Introduction to a 3-part series on coaching as transformational paradigm and practice

by Julie Andersen

In February this year, Sharon Barbour, Toral Livingston-Jha, and I co-facilitated a CORE Circle on the “coach approach” for social change. Professional coaching is a discipline with specific skills, standards and requirements. It’s also a way of being and communicating in the world, a way of understanding self and other and the connections between us. 

This way of viewing the world includes a deep belief in the inherent wisdom and potential of each person.  While the three of us come from different schools of coaching, we all ground our coaching in the essential practices of presence of self, engaged listening, and empowering questions.

We also share the belief in the ability of coaching skills to both tap into individuals’ power to transform themselves, and to potentially shift organizational cultures and social structures towards more just and equitable systems. What could be possible if each person in our community felt deeply listened to and was able to connect to their inner sense of dignity and purpose? What if scores of community members had the skills to ask powerful questions and to listen for the transformational agendas of others? How could this build connections across perceived differences? How might this paradigm shift cause seismic change in our communities? 

In this series of blog posts over the next couple of months, Sharon, Toral and I share our perspectives on and experiences with coaching and its potential for social change. Please contact any one of us if you’re interested in exploring coaching for yourself or your organization. There are many other fine coaches available in town and via the Web as well — we encourage you to find a good fit for you! 

Coaching: A paradigm shift toward wholeness and social change

by Sharon Barbour

I’ve been coaching for 13 years, almost since the birth of this now exploding 25-year-old profession. When I first heard of coaching, I was both intrigued by its promise and repelled by the thought that access might be limited to the wealthy.  My commitments until then were (and still are) to non-profits and community farming, food coops and sustainability. Coaching didn’t seem to match. Yet, I noticed a strong stirring inside my heart when I learned more about it; it spoke of ways of being with each other that were honoring and life-enhancing. It seemed that a coach’s job was to help the coachee to contact their inner knowing and strengths and vision – contact the energy of life itself – and make conscious choices and creations from there.  

Coaching felt like a paradigm shift, ushering the re-entry of values that had long ago been suppressed – creativity, vision, wholeness that includes the body and spirit, partnering, intuition, a deep honoring. So, I took the leap and trained and built a business.  My initial training felt like rocket fuel for my spirituality and I knew I would always integrate coaching into my life. Years later I trained with Presence-Based Coaching and Leadership Development and added more dimension to my understanding of coaching: helping others deepen presence and resiliency, building neuropathways and developing competencies in service to what they care deeply about.

At the center of pure coaching is a relational presence that is soft, kind, curious and willing to not know. There, the coach holds the coachee as a precious human, entirely whole as they are, having unimaginable inner resources and vision. I am often amazed by those I coach. Not by what they do in the world, but by their interior landscape that offers insight, wisdom and imagery that heals and inspires. From their inner worlds, new perspectives, new visions, and new possibilities emerge.  What comes forth is always good stuff, stuff that is healing and growthful for themselves and ripples out to those around them. This is very satisfying work and an honor to be part of the process of this unfolding and creation.

Though I am honored to coach individuals and teach and mentor coaches, I started wondering years ago about the intersection of coaching and community, coaching and social change, and how to bring coaching to groups who have limited financial resources.  How can we expand this creative, life-affirming paradigm of coaching to serve more people and create greater ripples for the common good? I see repeating habits in individuals that I coach and they seem to reflect cultural habits; sometimes I wonder how to help unravel them at the society level. How do we move from individual development to cultural development/social change?  E.g. The habitual narrative of “I’m not enough” leads to over-working, over-consuming and perfectionism. What if that habit resolved on a mass level? And we tapped into what’s more true and restorative at a community or society level? The impact would be startling.  

What’s possible for seeing and shifting away from white supremacy habits to something more inclusive, healthy and true?  Or what’s possible for helping people pause and be with “what is” (face reality and sense into our somatic response and body wisdom) in terms of climate change and then re-organize our thoughts and actions  around what’s real and what’s truly important and precious? These are moves – pausing, wondering, listening to inner wisdom, shifting posture, re-organizing around what’s true – that I make everyday with my clients.  How do we make these same moves as groups of people in service to what’s truly precious and important?

Let’s consider together:  What are the doorways into this territory of work?  A few come to mind: Executive coaching within a larger context and frame – developing leaders who are willing to make choices with a much larger and life-giving context and vision in mind.  Helping to develop a “coaching culture” in the workplace. Increasing access to coaching, getting the “coach approach” into the hands of as many people as possible – non-profits, teachers, parents, students, other workplaces. Using coaching to help politicians win who are willing to put a stake in the ground for all people and the planet. Where do you see a doorway or window for this type of work?  I’d love to hear from you!

One day I put a big sheet of paper on my dining room wall and made the rough chart below.  It’s not meant to be a finished product but rather a place to begin distinguishing the differences in paradigms.  We need both paradigms in order to head toward greater balance and a more just, sustainable and enjoyable future. What do you notice?  What would you add?

Dominant western paradigm of work and learning Coaching paradigm
Emphasis on telling, giving advice, fixing.  Emphasis on external data Ask empowering questions to help others access their own answers and internal/somatic “data.” (Honor inner wisdom and experience.)

Hold person as creative, resourceful and whole.

Emphasis on linear, logical Creativity and intuition are honored
Tendency to learn and live from the neck up Full body, whole person learning and living
Tendency to ignore uncomfortable emotions and thoughts Acknowledge, listen, learn, and shift.   Discern and choose, create new narratives and ways of being.
Favors the “expert” voice Make room for all voices (including internal voices)

In the west, we have a strong preference for mental processes, we tend to ignore the wisdom of the body, favor the “expert” voice and logic, tend to push/strive and suffer from expectations of perfection.  The coaching paradigm honors inner knowing, body intelligence, creativity, being with and honoring what is, reflection, imagination and inspired action. It is a salve for the pains we are feeling from living a life out of balance.