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 You are here: Special Group in Coaching Psychology > Publications > The Coaching Psychologist > SGCP Workshop/Event Report: Wisdom, uncertainty and [...]

Jennifer Liston-Smith & Marjorie Raymond
(Notes on Professor Palmer’s workshop were kindly provided by Marjorie Raymond)

We use a consistent format here to capture valuable content from three diverse SGCP Continuing Professional Development workshops.

  • The Psychology of Wisdom: Connections for Coaching.
    Julie Allan, March 2009.
  • Working with Uncertainty - An Existential Perspective for Coaching Psychologists.
    Professor Ernesto Spinelli, May 2009.
  • Imagery Techniques for use within Coaching Psychology and Coaching Practice.
    Professor Stephen Palmer, August 2009.

The Psychology of Wisdom: Connections for Coaching.
Julie Allan, March 2009.

Aim
‘It is hoped that research on wisdom will help develop useful tools to assist world and national leaders in the increasingly complex problems facing humanity. Many crucial decisions, from nuclear waste to water use, face leaders and policy makers each day. Thus, wisdom is not simply for wise people or curious psychologists; it is for all people and the future of the world.’ So claim Birren and Fisher in Sternberg’s (1990) edited work. For the group of ‘curious psychologists’, present in March, Julie Allan invited a practical, considered enquiry into the implications of research and knowledge in this area for our practise, relating both to individuals and Allan’s own special area of interest, wisdom in organisations (e.g. Allan, 2008).

Theoretical roots
In Classical Greek terms, wisdom is Sophia, contrasted with Phronesis, a more practical prudence. Socrates (BC469 to BC399) assured us: ‘True wisdom comes to each of us when we realise how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us’, while German philosopher Walter Benjamin (e.g. 1969) later advised, ‘Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom’ and systems thinker Prof. Russell Ackoff (1989), offered the following hierarchy:

  • WISDOM.
  • UNDERSTANDING.
  • KNOWLEDGE.
  • INFORMATION.
  • DATA.

Two edited texts of Professor Robert J. Sternberg are key to current perceptions of the cognitive, affective, behavioural and reflective components of wisdom: Wisdom: its nature, origins and development (Sternberg (Ed.), 1990), details 13 approaches informed by three perspectives: philosophical conceptions, folk conceptions and psycho-developmental conceptions. A handbook of wisdom: psychological perspectives (2005) updates the field and is arranged in five categories:

  • theories of wisdom across time, culture and peoples;
  • the development of wisdom across the lifespan;
  • wisdom and the person;
  • wisdom in society;
  • absence of wisdom (foolishness).

Practical applications in our coaching work
Given increasing interest in developmental perspectives in coaching and leadership support (e.g. Kegan, 1994; Torbert 2004), the concept or ‘meme’ of wisdom, in which all feel we have a stake and some experience, ‘contains a nucleus of meaning that has been transmitted relatively unchanged for at least 80 generations, providing directions for human thought and behaviour’ (Csikszentmihalyi & Rathunde, 1990). So, addressing Wisdom for coaches and coaching psychologists, may provide an accessible doorway into, and guiding framework for, work that develops emotional maturity and leadership capability in our complex, and otherwise potentially rudderless age.

Experiential elements of the workshop: An example
One participant, at the conclusion of the workshop, spoke of Julie Allan’s demonstration of mastery in leading us through the enlightening and practical conversation that had taken place. The experiential nature of this event consisted, throughout, in our sense of having co-created and co-discovered the material through engaging in a Socratic dialogue in smaller and larger groupings exploring both the subject matter of wisdom and our own experience of it. There was a strong sense in the room that adopting this approach and this theme had a developmental impact and could be particularly relevant in coaching supervision.

One practical tool or idea coaches/coaching psychologists could take forward
Under the directorship of Professor Paul Baltes at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, the Berlin Wisdom paradigm was developed through an ongoing project to test wisdom in an experimental, empirical manner. Baltes and Smith (1990) offered criteria, derived from experimental research, for assessing wisdom:

  • Rich factual knowledge about matters of life (Know-what).

  • Rich procedural knowledge about life problems (Know-how).

  • Knowledge about the contexts of life and their relationships across the lifespan (Know-how-grow).

  • Knowledge about differences/diversity in values and priorities (Know-you-all).

  • Knowledge about the relative indeterminacy and unpredictability of life (Know-know-not).

