What is existential coaching?
Existential coaching emerged from existential therapy, which focuses on the human condition as a whole. The approach is informed by existential thinkers such as Sartre, Kierkegaard, De Beauvoir and Fanon, and is the only form of psychotherapy based in philosophy. Existential work looks at what it means to be an individual, how we can use our inner wisdom to resolve issues, and how we can view our struggles as inherently human rather than as dysfunction or defect.
The application of this to coaching has been a sporadic process, rather than an organised movement, with therapist-coaches such as Emmy van Deurzen, Alison Strasser, Monica Hanaway, Jamie Reed and Ernesto Spinelli leading the way. This paved the way for specific training in the emerging field of existential coaching, resulting in people such as Yannick Jacob, Phil Pearl, William Byrne and myself emerging as a new generation of practitioners taught exclusively from a coaching paradigm.
So what is existential coaching... you know... in practice?
I sometimes find it hard to specify exactly what it is that existential coaches do. I suppose this is because, much like the existential philosophers, we all have our own unique philosophical grounding underpinning the work that we do. You might say that the essence of existential coaching is the very fact of that philosophical underpinning. It is the current that pulls us forward, directing our energy, focus and empathic approach.
Here follows a list of existential attitudes that I have observed in my years of teaching and supervision (because who doesn’t love a list?):
This is, of course, a very partial list. Indeed, the possibilities are endless, because our interpretation of and connection with philosophy is deeply individual. Yet most of us are not educated in philosophy generally. We are not taught how to think about our thinking, or how to think about what it is to be a human in any kind of structured way unless we choose to go on that journey. Existential coaching is a way to choose to take that journey, with a facilitator, in a very practical, rather than academic, way.
Perhaps the other uniting factor, then, in those who are trained existentially, is that we have all had the time and space to play around with these ideas about what it means to be human. We understand how thinking about life in this way can shift a problem, clarify our values, or simply make us more at home with our challenges.
This at-homeness with existential issues is probably the core of any existential work, whether as a coach, therapist, pastoral carer or leader. To sit with someone and take them beyond their narrative about a problem, into the philosophical meat of it, and emerge back with some kind of insight or plan takes a kind of existential resilience that must be embraced by the practitioner first and foremost. To do this, we must look to philosophical thinkers, and sit with their wisdom. Which brings me to the second list (it’s true, I’m a sucker for a list). Here are some key existential principles with which we work both as existentially-orientated individuals and practitioners:
You may note that there are no answers, only questions. This is because existential philosophy, and indeed philosophy in general, is about thinking and questioning. This, in turn, is why it can form such a useful basis for coaching work. It is not about leaping straight to the answers, more about asking the right questions and allowing things to emerge.
This is not to say that existential work does not have any teachable elements other than reading philosophy and grappling with ideas. There do exist certain boundaries within which we work in order to best facilitate a client’s journey.
Phenomenology is both a research technique and a way of working with clients. Developed by Franz Brentano, Edmund Husserl, and later Martin Heidegger, it means quite literally “the science of phenomena”. Since existentialists inherently recognise the subjective nature of our experiences in the world, it makes sense to employ a technique which seeks to observe that subjectivity in action, rather than to devise theories or frameworks about any objective ‘truth’. Put simply, we focus on careful description of the phenomena rather than pretending to understand from the ‘outside looking in’. This way, we focus on the individual’s worldview, subjective experiences, sense-making, emotional life and their freedom to create and explore. For these reasons, phenomenology became a key method for systematically observing human experience across social sciences.
As a scientific approach, there are various elements to phenomenological enquiry. We must first understand what our assumptions are as a practitioner in any situation. We must attend to these, rather than thinking that we can merely brush them aside or ever do away with them. This is about being disciplined about our bias, prejudice and assumptions about the world.
Phenomenology consists of three structured ‘reductions’; phenomenological (looking at intentionality); eidetic (looking at the object we are observing), and transcendental (looking at the self or subject). In this way, we systematically observe these three elements of experience. Each process can be broken down into further elements, including bracketing, description, horizontalisation (being aware of the limits of our observation), equalisation (equally valuing everything observed) and verification (checking back). This may sound complex, in many ways it is, but like any process it can become second-nature, and certainly ensures that we are taking a robust approach to understanding the experiences of our clients.
