does it represent for you?
  4. How does the mind set limit you? What does the mind set stop you from seeing or doing about yourself or about others?

Part Three: reframing the mindset

  1. How or where might this mindset be held in your body? Can you put your hand there? Is there a shape or pattern to this mindset? Breathe into that place… and release.
  2. In what ways is this mindset held in place, supported or perpetuated by the wider system of which you are part (e.g. family, organisation, society). Which part of you is identified with this mindset? Which part(s) of you are not identified with the mindset and have choice in relationship to it?
  3. As you step back from the mindset, what new space opens up within you? What new prospects does this open up for you? What freedom or choice do you have in terms of your behaviour? In what other ways might you meet the needs or commitment this mindset represented for you?  Which empowering mindsets or affirmations could you draw upon in place of this mindset?

I am not going to promise that this is a failsafe formula to achieving desirable change – real work has to be done by both coach and client for this to make a difference. Working at depth as well as on the surface; work at mental, emotional, behavioural and somatic levels.  Work involving the unfolding of self, as well as activating or releasing the will.

The relationship between our mindsets, feelings (or emotional charge) and our behaviours that are associated with them, are depicted in the graphic above – which also shows how these are held in place through form – with individual mindsets this means the body and related somatic patterns, and with collective or organisational mindsets this can be many different things, e.g. the formal and informal shapes and patterns of the organisational system and its culture.

A word of warning about this kind of work: mindsets are slippery, and finding the mindset that needs working on in relation to a purpose, goal or issue is a serious challenge in itself. The coach’s task is to help the client self-reflect and increase their self-awareness in ways that they would not otherwise. Finding an important mindset to work with may take time, more than one session.  It may help to suggest that the client keeps a journal and records thought patterns between sessions, as close in real time as possible to significant events or behaviours they want to change.  You are trying to help the client catch their inner negative or critical voices and externalise them by putting them into words. I also capture what seem to be significant phrases my clients say during sessions, and occasionally feed them back.  By the way, I am amazed at how often these turn out to be the words used by a critical parent or authority figure.

Questioning convention

I can’t leave this topic without questioning two conventional orthodoxies concerning change.  Firstly, that change should be the primary focus of OD or coaching.  Mostly development is a better context.  Change is better seen more as a consequence or effect than a desired outcome in itself.  As a coach, I am more interested in development (e.g. of self and will) than change per se or even the goals and objectives that are driving it.  The deeper we engage with will and purpose, the more likely that superficial change objectives will fall away, dissolve, morph or shift in importance.

Secondly, the assumption that resistance to organisational change is necessarily a bad thing.  There is usually a good reason that individuals or parts of an organisation resist or oppose a planned or intended change. I am always suspicious when there is too much demonising of resistance, without any sense that the nature of what is being protected (the competing commitment) has been understood and without evidence that the resistance has been engaged with.  More often, resistance is an indication that an organisation and its leaders are those that really need to face up to change and transformation (see previous posts on Laloux), in order to create an organisation with purpose and a culture that is worthy of people’s trust and commitment.

Thanks for reading


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On a recent coaching course workshop, one of our students shared with surprise, their realisation that they had been engaging in personal development for many years through the lens or filter of their survival self, rather than their healthy or authentic self.  At the time, I thought this was an interesting observation and left it at that. At some point the next day, my unconscious having worked busily away, something troubling dawned upon me – that I had been doing exactly the same, for nearly forty years. In my case, my survival self is my mind orientation and the way I seek external acknowledgement and internal control through understanding and intellectualisation. That’s not to say that I haven’t experienced much of my lifetime of personal development authentically, but that my pattern is to split and intellectualise.  On realising this, I experienced a profound shift, which felt like a descent into my body from my head, or into my being from my mind, and for the rest of the weekend I experienced resting in this new way of being. I felt grounded and present, at the same time able to access and engage my mind, but without detaching from my emotions or felt sense. I found it helped to place my hands on my chest or stomach and to acknowledge my felt senses in other ways, when later sharing this experience with the group.

In the above story, I am referencing a model of the personality by professor Franz Rupert, which is explained in a really excellent paper on “What has trauma got to do with coaching? Or coaching got to do with trauma?” by Julia Vaughan Smith.  I first saw this published as an APECS symposium paper but you can also find this on her website here.  The model shows how splits in the personality and identity structure after a traumatic experience give rise to three parts of ourselves (healthy, traumatised, survival) and Julia explores how to work with these in coaching.

She explains how trauma is held in the body and points towards related developments in somatic coaching which I will discuss below.  She concludes “it is my view that coaches with understanding and experience of this field (personality and self) can bring something additional to the coaching work, a greater transitional space between the inner and outer worlds, which allows for deep transformation without working directly with the traumatised self or with the past. It needs a slightly different tool kit…”. Julia is answering better than I have seen anywhere else the question about the boundary between coaching and therapy here, and also describing the work that we do on our psychosynthesis coaching courses very well.