With these criteria arrayed around the spokes of a wheel, coachees could, through sensitive exploration, begin to self assess and form a baseline in these areas much as they might depict work-life balance using the well-known Wheel of Life tool (e.g. Whitworth, Kimsey-House & Sandahl, 1998).

Working with Uncertainty - An Existential Perspective for Coaching Psychologists.
Professor Ernesto Spinelli, May 2009.

Aim
‘I have tried to remain as unprepared as possible for today’ declared Professor Spinelli at the outset of this enthusiastically-received event. A significant aim was to enable us all, leader and participants to ‘arrive at a felt sense of uncertainty’: a developmental state to inhabit since ‘The challenge for the coach is truly to be as idiotic as possible’ in accompanying the client as she uncovers the structure of her world. Of course, there’s preparation and there’s preparation: Professor Spinelli’s years of preparation enabled the dialogue and exposition to unfold mysterious depths of thought and experience as if by spontaneous chance. An exciting intellectual and experiential journey gradually deepened participants’ engagement with the proposition that uncertainty may be embraced in coaching rather than managed or reduced.

Theoretical roots
The existential philosophical thinking of Martin Heidegger and Søren Kierkegaard, entered psychological practice through practitioners such as Otto Rank (e.g. 1996) and Rollo May (1950). Existential psychology was seen as veering away from humanistic approaches in its neutral view of human nature and engagement with anxiety as a relatively positive ground of experience. In this worldview, uncertainty offers a creative opportunity, rather than a threat; and is a reminder that our substantive world (of things) is already a product of many interpretive constructions, through our tendencies to reflect, make meaning and objectify (e.g. Spinelli, 2008). Our structuring of the world, and our self-awareness, are necessarily relational and incomplete and attempts at greater certainty may only separate us further from those precious glimpses, or tastes, of pre-interpretative experience. In coaching psychology, an existential approach suggests we seek stillness with, and deeper experience of, what ‘is’ in order to unearth the possibilities and non-possibilities of the client’s way of being and worldview, rather than driving for change and ‘moving on’ on the basis of a surface-level description (e.g. Spinelli, 2007).

The existential philosophical thinking of Martin Heidegger and Søren Kierkegaard, entered psychological practice through practitioners such as Otto Rank (e.g. 1996) and Rollo May (1950). Existential psychology was seen as veering away from humanistic approaches in its neutral view of human nature and engagement with anxiety as a relatively positive ground of experience. In this worldview, offers a creative opportunity, rather than a threat; and is a reminder that our substantive world (of things) is already a product of many interpretive constructions, through our tendencies to reflect, make meaning and objectify (e.g. Spinelli, 2008). Our structuring of the world, and our self-awareness, are necessarily relational and incomplete and attempts at greater certainty may only separate us further from those precious glimpses, or tastes, of pre-interpretative experience. In coaching psychology, an existential approach suggests we seek stillness with, and deeper experience of, what ‘is’ in order to unearth the possibilities and non-possibilities of the client’s way of being and worldview, rather than driving for change and ‘moving on’ on the basis of a surface-level description (e.g. Spinelli, 2007).

Practical applications in our coaching work
‘It was hard to interest anyone much in uncertainty more than nine months ago,’ mused Professor Spinelli, ‘Now there is interest in it in all areas but the question being asked is how to get out of it!’ Recent work by Louise Buckle and Tamsin Slyce (2009, 2008) offers a highly practical and thoughtful application of existential psychology in this context. Through work-based research Buckle and Slyce identified four stances leaders may be taking in response to uncertainty. By naming and exploring and these - uncovering both the leader’s and organisation’s truly espoused position in relation to uncertainty - greater awareness, confidence and flexibility of response may be fostered.

1. Denial
Uncertainty is somehow prevented by being organised and strategic and where it might arise, it is a sign of lack of knowledge and expertise: failure.

2. Coping
Coping corresponds with a low sense of agency or power; surviving rather than thriving. We recognise the uncertainty but there’s not much we can do about it. We continue to deliver and maintain morale, while time, external factors or our own leaders will somehow resolve the uncertainty.

3. Resolution
Reflecting a low tolerance of ambiguity, the leader’s job is to move from the previous, failed, certainty, to a new solution, a planned change. In uncertain times, this stance leaves competence challenged and stress increased.

