Rather than viewing coaching clients outdoors as coaching plus outdoors, we should work in alliance with nature, says Catherine Gorham
As the last waves of the ebbing tide lapped across the causeway in the morning sun, and Nature (which I capitalise intentionally when personifying) opened her arms to invite me and my participants on to St Mary’s Island on the North East coast, I was moved by the sheer beauty and magic of the location.
Since training in ecotherapy six years ago, I’ve been integrating this approach into my own coaching and supervision practice, whenever it’s appropriate. Along the way, I identified a myth among fellow practitioners that coaching clients outdoors is simply coaching + outdoors. My passion now is to dispel that myth, inviting others to experience first-hand the complexity and huge benefits of integrating nature in a tripartite alliance – client, coach and Nature (Berger & McLeod, 2006) while being aware of the important risks to be managed in order to maintain psychological safety.
When a fellow coach suggested her local lighthouse at Whitley Bay, I immediately knew this was the perfect spot for my next experiential masterclass on Nature as Dynamic Co-Partner. While considering the gift that a tidal causeway offers practitioners as a transition tool, symbolising a threshold between one experience and another, I was drawn to the concept of ‘liminal space’. Ironically, my Google search produced an example of a physical liminal space as a non-functioning lighthouse – ‘Without a light, a lighthouse provides no function’ (http://bit.ly/3auvZCM).
In the case of our workshop, the lighthouse provided the perfect oasis away from the buffeting wind to create a safe container for our work together – the circular space inviting us to hold each other energetically. The eight participants represented a mix of modalities, including a leadership coach, an art therapist and a holistic health coach. This mix enabled rich experiences in the pair work.
I started by setting the context, explaining that the workshop represents the acceptance of an invitation from Nature, not us using Nature, thereby softening our entry into the natural landscape. The experiential day was designed around the 3 Cs, my core principles for integrating with nature: Contracting, Connecting and Containing.
Contracting: It was important to contract for the unpredictability of the dynamic environment, whether human or ‘more than human’ (in ecotherapy terms).
Connecting: Participants were invited to connect with layers of self – like the layers of the rocks – enquiring into their personal historical and current relationship with nature, staying curious as to which parts of themselves as practitioner would be more easily accessible outdoors (eg, Free Child ego state) and what that might mean for other parts, and their clients.
Participants reported this had been a profound experience, highlighting how working in alliance with Nature can quickly enable us to touch on some very precious aspects of our identity, whether as practitioner or client.
Containing: This includes consideration of the most appropriate holding environment with a particular client in a given moment. Participants coached each other in pairs, experimenting with different options offered by the landscape, while attuning to the corresponding variation in somatic impact of locality and proximity.
For example, sitting together in an exposed area of the rocks looking out to sea versus focusing in on a small rock pool, standing on the promenade above the causeway and viewing the whole landscape, and using existing structures such as the lighthouse wall, to symbolise a frame for the work with the participant being coached, feeling their back literally supported or protected.
Participants recognised their own preferences as practitioner and how these would need to be held with awareness to enable a focus on the service of the client, for example, the vastness of the horizon may invite infinite possibilities, representing the perfect support for a creative thinking style, but a client may need to start with a more contained space to make sense of the enquiry first.
There was fascination in the shared experience of the hide behind the lighthouse (positioned to watch the seals, so only whispering was allowed!): the intimacy of sitting together in the dark and watching a framed view with the external stillness having the effect of simultaneously inviting an inner stillness. This intimacy might be broken at any point of course by the arrival of other visitors and such risks must be included in the contracting.
The hide also offered a felt sense of separation from the enquiry as the practitioner in the exercise witnessed their ‘client’ projecting their story and emotional attachment onto the expanse of rocks and the seals basking in the sun.
The dynamic quality of working outdoors means we’re forced to confront our edges much more frequently than if we were working indoors, both as practitioner and client, partly because the environment is less easy to control. In this particular setting, there was a risk of slipping on the seaweed, or one person being colder than the other, and the evidence of our own heightened vulnerability in the moment offers an experience of mutual authenticity, and therefore, intimacy, beyond that apparent or accessible in most coaching and therapy conducted indoors.
