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Coaching for change: what the exploration of a systemic challenge can teach us

Coaching is all about change. That might be a profound, very visible change – sometimes individuals are thinking about a new direction, or in the context of a team, grappling with some of the big knotty issues that drive business forwards. Often coaching is about behavioral change, which most of the time involves a shift in thinking and feeling. As coaches, we love to get people thinking differently, which in turn shifts how they feel.

The author recently used their coaching skills to support a mental health charity. The charity wanted to bring together different parts of the system they support to understand what was getting in the way of change. What was needed to create an environment where individuals can thrive in this industry? This article explores change through the lens of that industry conversation.

What’s getting in the way of change?

An interesting starting point with change is to explore ‘what’s getting in the way’.  If it has been identified that change is needed, then trying to find out what might be holding it back can throw up insights that need to be considered more deeply.

In the context of the mental health industry session, we heard a number of things that were industry specific. We also heard a number of things that cross-over into other industries. “Wellbeing washing”, “Hypocrisy”, “Conflict between wellbeing and profitability”, “Unreasonable expectations”, “Bullying”, “Wilful blindness”.

Then that word….. “fear”.

Fear was offered numerous times, by numerous participants.  It’s a strong word.  When coaching individuals, we often hear that people want to be more confident. Or that they want to do something that they haven’t been able to. Fear is often there, under-the-surface. If you do a search for fear and coaching on the internet, there is a raft of content returned back. It is

We shy away from fear as humans, but perhaps we need to embrace it. It is telling us something. Perhaps, a better question, when searching for what’s getting in the way of change, is “what am I scared of?”, at a team or system-level, “what is the system scared of?”.

What’s working?

At this juncture, things might seem a little overwhelming – a little bit hopeless. Leaning into fear can be powerful. It can be revealing. However, it is likely that limiting beliefs and thinking distortions are having a field day. Imposter syndrome will be running riot.

However, the polarity to fear is hope. Returning to our mental health discussion, participants explored the things that they needed individually to provide them with nourishment. Time with friends and family, the ability to close the door on work, the support that we can find in work. All of these things surfaced.

Our conversation then meandered to the things in the system that are working. In the industry we were exploring, there are people who ‘get it’, there is more awareness of mental health, there is the ability to work flexibly, and there is an amplification of a younger voice and generation who advocate for wellbeing.

With Gestalt Therapy, the author incorporates the concept of opposing forces, known as polarities, such as fear and hope, into their coaching. It is important to navigate the tension between these opposites and merge them together, instead of favoring one over the other, in order to achieve completeness.

What would the hope in the system say to the fear? How might they work together?

What do we need to SOAR?

The next place to go on the journey of change is the imagined future. What is needed? At a systemic level, this question can seem rather large. In the context of our industry conversation, I can say what I need to improve my mental health. How can I say what the system needs to improve the mental health of all that sit within it?

At one level, participants could identify the needs to get leaders to listen and engage. A sense of permission; permission to say no, permission to put the self first, permission to speak up. However, how to soar?

SOAR is a model which invites hopeful analysis of the future. The Strengths, the Opportunities, the Aspirations and the Results. The imagined future.

A question that we regularly ask when coaching is “what will look different when you get there?”. The change that we are thinking about – what will look, feel and be different once it has occurred?

This moves beyond hope to a visualisation of what needs to be. It generates motivation and helps uncover further insights.

Change is hopeful. Change is scary. Change opens up a world of possibilities. So much of what we do at an individual, team and system level requires change.  The ability to ask the hard questions, to lean in and embrace the discomfort, to marry hope with fear, is what will get us there. If you want to find out how the coaches at Client Talk can support you on your journey, get in touch.


coaching for change


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