4. Engagement
This purposive stance admits and embraces uncertainty and involves first of all sitting with and accepting the discomfort: ‘active engagement with the dilemmas, paradoxes and tensions that leaders and organisations face in order to create space for new creative possibilities to emerge (Buckle & Slyce, 2009). This approach builds the foundations for flexibility, innovation and breakthrough. Sights are set on authentic confidence and leadership.

Experiential elements of the workshop: An example
Pair work then small group work aimed to initiate an experiential sense of uncertainty: ‘this is how I am with certainty or with uncertainty’. The work involved answering questions then exploring what happened as we responded:

  • What is one thing about myself I truly feel certain about?
  • What is one thing about myself I truly fee uncertain about?
  • What is the felt sense that comes to me when confronted with these questions? Is it the same for both questions? There is a strong ambiguous response at different levels: cognitive/emotion/body, etc.
  • What is something about me that I used to be certain about and am no longer so?
  • What is something about me that I used to be uncertain about and am now certain?
  • What happened to permit the shift in either of these? The range of felt experience included a sense of opening, excitement, humour and relaxation.

One practical tool or idea coaches/coaching psychologists could take forward
An existentially oriented coach (or coaching psychologist) can help coachees bring to light the structure of their worldview by paying attention to, and recording in tabular form, three different constructs which contain the sum total of our dispositional stances, commitments, feelings, behaviours, etc.:

  • Self-Construct.
  • Other Construct.
  • World Construct.

For each of these Constructs, coach can support coachee in discovering:

  • Essence - That I am.
  • Existence - What I am.
  • Identity - Who I am.
    (Adapted, Spinelli, 2002.)

In working to allow the coaching relationship to be the microcosm in which the client recreates and lives with their worldview, rather than simply talking about it, another practical reminder comes from a consideration of Jean-Paul Sartre’s (1938) Nausea. A painting in a gallery, unchanged in itself, became unrecognisable when surrounding pictures were replaced. The ‘magical’ power in the coaching relationship is created by the fresh setting, deliberately entered into. The client comes as he has always been, yet is already changed by being placed in a new context, seen through a different angle.Imagery Techniques for use within Coaching Psychology and Coaching Practice.
Professor Stephen Palmer, August 2009.

Aim
To become knowledgeable about the application of imagery techniques in coaching and coaching psychology practice.

Theoretical roots
The conception of humans as biological beings that think, feel, act, sense, imagine and interact is central to Multimodal therapy, founded by Arnold Lazarus (Lazarus, 1973) and Multimodal coaching developed by Stephen Palmer (e.g. Palmer, 2008). Each of these ‘modalities’ can be addressed through a programme built around the acronym BASIC I.D. (Behaviour, Affect, Sensation, Imagery, Cognition, Interpersonal relationships, and Drugs/biology). Working with and through a coachee’s Imagery by-passes language-based thought so promises more rounded results than those more usually associated with cognitivebehavioural interventions.

Practical applications in our coaching work
The proper use of imagery with a coachee can allow the individual to achieve an immediate sense of self confidence, making the approach useful for improving performance. Imagery can also be used at the beginning of coaching to assist in enabling a coachee to tap their own mind for productive purposes, and thereby focus on topics where they want to receive coaching input, such as:

  • Anger reduction.
  • Coping with future scenarios.
  • Positive imagery for relaxation and pain reduction
  • Time-tripping to reduce anxiety and desensitise ‘awful’ situations.
  • Anti-craving, for example, for dieters.

Experiential elements of the workshop: An example
‘Time-Tripping’ (Lazarus, 1984) involves travelling, as if by time machine, to visit a past or future self. The technique helped a coachee to focus on an anticipated anxietyprovoking event, such as speaking in public. The coachee was able to imagine themselves at, say, three months, six months, a year, two years later to see what life would then be like and the degree to which the event was prevalent in their mind. The coachee was then asked to describe how they were coping with life and asked whether they could see a positive picture. This showed, as did several techniques introduced prior to this example, that individuals can respond very differently to the same coaching imagery intervention, and yet, rapidly become calmer and less sensitive to the anticipated event.

One practical tool or idea coaches/coaching psychologists could take forward
A structured form (e.g. Palmer & Dryden, 1995) used for collecting the data, imagery technique and outputs plus discussion and action plans makes the intervention straightforward to manage and record. This also makes any of the techniques quickly available and workable in a shared, collaborative way with the coachee in a coaching session either at the beginning of an intervention or to ‘unstuck’ an issue later.

