In our special report we explore the challenging concept of existential theory within coaching to uncover how it can give value to clients in their personal and professional lives. Answering the question “What is existential theory?” is not easy. The approach is varied, often complex, and it means different things to different people. Simplistically, an existential perspective is based on the central assumption that life is uncertain and that, paradoxically, uncertainty is the only thing we can rely on at any given point in our lives. As human beings we all share the experience of confronting the uncertainties of living, and this experience can provoke anxiety or unease. Unlike other coaching perspectives that focus on broadly positive, self-actualising qualities and possibilities for each client, the existential approach gives equal emphasis to clients’ divided stances and helps them to clarify and reconsider the meanings and values given to the various inter-relations that make up their personal and professional lives. It is through this exploration that clients can be empowered to assess more honestly and accurately how the relational stances that they adopt have an impact on the quality and enjoyment of their lives.
As various authors have argued, the existential approach has no single founder or authoritative source. Rather, it is best understood as a “rich tapestry” of intersecting practices which focus on a shared concern: that of human existence. There is no definitive resource that captures variety and depth of this tapestry and much of the literature on the existential approach to coaching draws on psychology and psychotherapy. It is impossible to capture the richness of the tapestry here but it is useful to note that the ‘British’ school of existential thinking places greater emphasis on the “in-the-world-with-others” nature of human existence and rejects the individualism and subjectivism inherent in more humanistic approaches. It also places much greater importance on working with clients in a descriptive rather than an analytically interpretative way.
We believe that the most significant foundations to existential thought and practice lie in the following key ideas, which are explored in depth within our chapter in the soon to be published Handbook for Coaching Psychology.
The inter-relational foundation
The founding condition for all reflected experiences of being is inter-relation. This position differs from dominant Western views, which impose a separateness or distinction between subject and object (‘self’ and ‘other’). The existential approach denies this distinction and proposes a view that everything we are, or can be aware of, is inter-relationally derived.
Existential theory argues that humans are ‘meaning-making’ beings. We interpret the world. We are disturbed by a lack or loss of meaning, and can go to great lengths to avoid or deny those instances that challenge our meanings. Linking this notion to the existential condition of inter-relation, human meaning making is always uncertain and incomplete. It follows, therefore, that each human being’s experience of the world is not accessible in any complete or final manner to any other human being in this context, the coach.
As beings who have a tendency to ‘fix’ or ‘capture’ meaning in spite of its inter-relational basis, our experience of the uncertainty and uniqueness in the meanings we generate is one of unease and insecurity, often referred to as existential angst or anxiety. In our attempts to avoid or diminish angst, we seek out and assert fixed truths, facts, statements and deny or dissociate those instances in our experience that cast doubt on or challenge our assertions of certainty and fixed meaning. This denial or self-deception has been referred to as inauthenticity or expressions of bad faith.
Although our dilemmas can be seen to be based on our experience of anxiety, the existential perspective recognises that anxiety, in general, is not only or even necessarily ‘bad’ or problematic, nor that it must be reduced or removed. The feeling of anxiety can also be stimulating, and can put us in touch with our sense of being alive. After all, a life that is anxiety-free is empty of meaning. So, the possible solutions to our problems do not hinge on the eradication of anxiety but on the search for more beneficial ways to ‘live with it’.
The existential idea of choice has often been misinterpreted to suggest that we possess unlimited freedom to choose how and what to be or do. This view is inaccurate. Rather than being free to choose what we want, when we want it, we are free to choose our response to the contextual situation in which we find ourselves. Many of the problems that clients are likely to bring to coaching originate from their unwillingness to pick the choices that are available to them, as opposed to deluding themselves that any choice option is available.
Conflict and change
Every conflict that presents itself can be seen as an attempt to live with anxiety to a degree that remains tolerable or desirable. If a coach seeks to remove the presenting problem without sufficiently understanding its relation to that stance, he or she might also be removing a solution that is far more important in its impact on the client than the presenting problem. As a consequence, it is wise for coaches to bear in mind that sometimes the change solutions offered can create far greater distress and unease than the presenting problem. Viewed in this way, an existential approach to a conflict-resolving focus in coaching is neither solely about nor predominantly concerned with alterations in behaviour. Instead, it suggests that the coach’s primary focus should be on connecting the presenting issue more accurately with the world view that shapes and defines it. Just by this act of exploration, the client’s world view is likely to be challenged such that it may provoke either alterations in behaviour or a new-found relation to existing behaviour.
