The Astro-Reality of Person-Centred Coaching

Originally developed by Carl Rogers in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the philosophy underpinning this approach to coaching is that under the right circumstances, we’re all capable of sorting ourselves out.

Pcp graphicTo achieve this, the coach needs to offer his or her client both a ‘safe space’ for talking and a heavy dose of empathetic listening. Don’t forget, however, that this is an approach to coaching, not a model or technique. Indeed, one of its strengths is that it is  both fluid and non-directional. With careful attention paid to the six conditions Rogers identified as necessary for constructive personality change, coaches can help clients to flourish.

As Ruth L Waterhouse (‘Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues’: A Feminist Critique of ‘Person-centred’ Counselling and Therapy) notes, this approach places great faith in the human ability to be self-determining and ‘to realize agency and responsibility in everyday activities.’

But the reality, according to Waterhouse, is that not everyone has this ability. She suggests that Rogers simply did not understand that personal troubles come not just from within, but also from without (i.e. the real world). The possibility that, for example, a woman might not ever become ‘all that she could be’ in a patriarchal society for reasons beyond her control, was not considered. Waterhouse does admit that ‘cathartic release has its value’. But the problem is that Rogers failed to recognize that throughout history, ‘family life privileges adult men to the detriment of women and younger men’.

So, what kind of client is most likely to benefit most from the Person-Centred approach? For this, I suggest that we look to the astrological significators of the man who pioneered and developed it:

Carl Rogers

No surprise, that five out of ten planets are in Capricorn (including Saturn ruler of Capricorn). Of the remaining five planets, two are in Aquarius, also a Saturn ruled zodiac sign). It’s through Saturn, that we find the strength and wisdom to get through life. Without Saturn, we’d have neither the ambition nor the patience and dedication to succeed. Saturn provides the solid structure through which can express (and manifest) our talents and strengths. Without Saturn, we would achieve little or nothing.

Astrologically, we often equate Saturn with ‘virtues’ such as responsibility, duty, and obligation. Heavy going! This was never going to be easy. Saturn may not be the brightest light on the block (we leave that to Jupiter), but he lies at the base of all our accomplishments. Hence, Saturn is often considered somewhat tedious (bywords include self-control, tact, thrift, and caution). But he is very necessary. In effect, Saturn equates to your backbone.

Equally, Saturn is associated with fault, failure, fear, guilt, and blame and, for this, he gets deserved bad press. When things go wrong, as inevitably they will do with Saturn, it’s easy to blame others. But in reality, when Saturn is in play, you cannot afford to blame anyone but yourself. Tough talk. But it is true that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger (although I suspect that it was someone with lots of Saturn in his/her chart who first said that).

So, what kind of client (and coach) are likely to most benefit from Person-Centred Coaching? May I suggest one with a healthy dose of Saturn!

NB – also no surprise that one of my coaching colleagues at Cambridge that is very keen on this approach, has Sun and Venus in Aquarius (Saturn-ruled) as well as Mercury in Capricorn (also Saturn-ruled). Interestingly, however, my colleague has a weak Saturn (in Sagittarius). Ok, well, time will tell.

As I prepare.

As you might know, in just a few days, I’ll commence my program in narrative coaching. Exciting times. In preparation for this, I’ve been tasked with addressing a series of interesting questions such as the following:

Which assumptions, habits, stories or outdated practices could you let go of in order to free yourself to work more powerfully as a coach?

The first thing that I need to let go of is the assumption that I have all the answers.

No longer am I the legal ‘expert’ imparting advice to my clients.

Fair enough.

But I also suspect that next thing that I need to let go of is the assumption that my coaching clients have all the answers. It would be great if they did, but the reality is that they probably don’t although together, we’re meant to come up with something workable.

The third thing that I need to let go of is the assumption that there is some tried and true, ‘follow the numbers’ coaching methodology that will produce satisfactory results every time. Again, it would be great if there were such a thing but there isn’t although I suspect some would disagree  because there are lots of catchy phrases and acronyms floating about in the profession.

th.jpegMy conclusions, to be fair, are based on limited experience. During my first residential week at Cambridge last autumn, we watched a live demonstration given by a very experienced coach working with the T-GROW model.

