Humanistic And Systemic Tensions Around Personal Agency

Systemic and humanistic tensions

As we sit on the cusp of another New Year, millions of people will be planning their New Year’s Resolutions and telling themselves that next year won’t be the same as last.

And, for the vast majority of people – give or take small changes and the ungovernable vicissitudes of life – sadly, it won’t be true.

Their year will look much like any other.

They’ll remain stuck with the same problems, berating themselves for their failures, cursing the gods for their fate, or bemoaning the bungling incompetence or malign intentions of governments and agencies beyond their control.

How can this be?

Aren’t individuals in control of their lives, fully sovereign and agentic?

Coaching in its early years, at least, would say so.

But in recent years that’s begun to change.

There is a growing (sometimes reluctant, sometimes eager) recognition of the importance of the systems we are part of and the impact they have.

It would seem churlish in the extreme to deny that issues of racism, disablism, sexism, homophobia and similar individual and societal stances are incidental to our experience and just need to be sucked up and moved through.

And so it is that coaching faces the intractable question that emerges from the confrontation of the Humanistic and the Systemic approaches (in their most distilled forms) to human change and flourishing.

Whilst the Humanistic position situates the individual as the prime mover in their experience of life, the Systemic suggests that forces beyond our control have the greater impact and there is little we can do that will make a significant difference.

At least, those are the extremes of each position.

This is not a new conundrum. The early Humanistic psychologists were not unaware of this challenge and they understood the impact of wider systems. How could they not?

Yet, like most schools of thought, over time, their ideas became simplified and rigidified and lost much of their nuance. Repeated often enough, mantras such as personal responsibility and personal agency become the only thing that is heard.

This was brought to a head for me recently when I read a chapter in a book, Implausible Professions (2007). The chapter, “Psychotherapy and Tragedy”, was written by a therapist, David Smail, and in it, he addresses this issue of personal agency versus systemic forces in stark terms concluding that psychotherapy, in general, overemphasises the psychic determinant of the individual and denies the reality of the tragedy of life in which individuals are subordinate to external forces far greater than themselves. He suggests that, faced with such odds, the best a psychotherapist can probably do is acknowledge the implacable nature of the world and relieve the sense of guilt that individuals might feel in failing to meet their potential. For Smail, that potential was never going to be realised and to assume it was a failure of their psyche is to miss the power of the systemic forces that hold us back.

I resonate with this, to some degree, but cannot be so pessimistic or binary.

First, my resonance:

I wrote a short piece some years ago called Have We Been Seduced By The Myth of Omnipotence. I have always felt that the idea that “if you can dream it, you can do it” overpriveleges individual can-do and fails to recognise the reality that, in the vast majority of cases, it might theoretically be true but the cards can be so stacked against someone, that it’s overwhelmingly easier and rational for the dream to remain a dream.

I developed this further in early 2022 when I delivered a series of lectures on the Principles of Transformative Coaching.

As part of my thinking for this series, I deconstructed what I saw as the roots of coaching and I began to sense that, far from representing a single point of view on personal agency, coaching holds a complex balance of competing and, in some ways, contradictory assumptions.

It is, in a sense, a nexus of paradoxical principles.

On the one hand it adopts a humanistic stance in which the individual must take responsibility for their life and own the stuff that so often besets them. It assumes that we can all grow through, and past, our failures and constraints if we just get out of our own way.

This same stance underlies (often in a simplified and condensed manner) the vast majority of personal development and self-help which advocates a “no excuses, no limits, just do it” mentality.

And, I still believe there is much to be said for this.

It is all too easy to blame our personal conditions, or what Heidegger called our “thrownness”, as well as the socio-economic and political circumstances we find ourselves in, and to remain stuck.

Yet, it’s clear that plenty of people have overcome their circumstances, whether that be the many “isms” or their unique personal history including abuse, violence, poverty or something else. And many of those that do so, go on to sing the alluring song of achieving one’s potential.

So that being the case, what stops us just looking to these exemplars as living proof we can all achieve what we want, and for coaching to remain steadfast in its assumptions of unsullied personal agency?

The simple answer? Survivor bias.

These tales are the ones we hear because they are the ones that made it. And we ignore that fact at our peril.

If 100 people jump off a cliff in to a rock strewn sea that has a 99% chance of death, it’s probably not the best idea to listen to the exaltation of the one person who lived to tell the tale who shouts enthusiastically, “Jump! The water’s lovely!”

Cards on the table. I am a big believer in personal responsibility. I might not have had it as bad as many but nor have I had it easy. I’m a working class kid from Cornwall who drifted through comprehensive school and attended a polytechnic before spending 10 years in a marriage I should never have been in only to leave massively in debt and to go live in a bedsit at 28 years old where my upstairs neighbour’s dirty shower water dripped through my ceiling and short fused my electrics. Hardly auspicious foundations to start my first business. Yet I persevered through many, many years of debt and struggle to grow my business and I can look back with pride on that journey. There was nothing certain about that success.

So, yes, I truly do believe in personal responsibility and I would never make excuses for any individual or pretend to know for sure that they were so worse off than me and so need me to cut them some slack. Indeed, sometimes, one’s worse-offness can precipitate greater self-responsibility since you have nothing much to lose.

But here’s the thing…

Notice the language I used in that last sentence. “I would never make excuses for any individual or pretend to know for sure that they were so worse off than me”.

As a coach, it’s not for me to know or to assume anything about anyone and certainly not to judge whether they are able to change. I might have a view on the general condition of life but I don’t know how it is for them.

That is for them to experience, explore and figure out.

