fbpx

Phenomenology as a Principle of Coaching

female asian coach

Phenomenology as a Principle of Coaching

Phenomenology. It might be one of the hardest words to say, but it’s one of the most important concepts in transformative coaching.

Simply put, phenomenology is an approach that emphasises the importance of the uniquely individual experience of our clients.

In this article, we will explore how phenomenology is used in coaching, and how, through it, coaches can help their clients gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their world. 

I’ll discuss the intellectual background of phenomenology, including the concept of phenomenological reduction and I’ll provide examples of what a phenomenological dialogue might sound like.

Whilst this article explores phenomenology as a discreet concept, it is important to say that for us, at Animas, it sits at the very core of our 5 Principles of Transformative Coaching, as so intrinsically unpins everything we do in coaching.  

Indeed, you can see a full lecture on the subject from me at The Phenomenological Stance in Transformative Coaching

What is Phenomenology?

Let’s firstly understand what phenomenology is.

Phenomenology is, first and foremost, a philosophical concept that focuses on understanding the essence of human experiences. 

It emphasises the subjective and experiential aspects of human existence over generalised assumptions and frameworks of reference, and it aims to help describe and interpret people’s experiences as they are lived.

In other words, someone working phenomenologically is not so much interested in the truth of someone’s experience as how they experience it.

In coaching, phenomenology is a valuable tool for helping clients explore their inner experiences, thoughts, and emotions by encouraging them to examine their experiences in a non-judgmental and open-minded way stripped of the need to justify or evidence.

Clients, like most people, are often somewhat ashamed, embarrassed or otherwise reluctant to say what they feel, believe or think in case it is judged as wrong or inadequate.

The phenomenological approach aims to remove these feelings by focusing on how someone experienced something rather than on why or in what way they are at fault.

Background and Intellectual Roots of Phenomenology

Phenomenology is a philosophical approach that originated in the early 20th century, primarily with the work of Edmund Husserl. Husserl was interested in understanding the nature of consciousness and the relationship between subjective experience and objective reality.

Edmund_Husserl

He believed that traditional philosophy, with its emphasis on abstract concepts and logical deduction, had lost touch with the concrete and immediate experiences of human beings.

Husserl argued that in order to understand the essence of human experience, we need to turn to the experiences themselves and examine them in a systematic and rigorous way. 

He called this approach “phenomenology,” which comes from the Greek word phainomenon” meaning “that which appears.”

Phenomenology aims to describe and interpret human experiences as they are lived, without imposing preconceived frameworks or models onto them. It emphasises the subjective and experiential aspects of human existence and seeks to uncover the meaning and significance of these experiences.

The nature of truth in coaching: phenomenological vs objective

Phenomenological truth and objective truth are two different ways of understanding the idea of truth and it can be useful to make this distinction.

Objective truth is typically understood as a truth that exists independent of individual perspectives or subjective experiences. 

Objective truth is considered to be universal and immutable, and it can be discovered through empirical research or scientific investigation.

Equally, objective truth can be something that is recognised as being true by anyone with access to the same information.  For instance, if I have £100 in my bank account, then anyone who looks at my bank balance will see the same number.  It won’t change from person to person, and if it does then I would choose to believe the one who it was highest!

Phenomenological truth, on the other hand, is based on individual experiences and subjective perspectives. 

It is a truth that is constructed through the individual’s interpretation of their own experiences, emotions, and sensations. 

Phenomenological truth is not necessarily universal or objective, but it is still considered to be valuable and meaningful because it is a true reflection of the individual’s unique perspective.

For example, consider the experience of watching a sunset.

Ocean Sunset

Objective truth might involve understanding the physical laws of light and colour that create the sunset, while phenomenological truth would involve exploring the subjective experiences and emotions that arise when watching the sunset, such as feelings of awe, wonder, or peace.

In the context of coaching, the phenomenological approach emphasises the importance of exploring individuals’ subjective experiences and how they make meaning of their world. 

By valuing individuals’ unique perspectives and interpretations, the phenomenological approach can help individuals gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their world, and can ultimately lead to personal growth and development.

Phenomenological truth and objective truth are different ways of understanding truth and are not necessarily equally valid in all contexts. 

Ultimately, the validity of these truths depends on the context and the questions being asked. In some situations, objective truth may be more important, while in others, phenomenological truth may be more relevant. Both types of truth can be valuable in their own right and can help us gain a deeper understanding of the world around us.

In coaching, the distinction between objective truth and phenomenological truth can be particularly relevant when it comes to understanding and supporting the client’s goals and needs.

Objective truth can be important in coaching when it comes to helping clients set goals that are realistic and achievable. For example, a coach may use objective data such as assessments or evaluations to help a client identify areas where they may need to develop certain skills or knowledge.