Quickly, the ‘client’ (volunteer from class) identified that he was having a career crisis (TOPIC). He needed help to make a choice between three very different options (GOAL).

Naturally, the coach explored whether more than three possibilities (OPTIONS) might exist, but the ‘client’ was adamant; he’d already given much thought to this so all that was required now was to evaluate the options and pick one (WRAP-UP). When he’d done just that, he seemed visibly relieved although he acknowledged there were downsides to his choice.

Just before Christmas we all got an email from that ‘client’ (volunteer from our class) saying that in the end, he’d pursued a completely different option. He didn’t explain why and because as the result of his choice he will no longer be on the program, we’re probably never going to find out.

Now, I can imagine a whole host of reasons why things would change for the ‘client’ over a period of a couple of months. That isn’t my problem. My problem is that the live demonstration we watched as coaching students was so slick, so slam-dunk, that it was so tempting to assume this model was the neatest thing since sliced bread. It might still be but I now have my doubts and so I’ll go into my  narrative coaching program a little more wary.


Attachment Theory & Narrative Coaching

Recent studies show that the stories we tell ourselves become so enmeshed with our cognitive functions, that they – and not any accurate assessment of actual experience –  underpin 80% of our actions.

images.pngAccording to ‘attachment theory’, the majority of these stories are formed during infancy, when we are first bonding with ‘mother’. Not only are our stories archetypal in nature (i.e. common to all humankind), but they are so deeply imbedded in our psyches that, without us even realising it, they play out over and over again. Worse, these stories are so important to our perceived safety, that they engender a whole host of defence mechanisms.

Narrative coaching provides a safe space for clients to revisit their stories – to understand how they impact their lives. Once this is process is underway, clients can rewrite their stories and/or create alternative stories – stories, which are specifically framed to promote happier, more unified lives.

Astrology can speed up this process.

For example, your rising sign and its rulers, symbolise how you’re most likely to frame your worldview. I have Cancer rising and so I tend to frame my world through emotional experiences.  It would help if I were able to more easily get in touch with my emotions but my Moon (ruler of Cancer) is in Gemini where relates not through feelings but through ideas. Indeed, taken as a whole, my chart suggests that once activated, my emotions are a loose cannon on deck. Worse, this is odds with who I essentially am (i.e. rational and balanced) as shown by my Sun (in Libra).

Frustration and anger (my Moon is in square aspect to Mars) are the result and I will admit that I have a tendency to remain emotionally isolated from others just in case (as I thoroughly expect) all goes wrong. I can further relate that my personal experience with ‘mother’ as an infant was similarly frustrated. It took years for me to understand how deeply frustrated and angry she was with my very existence. There are reasons why I was an only child.

Whenever I’m trying to get emotionally close to someone, my habitual narrative pattern of anger and frustration kicks in. Little surprise (that just as I expected) their reciprocal anger and frustration keeps us from forming a bond. Sadly, I will keep re-enacting my same story again and again until I can gain enough distance and perspective to rewrite it.

For example, I might ask how I’d like my new story to end. Assuming that it is in increased intimacy rather than in a fight, then I’ll ask myself what kind of person would enjoy such a happy ending and how might that person differ from me? The point is that although I will never be able to make my Moon/Mars and Cancer Ascendant go away, once I learn how they are running the show, I can purposefully find healthier and more satisfying ways to express them.

As I prepare…

In just a few days, I’ll commence my program in narrative coaching. Exciting times. To kick things off, I’ve been asked why I want to be a coach and why I’m chosing narrative coaching.

I’ve studied psychological astrology for many years and have come to appreciate how much it can help us navigate our lives. The problem was that if I were going to share my insights on a wider scale, I would need a platform through which to deliver them. I’d toyed with becoming a therapist or counsellor but unfortunately, because I was working full-time as a lawyer, I didn’t have the time.

Finally, I’ve retired from the practice of law and free to pursue other goals. In addition to writing novels I am reconnecting with those ideas of taking astrology to a larger audience and after much research, I have decided that narrative coaching is the best medium for accomplishing just that.