Somatic coaching is an emerging approach within the coaching profession and I want to use this post to provide an overview to anyone new to this perspective. In his very readable book on The Art of Somatic Coaching Richard Strozzi-Heckler sets out the central premise of somatic work, that “…while psychotherapy focused on reasons why something is the way it is, I would ask how is it that we have formed ourselves.  For example, how do we form ourselves toward contact or away from contact, instead of Why don’t we make contact?”. In this seminal work, Strozzi-Heckler issues a call to those interested in personal and societal evolution to wake up.  He sets his somatic approach within historical, coaching and personal contexts and makes some basic distinctions between the entry points of working on, with and through the body.  The book goes on to describe a methodology for somatic coaching, the importance of attending to our rhythm of energy and ends with mapping out the somatic arc of transformation.  Below is my take on these key pieces and some suggested questions for somatic coaching…

  • Entry points for somatic practice…
    • Working on the body – addressing presenting symptoms physically or by touch, usually by someone trained in a relevant professional modality, e.g. massage, reiki, kinesiology, craniosacral therapy, osteopathy, physiotherapy, etc.
    • Working with the body – to release blocks by working physically, energetically, emotionally, relationally, etc.
    • Working through the body – engaging life energy by attending to what is, what has been, what is emergent and the call of the Self…
  • Methodology of somatic practice
    • Somatic awareness – becoming aware of our sensations, to feel, to notice…
    • Somatic opening – opening of the soma so change can occur, undoing the habitual shape to allow another shape to come to life
    • Somatic practices – e.g. breath, movement, visualisation, enabling us to embody new skills and ways of being to support our goals and our emergent self
  • Rhythm of energy (with the gestalt cycle of experience equivalent)
    • Awakening – sensation and awareness
    • Increasing – mobilisation of energy and action
    • Containing – contact and resolution
    • Completing – withdrawal and completion
  • Somatic arc of transformation (and related psychological orientations)
    • Historical shape – the prepersonal and the past
    • Unbounded shape – the personal and the present
    • New shape – the transpersonal and the emergent future

Some somatic coaching questions I use…

  • What is going on for you now? What sensations, or feelings in your body?
  • What’s that feeling? Where do you feel that in your body?  Maybe place your hand there…
  • Do you notice your posture (or shape) as you say that? What might your posture be saying?
  • Can you breathe into that place – what is that like?
  • Would it help to take a deep breath? – maybe take a few, slow deep breaths (and breathe with them)
  • As you step into that space or place, what do you want to say? What is your felt sense?
  • As you step out of that space or place, what do you notice or become aware of?

In Embodying Authenticity, Eunice Aquilina (a student of Strozzi-Heckler) adds depth and breadth to the somatic narrative in a very personal and practical account that is richly illustrated with stories of how she works with leaders and organisations (yes, this stuff is practical!). She also goes some way to weaving the somatic perspective together with other important perspectives informing leadership and coaching such as the developmental prism (e.g. Laloux, Kegan, Cook-Greuter, Torbert), complexity theory and systemic practice (e.g. Critchley, Wheatley, Stacey and Shaw), amongst others.

Eunice speaks of the need for ‘wise and conscious leaders and practitioners, who are able to tune into themselves and simultaneously tune into what is emerging in the field, taking action from a deeper sense of awareness’, and views organisation as living systems where ‘leaders can bring their whole selves as fully rounded human beings and invite others to do the same… this is the offer of somatics’ (and a response to my piece on The Leadership Gap). This is also very much the territory of engaging with Laloux’s principle of wholeness in evolutionary (or Teal), organisations. She challenges the reader to engage in an inquiry of how their ‘history literally shapes what has become habitual ways of being’.  She shows how to work with the somatic arc of transformation to ‘shape a new way of being in the world’.  She explores how we can use the ‘self as instrument’ of change, and how through the quality of our presence, we create a strong container for others where we cultivate trust and listen beyond words…”. 

This somatic approach refers to the self as the source of our energy, wisdom and insight and in many ways this is entirely congruent with psychosynthesis.  However, in my view, this work needs to be underpinned for coaches by drawing upon a robust psychology of self and will (such as psychosynthesis), and a therapeutic awareness of how the different parts of ourselves come into play, such as discussed in Julia Vaughan Smith’s paper and explored on her retreats.  If not, the somatic practitioner is in danger of waking up parts or releasing energies within their clients, which they don’t know how to deal with.  We are noticing coaches coming towards psychosynthesis coaching because they are finding clients opening-up to them and engaging at an emotional level which they don’t feel fully equipped to deal with. They are looking for a stronger context for working at greater depth and height without necessarily becoming a therapist.

