This is the first of three blogs where I reflect on the theme of ‘place’ in coaching.
When my coaching client’s face flickered into focus on Skype earlier this week, I could tell immediately that he was stressed. When he spoke, his voice communicated tension even as he feigned some cheery pleasantries. He was having a tough time making the transition into a Directorship of his firm. As he began to share what was troubling him, I allowed images to form in my imagination (as I often do, when ‘tuning in’ to a client’s story). I saw a view of a mountain, an ocean shore, a woodland… all images of places. I began to wonder if my client’s despair was somehow connected to his struggle to find his place in the firm?
In Constellations work, we talk of the way that fully occupying our place in a system can restore our vitality, enable us to make our unique contribution, and contribute to the harmony and flow of the team/organisation or family/community as a whole. Equally, when for some reason we don’t take our place or allow it to be withheld or taken from us, the systemic ‘drag factors’ multiply and misery results. So, for example, a leader who is reluctant to use her authority, or a consultant who tries to influence his client’s team, or this new Director working through succession issues while feeling that he didn’t deserve his promotion, get entangled in messy group dynamics that can derail projects.
After our call, I reflected more deeply on the power of ‘place’. The images that came to me not only gave me a diagnostic clue, but suggested something quite healing, an intervention that I think is under-explored by us as coaches. It is about how we use the affordance of topography – of a literal place – to help ‘ground’ our clients, to help open them up both literally and metaphorically to new perspectives, to remind them and to reconnect them to borders beyond where they currently stand…
For example, a couple of Summers ago, I suggested to an exhausted and overwhelmed Chief Executive I was coaching that we leave his air-conditioned office and go sit beside the river nearby. He tentatively agreed, and after finding a spot, we sat in the long grass and had a period of silence, contemplating the water flowing by, and the meadow buttercups, and the expanse of sky. When we resumed our conversation, he shared at a depth he had never done before, and we surfaced issues and possibilities that led to transformational action.
The novelist Rebecca Solnit writes beautifully about this – about how we often talk of our love of places, but seldom about the ways that places can love us back:
“They give us continuity, something to return to, and offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our own lives to remain connected and coherent. They give us an expansive scale in which our troubles are set into context, in which the largeness of the world is a balm to loss, trouble, and ugliness. And distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite. The bigness of the world is redemption. Despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression is literally a hollow in the ground. To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest. Being able to travel both ways matters, and sometimes the way back into the heart of the question begins by going outward and beyond. This is the expansiveness that sometimes comes literally in a landscape or that tugs you out of yourself in a story.”
Business theorist Ikujiro Nonaka, wrote in the Califonian Management Review (1) some time ago, about ‘Ba’ – how the ‘spirit of the place’ can provide a platform for advancing individual and collective knowledge. Nonaka called for a different kind of leadership, where we could open to the transformational possibilities of a ‘ba’ – of a place.
How do you draw o the possibilities of 'place' in your coaching?
- Nonaka, I. and Konn, N., (1998), The Concept of ‘Ba. Building a Foundation for Knowledge Creation’. Californian Management Review, 40:3, 40 – 54.