I’ve long been convinced that we are driven more by our perceptions (i.e. the stories we tell ourselves) of reality rather than kind of objective reality. Astrologically, this is because our view of the world is filtered through our rising sign (the zodiac sign on the leading cusp of the 1st astrological house in our charts).

Ariel_disneyFor example, I have Cancer rising and so I view my world through a Cancerian lens. Hence the myths and deities associated with zodiacal Cancer (mermaids and sea-based shape shifters) map my life and define the types of experiences I will encounter along the way.

The more I understand how I see the world differently than do others, the better placed I am to develop this to my advantage. Although I will never be able to change the types of stories defining my life, I can provide them with new and happier endings.

What’s the purpose of coaching?

Some say that the purpose of coaching is to optimise ‘performance’. This suggests a standard against which ‘performance’ will be measured. Understandable. Many traditional coaching models rely on sports-based analogies like that espoused by Gallwey Their approach is to match the coachee’s inner and outer games, as might an athlete in order to win his competition.

The presumption is that some aspect of current performance needs fixing but after that, all should be smooth sailing. Spinelli suggests that this expectation is unrealistic. He believes that the sum of human components is never engine led and so it will be impossible to fix one part and expect the rest to follow.

business_coaching.jpgNevertheless, performance optimisation models remain popular especially with executive coaching. Historically, fixing performance was a top reason why executive coaches were hired. More recently, the trend is to focus only on increasing executive strengths. Neither approach is without risk. Although everyone needs to be pushed out of his or her comfort zone, to press performance in line with standards set by another may force executives to choose between being fakes or failures.

Equally, maximized executive strengths may inspire false confidence and engender toxic behaviours. Further, neither approach is likely to address real workplace issues such as, for example, a disgruntled workforce who has lost faith in executive leadership.

Worse, sustained efforts toward self-actualisation will contribute, at least in part, to an increasingly worrying trend, summed up by Will Storr as the ‘selfie’.

In his book by the same name, Storr argues that constant measurement against socially-imposed standards leads to chronic dissatisfaction as well as to increases in mental illness and suicide. This does not mean that self-actualisation is necessarily bad. But even the ancient Greeks, masters of the art, realised that obsessive perfectionism is the stuff of tragedy. Yet Western society not only continues to push toward that ‘narcissistic’ goal, but it labels those failing to join the bandwagon as losers.

Perversely, although Western society remains fascinated with the ideal of the ‘alpha-male’ success story, it cannot tolerate show-offs and eventually, finds a way to shoot these self-made heroes down. One only needs to consider the current flurry of sexual abuse charges to gain insight into how this might work.

Perhaps those coaches helping clients to strive for perfection might ultimately be doing everyone a disservice?

Stay tuned.

The Future of Coaching – Vision, Leadership, and Responsibility

This afternoon, I joined the first of four webinars where Hetty Einzig speaks on the future of coaching.

Some of the ideas expressed were music to my ears.

1317552776The primary point, from which all else flows, is that the environment in which coaches practice now is not the same as it was forty years ago. Sports-based coaching models such as T-GROW still have much to offer, but they can no longer be our end game.

Although the implementation of change remains the primary purpose of coaching, it must be accomplished on a whole new level. No longer is it enough to pander to a client’s desires for increased personal performance. As coaches, we must accept that we now have a deeper and wider social responsibility than just catering to a single individual or organisation.

While it is true that the world has always been chaotic and confusing, it is even more so today not the least because technology reinforces this 24/7. If I’m sitting in New York during a terroist attack in Paris, I can experience Paris in real time from the mobile phone footage and the concurrent tweets of others. The resulting increased levels of stress and anxiety from this sense that no place is safe, ignites the need to control my environment.

If unchecked, such an intense focus on control leads to unsustainable levels of increased reporting requirements, accountability, security checks, validations, and authoritarianism. Feelings of lack of control and the unarticulated fear stemming from it, leads to increasingly divisive thinking – we are good and you are bad and so let’s build that wall ASAP!?