However, coaching also often involves exploring and understanding the client’s subjective experiences and perspectives, which is where phenomenological truth can be particularly relevant. Through the use of techniques such as active listening, open-ended questions, and reflective dialogue, coaches can help clients gain a deeper understanding of their own experiences, emotions, and beliefs.

By exploring the client’s phenomenological truth, coaches can help clients gain insights into their own motivations, values, and goals. This understanding can be particularly valuable in coaching styles that emphasises personal growth and development, such as transformational coaching or existential coaching.

For example, a coach may use phenomenological techniques to help a client explore their feelings of dissatisfaction with their current job. 

By asking open-ended questions about the client’s experiences and values, the coach may help the client uncover their deeper motivations and desires, such as a desire for greater autonomy or creativity in their work. 

This exploration of phenomenological truth can then help the client set goals that are more meaningful and aligned with their values and needs.

Overall, in coaching, both objective truth and phenomenological truth can be valuable, depending on the client’s goals and needs. 

Too much emphasis on phenomenological truth may result in a form of collusion with a client’s denial of the reality they have to deal with but an overemphasis on objective truth fails to take into account the client’s experience of it.By using a range of techniques that draw on both types of truth, coaches can help clients gain a more complete understanding of themselves and their world, and can support them in achieving their goals and living more fulfilling lives.

Book a Call with an Animas Coach Consultant to Explore the Course and Becoming a Coach

Bracketing Assumptions

One of the most important tasks in phenomenology is the act of bracketing.  This involves setting aside our own preconceptions or assumptions in order to approach an experience with fresh eyes. 

In coaching, this can involve helping clients to become aware of any biases or assumptions they may be bringing to the coaching process, and to put them aside in order to explore their experiences more fully.

This is a two-way process since, not only do we want to bracket our own assumptions as coaches but we want to help the client bracket theirs.  This leads to fertile ground for new ideas and discoveries to emerge.

From here, a coach can help a client look afresh at their experience as well as to engage with the client’s assumptions and beliefs without a set of preconceived beliefs.  Instead, we seek to understand the client’s unique perspective and to help them articulate it in their own words. 

As an example of this, let’s imagine a client who has a firm conviction in the efficacy of astrology talking about their situation to a coach who comes from a more scientific background.

Very often, even though coaches are not meant to impose their viewpoints into the coaching, it can be easy for such different belief systems to clash.  The coach may think they are being helpful in challenging the belief that astrology is an important part of how the client makes decisions and may even challenge the underlying assumption that astrology is valid at all.  

Perhaps they don’t mean to impose their own belief system but it creeps into the coaching nonetheless.  They might not directly say “I don’t believe in astrology” but their questions come from that same place.

Instead, working phenomenologically, the coach would bracket their assumptions about the nature of the world and instead help the client articulate the importance of astrology in their life and how they experience it in their decision making.  Rather than seeking to challenge or change the client’s modus operandi, the coach helps deepen their awareness of what it means and how it affects them and so opens the conversation to what impact it has and how the client can work within that. 

This example is not too far away from a real situation I found myself in many years ago when I was still a new coach. I took on a client who was an Evangelical Christian and I myself have always been largely atheistic.  By bracketing my assumption about what was true or not in an absolute sense, I was able to coach the client from a perspective of what was true for her and I asked questions such as “What would God want for you?” and so on.  This allowed us noth to stay in her phenomenological experience of the world and work with what she believed true.

The 3 Stages of Phenomenological Reduction

Taking the concept of bracketing further, phenomenological reduction, also known as “epoché”, sets out a process for working through the stages of stripping away assumptions.

Stage 1. Epoche

The first stage of phenomenological reduction involves suspending judgement and bracketing off our preconceptions and biases. This allows us to approach the experience with an open mind and to examine it objectively.

Stage 2. Reduction

The second stage of phenomenological reduction involves focusing on the essence of the experience, rather than its external or objective features. This involves stripping away any extraneous details or distractions and focusing on the essential aspects of the experience.

Stage 3. Intuition

The third stage of phenomenological reduction involves using intuition to uncover the meaning and significance of the experience. This involves tapping into our own subjective experiences and insights to gain a deeper understanding of the phenomenon.

It is worth noting that there are many variations of the phenomenological reduction but that the three stages described above seem most useful to the coaching approach where we want to help the client move from their emotion-infused experience, to a more reduced version and then back to a meaning-making process using their personal sense-making.

When is the phenomenological approach useful

As mentioned, at Animas, we don’t see phenomenology as a stand-alone technique as some practitioners use it.  

