Let the wider ecology do the coaching.
Professor Peter Hawkins
Having taken part in many coaching conferences, webinars, podcasts and courses on ecological and climate conscious coaching, I am struck by how often the focus gets trapped in exploring how we can focus on the ecology or climate in coaching – what questions to ask, how to raise the issue, how to address it? The ecology becomes an ‘it’, a problem to be addressed, an agenda item, another global challenge we must address, and we end up feeling overwhelmed.
This process is part of a deeper human pattern of consciousness and is a capacity that has brought many positive developments for humanity through our species’ short time on this planet: the capacity to see situations as challenges to be mastered, as problems to be solved, and difficulties to be overcome. This drive to mastery, over others and the world around us, has been a blessing that has turned into a curse – for it is this very drive to dominance, problem solving and mastery, that has led humans into a disastrous, exploitive and extractive relationship with the world around them – seeing the natural world as an unlimited resource to be plundered.
Please do not make the ecology the third or fifth item on the coaching agenda, or even the first! Everything we address in coaching and everything we sense is part of the wider ecology and the wider ecology is a participant in every issue that gets brought to coaching. It is literally the ground of our being, the air we share with every living being, the waters that run through us and comprise the majority of our body mass, and the light through which we see.
The ‘more-than-human’ world is the source of our living and is that which ‘re-sources’ us every moment of our lives. So instead of seeing the ecology as a problem we have to solve, and instead of trying to coach from our limited personal perspective and skill. we can turn and ask the ecology to help us coach. Many professions, from architects to musicians, and from organisational designers to artists, have been influenced by the growing field of bio-mimicry, how we can learn as designers, artists, engineers or organizational leaders, from nature, and use nature’s natural patterns, geometry, and design in human work. It is time that coaching also developed the humility to see that the biosphere has been doing development, learning and evolution longer, more sustainably and with much greater inter-dependence, than we humans. How can we learn to coach the way nature works? How can we go further and let the ecology do the coaching?
I invite you to give yourself some time to take a discovery walk into nature, be it your garden, a local park, a woodland, coastal path or other part of nature that is important to you. Travel with open hearted, wide-eyed and wide-eared curiosity. Try and be as unencumbered as possible – taking very little with you, either in what you carry physically or in the clutter of your mind. Be open to what comes.
Lightly hold the question, “what can the wider ecology teach me about how to coach?” and allow yourself to wander and wait for whatever surprising answers may unfold.
After a while the question may change to: “how can I help you, the wider ecology, do most of the coaching?” and “What do you need me to do differently in order that you have the space to coach?”
With Colleagues we have been experimenting with ways of letting the ecology coach and we offer here seven of the practices we have found helpful.
When working in tall, centrally heated office blocks in London, New York, Chicago and Johannesburg, I would often travel up a crowded elevator with the client, walk along a long corridor and find the allocated room for our coaching. The coaching would start in a cramped, crowded, contained and inner-focussed way of being. So I experimented with walking, with the client, to the window. Looking out on the world all around us, I would take a deep breath, imagining I was breathing in all the world I could see and sense into my being. I would then turn to the client and ask them – ‘what do you notice out there in the world?’ Or ‘what calls to you or grabs your attention as you look out on the world around you?’
This simple act opened a wider perspective that nearly always carried into our explorations together.
I was supervising a coach who worked with many senior executives, primarily in the media, publishing and advertising sectors. When the Pandemic arrived, many of these executives were working even longer hours at home than they had previously from the office. They had to rearrange operations to be done virtually; lay-off or furlough staff and reallocate tasks; lead virtual teams and keep everyone working together. Many of them were also having to home educate their children and had a partner also working long hours from home – a crowded, demanding place of work and life, without many of the normal support systems.
Several said they were suffering from ‘Zoom-itus’ and could not manage another long Zoom meeting for coaching. They needed to get out and exercise and asked to have their coaching via mobile phone while they went walking. They also wanted their sessions to be more frequent but shorter, just 30-minutes.
This worked at first, with both coach and coachee walking connected by earpiece and phone. But soon the coach started to notice they were both walking and talking faster and faster, with little space for reflection. We explored this pattern and ways of interrupting it – how could the ecology, through which they were both walking, help them? Eventually we alighted on ‘the Pause’. Half-way though their walking coaching the coach said: “Pause. Take a deep breath. Stop wherever you are and look around you? Where is beauty calling to you, or speaking to you, right now?”
Each year I hold two Advanced Coaching Retreats at Barrow Castle, where I live and teach in the countryside close to the City of Bath. As part of the retreat people coach each other as they walk through the woodlands close to the house. I invite coaches to use the path to shift between three different time and space dimensions. Firstly, to call attention to what is beneath our feet and just in front of us. Then to become aware of the path opening up before us, leading us to where we will walk next. Thirdly to look up and attend to the far horizon, and notice what weather is heading our way.
Without attention to horizon one, we may trip over an unnoticed obstacle right in front of us, or tread on an unnoticed form of life. If we ignore horizon two, we will fail to appreciate the co-creation of the journey: how we create the path, and the path creates the journey of our walking. If we do not look up and out to horizon three, we may well get soaked in an ‘unexpected’ rainstorm. Like the 2020 Coronavirus, the rainstorm was actually expected, we just had not paid attention.
Rhythms of nature
Besides the different spatial horizons mentioned above, the wider ecology can also teach us about the natural rhythms that flow through all life on this planet.
