Psychological dimensions of coaching

This post is based on insights and takeaways gained from a book that I was recently reading: “Psychological Dimensions of Executive Coaching” (2006), written by Peter Bluckert.  Even though the book focuses on executive coaching, the psychological dimensions of coaching relate to all types of coaching.

What are the psychological dimensions of coaching? To answer this question, we need to consider the key dimensions of a coaching session. According to Peter Bluckert, these are four:

a)      The client’s story

b)      The client’s emotions

c)       The client’s thoughts

d)      The coach’s use of self

These four dimensions are interrelated to each other. In a coaching session the client always comes with a story. The client wishes to tell the story to help the coach understand the background of the issue that he /she brings to the coaching session. Storytelling is just one dimension in a coaching session and a skillful coach needs to go beyond that. And beyond that lies the understanding of the client’s thinking processes and emotions.  The client’s storytelling is always full of personal interpretations and beliefs and is emotionally charged.  The coach’s job is to listen without judgment and support the client to become aware of his / her emotions and thoughts in relation to objective facts. Coaching is future oriented and is about helping a client move forward. Raising the client’s awareness on an emotional and cognitive level is the crucial first step towards learning and change. The coach’s use of self is inevitably a key dimension in a coaching session that requires a lot of attention.  The coach is not there to share his / her  own thoughts, opinions, worldviews and judgments. The coach is there to reflect back and help the client reach their own conclusions and take their own decisions.

Considering more deeply the causes and meanings of behavior, thoughts and feelings, requires a certain level of psychological skill and competence. According to Peter Bluckert the foundation stone of this competence is psychological mindedness. And how is the competence of psychological mindedness developed? Does one need to study psychology or become a licensed psychotherapist? The answer is NO. It is simply a matter of personal development and personal development is not a simple matter. However, it is an essential element in the development of a coach and it can be argued that it is as crucial as or even more crucial than the development of coaching skills. The development of psychological mindedness requires great self and social awareness, a commitment to continuous personal development, a desire for introspection, an openness to the unknown, and a mindfulness approach to living. It requires being present into NOW and being genuinely curious.

In his book Peter Bluckert highlights the commonalities between coaching and the Gestalt school of psychology. “The fundamental premises upon which both Gestalt and coaching theory are based have much in common. Both are founded on awareness as the precursor to change and each stresses the paramount importance of choice and personal responsibility.” Bluckert explores the application of the Gestalt perspective in executive coaching.

An important proposition of Gestalt about our nature and our change processes as human beings is that we seek to gain closure around issues. According to Gestalt our functioning is a cyclical process that is called the cycle of experience. “Our needs (figures – whatever occupies the foreground of your interest right now) arise from the ground (all those things that go to comprise our background) and are satisfied producing a withdrawal of interest in a cyclical or wave-like rhythmic pattern. This is typically represented in the cycle of experience, a seven-stage process beginning with sensation, moving through awareness and energy mobilization to action and contact producing resolution/ closure and withdrawal of interest.”

Learning, and therefore change, from a Gestalt perspective has to do with changing the ground, not just the figure. Clients often need to dig deeper within the ground to find unfinished businesses, things that they need to get closure on in order to move forward. In this respect, the coach’s job is to identify where the client is standing now and help them raise their awareness, move forward in the cycle of experience and take actions with the aim of getting closure around a specific issue and reach the withdrawal of interest.

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What I learned as a client

As a client of who, you might wonder. The answer is, as a client of some great coaches. An important step in the professional development of every coach is to be a client himself/ herself. It is an amazing experience that can benefit the coach both as a person and as a professional.  In this post I would like to share what I learnt from being myself a client in coaching sessions.

Coaching is a fantastic learning experience

We all learn differently and there are different ways of learning. Reading a book for example is a way of learning. Attending a lecture is another way of learning. Which ways of learning do you enjoy the most? How do you learn best? Some ways of learning are more passive while other ways of learning are more active. According to my experience, active ways of learning work better.

Imagine attending a lecture where someone talks for an hour. Of course you will have learned some stuff after the lecture. You will have kept notes that you can take with you and review anytime. Imagine being a lecturer yourself. You have done your research on a topic and you have created a great presentation. In which of the two situations have you learned more?

Coaching is closer to the second case but goes beyond it. It is an interactive way of learning.  Imagine bringing to a coaching conversation a topic that you want to explore. The coach supports you in looking your topic from different angles. He/ She helps you to realize what you need to research further and/ or what kind of actions you need to take. The coach is there for you while you take these actions and is there for you to explore it further. Coaching is an approach than can really accelerate the learning process. You learn in your own pace, the way you want to learn and by doing so the positive effect in your learning cycle can be tremendous.

Topics can emerge out of nowhere

When you are unfamiliar with the coaching process you might worry that you have no topics to discuss. After all your life is so perfect right now and you don’t have any problems. Well, the truth is that coaching is not necessarily about solving problems. Something in your life might be good enough but is it perfect? For example you might be happy with the personality you have developed over the years. But are you 100% happy with the person you have become? Aren’t there any characteristics in your personality that you would like to improve further?

During my sessions as a client I realized that there is always room for improvement. My coaches helped me to explore the different aspects of my life and realize that there are many areas on which I could potentially use some coaching.

Going beyond talking out loud

And yes, coaching goes beyond talking out loud. Although talking out loud can be useful, we often get caught up in an endless self talk and fail to see beyond that. Self talk is about reinforcing our current way of seeing things, our current beliefs. “My boss hates me”, “I will never make it”, “They don’t respect my feelings”. Often we forget that the way we see things is just a perspective and there are other perspectives that could serve us better.  Sometimes we even fail to separate objective facts from beliefs. As a result we might get caught up in a never-ending vicious circle.

During my coaching sessions as a client I had the opportunity to work on different disempowering beliefs that I had and get rid of them. This not only changed my perception of reality, but also I gained a greater level of happiness. And that was really a valuable learning.

Coaching can really go deep

That coaching can really go deep is not obvious to everyone. Someone once told me that coaching is good for things like time management and nothing more. Well, according to the understanding I gained as a client, I can tell you that this perception is totally wrong.  Coaching can really go deep and can raise the level of awareness of a client.

If you are working with a coach towards achieving a goal, time management is an aspect involved and is a relatively important aspect. We could, however, argue that there are other aspects involved that are even more important. One of these aspects is alignment.  A person really cannot be dragged towards achieving a goal. If a person sets out to pursue a goal, which is not in alignment with his /her values and his/ her life purpose, it is clear that this person will not commit himself/ herself to the achievement of this goal. Furthermore if this person does not clear up the various disempowering beliefs that might block him /her along the way, he / she might even give up.

Coaching is probably the most effective structure for supporting a person achieving goals by removing this kind of obstacles. Therefore, coaching can play a huge role in the journey of a person towards self discovery and self development.