Karen Liebenguth can often be found conducting coaching sessions while walking in the parks around London. Many of her clients have been known to walk their way out of their problems while doing so. She explains why she has taken her coaching into nature
Take a moment to think about how you feel after you have spent time outdoors – be it a hike in the countryside, a stroll in the park or even a 15-minute walk in your lunch break. Do you feel more relaxed, alert and clear-headed? That’s certainly my own experience and that’s what I am tapping into when I take my clients outdoors into green spaces. I believe that’s where reflection, creativity, insight and change happen most naturally.
Today, 90 per cent of my clients want to take sessions outdoors and more and more companies and organisations are enquiring about my approach, wanting to explore the idea of team building and development training outside the usual work environment, in green space.
Just having space around us has a calming impact on our way of thinking and looking at things. And when we begin to connect to what’s around us through our senses – what we see, hear, feel, and smell – we slow down and become more spacious inside.
How does it work?
When we walk, our brain waves slow down because the mind starts to focus on our physical movement. This creates space in our head for clearer thinking and better ideas and solutions.
When I’m outdoors, I’m at my best – and clients benefit as a result. From a young age, I have spent as much time as possible outdoors (walking, cycling, riding), enjoying how alive and happy it makes me feel. Clients pick up on this.
There is a growing body of research (see further information) highlighting the benefits of nature on our wellbeing, confirming what we have always known. One growing area of research is ecopsychology. Professor Stephen Palmer, at the Institute of Work Based Learning, Middlesex University says:
“Ecopsychology research can directly inform evidence-based coaching practice, especially if the coaching goals include improving physical and psychological wellbeing, as this gives permission to the coach to provide relevant information. For example, just a five-minute walk with nature can enhance self-esteem. Therefore having your lunch sitting on a park bench is preferable to eating your sandwich in the office in front of a computer screen looking at an Excel sheet!”
Nature is, after all, where we come from. Spending time in nature has a wealth of beneficial impacts on our psychological, emotional and physical wellbeing. This goes back to the ‘Biophilia Hypothesis’, advocated by the sociobiologist Edward O Wilson, namely, that humans have a hard-wired disposition to connect with the natural world.
People arrive at a session on autopilot and at a fast pace. Then we walk across the land and their mind and body begin to slow down almost immediately.
Natural settings as small as Lincoln’s Inn Fields behind Holborn tube station in London or as big as Regent’s Park or Victoria Park in the east of the city, where I take a lot of clients, give space for new thinking. These settings allow the body to relax and the mind to flow – to not get static and stuck.
Walking next to each other is different to sitting opposite someone in a consultation or meeting room. It is more equal, more relaxed. It allows both the coach and the client to be more comfortable with silence, which is crucial in enabling the client to reflect, to process their thoughts, to have ‘a-ha’ moments, for ideas to flow, to feel safe to engage more deeply with themselves.
Sometimes, during a session, clients will stop intuitively, open their gaze and look around, or I invite them to do so. It can help them gain a broader perspective, to look a little further into life.
And crucially, given I am in England, I work in all weathers and throughout the seasons. Each season and type of weather brings its own energy, tranquillity and freshness to the session, meeting us where we are at. That’s the beauty and power of being in nature.
I ask clients to dress warmly, to bring a raincoat if needs be, to wear sturdy shoes and to take a rucksack if they need one, so they can walk freely. People like the taste of adventure this brings. And when it does rain I pull out my sturdy umbrella and off we go to enjoy the particular atmosphere of the green space.
Team building workshops work really well outdoors. I usually take teams – third sector and corporate – out into green spaces like Regent’s Park, Hampstead Heath or Victoria Park, where there are also indoor facilities so that a day out of the work environment – should it rain – can be held partly indoors, partly outdoors.
Being in nature frees us from day-to-day constraints, pressures and habitual ways of thinking and behaving. When working with teams around increasing team spirit, connection, collaboration, clarifying vision, mission and purpose or other areas the team wants to explore, I usually use the method of the Natural Learning Cycle, based on Joseph Campbell’s idea of a natural rhythm that he named ‘Flow Learning’ (see his book Sharing Nature with Children) and that Jon Young, founder of 8-Shields Institute (http://8shields.com/) in the US, has developed further.
The cycle taps into the energy of the eight cardinal directions:
SW take a break,
W gather and share,
It works regardless of the ages in a group, mood or physical setting, as its particular sequence is in harmony with certain subtle aspects of human nature. Teams can also use the Natural Learning Cycle method and apply it in different environments or projects.
Clients often come away from a session saying they have walked their way out of a problem – and into a solution.
One client, Jane Kitchen from Bristol, says, “Coaching while walking is a wonderful concept; the whole thing felt so ‘right’. I have had all sorts of different coaching from a number of different people, but Karen’s approach really stood out. It was something to do with being in the open air and with the rhythm of walking. Being able to stop when I wanted to and just let being out in nature transform the whole experience.”
Another client, Eilish Kavanagh, director of operations at Friends of the Earth, experienced coaching while walking in a London park. She says he found the approach “fresh, relaxed and interesting, inspiring creative thinking as the world went on around us”.
When I work with private and organisational clients, I always encourage them to take their one-to-one and team meetings outside or to take a walk at lunchtime – in the local park or around the block. Just half an hour outside can make all the difference to our mindset, sense of self and others as well as our perspective on life.
Karen Liebenguth set up Green Space Coaching in 2009, offering team building and development workshops outdoors and indoors, mindfulness courses and workshops and personal coaching. For more information visit: www.greenspacecoaching.com