Whatever our niche as coaches, psychological safety is part of our business. Emotions can come to the surface more quickly when we’re outdoors. Without physical structures or solid boundaries to contain these, it’s vital to assess in an introductory session whether a client has sufficient capacity to self-regulate around their own emotional processing before taking them outdoors.
Even so, any client can be taken aback by the power of sudden emotions arising and, in instances of emotional dysregulation, sensory connecting can be helpful for grounding, such as touching the pebbles, walking on the sand, noticing the intricate texture of the seaweed, hearing the seagulls. Some participants were reminded of their tendency to focus on the visual and the advantages of broadening to include the other senses in their work with clients, becoming more mindful of individual preferences.
Gifts of nature
Planning the workshop on the north east coast, I was inevitably asked by colleagues, “What will you do if the weather’s bad?” While my glib answer was, “that’s part of the work”, of course I was relieved when I saw sunshine, and several participants shared my relief.
However, none of us had prepared for the cold wind and yet that too became a tool, helping us notice our personal points of physical contact with the natural world and reminding us to soften the boundaries between the inner and the outer. In one exercise, a participant taking the role of client felt “cleansed by the wind”, blowing her emotions away up the coast.
My pre-workshop briefing had advised everyone to come prepared for all weathers and if it had been raining we would have noticed the impact – maybe in terms of our internal physical contracting – and spent more time in the lighthouse with the contrasting sense of ease, modelling how a connection to nature can be established indoors with a client, working with the views.
The natural world offers us infinite gifts in the moment as practitioners, whether that be metaphors and their relationships to each other in the system, close and distant perspectives, sensory experiences – the yacht suddenly coming into view, the ripples of the wind on the water, the oyster catchers landing,
During the workshop, at 14:32 to be precise, the tide turned and I invited participants to feel the change in energetic force from pulling away to being drawn towards. What might those forces represent in a client’s system?
One of the learnings shared at the end of the day was not to feel overwhelmed by what’s available – less is more – thus retaining the sense of spaciousness that can be more immediately accessible by working this way.
After an outdoor session, clients must manage their transition back indoors. They are usually keen to retain their felt sense of attachment to an object on to which they have projected a relationship or issue. So they sometimes take a symbolic pebble or a photo as a useful anchor between sessions.
Participants had experienced the lighthouse as a safe space to return to and so when we were in our closing circle among the rocks, I asked them what wisdom the lighthouse with a 360 degree view of the landscape might offer them as supervisor for their own practice with nature going forward.
One coach expressed gratitude for the fortitude of the lighthouse and how that would anchor her in her practice.
As the lapping waves approached the causeway, we took leave of our holding container on the island and let nature take her expansive space once again. The participants left with a personal intention to deepen their connection with nature, including incorporating her as a co-partner in their own supervision. I left with appreciation in my heart for the privilege of this work and the special place we’d shared.
- Catherine Gorham is accredited as senior practitioner coach and supervisor, EMCC and fellow, CIPD. The core principle of her private practice is psychological safety for individuals, groups and teams. Her training in ecotherapy was a spiritual experience as Nature’s offer to be her co-partner felt profound; she now shares her passion with other practitioners through masterclasses and specialist individual and supervision.
What participants said
It has been a wonderful day. The theoretical framework, together with the phenomenological experience, has helped in my understanding and feeling of the power of this work. Jane Kennington
A wonderful introduction to appreciating nature and her role in exploring whatever we need to move forward together. Duncan O’Brien
The workshop was beautifully facilitated. Catherine sharing her knowledge and experience of working with nature as a partner in coaching. Real experience and learning of practice with attendance to ethical practice and psychological safety of the client. Ruth Leggett
The session enabled a profound enlightenment as to the power of nature within the coaching context. Where it had previously provided a pleasant but passive backdrop for me to work and be with clients, I now have techniques which will facilitate my coachees to relate to their area of enquiry using the dynamic force of nature and ensure they feel safely contained within the chosen outdoor space. Diane Johnson
- R Berger and J McLeod, ‘Incorporating Nature into Therapy: A Framework for Practice’, in Journal of Systemic Therapies, 25(2), June, pp80-94, 2006
- See also: https://www.coaching-at-work.com/2015/04/11/lets-get-outside/