Art works beyond words, offering a powerful way to create shift in coaching, reports
Anna Sheather in the last of a two-part series on working with art in coaching
One of the most powerful aspects of coaching and one of its great joys is witnessing the moment of transformational shift in our clients; those moments when everything falls into place for them. I also believe it is one of the main reasons why people come to coaching: looking for the ‘magic’ that will bring about the success they are seeking.
Through my own research and practice I’ve discovered that using art is a powerful and extraordinary way of creating shift. I’ve found that using art allows us to work beyond words, connecting our clients to a much deeper level of personal awareness, understanding and meaning, and it’s this deeper level of connection that brings transformational shift. It’s memorable, metaphorical and change making.
When I talk about art in coaching I don’t mean creating masterpieces and there’s no requirement to be able to draw or consider oneself creative. Here, art is imagery made visible and tangible through line, colour, shape and form.
It’s imagery that is drawn, painted, collaged or sculpted and has personal meaning to the person who created it. It’s about personal expression – we can all do this. As one coach said in a workshop, “I didn’t feel I could be artistic and it was a revelation how much I got from just a few scribbles – understanding the power of just putting something down on paper and not thinking in words.”
At this point you may be experiencing a reaction to the word ‘art’. It’s a word that seems to polarise people into one of two reactions: either one of highbrow unreachable art, where you have to be an accomplished artist to contemplate using art in your practice, or one of childish fun, messing around and playing, which doesn’t have a serious or credible place in professional coaching.
If this sounds like you, I invite you to hold your reactions with curiosity as, whenever I talk to coaches about using art in coaching, they share amazing transformational stories. Stories they believe would not have come about just through talking. These stories are told with energy and enthusiasm. There is surprise, real excitement and wonder at the process and outcomes that follow.
I, too, have been amazed by the experiences of using art in my own practice and I’ve found that art creates shifts through:
- Allowing clients to externalise those things they find difficult to verbalise
- Enabling complexity and paradox to be held simultaneously, creating a safe and easier space to explore what can be frustrating and unsettling
- Allowing clients to connect with embodied emotions through the physical process of making art; emotions which can then be explored through the created image
- Unlocking hidden material quickly, fast tracking to the core issue and our work together
- Breaking out of thought loops and stuck ways of thinking
- Creating visual outputs that are memorable and ‘keepable’, enabling coach and client to return to them, exploring changes and uncovering emerging meanings, patterns and themes. Words, by contrast, can often be forgotten, misremembered and reshaped.
As one person experienced, “Normally I have to work quite hard to get through the analytic stage of unpicking [talking it through]. Making the image visible through art bypassed this, getting me straight to the issue without any disguise.”
Most importantly, I’ve realised art gives the non-speaking right brain a voice.
Art and the right brain
The moment of shift, understanding and awareness when our client just ‘knows’, is one of the most powerful outcomes of coaching. We now know this comes from the right brain when it sees it in its complexity and wholeness. It’s sometimes described as the ‘Aha!’ moment.
However, in our left brain biased world we have a tendency to devalue these moments of knowing because we find it difficult to articulate and rationalise them. One reason for this is that vocalised speech is managed by the left brain, while the right brain is dependent on the left to speak for it.
The left brain is logical and rational, breaking down what it knows into categorised units and therefore may not be able to explain what the right brain just knows. It doesn’t have the words. We may experience this when our clients say things like, “I just don’t know how to describe it”; “I can tell you what it isn’t” or “I just know”. However, the right brain is also the master of non-verbal communication and metaphor, and using art in coaching gives the right brain a voice.
This voice is important for our clients. Reading around the research into the right brain and in particular McGilchrist (2012), I believe the right brain has many ways of being that contribute to transformational shifts and are important for our clients to access. In particular, the right brain is where all new experiences are perceived first before being passed on to the left brain.
The right brain experiences the world through our bodies as it does our emotions. It gives emotional value to what we experience, attending to unconscious emotional processing. The right brain also maintains narratives and is where we retain a coherent and continuous unified sense of self. It’s comfortable with paradox and complexity, making leaps of insight based on patterns, hunches, feelings and visual images. The right brain has a willingness to suspend judgements and deduces rather than reaches logical, linear conclusions. It’s in this space that the right brain can come to the fore, that shifts occur.
By using art in coaching we reach the non-verbal, unconscious parts of our client’s internal world, and the physical activity of making art connects our clients to their embodied emotions.
The process of creating enables them to externalise the whole issue in all its complexity. By doing so we give them the space to start talking, reflecting and describing what is going on for them, unlocking the hidden and holding paradox. When we do this well, our client talks spontaneously, using right brain words. If they don’t know what it means that’s okay as meaning will emerge later.
If you use metaphor in your work and talk these through with your client, I encourage you to expand it into image making, capturing the metaphorical image as a drawing, painting, collage or sculpture.