Implications for coaching practice
Unlike other coaching perspectives that focus on positive, self-actualising qualities and possibilities for each client, the existential approach recognises and gives equal emphasis to the divided stances, aims and aspirations that may well exist as competing values and beliefs held by each client. The approach does not rely on a unique set of techniques. While there are various ‘skills’ associated with an existential approach, their value depends on the ‘being focused’ grounding from which they emerge, relying on the coach and client’s experience of being in relation with one another and how this experience illuminates the whole of the client’s world view as its primary skill. While setting goals or planning change strategies are central to effective coaching, an existential approach attempts to open up and make explicit the embedded and largely implicit inter-relational tensions that exist within the client’s world view. One central skill related to the exploration of the client’s world view is the phenomenological method of enquiry.
The Phenomenological Method
One powerful way to assist the coach in remaining attuned to the current world view of the client is to apply what has become known as the phenomenological method of investigation. There are three ‘steps’ in this process:
1. The Rule of Epoché
This rule urges the coach to set aside his or her initial biases and prejudices, and to suspend expectations and assumptions regarding the client as far as is possible. The rule of epoché urges the coach to attune his or her focus to what presents itself as it happens, so the client’s current world view can be more adequately disclosed and, in turn, so any subsequent reconstructions of it fit its meanings and values.
2. The Rule of Description
The essence of this rule is: ‘Describe, don’t explain.’ Rather than attempt to immediately analyse or transform the client’s concerns on the basis of the coach’s preferred theories or hypotheses, the rule of description urges the coach to remain initially focused on that information which arises from a concretely based descriptive exploration of the client’s world view. The focus of this rule centres more on the ‘what and how’ of a client’s experience than it does on the ‘why’.
3. The Rule of Horizontalisation
The third step further urges the coach to avoid placing any initial hierarchies of significance or importance on the items of description, and instead to treat each, initially, as having equal value. In the attempt to avoid any hierarchical assumptions, the coach is better able to access the client’s world view with far less theory led prejudice and personal bias.
No fulfillment of each of the three steps in the above method is possible, nor should we trust any claim to have done so. Even so, the attempt allows coaches to become more aware of their biases at each ‘step’ of their investigation. More importantly, it provides a powerful way in which to access the often implicit and unstated meanings, values, beliefs and assumptions held by the client which may, in themselves, be provoking the current problem or issue.
Which clients benefit the most?
We believe the existential approach is particularly useful when working with those in transition particularly life stage transition or progression and advancement in work, where dilemmas are often about regaining meaning, or dealing with lost possibilities and legacy. It is less about developing an immediate shift in specific behaviours and performance than it is about extending clients’ ability to develop a more open and truthful assessment of the relational stances and how these effect their behaviour and, in turn, the quality and enjoyment of their lives.
- Being more congruent with a lived experience
- Becoming clearer about who they are and who they are not
- Accessing skills for managing complexity, ambiguity and anxiety
- Enhanced self-responsibility
- Enhanced ownership of choice in an inter-relational context
- Its tendency to avoid direct exploration of data in the system or organisation as it is experienced by others
- Its sceptical stance toward the use and value of assessment tools and techniques which, often behaviourally derived, are seen to conflict with the direct encounter between client and coach
- The limited experimental data regarding the effectiveness of existentially focused coaching
Overall, the approach’s emphasis on ‘being qualities’ and meaning exploration, as opposed to the development and refinement of the coach’s ‘doing’ skills and repertoire, runs counter to current assumptions and emphases within coaching as a whole. Whether this divergence will eventually prove to be the existential approach’s greatest strength or its greatest weakness remains to be seen.
Case study 1: “I want a life!”
