When I first came across coaching during my own self-development journey, it occupied a space in my mind that was a long way from mindfulness and meditation. Coaching seemed to me to be about getting somewhere. It was about achieving goals, breaking through obstacles and going about obtaining something tangible that one could tick off of a list.
Mindfulness seemed to be about something different altogether. My perception was that Mindfulness was about an appreciation of the present moment and having a clearer picture of what is going on around you without having to fit it into the map of one’s thoughts and paradigms. It aimed to take off the glasses that muddy one’s perception of reality. It was about taking time out for yourself and decompressing from the stresses and strains of everyday life. It seemed to be in some ways polar opposite to the goal-setting and go-getting mentality.
My own background drew me to both of these modalities. I’d experienced a period of self doubt and confusion in my early twenties which was partly fueled by some medical issues, as well as some circumstances that I felt I didn’t have the internal tools to deal with at the time. After frantically searching for ways to deal with a certain level of emotional pain in order to function, I started to discover that there was a whole world of tools and guidance out there that can add value, meaning and healing to life.
It was, and still is, a journey of discovery (something I’m sure many Animas students can relate to) but I’m certain that even some years down the line from now the discovery of mindfulness and meditation will still stand out as a pivotal point in my journey.
It’s something that has helped me to navigate so many situations in my life that could have left me overwhelmed and unsure of how to cope. It has added meaning to my days in ways I can’t always put into words and has given me a deeper and more life affirming appreciation for the good times, the bad times and the everyday and mundane.
The discovery of coaching on the other hand has brought me equally valuable but different qualities. It has given me tools to help others, and while it is not about fixing a situation or having an aim to have life ‘corrected’, it has shown me discovery, connection, transformation and a sense of moving forward.
Only when I discovered Transformational coaching through Animas did I find out that coaching was not just about supporting someone to perform but it was about working with people to dig deeper and uncover meaning, break through limiting thought patterns and beliefs, and ultimately learn ways of being that facilitate a happier, healthier life.
So what is mindfulness and why do I feel a pull to using it with my coaching clients to improve coaching outcomes?
Mindfulness seems to be a buzzword that comes up a lot nowadays. It’s used in secular and buddhist meditation circles, and is increasingly used in the workplace and in therapeutic settings. NICE (National institute for Health and Care Excellence) currently recommends mindfulness based cognitive therapy as a treatment for recurrent depression and has done so since 2004.
What used to be a practice that was used mainly by monks who would remove themselves from the world to search for enlightenment and inner peace has now become a tool that can be used in a secular context to come back to the self, gain insight into the nature of our thoughts and see through some of our paradigms to a wider and more open sense of the world.
One of the pioneers of Mindfulness based stress reduction in the West, Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994) defines mindfulness as ‘A way of paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non judgmentally.’ This all sounds very well and good as a concept but to get a real sense of mindfulness one needs to try it rather than read about it, as it is very much an experiential practice. Talking about it doesnt give a sense of the way it can open up one’s perspective and help to see different options and choices. The way it can shine light onto behaviours that don’t serve you and help keep you stuck in a pattern that isn’t helpful to living the life you want to live.
The benefits of mindfulness have already been shown to be helpful in conditions ranging from anxiety, insomnia and eating disorders (Walsh and Shapiro, 2006) to a boosted immune system (Davidson et al, 2003; Tang et al, 2007), and a reduction in emotional disturbance and psychological distress (Baer et al, 2006, Brown and Ryan 2003). These benefits support my own beliefs around the fact that opening oneself up to change and using transformational dialogue through coaching, are likely to be more effective when one’s general fundamental biological needs are being met.
An example of this would be that you could have the best coach in the world and strong intentions to change, but if you are working so hard at your job that you are not eating, sleeping and doing what you need to do to keep your general physical needs met, your coaching dialogue is less likely to be transformative. You may not have the energy to put what you want into practice or may not feel positive enough to make changes.
In my coaching I want to help my clients initially check in with the fundamental (albeit maybe slightly less interesting) side of transformation: Getting things right around eating, sleeping, movement. Knowing and practising what one’s body and mind need to feel healthy and optimal. From here you can then build on it with a coaching conversation that goes deeper into self actualisation.
The coaching relationship can then potentially move forward to look at how there can be transformation in other areas of life, with the knowledge that there is a solid base of self-care to work from. Mindfulness has many attributes that can contribute to this foundation of wellbeing, from reducing stress, improving sleep and promoting psychological wellbeing.
So what is the best way to combine mindfulness with coaching? This is something I’m still experimenting with and discovering.
Personally, as a coach, I find a regular mindfulness practice helps me to centre myself and tune in to my client, focusing on them and helping to clear the chatter in my head. If I’ve had a full day at work and I’m still thinking about my work clients (who I see in a health rather than coaching setting) I come home before I have a coaching session, sit and focus on my breath for twenty minutes, or do a body scan to bring me back to the present. I feel that bringing myself back to my body periodically in the session itself can help me to notice when I am associating my own experiences to something my client is talking about so I can gently return to focusing solely on their experience.
To integrate the practice with my coaching i’ve been starting to teach my clients basic mindfulness techniques to take away and use outside the session, alongside any goals that we’ve set set or reading material to be looked at etc. There are so many relevant resources available including apps, books, audio recordings and a complete eight week online course with recordings, videos and documents free to access at https://palousemindfulness.com.
Basic practices such as a three minute breathing space or a twenty minute body scan can be simple enough to pick up, and can be used as an introduction to the techniques to see if the client would find mindfulness a useful addition to their coaching journey.
Furthermore, something that can be brought into the session itself and something that I intend to start using once I am more confident playing with mindfulness in my coaching is the FEEL model (Hall, 2013). FEEL stands for the process of Focus, Explore, Embrace, Let Go. Focus is setting an intention to shine a light on what we are looking at whether that be an emotion, a thought, a bodily sensation.
The Explore part of the model is to then go a bit further into noticing. This could be for example where in the body is the feeling/emotion?, does it have a shape? A colour? Is it familiar/unfamiliar? Clean language questions can also be useful here, ‘Is there anything else about X? What kind of X is that X?’ (Sullivan and Rees, 2008). In this part of the conversation you can support your client to delve into what is coming up in real time and try to drop the narrative around it so it can be seen more clearly.
The Embrace element really takes on the spirit of mindfulness practice, and would be more effective when the coachee and client have some experience of mindfulness and the experience of sitting in a non-judgemental fashion with one’s thoughts and emotions. The Embrace stage mirrors the intention of having compassion for oneself unconditionally, and accepting what is coming up in meditation without attaching a story to it.
The Let Go element acts as the part of our mindfulness meditation that enables us to see a thought/emotion/feeling and let it pass, or at least invite the idea of letting it pass. In this way we can support the coachee to look at what comes up for them without necessarily drawing any conclusions or attaching any explanations/ presumptions.
The practice is to see what is coming up, hold it, accept it and let it pass. When reflected in our mindfulness meditation practice, it is this allowing and holding in compassion that helps us to see things in a clearer light, rather than through the lenses of our learned perspective and entrenched views.
This is a very brief introduction on how mindfulness and coaching can work alongside each-other to deepen the experience of both in symbiotic fashion, and it barely skims the surface of the potential of this combination for clients. Although they are very different modalities and people will come to them for different reasons, I think that they can be integrated to enhance the experience of eachother.
The addition of mindfulness as a tool in coaching for issues such as value based living, discovering more authenticity in one’s life, developing compassion and navigating health issues gives people a means to go on to self manage these things when they finish their coaching journey.
For ultimately what is coaching if not helping people to be their best selves, and supporting them on a journey to a greater degree of self-management?