That’s why at the heart of the Animas 5 Principles of Transformative Coaching is the Phenomenological Principle – it is the client’s experience of their life that matters NOT my assumptions about what is possible or the nature of personal agency. If they feel stuck, then they are stuck. That stuckness might be real or perceived and that’s what we can work out together.

So, what does this mean for the coach who is trying to enable change, who wants to recognise that there are forces we all contend with, and yet who also doesn’t want to make assumptions?

My suggestion would be that we actively bring attention to the impact of the wider systems on our clients but without making assumptions in advance as to what they are or how they are being experienced.

Recognising that impact exists does not preclude it from being mitigated but it does allow that person to be heard, understood and seen and to be given the time to decide what to do with it.

That is the very heart of coaching. By bringing in systemic-oriented questions, coaching can bring to the foreground the situational and societal forces that make something harder for someone to achieve. Then decisions can be made.

To deny that these systemic forces exist when they are voiced is to act as though we live in a vacuum. But to assume, a priori, that they are insurmountable is to deny the client agency and, in a sense, it is to be a part of the very problem they have come to coaching to overcome. Whilst I resonated with Smail’s piece and his concept of the tragedy of life in which some things are beyond our control, I cannot find myself in agreement with his pessimistic conclusion that all we can do is create the conditions for self-acceptance.

A great example of the ability to recognise systemic challenges whilst owning one’s role in overcoming them can be found in David Goggins. In, “Can’t Hurt Me”, Goggins describes a journey, both harrowing and inspirational, from abused boy to overweight, depressed man, to decorated SEAL, ultra-athlete and all-round human machine! Unlike the humanistic stance which, at its extreme, might see all his initial failings as failures of the mind, Goggins recognises the importance and forcefulness of the systems he was part of but also discovered that, in looking at them squarely, he was able to overcome them.

This is why the Animas 5 Principles of Transformative Coaching contain both the Humanistic Principle and the Systemic Principle.

Both exist in the coaching field and they counterbalance one another in the coaching conversation.

The Humanistic Principle asks coaches to believe in the individual as personally agentic and able to change, and that any such changes happen both externally and internally. It encourages us to coach towards personal responsibility for what that person wants and it calls us on us to believe that in fostering a caring, empathic relationship, we will help the individual to encounter themselves in new ways.

The Systemic Principle, on the other hand, recognises the power and strength of the systems we are part of, whether they be personally constructed, such as one’s family, personally chosen, such as a workplace, or simply inherited and wrapped around us, such as our society. By recognising the importance of systems, we can bring them into coaching without making any assumptions on behalf of the client.

The family that a client is a part of will most likely impact their decision and their ability to make changes, and so to ignore that system is to miss a vital part of the change process. Likewise, to deny, or indeed to assume, the impact of racism, sexism or any other ism, is to deny a client’s phenomenological experience and therefore miss a critical part of what they must deal with to achieve the change they want.

The Humanistic and Systemic principles, taken to their extremes, oversimplify the human experience. The person is either fully responsible or not at all. They can change in an instant or never. They are pure unrealised potential or they are victims. And, of course, as people take a view on this, they tend to become more entrenched in that position leading to people who claim we are each responsible for everything that is wrong in the world and other who only see meaningful change possible at the level of the system.

The truth, it seems to me, lies somewhere between.

The Humanistic principles idealise the individual as fully-autonomous. Yet tempered with Systemic principles, this becomes something quite different. We start to see the individual as someone who is indeed beset by forces beyond their control, many of which are insurmountable, but who can still make choices and navigate within the systems they are part of.

It also allows us to be more accepting that people rarely achieve their true potential partly down to individual flaws and partly down to the systems that shape who we are.

We can’t all be a Goggins. Or perhaps, a more accurate and truthful statement is that we won’t all be a Goggins – for whatever reason. And we can be compassionate with ourselves about that.

For anyone reading this thinking, “hold on, he’s just rehashing the age old debate of nature versus nurture”, then yes, I would say this rhymes but it’s not the same.

In this case the distinction is internal versus external, psyche versus social.

Our job as coaches is to help our clients navigate both parts – the psyche and the social. We fail when we only assume it is an inside job. And we fail when we think it is only an outside job.

We can rage at the heavens and say that society is broken and maybe part of your own journey as a coach is to advocate for wider change. But when we sit down with a client and explore their lived experience, they become centre stage, not the social system.

So going back to New Year’s Resolutions…

One thing I have learned over the years is that unless I get my systems right, the changes I want to bring about for myself just don’t happen. If I try to rely on sheer willpower for anything, I fail. I am a weak, fallible human being. I am psychically and physically flawed. Systems matter.

The families, companies, communities and societies we are part of can support our desire for change, or they can impede them. We can’t tell the system to behave differently but we can make choices about the systems we engage with and the way we move within them.

This might sound overly simple but it’s something I have found to work powerfully for myself and my clients. Yes, we can make our resolutions, and yes, we can decide we want to change, but if we fail to take in to account the things that constrain the change, and if we pour all the vitriol for our failure into our own souls, then we are not recognising and dealing with the whole picture.

Schools of thought, Humanistic, Systemic, or otherwise, are fundamentally unhelpful in that they set up false dichotomies. As coaches, we don’t need to have beliefs – we need to trust the client’s lived experience and our role is to help flesh out that picture to its fullest extent – and that means the individual within systems.

Nick is the founder and CEO of Animas Centre for Coaching and the International Centre for Coaching Supervision. Nick is an existentially oriented coach and supervisor with a passion for the ideas, principles and philosophy that sits behind coaching.

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