The 4 worlds
Existentialists are not generally fans of frameworks and ‘tools’, as they can have the unintended side-effect of restricting how we make sense of a situation, or indeed how we make sense of ourselves. Having said that there are certain useful concepts which can help us to explore in a focussed and even-handed manner. Perhaps a better terminology would be ‘toys’ rather than ‘tools’, as they allow us to play and explore, rather than to diagnose or fix. We do not use personality theory, as the focus is on free, rich description rather than boundaried exploration.
Probably the most frequently used of these is the concept of the 4 worlds. Developed by Binswanger and van Deurzen, this posits that we can distinguish 4 realms of human existence; physical; social; personal, and spiritual. Time for another list:
These are of equal importance, rather than hierarchical, and are all interwoven. We all operate on all 4 levels, but might place our focus on one more than another, or find one safer, more fruitful, or more challenging. Existential practitioners use this as a starting point to explore, in order to ensure that such exploration is even-handed, and does not miss out an area of a person’s life simply because they are less tuned into it generally. By exploring in this way we might find aspects of a person’s world that we or they have missed, or a particular way of approaching a problem from a different angle.
Other such tools exist, such as van Deurzen’s emotional compass (a graphic used to explore our emotional world in relation to our personal values), various explorations of tensions and paradox that people may find themselves in, and Yalom’s concept of existential givens and their associated existential anxiety (his theory that all humans experience conflict due to at least 4 “givens” of our existence; isolation; death; freedom and meaninglessness – cheery stuff, eh?).
An existential attitude
This is perhaps the most difficult to pin down, qualify, or truly “know”. And yet, people seem to “know” when they feel it. The emergence of an existential attitude is probably the longer term project in terms of training and development, and I do not suppose it ever really ends. The gradual absorption of a philosophical attitude to life catches up with us, and we start to understand what it means to occupy that space of questioning and seeking, but also of sitting with pain, despair and other such discomforts. We start becoming a self who knows how to look beneath the surface of an idea, in the way a mechanic might look under the hood of a car and identify the problem. Except we know we cannot fix it. There is a comfort with uncertainty, with finding our way and never quite getting it right or pinning it down. We embrace ambiguity, paradox and tension, knowing that we will find our way through, without having to solve ourselves. We know that we are in a constant state of becoming, never having arrived at our final destination until the day we die.
Most of all, we accept that there is power in all this, and that to face these philosophical challenges needn’t be paralysing nor harsh. On the contrary, it can free us up to stop fighting against the tide of life and focus on gently becoming who we are.
Existential coaching is hugely versatile, and there is no reason to reserve it for times of crisis. In fact one might argue that early intervention with an existential sensibility could help prevent that awful crisis moment. However, it does fit rather nicely into those sorts of problems for obvious reasons. The only important factor is that clients must be ready to explore, reflect and face challenges, rather than wanting an ‘easy solution’ or ‘quick fix’. There are very few scenarios in life that can’t benefit from a bit of existential work, and I have never met a coaching problem so far that cannot be dealt with existentially. Sometimes the philosophical content might be higher than others, but we can always employ phenomenology, existential frameworks and a philosophical attitude to find new insight, no matter how ‘small’ the presenting issue may seem.
I have seen people use existential coaching in many niche ways; including retirement; redundancy; transitions; issues of identity; autism; leadership; menopause; and creativity to name a few. Short term existential work can provide a kind of philosophical focus that gets to the heart of the matter in a meaningful way. Longer term work can help us to think philosophically about our lives more generally, and take ownership of our journey bit by bit.
This is an ‘in a nutshell’ summary of what existential coaching can be, but by no means does it go beyond scratching the surface. With any luck this offers some insight into the core principles, and might provide a place to wade, paddle or plunge in, depending on your inclination. Existential coaching can be used as the sole approach, or as a grounding upon which to place other approaches. It is what you make it.