Yet this is not our reality. As technology makes our world smaller and smaller, we become more and more (not less) connected with each other. Although we like to believe ourselves to be throughly independent, we are not and can not be. That old adage that no man is an island has never been more true.

The great thing about coaching is that many of our clients are themselves in positions of tremendous power; movers and shakers, the initiators of change at every level. Instead of standing by the side lines and coaching these powerful men and women on how to become even more powerful, why don’t we partner up with them so as to better a more encompassing, ultimately more important, global  game?

All very well and good, you say, and of course you’re right. Lofty ideals such as were expressed today are for the most part, well… lofty. However, I’m willing to give Hetty the benefit of the doubt at least through the next three webinars.

Stay tuned – more later.

Psychodynamic Coaching

Yet another interesting coaching model uses the Psychodynamic Approach, the stated purpose of which is to expand the client’s capacity for emotional regulation.

Baseline is that the client already regulates his emotional response when confronted with people and/or situations. Unfortunately, however, he usually has little or no consciousness about what is happening much less why. This should come as no surprise. Haven’t we all ever met someone who seemed to know more about which  ‘buttons’ we have that they could push that did we?

The key to this coaching model is to create a safe space (‘holding environment’) in which the client tells his stories. He’s not so much looking to rewrite his story as he is to get a visceral experience of it.

Consider little Johnnie, our young lad from the prior two posts. He’s the one who is no longer ‘good’ because he can’t ‘study hard’ and as the result has problems at his job. His employer believes that Johnnie provokes fights with his superiors in order to cover up his feelings of inadequacy and unless he stops this, he’ll be out on his ear. Johnnie has been made aware of these concerns through HR and of course, as his coach, so have I.


I invite Johnnie to cast his mind back and consider whether his current situation resonates with something from his past. Not surprisingly, Johnnie starts talking about the technocrat at his university who, for no good reason, decided to cut his funding.  As Johnnie’s coach, I must aim to operate on two levels – both participating in our ‘mutual exploration’ of Johnnie’s story as well purposefully fuelling his emotional reactions by subtly role-playing the part of that callous technocrat.

No surprise when Johnnie (unconsciously) picks up on this and ramps up his rage at me (transference). At the same time (countertransference), I play back to Johnnie that however hard he tries to pick a fight with me, I won’t respond just like that technocrat failed to respond years ago. Somewhere in this (frankly uncomfortable) process, Johnnie finally twigs – i.e. that he picks fights with others out of his feelings of inadequacy and he usually picks fights with those who refuse to fight back. If all goes well, he can now consciously change a previously unconscious behaviour pattern that was about to cost him his job.

The good point about this model is that it opens the client’s mind to the possibility that there is more going on in any situation than he might have appreciated. The downside is that this feels more like counselling than coaching at least in the sense that as a coach, I am digging around in my client’s unconscious and with a stated purpose or goal. The reality is that in every coaching session there is an element transference and countertransference (and plumbing of the unconscious) so as a good coach, I had best get prepared for it.

Existential Coaching

Another coaching model of interest is Existential Coaching – which, like all coaching paradigms, seeks to facilitate positive change. If (1) the popular sports-based models (T-GROW) focus on increased performance and (2)  narrative coaching focuses on crafting a new client story, then (3) Existential Coaching beats a unique path in between.

According to Ernesto Spinelli, the purpose of Existential Coaching is to help people to live more effectively. This is achieved by gaining clarity and renewed purpose. Obviously this may well lead to increased performance too – a bonus, if you will. Likewise, to be successful, it will necessitate crafting a new story, one in line with (newly discovered) highly personal values and beliefs.

images.pngNow, I’m not going to argue that these three coaching models do not overlap. But I will argue that their focus and approach are very different. Their philosophical underpinnings are different as well. For example, T-GROW works on the assumption that we are all wholly rational creatures who, with effort, can control the disparate parts of ourselves.

By contrast, Existential Coaching works on the assumption that there are so many varied (unconscious) ‘things’ going on inside us that complete conscious control is never possible. As there result, T-GROW focuses on problem-solving while Existential Coaching has no choice but to embrace  problems. For T-GROW, anxiety is a hindrance to performance and must be reduced/eliminated. But for existentialists, anxiety is something to be savoured = i.e. a manifestation of the existential truth that life is not perfect and neither are (nor ever will be) you.