Just as it has become less taboo to refer to and work with feelings in organisations (thanks in part to the popularisation of EQ), so too now with the body and it feels much easier to refer to it within the coaching context, than say twenty years ago.  Somatic working doesn’t necessarily involve touch and you will probably stay away from direct physical contact unless you are explicitly combining coaching with some other touch based modality.  Somatic working can involve engaging with human form and energy in a host of ways, including posture, shape, pattern, flow, space, rhythm, movement, stillness and breath.

I must emphasise that I have not been specifically trained in the somatic approach, however, I find it both immediately relevant and intuitively accessible as another dimension to the way that I work, whether as coach, facilitator or educator. There is a natural fit within the context of psychosynthesis psychology and the model of Body-Feelings-Mind. Roberto Assagioli explored the deeper processes of involution and evolution and emphasised the need for human beings to work towards full embodiment as well as self-realisation – in other words we need to both come more into our bodies, anchoring in the physical plane and connected to the earth, as well to discover our higher nature and transcend our material fixations.  Embodiment, incarnation (e.g. the journey from spirit to matter) and becoming grounded, doesn’t end with being born and is something we might work on our whole lives, as part of coming more into our being and presence (as I described in my story at the beginning). In other words, connecting-down as well as up, and somatic working really helps with this.  I suspect this is particularly important in modern western society where cultural splits between mind and body have become endemic and where many of us are over mind-identified (thinking is all). This may all sound a bit esoteric, but I find people referring to this need all the time in my coaching practice – I want to be more grounded and fully present… I just need space to breathe… this may sound crazy, but I feel like I’m still working towards becoming embodied…

There seems to be a paradox at the heart of this somatic path, which is held by the dual meaning of somatic – sometimes meaning of the body, but also more essentially meaning of the body-mind (as an indivisible whole). Much of the practice involves working through, with or on the body as the entry point, but staying mindful that in doing this we are engaging with the whole human being, mind-body-feelings, and activating all levels of consciousness.

For an insight into how somatic practice works in practice, two APECS colleagues, Fiona Adamson and Elspeth Campbell, are running a short session to demonstrate somatic coaching at this years’ APECS Symposium (see more below):

Coaching-with-the-body, our felt sense of awareness, is becoming increasingly accepted as part of coaching practice.  Instead of asking why something is the way it is, we explore how it is that our sensory perceptions and emotional responses have contributed to patterns of behaviour in interactions, and formed ways of being.

There is one other very significant way in which the somatic perspective has informed a change in the way I work as a coach, which is how I approach mindset change, both at the individual and organisational level. This will be the subject of my next post to follow shortly, because there is too much to include here.

In the meantime, let me encourage you to take a closer look at the 2017 APECS Symposium (June 7th at Phyllis Court Henley); although primarily a forum for our members, we also welcome guests and have allocated 20 tickets to non-members.  We have a fantastic range of 24 sessions to choose from, under the overall theme of ‘How can coaching best respond to the emerging challenges of leadership?’

Programme details and booking link is here: https://apecsevents.wordpress.com/2017/03/25/revealing-the-full-agenda-for-the-2017-apecs-symposium/

Thanks for reading


The post The somatic path of coaching – working with body-mind and being appeared first on Psychosynthesis Coaching.

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Alchemy is making a comeback.  Cast into the shadows by the enlightenment and modern science, the notion of alchemy, albeit in a metaphorical sense in relationship to human consciousness and will, is seemingly becoming relevant again.

Definition:    al·che·my   alkəmē/   noun: alchemy

the medieval forerunner of chemistry, based on the supposed transformation of matter. It was concerned particularly with attempts to convert base metals into gold or to find a universal elixir.

synonyms: chemistry; magic, sorcery, witchcraft

“a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination”.

Paulo Coelho’s allegorical novel The Alchemist, written in 1988 and 150 million copies sold, with its central message that “when a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize their dream”, brought the theme of alchemy back into modern consciousness.

More recently, David Rooke and Bill Torbert in their 2005 HBR article on Seven Leadership Transformations, use Alchemist to describe their highest stage of leadership development, with the description: “generates social transformations. Integrates material, spiritual, and societal transformation.”

More description of this stage includes “interplay of awareness, thought, action and effect. Transforming self and others”, and “anchoring in inclusive present, seeing the light and dark in situations; works with order and chaos”.

Building upon this vision of the leader as alchemist, I find alchemy a useful metaphor for thinking about leadership coaching in a number of ways, which I explore in this post.

I am using alchemy in a similar way here to the terms synthesis or transformation.  The practice of alchemy, to my mind, involves at least four essential parts: (1) a crucible, container or context and (2) a combination of elements that come together within the crucible (3) through an essentially mysterious process, as guided or initiated by (4) the alchemist, guide or wise person.

