This discourse was part of the assessment process for my coaching qualification with Relational Dynamics 1st I’m sharing it here as I hope it gives an insight into my coaching practice. You can find out more about my coaching offer here.
As a participatory theatre artist, a lot of my work is about how we relate to each other in an (often temporary) community to explore something creatively. Making art is part of what I do; the process of holding and supporting the emergence of skillful ways of relating to each other is another. I choose to work with people who face barriers to power and experience the fallout of our deeply unequal society.
As I develop a coaching practice, I’ve noticed tensions emerging between my understanding of how society works, my political beliefs and the coaching model. I recognise the enormous power of coaching to enable personal transformation. I also notice that opportunity is not widely available, and often benefits those with some level of existing privilege.
We live in societies, with systems and institutions that we create, that shape our experience and decisions. We are a product of many, often overlapping, cultures – with their beliefs and values, meanings and expectations. How does coaching an individual relate to their experience of, and impact in, the wider world? How can I, as a coach, enable coachees to realise their goals in a neo-liberal, late-capitalist, structurally racist, patriarchal, ablest society where they face different oppressions and privileges?
As coaches, we learn to know ourselves in order to be more effective and skillful. I would argue that we need to interrogate and know our context too – understanding culture, institutions and systems. As a white woman, raised in a working class Midlands family, with a liberal arts university education, I have a particular relationship to a range of cultural ‘dimensions’, including;
- Power – my distance from it and my experiences of inequality
- Individualism vs Collectivism – my education favoured the former, my Methodist, left-of-centre family upbringing the latter
- Race – my white privilege, how I use it
- Gender norms
- Achieved vs Ascribed status – a big area of tension between my education and professional experience and my family
- Sort term vs long term orientation
- My comfort with uncertainty
My relationship to these cultural dimensions shape and affect everything; my approach to time (is it an abundant or scarce resource) whether I value being or doing, my thinking and speaking patterns, the sound of my voice and how I move. In turn this affects my coaching practice.
Coaching is a reactive practice, responding to an individual’s recognition of, belief in and desire for personal growth and change (which are themselves culturally defined concepts). How can coaching, or a coaching style proactively challenge culture, institutions and systems – and should it? In coaching, we often encounter what David Smail calls ‘proximal’ causes – personal relationships, work, family. We tend not to consider what Smail calls ‘distal’ causes – economic climate, media, dominant political ideologies. There is a two-way relationship between these proximal and distal causes, and I would argue that meaningful, lasting transformation is only possible when both levels are addressed. Can coaching engage with distal causes – and if so, how? Is it enough to trust that personal transformations will transform the world around us?
I started writing this before the world was radically changed by a global pandemic. It feels like a time of dismantling, on personal, social and cultural levels. It’s painful and scary. The current situation also creates space for the emergence of new cultures, institutions and systems. New ways of relating to each other – who knows yet what those will be – authoritarian or communal, or something else?
Will I be a participatory artist and coach in the future? I honestly don’t know and feel like no-one can know. I know that as human, I seek connection and my community more than ever. I want to know myself in this new context, remain alive to the oppressions and privileges that I, and those around me, experience. To use my skills in holding space and finding new ways to relate to self and others. I want to seek transformation to a more just and equal society. My challenge to myself is how to use what I have learned, about coaching and how to coach, not just for individual flourishing, but so that all may flourish.
References and resources
- Cultures and Organisations, Geert Hofstede 1991 – Cultural Dimensions
- Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business, Charles Hampden-Turner & Fons Trompenaars Hardcover 1997
- Diversity in coaching – working with gender, culture, race and age, ed Jonathan Passmore