Where next?
Coaching psychology - steering its own course through these times of complex change and uncertainty - holds a rich hand of approaches when it comes to drawing out the more authentic and direct experience of the coachee. What is really happening for you, beyond the day-to-day words we’ve learned to speak, the coach might be asking; whether we are seeking then to guide this experience forward to ease present goals, as in the Imagery work, develop it broadly through Wisdom approaches, or simply acknowledge its relational, existential uncertainty. All three of the approaches here, in their radically different ways, resonate with a distinction drawn in Coleman Barks’ translation of 13th century Persian poet Rumi (e.g. 1998), highlighted in Julie Allan’s workshop:

There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired, as a child in school memorises facts and concepts from books and from what the teacher says, collecting information from the traditional sciences as well as from the new sciences …

There is another kind … A freshness in the centre of the chest. This other intelligence does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid, and it doesn’t move from outside to inside through the conduits of plumbing-learning. This second knowing is a fountainhead from within you, moving out.

(From Lion of the Heart)

Correspondence
Jennifer Liston-Smith, MA(Oxon), MSc., FRSA.
SGCP Conference & Events Correspondent.
E-mail: jennifer@liston-smith.com

Marjorie Raymond
MWR Consulting Ltd.
E-mail: m.raymond@mwrconsulting.co.uk

SGCP events are reported regularly adopting a similar format, sometimes as an individual event, sometimes combined. This enables readers to pick up on some of the essential elements conveyed and maintain a broad CPD interest.

References
Ackoff, R. (1989). From Data to Wisdom. Journal of Applied Systems Analysis, 16.

Allan, J. (2008). Wisdom Works: Organisational wisdom research project news, views and information. Research Report 1: General Circulation Version. November.

Irving Allan. Baltes, P. & Smith, J. (1990). Towards a psychology of wisdom and its ontogenesis. In R.J. Sternberg (Ed.), Wisdom. Its nature, origins and development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Benjamin, W. (1969). Illuminations: Essays and reflections. Schocken.

Buckle, L. & Slyce, T. (2009). Guiding light: In troubled times coaching has a vital role in helping leaders make business sense of uncertainty. Coaching at Work, 4(5), September.

Buckle, L. & Slyce, T. (2008). How coaching can help 21st century leaders operate effectively in an uncertain world. European Mentoring and Coaching Council 15th Annual European Mentoring and Coaching Conference, Prague, 4-6 December.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Rathunde, K. (1990). Chapter 3, The psychology of wisdom: An evolutionary interpretation. In R.J. Sternberg (Ed.), Wisdom. Its nature, origins and development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads. London: Harvard University Press.

Lazarus, A.A. (1984). In the mind’s eye. New York: Norton.

Lazarus, A.A. (1973). Multimodal Therapy: Treating the ‘basic id’. Journal of Nervous Mental Disorders, 156(6), 404-411.

May, R. (1950). The meaning of anxiety (revised ed., 1996). New York: Norton.

Palmer, S. (2008). Multimodal coaching and its application to the workplace, life and health coaching. The Coaching Psychologist, 4(1), 21-29.

Palmer, S. & Dryden, W. (1995). Counselling for stress problems. London: Sage.

Rank, Otto (1996). A psychology of difference: The American Lectures (talks given 1924-1938; edited and with an introductory essay by Robert Kramer). Princeton University Press.

Rumi (1998). Lion of the Heart. Translated by Coleman Barks with John Moyne. Penguin Arkana. (Translation first published by Harper- Collins, 1995, in The Essential Rumi.)

Sartre, J. (1938). Nausea. James Laughlin.

Spinelli, E. (2008). An existential approach to conflict: A revised version of the keynote lecture at the 14th Annual European Mentoring and Coaching Council Conference, 11 October 2007. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 1(2), 120-131.

Spinelli, E. (2007). Practising existential psychotherapy: The relational world. London: Sage International.

Spinelli, E. (2002). The therapeutic relationship as viewed by existential psychotherapy: Reembracing the world. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 32(1).

Sternberg, R.J. (Ed.) (2005). A handbook of wisdom: Psychological perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R.J. (Ed.) (1990). Wisdom, its nature, origins and development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Reprinted 1992.

Torbert, W.R. et al. (2004). Action inquiry: The secret of timely and transforming leadership. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Whitworth, L., Kimsey-House, H. & Sandahl, P. (1998). Co-active coaching: New skills for coaching people toward success in work and life. Davies-Black.

  

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