Tatiana Bachkirova's picture Submitted by Tatiana Bachkirova December 14, 2016 - 1:02pm

Does it surprise you how many ideas and beliefs that were once universally held to be the case are now seen as wrong? Very well educated people used to believe, for example, that the earth was at the center of the universe and that ulcers are caused by stress. Folk-lore genuinely committed us to believe in elves and hobgoblins and that it was possible to change the weather by right thinking or behaviour.

We could explain this by human ignorance and irrationality and the slow progress of science. But I think we ought to be more charitable to the motives that people have when they interpret their experience of nature in ways that turn out to be far from reality. In the face of a complex and unpredictable environment, people seek out certainty and the feeling of being in control. We simply had to rely on the way things seem to be. Gradually though, we start to become increasingly aware that many things are not as they seem and we learn to deal with this.

My recent webinar presentation for the IOC, The Self as Multiplicity: A Challenge and Opportunity for Coaching, is about one such belief. I invited participants to look at the nature of self and recognise that the way it appears can be seriously challenged: the self may not be as simple as it seems.  We all tend to speak about “the self” as if we know what we mean.  We say, “It is just me”, or “I experience things” and “I make decisions and act” and “I can describe myself”. Supposedly, there is something unified and consistent about me: I know the boundaries of me.  When we talk about ‘the self’ or the ‘soul’, we feel confident that these attributes or elements of being must be located somewhere in the brain. However, appearances can be misleading.  According to recent research, a variant theory I find particularly interesting is based on the idea that we are comprised of multiple mini-selves—or a composite ‘multiplicity of self’, which we explored in detail in the webinar.

Why does this matter for coaching? On the surface, it may appear that it does not matter very much at all, for the nature of self seems too abstract for the concrete tasks of coaching. However, if we look at what coaches actually do, then the gap between the self and coaching is not as wide as it seems: coaches attempt to assist clients in changing the way they think, feel and act in the context of goals. This inevitably influences who they are. Isn’t this enough reason to ask yourself, as a coach: what (or who) is it that I am intervening with?

Coaches often say that they aim to increase the self-awareness of their clients, for they perceive that clients do not know themselves well enough. Yet is this a real issue for coaching? How do we address the discrepancy between the internal self-perception and perspectives of outsiders on a client’s abilities or behavior? In what ways might we be deceiving ourselves as coaches? There are of course various types of coaching and some of these may not have to be that concerned with understanding the self. Yet if you believe you are a developmental coach who works with the whole client and not just with specific skills or performance then I would suggest that understanding the self is essential.

Another approach to coaching that claims an interest in the self is so-called ‘transformational coaching’. I would like to take this opportunity to express my apprehension regarding this approach. It may be that I have an aversion to the clichés that this style is prone to generate, but I think my deeper desire is to make a clear distinction between “transformation” and “development”, the latter of which is viewed by some as a milder version of transformation. I believe this assumption to be erroneous.

Instead of viewing developmental coaching as “transformation-light”, I suggest it would be far more effective to see development as a natural process that happens in our life in response to both living in, and acting on, this world. It is influenced by many internal and external factors and thus happens at a different pace for different people. If development is a natural process, the amplifiers of this process, such as people—and coaches—and events, need also be understood as natural. That is how developmental coaching is designed: to tune in to the natural developmental process of the individual and to help that individual to understand themselves better by processing whatever the client needs to have processed.

Transformation, on the other hand, as a supposed significant shift in the way a person sees the world, might also happen within this paradigm, but for coaching to promise a transformation as an expectation appears to be a huge and often unrealistic claim. Moreover, even if transformation is possible, I would be concerned with this ideal being the primary aim of coaching.  The intention to “transform clients” implies that these clients are somehow incomplete and lack worth as they are, or that there is something wrong with their way of seeing the world.  Therein also lies an assumption that the coach knows something special about how clients need to be transformed and can deliberately and willfully perform magic on them—a very different proposition in comparison to developmental coaching.

But now let’s return to the puzzle of the self:  my webinar presentation takes the view that as selves, we are multiple in the way we act and describe who we are, thus seeking a holy grail of unification or “authenticity” is a doomed project from the outset. Looking at oneself—and at your clients—as a multiplicity of selves, may be a challenge for us, as everything is not ‘as it seems.’ Yet, I believe this paradigm opens up opportunity as well as interesting challenges for us in the dynamics of coaching. My suggestion is to try experimenting with seeing yourself as multiple—and engage with clients with this idea in mind. Although we might carry on our day-to-day existence with the apparent sense of a unitary self, what differentiates, to my mind, a professional coach from a layman is the knowledge and consideration in our work of both reality and appearance: what the self seems like and what it may really be like.

A stunning example of something that is "not what it seems".