I invite you to take another exploratory learning walk into nature. Again, travel the same intentionality as in the previous invitation, but this time alert to as many different time rhythms you detect on your walk.
Some people return having tuned into the diurnal rhythm of the earth’s turning, which we experience as the sun travelling across from one horizon to another. Others have tuned into the four-week cycle of the moon as it waxes, wanes and goes dark, changing the tides in the oceans and in our bodies. Others connect to the annual cycle of the seasons, the plants that grow, flower, and fruit at different times in the year.
These are certainly the base, background rhythms, but there are also other melodic rhythms playing out within these. The butterfly that may only live for a week, but much longer as a caterpillar. The mayfly that may only live a day, but longer as a nymph. Morning glories, Evening Primroses and daylilies whose flowers come fresh and die each day. The hen that lays its eggs almost every day for 3 or 4 years. The steer that becomes enormous on eating just grass over 2 or 3 years.
Some have returned with rocks and fossils of geologic time, and one a jar of air telling how it contains air that has been around and through thousands of generations, before we now breathe it in.
Having completed this exploration we carry out a coaching session and explore how many rhythms we can discover in the coachee’s stories and in the unfolding relationship between us and all that surrounds us.
The woodland – as a living system
My friends and colleagues Giles Hutchins, David Jarrett, and Sarah McKinnon, all run leadership programmes in woodlands for leaders to have a direct embodied experience of learning, from the woodland, how living systems work together. Sarah McKinnon writes:
As we walk through the woods, we use the woodland metaphor to explore with genuine curiosity, how these intricate systems are always connected, evolving, challenging and collaborating, as well as fighting for survival. With little effort this segues into the leader’s recognition and reflection into their own nested systems – work, societal and physical wellbeing.
People who arrive bent upright at the start of the day, are later happily kneeling in mud, feeling an embodied connection with themselves, the group, their many human communities and the wider ecology.” (McKinnon in Hawkins and Turner 2020:118)
Giles writes about how working in nature helps “integrate the coachee’s different ways of knowing – intuitive, rational, emotional and somatic intelligences.” (Hutchins in Hawkins and Turner 2020:118).
Our western classroom education teaches us to break everything down into objects, events, problems and things to be studied. In the process we stop seeing the indivisible web of life. We attribute colleagues’ behaviours and how they react to us to the individual’s personality, rather than seeing it as part of a relational dance, not just to us, but the many nested, systemic levels within which we are both entwinned.
Coaching that involves animals takes us out of our neo-cortex, analytic brain and into our limbic brain, the part concerned with non-verbal communication and where we can more directly experience relational inter-connection. David Jarrett writes about how horses can act as ‘a mirror to give us a better sense of how we show up in a given moment in a very inviting and easily accessible way.” (Jarrett in Hawkins and Turner 2020:119).
Coaching in nature, with nature and by nature, invites us into a realm of play and as Gregory Bateson taught us, “Play is the establishment and exploration of relationship.” Bateson provided a great role model of how to play and explore interdependence through taking your curiosity into the wider ecological world. He would ask:
“What is the pattern that connects the crab to the lobster and the primrose to the orchid, and all of them to me, and me to you?”
As coaches we can walk alongside the coachee, tease out their latent curiosity, inquire into the connection around us, and then within us, as well as the connections between the two.
Try asking your next new coachee, the favourite question of the transpersonal psychologist Piero Ferrucci: “What makes your heart sing?”
Opening the Seven Levels.
For a number of years, I have had the privilege of being an inter-faith spiritual celebrant, facilitating weddings, child blessings, funerals and other rites of passage. In more recent years I have trained other spiritual celebrants in this important work. One of the core practices happens before the ceremony and is for the celebrant to prepare themselves through the practice of opening to seven levels of awareness.
- The first level is to open to the individual or individuals, and to picture them with love and compassion.
- Then to refocus on the relational connections. In the case of a wedding the relationship between those marrying; for a child blessing, the relationship between the parents, siblings and new arrival; and for a funeral between the relatives and the deceased.
- Thirdly, to open to the wider community of family, friends and neighbours that will shortly gather.
- We then move our focus to those who will not be present, because they are ill or have died, or have not been invited – the previous wife or husband, the estranged sibling, the dementing parent.
- The attention then moves to the whole interconnected human family, all 7.7 billion of us that share this planet,
- And then to the more-than-human world of all the sentient beings that surround us, and the elements that support and flow through us.
- Finally, we open the door to the mystery of oneness – that which connects everything, beyond time and space, beyond words, and certainly beyond our own limited comprehension.
Every coaching session is, in some way, a rite of passage, so this is a practice we can do as coaches before each coaching meeting. Picture the individual, their important relationships, the community they talk about in their sessions, and the community they leave out and ignore. Then the one human family, the more-than-human-ecology and the mystery of oneness.
What we know from the experience of many practitioners is that when you open to some new awareness within you, even though you never mention it, the client starts talking to that same level, as though they had only been awaiting your readiness.
Please chose one of these seven practices that you would like to experiment with in your own coaching work. Once you have that practice as a natural part of how you work, add a second and then a third.
Alternatively you can devise and invent your own practices that enable you to let go, step out of the way and become fully present, in a way that creates the ‘space for grace’, and allows life and the wider ecology to do the coaching.
Professor Peter Hawkins November 16thth, 2020