Andrew had it all. He was intelligent, well-educated and good looking, with a successful career. He was liked and admired by clients and colleagues. He was also on the brink of collapse. His lifestyle of extreme overwork was becoming untenable but he could not think how to stop it. He felt compelled to work all hours, seemed unable to take time off and was envious of people who could. Inside he felt intense anger and resentment towards his job, his colleagues and his clients. Close to tears but expressing this as anger, he said, “I’m fed up with looking after other people and their problems.” He then banged the table with his fist and shouted at me (his philosophic counsellor and work consultant): “I want a life!” He was exhausting to work with. Very articulate and able to defend his story of himself from revisions that might help him. He challenged my approach to our work, saying he didn’t see how it would help to work on ‘the self’. He believed he needed to work on practical matters like time management. He wanted to rationalise his problems so that he could solve them logically.
Andrew had found himself in this dilemma, a person without a secure point of view, unable to interpret his own world or make decisions in his own interests or of those he loved. He may have succeeded by not rocking the boat, and adopting other people’s ideas and standards rather than following his own desires, and from working hard and being very careful never to make a mistake. But he had become empty inside, alienated from himself and disappointed with life. He was so immersed in his situation that he could not see where any freedom might exist for him. He felt powerless, yet his role was such that to an outside observer he had a great deal of power and freedom. As we reflected together on his world we found that his anxiety centred around a fear of harsh judgment and rejection by others which grew worse as he became more successful. He believed he could defend himself against these issues through hard work but in reality this strategy amounted to a rejection of himself, his partner, his friends and his family.
Facing up to the truth of his predicament was tough. Andrew had to stop blaming others and work, and accept responsibility for the choices he had made and the way he was living. But this paid off when he realised that if he had made his own problems then he also had the power to change his own life. This insight was liberating. He suddenly announced that if he had chosen his way of being he could also “un-choose it”. Andrew discovered the self-belief and sense of purpose to stop overworking compulsively. He no longer looked tired and overwhelmed. He stopped bringing the ring binder to our meetings. His expression brightened and his posture became more relaxed. He became more genuinely interested in others, instead of his former habit of wondering what they thought of him. He was surprised to find “how pleasurable it can be to just spend time with people, not worrying what they think”. He said “I feel at peace with myself and the world for the first time in my life”.
Hard work isn’t necessarily an indication of problems. Many people do work they love and thrive on long hours feeling stimulated, stretched, fulfilled, and not overwhelmed. Work is a source of several important things self-esteem, belonging, social contacts, stimulation, influence and a meaningful life. To capitalise on these benefits and genuinely enjoy work we have to recognise our own power and be more honest with ourselves about our relationships and our part in co-creating them. The key to well-being is to feel your work and lifestyle are freely chosen. For this to happen we must acknowledge that we create and choose our lives.
Andrew didn’t give up his job. He changed how he looked at himself and his life and found that he did already ‘have a life’ and actually a very good one.
Diana Pringle is an existential coach and psychotherapist. She has an MA in existential philosophy and psychotherapy, and UKCP professional accreditation. She is also an accredited mediator for conflict resolution. She is in private practice at www.dianapringle.com and corporate practice at www.theworkconsultancypartnership.com Tel: 020 8894 1623
Existential concepts – a guide
- Inter-relation – There is no distinction between self and other
- Meaning – We are ‘meaning-making’ beings, are disturbed by the lack or loss of meaning and seek to avoid or deny anything which challenges our meanings
- Anxiety – Because we seek to ‘capture’ meaning despite its inter-relational basis, faced with uncertainty, we experience unease and insecurity existential angst or anxiety. But anxiety can be stimulating and enhance our feeling of being alive
- Choice – We are free to choose our response to the contextual situation in which we find ourselves
- Conflict and Change – Conflict is an attempt to live with anxiety. Offering change solutions without acknowledging this can create more distress and unease than the presenting problem
The existentialist approach:
- is a tapestry of intersecting practices focusing on shared concerns of human existence
- is based on the assumption that life is uncertain. The one thing we can rely on is uncertainty and
- we all share the experience of confronting those uncertainties
- emphasises ‘being’ qualities and exploring meaning
- can be very beneficial for those in transition
Case study 2: “I don’t really know what I want”
Elizabeth was a partner with a city law firm, in her late 30s and successful in everything she attempted. Like her husband, also a city lawyer, she was ambitious and worked long hours. The hours they shared away from work were often spent with work friends. My first contact with Elizabeth was when she telephoned to say she wanted to meet up to consider her career options as she no longer enjoyed being a lawyer. I encountered an elegant, articulate, self-possessed but also rather tense woman. She told me she had grown to hate her job and the relentless pressure, that it wasn’t after all what she wanted, and she had become very unhappy. We began with exploring her current situation, skill-set, preferences and interests. We also reviewed activities she had enjoyed earlier in her life. Through our discussion she realised she wasn’t really interested in any of these. Yet she didn’t have any ideas about alternatives and seemed very stuck only knowing what she didn’t want. She had chosen law because she thought it would give her a good lifestyle and because her father wanted her to make the most of herself.
