Continuing our series looking at coaching tools and techniques, Coaching at Work road-tests the sub-personalities approach
1 The tool
What is it?
Strictly speaking, the use of sub-personalities in coaching is not a tool but an approach. Even though the concept of “multiple selves” has been mooted in psychology for several decades, its use in coaching – as opposed to psychotherapy – is relatively new.
I first came across its potential within organisational coaching at a transpersonal coaching workshop that Sir John Whitmore ran for us at the BBC a few years ago. He explored the concept of sub-personalities as different aspects of ourselves that could be based on our roles (father, worker, boss), job titles (accountant, doctor), objects we identify with (car, house, clothing), personality states (grumpy, happy, lazy, control freak), and any number of other categories by which we define ourselves (interests, beliefs and social and political affiliations).
Working with my own sub-personalities during the workshop came as a revelation. I’ve always joked that if someone was to visit my home and look in my wardrobe or on my bookshelves they would easily conclude that several people – of different interests, ages and genders – lived there. Accepting that this didn’t make me abnormal came as a relief.
Working with my sub-personalities to their best effect, however, was another matter. Whitmore likens a successful integration of one’s sub-personalities to a conductor leading an orchestra, inviting different instruments in turn to play their solos or harmonise together. When the conductor is absent it leads to a cacophony of sounds, with each instrument vying for attention or playing out of turn.
How does it work?
After first identifying sub-personalities (with the coach patiently waiting until no more appear) the client can then explore their different aspects.
Useful questions are:
- When does this sub-personality appear?
- What does it want?
- What is its contribution?
- How does it limit you?
The client is then invited to accept all their sub-personalities and integrate them within a unified sense of self. This may require additional exploration – and guidance from the coach – particularly in the case of “unloved” or “outgrown” sub-personalities. These are similar to the concept of the “shadow” in Gestalt coaching.
Conflict often arises when two sub-personalities clash – while writing this article my inner scholar and hedonist clashed, leading to a (mercifully short) period of procrastination.
One way to explore conflict when coaching clients is to ask: “Which part of you wants to do that?” or “Whose voice is it?” or “What does this serve at the moment?” This, in turn, could expose a powerful inner critic, perfectionist or saboteur. One way of silencing an inner critic (or any other “less desirable” sub-personality) is to make fun of it by giving it a name or a funny shape and engaging it in dialogue. Another approach is to pacify it by asking it to lie dormant until it can be usefully employed.
2 The administrator
Using the tool
My most powerful use of the approach was when I coached a young and successful creative executive. He was open to new approaches, beyond logical, conversational techniques, and we already had an established, trusted partnership.
My client easily identified about a dozen sub-personalities: hedonist, romantic, driven, worrier, kind, control freak, lazy, last minute, internal rebel. I then asked him to categorise them into the ones he liked (approved of) and ones he didn’t: the split was roughly 60/40 in favour of the ones he liked.
We then started working with the sub-personalities my client did not like so much: messy, greedy, thoughtless and lazy. The one he chose to focus on particularly was the lazy aspect of his personality. We explored the usual questions of when it appeared and what it was trying to teach him.
Then my client had a “lightbulb” moment. He realised his lazy sub-personality was very useful in preventing the burnout that might have resulted from an excess of his driven and excessive sub-personalities.
Without renaming it he then added more positive-sounding adjectives to lazy, such as: peaceful, calm and relaxed. From then on my client was able to call on his lazy sub-personality when he needed to rest and regroup.
3 The client
I worked with Ana, exploring different sub-personalities and how they affect my working and personal life. It was enlightening to explore what I considered mine to be, which are assumed characteristics that I identified and when they were used.
It was interesting to note the clear positive or negative connotations of the different personalities, how they became grouped together and how many were assumptions of character.
Rob Lewis is with the BBC
While I wouldn’t say that working with sub-personalities is appropriate for everyone, I found it to be amazingly applicable even in organisational or business coaching. It can lighten the mood and encourage a more playful exploration of different sides of self, in a trusted and safe environment.
It is also something that clients can take forward and keep using: some of my clients have allocated names to their dominant sub-personalities, and invoke them at will.
Work with sub-personalities can be combined with work on polarities (from Gestalt). I have also started using archetypes in coaching, which is a similar approach to working with sub-personalities but relies on our shared human understanding of mythology and storytelling to give them recognisable names and characteristics (hero, warrior, victim, jester, etc.).
These can then be effectively combined with visual prompts, such as pictures, cards or drawings, for clients who enjoy working with visual stimuli.
Ana Karakusevic is a leadership consultant, executive coach and founder of Holistic Learning
The pros and cons of the sub-personalities approach
- Recognises and normalises “inconsistent” behaviour.
- Powerful method of researching pros and cons of different ways of behaving.
- Can lead to introduction of other models, eg. archetypes, polarities.
- Addresses the whole personality (not just work self) in a safe manner.
- Can be used to pinpoint and manage less useful or desirable behaviours.
- Could be seen as psychologically challenging or confusing, particularly for clients with a strong belief in single-self personality.
- Needs both coach and client to be comfortable with ambiguity.
- Requires shared acceptance of psychological models in coaching: could be seen as challenging by more goal-orientated coaches or clients.
Coaching at Work, Volume 5, Issue 3