I remember observing an art-based coaching session where the person being coached was working through something that was causing some frustration. While he was making his image, he paused and then picked up a blue crayon saying, “I don’t know why I am picking up this blue crayon.” He then started to make energetic abstract scribbles on one side of his paper and said, “There isn’t any blue here”, looking at a different space on his paper, “I need blue over here, I don’t know why, I just need some blue over here”. He then started to make some tentative abstract blue marks in another area of his paper.
As he continued making the blue marks and talking about what he was doing he said: “Blue is values, this is values and we need these values in here.”
The paper held the complexity and frustration of what he was feeling, enabling him to express it using visual language and explore it in a safe contained space. This then allowed his own personal meaning to emerge in its own time.
This is one of many examples that demonstrates how art deepens and enriches our conversations, often fast tracking to the core of the issue in a single session.
Through the image making and exploration process we are also, and very importantly, able to bring both sides of the brain together. Exploration moves between right and left brain as greater self-awareness and understanding grows and personal meaning becomes conscious.
Once the shift has happened and is conscious, our clients can actively do something with it. Sometimes this happens in a right brain just knowing way, and other times it comes through verbal coaching and left brain reasoning.
Art brings the left and right brain together as it maintains everything in its context, holding it all within the image made visible and tangible, enabling our client to see the whole picture. We hold the space through the image that visibly sits between coach and client.
As a coach who paints, I firmly believe that art has an important role in coaching as it deepens and enriches our coaching conversations, creating transformational shifts in a way that pure verbal coaching cannot.
Art is a form of communication that pre-dates written and verbal language. Human beings have been using it for tens of thousands of years to communicate our place in the world; our ideas, feelings and perceptions. It’s been used in psychology and therapy since the early 1900s to bring about transformational emotional healing and as a powerful way of communicating.
Using art in coaching is an extraordinarily powerful way of working with our clients. If you have been able to hold your reactions to ‘art’ with curiosity I hope I have shifted that curiosity and encouraged you to explore further.
- Anna Sheather runs Art in Coaching workshops for coaches who would like to explore and develop this as part of their practice
Case study: ‘A’s critical parent ego
‘A’ had become aware of the impact that her critical parent ego was having on her wellbeing and satisfaction with her work and life. ‘A’ had talked about it many times and knew it logically and to some extent emotionally. However, ‘A’ was making little progress in shifting her responses to these internal forces.
While talking about this area, ‘A’ was invited to draw it. As she drew the picture, which emerged intuitively as she talked, this physical process connected her to deep emotional responses and the overwhelming power of her critical parent ego in a way that words had not allowed her to. This experience created a transformational shift in ‘A’s understanding and perspective and she felt she could deal with it immediately.
Now, just by recalling the image in her mind, ‘A’ has been able to free herself of (in her own words) the strangulation (serpent entwining) and oppression (she has drawn herself with a flat head, and expressed this through the downward marks from the serpent’s head) of her critical parent. The image linked ‘A’ to her embodied feelings and emotions that her critical parent created in her, allowing her to make the shift.
Working with the art in coaching
There are four stages for us to consider when working with art in coaching:
- Creating the right space: providing the space and approach to allow images to present themselves to our client’s inner eye
- The physical environment
- How we contract and introduce art-based working, building trust in the process
- How we manage the space to allow our clients to quieten the left brain and work at a deeper level
- Ensuring that we use this approach with clear purpose and intent
- Making art – the creation of the image
- Providing a choice of materials for our clients to express themselves in whatever way they choose
- Making sure we have given enough time for image making
- Discovering meaning: working alongside our client to facilitate their understanding and meaning of their image
- Exploring both the process of image making and the image itself
- Taking a person-centred approach, holding up a mirror with curiosity
- Managing ourselves in the space, not putting our own reflections in the mirror either through judging or interpreting
- Building a bridge between our client and their externalised image
- Coaching the outcome – as the issue emerges and our client is clear about the area they want to work on, we can then move to coaching
When thoughts are pushed aside, spontaneous images can emerge: symbolic aspects of the self, in need of recognition – Liesl Silverstone, Art Therapy: The Person-Centred Way (Jessica Kingsley, 1997)
One of the great benefits of working with art is that hidden themes can start to emerge, adding richness and depth to coaching conversations. In the example above, the heart motif became a recurring image in their work and had significant meaning for them.
Most images created by clients are abstract pieces of work where the colour, textures, mediums and marks made become the language that allows the hidden to come through. In this example, the use of the dark charcoal in contrast to watercolour paint enabled this person to start talking safely about differences and conflicts they were feeling, but not fully conscious of, in a particular situation.
- C A Malchiodi, The Art Therapy Sourcebook, McGraw-Hill Education, 2006
- I McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, Yale University Press, 2012
- L Silverstone, Art Therapy: The Person-Centred Way, Jessica Kingsley, 1997