We Are Not OK

Alison Whybrow


We Are Not OK

Alison Whybrow

How do you coach your clients to function ethically in the face of our disintegrating climate and ecology? Regenerative coaching is essential for a disrupted world, but how do we bring it into the room? Dr Alison Whybrow explains

Imagine the scenario, one where you’re partnering your coaching client, really aligning to their journey as they step forward to enhance the productivity of their organisation.

You’re focused on the path in front, just a couple of steps in front, next quarter, perhaps two quarters, maybe with one eye on the medium term, two to five years. You’ve worked in this industry for a number of years, then a colleague shares that there’s a disruptor on its way.

It’ll change the face of the industry and your client’s business. It’s likely to destroy their business, their livelihood and the livelihoods of all their employees. Their employees won’t have the necessary skills in the face of this disruptor; they’ll find it hard to find work in a shrinking, ultra-competitive space.

You’re deeply aware of this disruptor, you know it’s certain; the only uncertainties are the speed and scale. You’re increasingly aware that all indicators point to complete blindness on the part of your client. What do you do? Do you share the knowledge that you have? Is that what a coach should do? Is it ethical to share your knowledge? Is it ethical not to?
Is it in your client’s interest and aligned with their agenda to share that knowledge? How would you raise their awareness?

I wonder. If you shared, then what might happen? You might do some interesting strategic mapping, support your client to develop a new focus and release a new energy. Or your client may choose to remain in denial.

If you’re struggling with that one, imagine a different picture, one where you’re about to cross the road with your client. Your client is about to step out in front of a truck or a bus. What would you do? Stand on the pavement in the safe knowledge that you were respecting the client’s choices and agenda? The client wanted to cross the road, right? Or do you take that instinctive human step and pull them back on to the pavement?

The disruptor here is our disintegrating climate and ecology. The earth’s ability to sustain life is retreating; it’s disappearing at a pace that’s terrifying. Despite the United Nations’ warnings back in 1987 about human impact on earth’s climate and the need to change course, carbon emissions have increased by a further 60% and show no reduction in pace. This is a global emergency, and business as usual – our much-treasured economic system – is at the heart of that breakdown, or as Naomi Klein (2014) puts it, “our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life”.

We are way beyond our planetary boundaries in terms of the health of our atmosphere, soils and water (Raworth, 2017). It’s not surprising that this continued overdraft on our planet’s systems is being called to account. Our survival isn’t guaranteed (eg, Bendell, 2018) and in the words of Joanna Macy (Macy & Johnstone, 2012), it never has been. We have a very, very short time to act.

Face that uncertainty and feel it. The reality is heartbreaking, it’s tragic and while the worst case scenario is still just about avoidable, it isn’t guaranteed.

What is our place in the face of this crisis?

How do we find that place? How do we hold it with humility, yet without hubris, with discrimination, yet without judgement? We’re part of the toxic system. We’ve helped create it and sometimes hastened it. Yet, we can play a role in the shift.

Part of that role as coaches is already one we are familiar with. We can coach those in NGOs, in the environmental movement, to coach the UN’s sustainable development goals. We can hold the space for sense-making and awareness raising for those who are ready to face the challenge and provide support for eco-anxiety and grief.

Examples include the work of Libby Davy, founder of Coaches for Climate Emergency, Charly Cox, founder, Climate Change Coaches and Zoe Cohen, of Climate Conscious Coaching.

There‘s a third space that might be more challenging to step into. How do we hold out the challenge of future environmental disruption for our clients to engage with when it isn’t part of their starting frame?

Our own stance in the debate about whether it is the coach’s place to bring the global emergency into the coaching space is for each of us to work out. Here’s my position: if the questions central to our existential crisis aren’t up for consideration in coaching conversations with those who systemically impact our ability to shift from an extinction to a life-giving pathway, then the frame of the coaching intervention isn’t big enough.

How do we put our natural systems at the heart of our coaching practice?

The focus of the current crisis enables us to step into a more explicit place, one pointed to by elders in our field for many years. As an example, Peter Hawkins has repeatedly drawn our attention to the issue that: “Coaching needs to become part of a much more urgent and important endeavour: the shift in collective human consciousness that our collective ecology is requiring from us as a species” (2015, pp.45-46).