Rather, we see it as a principle that underpins all transformative coaching – a principle that the client’s lived experience is the starting point of all exploration.

However, as coaches, we can work more or less intentionally with phenomenology and so one question may be, when is phenomenology most useful?

The phenomenological approach is most appropriate when we want to gain a deeper understanding of human experience and how people make sense of the world around them. 

It is particularly useful in situations where we are interested in exploring the subjective, personal, and cultural dimensions of experience.

Here are a few situations where the phenomenological approach may be most appropriate:

1. Exploring the meaning of a personal experience:

Phenomenology can be used to explore the meaning of a personal experience, such as a significant life event or a particular emotion. 

By engaging in a phenomenological dialogue, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of their own experiences and how they relate to their overall goals and values.

2. Investigating the experience of a particular group or culture

Phenomenology can be used to explore the experience of a particular group or culture, such as a particular ethnic or religious community. 

By engaging with individuals from this group, researchers can gain a deeper understanding of the cultural and social factors that shape their experiences and perspectives.

3. Developing new insights into a phenomenon

Phenomenology can be used to generate new insights into a phenomenon, such as a particular mental or physical health condition. By exploring the subjective experiences of individuals with this condition, researchers can gain a deeper understanding of its underlying mechanisms and potential treatments.

4. Enhancing empathy and understanding

Phenomenology can be used to enhance empathy and understanding between individuals from different backgrounds or perspectives. By engaging in a phenomenological dialogue, individuals can gain a deeper appreciation for each other’s experiences and perspectives, which can lead to greater empathy, understanding, and connection.

Overall, the phenomenological approach is most appropriate when we want to gain a deeper understanding of human experience and how it is shaped by cultural, social, and personal factors. It can be used in a variety of contexts, from clinical settings to research studies, to enhance our understanding of the world around us.

Phenomenology can be used to enhance empathy and understanding between individuals from different backgrounds or perspectives. By engaging in a phenomenological dialogue, individuals can gain a deeper appreciation for each other’s experiences and perspectives, which can lead to greater empathy, understanding, and connection.

Overall, the phenomenological approach is most appropriate when we want to gain a deeper understanding of human experience and how it is shaped by cultural, social, and personal factors. It can be used in a variety of contexts, from clinical settings to research studies, to enhance our understanding of the world around us.

What styles of coaching does phenomenology lend itself to?

The phenomenological approach can be used in a variety of coaching styles, as it is focused on exploring individuals’ subjective experiences and how they make meaning of their world. 

However, it may be particularly well-suited for coaching styles that prioritise individual reflection, self-awareness, and personal growth.

Here are a few coaching styles that may be particularly well-suited for the phenomenological approach:

1. Transformative coaching

Transformative coaching is, of course, the key area of interest for Animas. 

This style of coaching is focused on helping individuals achieve personal growth and development by transforming their beliefs, values, and behaviours. 

The phenomenological approach can be used to help individuals explore their subjective experiences and gain a deeper understanding of the factors that shape their beliefs and values.

2. Existential coaching

Existential coaching is focused on helping individuals find meaning and purpose in their lives, particularly in the face of difficult or existential challenges. The phenomenological approach can be used to help individuals explore their subjective experiences and how they make meaning of their world, which can be especially valuable in the context of existential challenges.

3. Mindfulness-based coaching

Mindfulness-based coaching is focused on helping individuals develop greater self-awareness and present-moment awareness. 

The phenomenological approach can be used to help individuals explore their subjective experiences and how they relate to their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, which can be valuable in the context of mindfulness-based coaching.

Summary

In conclusion, phenomenology is a powerful approach that can be used in coaching to help individuals gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their world. By exploring individual experiences and perspectives, coaches can help clients gain insights into their motivations, values, and goals, and can support them in making positive changes in their lives.

While the phenomenological approach can be challenging at times, it can also be incredibly rewarding, both for coaches and their clients. By creating a safe and supportive space for exploration and reflection, coaches can help clients uncover new insights and perspectives that can support their growth and development.

If you’re interested in incorporating phenomenology into your coaching practice, it’s important to remember that this approach requires a willingness to be present and curious, and a commitment to exploring the subjective experiences and perspectives of your clients. By doing so, you can help your clients achieve greater clarity, insight, and fulfilment in their lives, and can help them become the best versions of themselves.

Author Details
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.

Nick Bolton

Nick Bolton Animas

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.

Receive a Monthly Roundup of our Best Articles Direct to Your Inbox.

Attend a FREE Online Introduction to Transformative Coaching

To find out more about the Animas transformative approach to coaching, why not book a spot on our FREE introductory training session where you can get all your questions answered.

Latest Blog Posts