She was the first in her family to go to university and although her father was now dead she felt he would have been so proud of her that it was impossible to quit. She was also very proud of what she had achieved and did not want to lose the kudos and income associated with her role. Existentially speaking, she didn’t feel free to make significant changes. On the subject of personal and work goals, she had little to say. Her goal had been succeeding as a lawyer. Now she wasn’t sure. She said that suddenly everything seemed meaningless and she felt “lost”. She thought perhaps she wanted to identify something that would be worth doing and make her happy then find the courage to do it. Or perhaps her goal would be to “make the best of things”. A very logical, rational person, Elizabeth seemed bewildered by her present malaise and inability to see a way forward. She described herself as “going round in circles”. She expressed anger and frustration at herself and wondered if she was “being self-indulgent” since she was “much better off than most people”.
Her life so far had been focused on acquiring qualifications and achieving material success. She was a ‘doer’ par excellence but had not spent much time reflecting on herself and her way of being. As an existential coach my questions focus on exploration of the self and how the client sees their own unique world through the lens of their personal beliefs and values. This was quite challenging for Elizabeth as she had expected a more directive approach focused on identifying tasks and implementing a plan of action, but she engaged with the questions and found it helpful to look at her ‘self-at-work’ from different perspectives. She arrived at our third session saying she wondered if her issues might be more personal than work-related. Our conversations had shown her how she had no idea what she wanted for herself or even who she was. I agreed I had an increasing sense of incompleteness, something missing perhaps as a result of her focus on ‘doing and having’, with little understanding of her way of ‘being-in-the-world’ or her deepest aspirations for life, and consequently lacking a compass and a sense of her own purpose and possibilities. We agreed there was ‘stuckness’ at the centre of her being that needed unlocking. I suggested we work together on a ‘values exercise’ to elicit some ideas about possible different futures and clarification of what mattered most to her.
Through this exercise she started remembering how much ‘connectedness to others’ used to be a central anchor. Her parents had died when she was young and her grandparents had raised her. She recalled making cakes with her ‘granny’, digging up potatoes in her uncle’s allotment, playing with her cousins and putting on plays in the community hall. Since ‘going up in the world’ she had turned her back on these old connections, feeling ashamed of her origins and not-so-well-educated relatives. She had lost her connection with her roots and in the process her sense of herself and what was fundamentally important to her. We explored how her need to excel and be better than others was undermining her need for real intimacy and community. Her only interests now were competitive tennis and bridge both of which she played very seriously. Values give motivation and meaning to life but they can also conflict with each other, as in Elizabeth’s case. She valued doing things really well but she valued being with others in a mutually supportive community. Always pitting herself against others, by striving to do well in her exams and subsequently in her firm, had met one value at the expense of the other. Clarifying her values and understanding that they usually have an associated ‘cost’ enabled her to review her priorities and decide to make changes.
In our fifth and penultimate session we reviewed what she had gained from our work and what she wanted to achieve in the remaining time. Our work had stimulated her to evolve a strategy to honour her ‘lost’ values by involving herself in community activities such as ‘hands-on’ pro bono support to charities concerned with helping unemployed youths and the elderly. She was surprised to realise that although we had not focused much on her work-related dilemmas in previous sessions she now had the energy and enthusiasm to make some significant changes. at work. She had seen what she wanted to do and was planning to develop into a new career path that she hoped would be with her current firm. She had started preparing a proposal to put to the senior partners and we spent some time refining this. By our sixth session she was becoming transformed. Her expression was brighter and more relaxed, she seemed more ‘filled out’.