Others have drawn attention to the importance of our natural environment for individual and even national wellbeing, for example, Stephen Palmer and the development of Eco-psychology approaches within coaching and coaching psychology practice (Palmer, 2015). Hetty Einzig brings this to the fore in her book, The Future of Coaching (2017).

There are many reasons why the coaching profession, coaches and coaching psychologists alike, as well as those working in the broader fields of leadership and system transformation, may be ideally placed to nurse the death of a degenerative human earth story, at the same time as being midwife to the birth of a new story.

Katharine Hayhoe (2019), a climate scientist speaking at London School of Economics in May this year, noted that it’s not the science that’s the game changer, but the ability to connect at a human to human level and have a shared dialogue about the things we value and care about, and about climate change and what we can individually and collectively do to have a positive impact. It’s not the message’s accuracy that’s important, but how the message is delivered and by whom.

Is the messenger someone who can be identified with from a values perspective? Is the messenger a trusted source? This echoes the work of Brick and van der Linden, who note, “Now that the physical science is clear, the fundamental problem of climate change is psychological” (2018, p.32).

It was part of Klein’s talk at the 2014 Bioneers conference in California that the lure of the technological fix, the great hero and an alternative planet to escape to “forestalls the real solution which will be in the hard, non-technical work of changing human behaviour”(Brower, 2010).

Being accepted, wherever we are on the spectrum of beliefs, ideas and action in relationship with our earth, is key to being empowered to move. The paradoxical theory of change (Beisser, 1970) holds that in order to transform from A to B, it’s first necessary to fully engage with A. That radical acceptance can help new possibilities come into view.

We have the skills, but what’s the frame?

My idea of regenerative coaching as a frame for this work emerged when studying Reed’s (2007) paper on regenerative design. Using this framework, ‘Green’ is the lowest level of response and defined as a relative improvement from business as usual. Much of the ‘greenwashing’ we have seen since 1990 and are now seeing more frequently, sits within this definition. For example, many pledges by organisations to move to renewable energy on or before 2050 might fit into this definition. It’s a step, but it’s not sufficient to make a difference to any future scenario.

Sustainable as a term is defined as 100% less bad, for example a binding government target, locking us into net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This again does nothing to restore the damage that will have been done by that point and will lead to future extinction. Restorative work, where humans engage in supporting nature, is a positive step in the right direction.

The most effective place to move to is a regenerative one. Regenerative is defined by Reed as “humans participating as nature – co-evolution of the whole system” (p. 676). This puts humans back in their rightful place. As nature, terrifically, painfully vulnerable, held by our earth.

Regenerative coaching, then, is an attractive label, although somewhat aspirational. How might we build a co-evolutionary coaching framework that facilitates our species to step into our place and align?

Breaking it down, regenerate means to create again. A regenerative system makes no waste; its output is equal to or greater than its input and part or all of this output goes towards creating further output. In other words, it uses as input what in other systems would become waste.

Regenerative coaching then might be considered as an approach with output or outcomes that enhance, build and create more opportunity for the evolution of life. Let’s think about some core outcomes that are often part of an individual coaching intervention: greater confidence, skills, success, progression, leadership growth and improved delegation. How would these be framed or achieved if they were also regenerative at their heart? At a team level, how might purpose, improved relationships and high performance be achieved in a regenerative frame?

Working with the senior team of a pharmaceutical company, using a set of assumptions from Future Agenda, an online open foresight initiative, and sense-making that translated the systemic impact of climate, technology, economic and social trends into practical future reality, the team transformed their company’s purpose from one that was focused on growth for investors to this: “We are passionate and committed to making our products globally available to enable patients to live and embrace life.”

This purpose encompasses a significant shift in access to healthcare products that are often inhibitively expensive to those in less well-off communities, and a shift from profit focus to impact focus. Yet still, the impact on our earth isn’t factored in. What might this purpose be if earth was factored in as the main stakeholder? As a key decision criteria? Not as a risk calculation, an offset, but right at the core?

The concept of regenerative design at multiple levels of the system offers the opportunity for coaching to focus the lens differently, taking in all that’s important rather than things we have paid attention to up to this point.