Do you recall little Johnnie in my post about Narrative Coaching? The young man who was no longer good because he couldn’t study hard? How might these three coaching models work in his situation?

  1. T-GROW – might help little Johnnie to put in place a plan to study hard again – taking as a given this is requires enhancement for no other reason than because he says so. If successful, T-GROW gets him back up and running on par with a cultural norm.
  2. Narrative Coaching – might help Little Johnnie to reframe his story so that, for example, he might still be good even if unable to study hard. Quite what he does with this, remains up to him. Just as with any good novel, several different endings are possible and now Johnnie needs to pick one.
  3. Existential Coaching – might help little Johnnie to understand that good = studying hard is a culturally imposed standard and this is how others will judge him, full-stop. However, this does not mean that he has to define himself this way. Indeed, he ought not to do that if it does not align with his personal values and beliefs. He should also keep in mind that although he might once have bought 100% into good = studying hard, he no longer has to do. Everything in life changes and this includes his values and beliefs.

Clearly T-GROW will get the fastest results and they will measureable too; especially good if Johnnie’s (new or old) employer is paying the bill.  But although the result is culturally acceptable, it may not be personally appropriate and, in the long run, may not improve Johnnie’s life. Narrative coaching opens up possibilities for Johnnie in the sense that at least he now understands why he believes good = studying hard. But unless his new story is the result of some serious soul-searching, it will likely remain culturally determined without him even realising this is the case. In my view, Existential Coaching provides the best all-around solution but, to be honest, it might take a long time and let face it, the amount of ‘navel-gazing’ required may not be for everyone.

The moral of this seems to be, as I mentioned in my earlier post, that when it comes to coaching models, one size does not fit all.


Narrative Coaching

When it comes to coaching models, it is certainly not the case that one size fits all.

So far, the one that I like most is called Narrative Coaching. It’s described as a ‘mindful, experiential and holistic approach’ to shift my client’s stories thereby generating new options for desired change.

The idea is that stories are not only central to life but they are essential to our sense of ‘self’. Indeed, if you’re inclined to the post-modern viewpoint, we are literally narrated into existence. For example, when little Johnnie hears his parents and teachers tell him he’s a good boy when he studies hard, he might well form a narrative or story about himself that he’s good only when he studies hard.

4VPC7ZCiPxtMoVb8uyrhKMqm.pngNot only that, but little Johnnie must also make sense of recurring cultural themes or motifs like the hero’s journey (this is classic Star Wars stuff). Johnnie becomes the ‘hero’ of his story when he accepts his own ‘call to adventure’ and leaves his known world behind to face the challenges of the unknown. Perhaps little Johnnie considers his adventure of going off to University in this way? If so, then all is on track until he somehow gets derailed. Maybe his mother dies or girlfriend dumps him? Maybe his student funding falls through? Maybe he parties too much? Doesn’t really matter. The point is that because of some challenge or temptation he fails to conquer, Johnnie is not able to study hard anymore. This in turn leads to him dropping out of university and taking a job he doesn’t like. It isn’t long before both he and others interpret this as arising because  in his hero’s journey, Johnnie failed to complete the socially acceptable story arc. When Johnnie leaves (or is pushed from) that job he doesn’t like, he’s not sure what to do next. Worse, he’s not entirely clear why he ended up in this situation. Yet somewhere in the back of his head, however, is that story of a ‘good’ boy turned ‘bad’ because he didn’t study hard enough.

When I invite Johnnie, now my coaching client, to tell me his story, I need to listen carefully. Which character does he choose as his narrator (i.e. does he tell the story through his own eyes or through the eyes of the mother or girlfriend or the administrator who cut his funding)?  Does he sound enthusiastic about his partying? Which tense does he use? Is he the subject of the story (‘I did XYZ to him, her, them’) or is he the object (‘he, she, they did XYZ to me’)? What themes or motifs recur (or are missing) – illness, relationships, failure, temptation, bad luck? What labels recur (i.e. ‘good’ or ‘bad’)? To whom or what do they attach? If listening to all these variables  isn’t hard enough, I need to a remain aware that I’m always interpreting them through my own point of view.  Am I making judgements on his story? Do I understand how telling it is making him feel? If it’s a sad story, does it make me sad? If so, am I sad because my client’s story touches some sadness (mother dying) already in me?