How is coaching like alchemy? Firstly, the coaching session can sometimes be experienced as alchemy, both by the coach and the coachee.  Clearly the coach here is the alchemist or guide, but what is the crucible?  Within psychosynthesis coaching, this is created by the coach containing or holding the being of the other and the space that opens up between the coach and coachee in right relationship.  We sometimes call this the space between, and other approaches might describe this in terms of active presence or authentic engagement.

The elements are simply the contents or substance of the coaching conversation, which can be viewed through different dimensions (see below), for example; the inner and outer agendas the coachee brings, awareness raising, exploring options and finding available will.  In terms of inner exploration, these elements might then include; different parts of our personality (we call these subpersonalities); aspects or levels of consciousness; our thoughts, feeling and bodily experience; the somatic, the systemic and the superconscious.

The mysterious process is what happens beyond the conscious mind to bring these elements into creative tension or synthesis, to initiate transformation or emergence, giving rise to something more than the sum of the parts.  When this happens successfully, both parties experience heightened awareness or engagement, in gestalt terms contact or resolution. If we are fortunate a sense of grace might descend, a moment of timelessness and shared experience, although this is seldom explicitly acknowledged. Good coaches draw upon the energy released to guide the coachee towards choices, actions and future testing by the end of the session rather than simply basking in the experience. Of course, most coaching doesn’t flow so perfectly as this and there are bumps, deviations and challenges along the way.  However, it may be useful for the coach to hold this template of the alchemical process in their awareness, not in the same way as conventional coaching processes such as GROW or CLEAR, but as a way of staying open to what is between and beyond.

Dimensions, levels or elements at play within the coaching space include:

  • Levels of engagement – what level are you working at as a coach? Who is your client?
    • Individual – team – system
  • Coaching agendas – which agendas is your client bringing, both explicitly and implicitly?
    • Inner: change, development, purpose; personal, being, self-reflection, inquiry
    • Outer: change, behaviour, performance; practical, planning, action, review
  • Coaching horizon – when in time is the client’s energy blocked or needs attention? What is their temporal orientation?
    • Past – Present – Future (near to far)
  • Levels of consciousness – which levels of consciousness are engaged? Where are the unconscious blocks?
    • Prepersonal – personal – transpersonal
  • Body-Feelings-Mind – what parts of their experience does the client access easily? Which aspects are suppressed?
    • Somatic awareness – emotional intelligence – mindsets
  • Leadership development – what are the priorities for the client’s development? e.g. skills, intelligences, worldviews, self-esteem, confidence, awareness, will? What are the key inter-dependencies?
    • Horizontal – vertical – inner

The inner development of leaders can also be viewed in terms of alchemy.  The crucible is the leader’s sense of purpose and values, their pull towards meaning and growth, which create a context for personal development, whether conscious and articulated or not.  The elements include the interplay of awareness and will, and the harnessing of the psychological functions (e.g. thinking, feeling, sensing, intuition, imagination) and other resources by the will. The mysterious process of development itself can be described in terms of the personal journey towards self-actualisation and self-realisation, or in terms of lines and levels of development (e.g. see Wilber’s integral model or Frederic Laloux’s leadership paradigms). Who is the alchemist or conductor of all this? In psychosynthesis terms, we view the ‘higher Self’ as an inner guide. Part of the coach’s role is to nurture the client’s connection with their higher Self, to facilitate the process of inner development.

Thirdly, I want to describe coach development in terms of this alchemical process. In psychosynthesis coaching, we use the holistic psychology of psychosynthesis as our crucible, with Assagioli’s egg diagram providing a perfect container for bringing various elements into synthesis as part of our individual and collective evolving models of coaching.  Some of the elements we bring into the mix on our courses include; transpersonal coaching, systemic coaching, somatic coaching, mindfulness, neuroscience and evolutionary coaching.

These are amongst the most interesting developments and innovative approaches in coaching today – they can equip coaches to support leaders in responding to the emergent challenges of leadership in an increasingly complex and high pressure world.  Each will be the subject of one of my posts this year.

On our courses, there is also a creative synthesis of the elements of experiential learning, skills practice and theoretical ideas. Meanwhile, each participant engages in a continuous reflective dialogue between workshop learning and their own professional practice. This whole process of synthesis takes place differently and unpredictably on each course, depending upon our participants and the unique individual experience and perspectives they bring. Thus we are always learning and evolving something new.

One of the reasons I like this alchemy metaphor is that despite the aura of mystery, the original purpose was to create gold from base metal, something very practical. Our challenge as coaches is to stay open to mystery (or that which is beyond the control of our conscious minds) at the same time as staying grounded in the practical and pragmatic, and to help our clients do the same.  To continuously hold the creative tension, for ourselves and our clients. To quote Roberto Assagioli “What is synthesis? It could be defined as a dynamic, creative balance of tensions”.

Thanks for reading


The post The alchemy of coaching appeared first on Psychosynthesis Coaching.

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