In the act of looking away from herself and helping others outside her usual milieu, she had paradoxically helped herself. Unblocking her inner, personal dilemmas and deciding who she wanted to be made the task of deciding what to do suddenly quite straightforward. At a later review session I learned that she had succeeded in making this change in her career path and was thriving in her new role.
Robert Goodsell is an existential coach and psychotherapist.
www.theworkconsultancypartnership.com Tel: 020 7624 0847
The existential approach does not lend itself to ‘how to do’ courses but there are programmes supporting coaches in taking such a stance towards their practice
- The i-coach academy in the UK explicitly labels the existential approach in its coaching masters’ curriculum, sharing theoretical perspectives and offering supervision informed by this approach, whilst not advocating any single theoretical or methodological approach to coaching. The academy offers a one day seminar on this approach:www.i-oachacademy.com/media/downloads/existential-flyer.pdf
- The Mediation Programme offered by the School of Psychotherapy and Counselling at Regent’s College offers an additional introduction to existential coaching aimed at mediators
- Overseas programmes include Julio Olalla’s ontological coaching programme in Colorado www.newfieldnetwork.com) and Alan Sieler’s diploma in ontological coaching in Australia (www.newfieldaus.com.au/)
- The UK’s two most well-known training courses in Existential Psychotherapy are the School of Psychotherapy and Counselling at Regents’ College (www.spc.ac.uk/) and New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling (www.nspc.org.uk/)
- The Society of Existential Analysis runs events: www.existentialanalysis.co.uk
- Various bodies cover existential theory within courses on psychological theories and tools in coaching. These include the CIPD’s Psychology of Coaching – harnessing psychological theories course
- References and further reading
- Cooper, M Existential Therapies London, Sage (2003)
- Peltier, B The Psychology of Executive Coaching: theory and application New York, Brunner-Routledge (2001)
- Sieler, A Coaching to the Human Soul: ontological coaching and deep change Blackburn, Victoria, Newfield Australia (2003)
- Spinelli, E Tales of Un-knowing: Therapeutic Encounters from an Existential Perspective Hay-on-Wye, PCCS Books (2006)
- Spinelli, E & Horner, C ‘Existential-Phenomenological Approach to Coaching’, in S Palmer & A Whybrow (eds) Handbook of Coaching Psychology London (2006)
- Spinelli, E The Interpreted World: an introduction to phenomenological psychology (2nd ed) London, Sage (2005)
- Idhe, D Experimental Phenomenology: An Introduction. Albany: State University of New York (1986)
- Block, P Flawless Consulting, A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used San Francisco, Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer (2000)
- Block, P The empowered manager – positive political skills at work Jossey-Bass (1987)
- Cooper, M Existential Therapies UK, Sage (2003)
- Kelly, L & Kelly, J An Existential Systems Approach to Managing Organizations Westport, Greenwood Publishing Group (1998)
- Koestenbaum, P & Block, P Freedom and Accountability at Work Jossey-Bass (2001)
- Ogilvy, J ‘What coaches can learn from Sartre’. In Strategy and Business 33, 39-47 (2003)
- Sieler, A Coaching to the Human Soul: ontological coaching and deep change Blackburn, Victoria, Newfield Australia (2003)
- Spinelli, E The Interpreted World: an introduction to phenomenological psychology (2nd ed)
- London, Sage (2005)
- Spinelli, E Tales of Un-knowing Hay-on-Wye, PCCS Books (2006)
- Spinelli, E & Horner, C (in press) ‘Existential-Phenomenological Approach to Coaching’
- In S Palmer & A Whybrow (eds) Handbook of Coaching Psychology London, Routledge
- Spinelli, E (in preparation) Worlding: practising existential psychotherapy London, Sage
- Strasser, F & Strasser, A Existential Time-Limited Therapy – the wheel of existence John Wiley & Sons, UK (1997)
- van Deurzen, E Existential Counselling & Psychotherapy in Practice (2nd ed) London,
- Sage (2002)
- Yalom, ID Existential Psychotherapy, Basic Books, USA (1980)
- Yalom, ID The Gift of Therapy London, Piatkus (2001)