5355330_orig.pngThrough careful questioning, can I get Johnnie to rejig his story, throw it in a more positive (or less negative) light? Maybe he tries another point of view character (first person or third person) or verb tense (past, present, future) or even imagine a completely different crucial scene? How about rewriting a whole new story any way that he’d like? What or who might be different?

Interestingly, there’s lots of leeway here because although storyline (plot) must move forward (cause and effect) in time, narrative does not. My client can start at the end of his story (or how he’d like it to end) and work backwards. Happens all the time in murder mysteries. We start out knowing who got killed and maybe even who did it – but we don’t know that all essential ‘why’ and ‘how’ until we refollow the crucial events from beginning to end! My goal here is for my client to open up space for a different or new story to develop – an opportunity to fill in gaps and ambiguities or flesh out and develop certain characters and/or motives. We may all know that little Johnnie did drop out of university (the facts are on the table) but we really don’t know why until we explore it. We also don’t know where the story progresses from here – maybe Johnnie finds another unrewarding job (for whatever reason) or may he returns to university and wins a Noble Peace Prize.

Sound fun but not for everyone?

OK, I’ll accept that.

I also have to accept that purely by the nature and focus of my questions, I’ve influenced my client’s newly crafted story. Is it really still his story or has it now become mine?

The Glass Bead Game / the ultimate in coaching

One of my favourite novels is The Glass Bead Game, by Herman Hesse. It was published, I think, sometime in the 1940’s. Basically the plot revolves around a utopian community rather like a posh boarding school, where young boys are sent by their wealthy, influential parents to learn that they need to be tomorrow’s leaders. In most cases, at the end of their study, the boys go back out into the world where they become ‘movers and shakers’. However once in a while, a student does so well in his studies that he’s asked to remain at the school and devote his life to playing the Glass Bead Game.

Now, this game isn’t any ordinary game – indeed as readers, we don’t get a detailed sense of what it really entails. However, through the lens of the novel’s hero, Joseph Knecht, we do learn that it requires wide-ranging skills in areas as diverse as science, music, literature, art, history, western philosophy and eastern spiritualty. Interestingly, the game never has a winner – that is not its purpose after all. Best I remember (it was a long time ago when I last read it), the game is meant to push the players to become ‘all that they can be’ – sounds a good deal like coaching and not surprisingly, our hero, Joseph, does undergo a good deal of coaching.

Unknown-1.jpegOnce he’s Magister Ludi (head of the school and master of the game), Joseph’s time and attention becomes so much in demand, that he requires a personal coach to help him manage himself.  Not so unlike the busy CEO of a Fortune Five Hundred, I should think. He needs to manage his emotions, his people skills, time management, etc. etc.

But something goes wrong along the way (as it does in novels). Maybe the coaches weren’t focused enough or Joseph simply loses his way? Anyway, by the novel’s climax Joseph questions his loyalty both to the school and the game and asks to leave. Unfortunately, he failed to realise that he no longer was prepared for life outside his cloistered world – and only several days after attaining his ‘freedom’, he dies of a heart-attack whilst swimming in a cold mountain lake.

When I first read this novel, the thing that struck me was how narrow Joseph’s focus had become over the years – although he was wildly successful at his game, he seemed to be failing at life. Joseph’s situation is not an isolated case. How many times have you seen professionals so focused on performing well in their jobs that their marriages end, their kids hate them, and/or they end up very ill or dead?

In regards to coaching practice, this highlights something that I’ve been concerned about for some time. I take the point that I’m coaching adults – and hence not responsible for setting their goals. But don’t I still have some duty to my client when I clearly see him/her heading down a path that is all too likely to lead to his/her own cold mountain lake?