My working definition:
“Regenerative coaching is for enhancing the health of our biosphere and life-giving properties of our planet, underpinned by models of coaching, grounded in established and emerging approaches associated with adult and child learning, psychology, leadership, living systems thinking, ecology, ecosystems, economy and regenerative design.”

How to start

How do we bring the biosphere and the multiple crises into the room in order to then help people become aware, discover and operate? We have models and ideas building on the work of others. What if we put our planet at the heart of our contracting, and regeneration at the heart of practice?

To take the next step, to become deliberate about a regenerative approach, requires us to step into a deep vulnerability. Will we be thrown out? Will our colleagues ever speak to us again? The vulnerability we experience on multiple levels when we bring up something perceived as ‘out there’, when we admit we are a ‘deeper shade of green’ than might previously have been considered acceptable in regular business dealings.

But it feels more than that, it’s the vulnerability to step into the true nature of our humanity. To go against the centuries of human story that there’s a hero, that we will be saved, that we are god-like and powerful, that we can ‘save our earth’, when in fact, we need to save ourselves from our collective hubris.

It’s no wonder it’s easy for me to bring my skills to support the work of environmental groups, but I’ve struggled to bring the content and insight learned through my environmental work explicitly to my work in business. I’ve spoken to others who have almost separate identities for their environmental work and their business work – and I understand why.

As is usually the case, this vulnerability is unlikely to be something that only coaches, coaching psychologists and facilitators experience. It tugs at the heartstrings of the rules of belonging. Of our survival. Are we going to have to leave our well-loved identities and established groups behind if we start to talk about this stuff, I mean, really talk about this stuff? Really face what this means?

Our clients are likely to be experiencing this tension themselves. While recent events and focus on the climate crisis and biodiversity loss have made the topic more acceptable, having a meaningful dialogue and integrating this into work life, into a changed human story, is something that remains difficult and challenging to get started.

In addition, facing with humanity into the pain that’s been caused and continues to be created, is excruciating. It’s as if what we’ve witnessed and has been done with our blessing is so painful that it can’t be discussed,can’t be recognised.

It’s purposefully forgotten.

As coaches and coaching psychologists, to really start to work in this area, we need to bring together what we know about human flourishing, systemic complexity, leadership, learning, dialogue, organisational dynamics and regenerative design, reach down to our foundations as human beings and reach up to the edges of the biosphere. We need to acknowledge our own vulnerability and our own collusion, recognising we’re on the journey together with our clients. It’s highly likely we’re working it out in parallel. We have much to offer and much to learn.

We have the skills, but can we work this out and step into our vulnerabilities? As more and more of us step into this space, we’re starting to build the networks and conversations for us to work out what’s required as individuals and as a profession.

We need to learn from each other – and fast.

1 Definition (accessed 24 February, 2019) from the website: www.regenerative.com/what-is/regenerative-design


  • A R Beisser, ‘The paradoxical theory of change’, in J Fagan, & I L Shepherd, Gestalt Therapy Now, pp.77-80, New York: Harper Row, 1970
  • J Bendell, Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. Cumbria, UK: Institute of Leadership and Sustainability, 2018
  • C Brick and S van der Linden, ‘Yawning at the apocalypse’, in The Psychologist, 30-35, 2018, September
  • K Brower, ‘The danger of cosmic genius’, in The Atlantic, 27 October, 2010
  • H Einzig, The Future of Coaching: Vision, leadership and responsibility in a transforming world. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017
  • P Hawkins, Cracking the shell, in Coaching at Work, 10(2), 42-46, 2015
  • K Hayhoe, Changing the Climate Dialogue, London School of Economics. London, 16 May, 2019
  • N Klein, (2014). This Changes Everything. Speaking at the Bioneers conference. Accessed 21 September 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jdaxehd0cF0
  • S Palmer, ‘Can ecopsychology research inform coaching and positive psychology practice?’, in Coaching Psychology International, 8(1), 11-15, 2015
  • J R Macy and C Johnstone, Active Hope, New World Library, 2012
  • K Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist. London: Random House Books, 2017
  • B Reed, ‘Shifting from “sustainability” to regeneration’, in Building Research and Information, 674-680, 2007