The planet is calling: James Farrell and Diana Tedoldi share their approach for coaching with nature in response to personal and global crises
One of the unexpected impacts of the pandemic for many of us has been the rediscovery of nature.
Many people have had more time to observe the weather and seasons, and experience birdsong anew. Local greenspaces now seem more precious than ever. And recent surveys bear it out: 57% of people feel part of nature, and 45% have visited a local greenspace more than twice a week (Natural England, 2021).
What if we could nurture this nature-connectedness among ourselves, our clients, our communities? What if being nature-connected wasn’t separated from coaching practice, but an integrated part of teachings; valued and embodied by all of us in the coaching experience?
Coaching with nature rests on the concept of ‘biophilia’ – coined by Erich Fromm (1973) to mean “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.” Developed as a hypothesis by Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson, and his colleague at Stanford, professor Stephen Kellert (Kellert & Wilson, 1993), much has now been evidenced through scientific research.
Unfortunately, many communities and societies are falling out of love with nature, or have yet to find the spark in the first place. Some 83% of British children don’t know what a bumblebee looks like (Statista, 2019). Thirty per cent of adults surveyed in England in January 2021 had not spent any time in a greenspace in the previous 14 days, while15% had not visited any greenspaces in the previous month (Natural England, 2021). Moreover, there is a lack of equity: minority ethnic communities are twice as likely not to have locally accessible green space (Friends of the Earth, 2020), and it’s even worse for younger, poorer, and more urban citizens.
There are serious consequences – put simply, a lack of access to local green space may kill you. Research in the Netherlands showed that people living further than one kilometre from nature are more likely to suffer from 15 serious diseases, including depression and heart disease (Maas et al, 2009). The cost to the NHS of managing related conditions is £62 billion per year, with the cost to wider society in the UK estimated at £184 billion per year (Public Health England, 2020).
Earth’s ecosystems are suffering too. In the UK, 68% of wildlife has been lost since 1970 (www.org.uk) and 33% of species are at risk globally (www.iucnredlist.org). According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), as ecosystems are disrupted, the risk of human exposure to zoonoses and lethal pandemics like Covid-19 increases (OECD, 2020). Clearly, change is needed, and fast.
Working with nature in coaching is one way we can own this change. To be part of a process that enables people to respond to global and individual crises. To enhance our coaching practice, and to provide life-enhancing benefits for ourselves and our clients. The real kicker is that we protect what we love: nature-connected people are up to twice as likely to take action for the planet (Pritchard et al, 2020).
Case study: Nature as provider
A recent client of James’ was a senior manager in the NHS, working through the pandemic, and seeking ways of avoiding burnout. Through the sessions, conducted by phone, the client identified her ‘people pleaser’ tendency, but was struggling to find ways to sustainably invest in herself.
A moment of awareness occurred when the client described her view – some hills, a lake, a church nestled on the shore, and an expansive sky. She realised that nature had been there the whole time as a resource – something that would always provide to her, as she did to others. She felt a sense of relief, and deep peace. She committed to being outside more, to actively notice the landscape, and connect with it as a means of solace and recharge.
Evidence base: healthier, happier, clearer thinking
Science shows that nature-connection offers huge benefits. Nature-connected people have improved self-esteem and personal growth (62.8% more likely to be higher; Barton & Pretty 2010), life satisfaction, happiness and positive outlook (up to 1.7 times greater; Pritchard et al, 2019). People in greenspaces have lower blood pressure, muscle tension, parasympathetic system activation, anger and aggression (Ulrich, 1981).
There are clear benefits for clear thinking, as just 25 minutes in nature activates the ‘default mode network’ of interconnected brain structures – leading to enhanced creativity and problem solving (Aspinall et al, 2015). There are increased opportunities for metaphor, awareness-raising sense and sensitivity. Body mirroring and step synchrony can enhance feelings of trust and cooperation (Launay, Dean & Bailes, 2013), and nature can further enhance trust by playing the role of a psychologically safe parent.
In fact, there are clear parallels between the five activities scientifically demonstrated to build nature-connection (beauty, meaning, emotion, compassion, contact; Lumber, Richardson & Sheffield, 2017), and the qualities of the coaching process.
In practice: Nature as partner
So is it enough to just take sessions outdoors and access nature’s magic? Well, yes and no.
Yes, because brain patterning happens over sensory input, and in a sensory-rich environment like a wood, a garden or a shore, you’re potentially more creative, innovative and capable of problem-solving than you might be indoors. No, because you won’t access the deeper benefits of nature-connectedness we’ve mentioned by just using nature as the background or ‘container’ of your coaching practice.
What creates a real shift in the deployment of one’s personal potential, is the intentional inclusion of nature as a partner in the coaching conversation. A co-coach. Here are some of the practices Diana has developed over the last two decades:
- Somatic and ecosomatic: embodied practices to connect with our somatic intelligence (the organic knowledge that belongs to our bodies and life), stopping thought rumination and accessing a state of full presence to ourselves. These practices are foundational and can also be facilitated indoors and online / by phone.
- Emotional, empathic, biophilic practices: awaken and cultivate a feeling of love, beauty, harmony and belonging with nature, and also connect with and modulate the inner emotional landscape.
- Cognitive: learn from nature, its strategies and solutions, by observation, study and understanding nature’s way and principles of natural life.
- Creative: singing, dancing, active music-making, writing, poetry and art to elaborate insights, learning, intuition, and deeply connect with natural elements.
- Metaphoric and symbolic: access the deeper transcultural, symbolic and archetypal power of natural elements and natural beings.
- Ecstatic and contemplative: open your state of consciousness, perception and awareness, nurturing ego-decentredness and accessing a broader sense of identity.
By using one or more of these practices, as needed, the coach becomes a facilitator of dialogue between inner and outer landscapes, enabling awareness, self-orientation, inspiration, understanding and regeneration.
Case study: Roots power for intergenerational conflict
Last year Diana was coaching an entrepreneur with anger towards his father, the company founder:
We decided to move our session outdoors, along the river. He felt curiosity about a plane tree, stopped for a few minutes of silent contemplation, then sat on the big roots emerging from the ground, in stillness and pure listening. A deep feeling of gratitude for the roots emerged, feeling how they ground the tree and its opportunities for growth and prosperity. He felt their roughness, and that somehow they were both comfortable and uncomfortable, just like his father. He articulated more thoughts around these similarities.
This shift in his awareness was the foundation for a new way to live in his relationship with his father. The encounter with the plane tree was often recalled in subsequent sessions, to anchor new perspectives and behaviour.
Change starts with you
As Leo Buscaglia said, “You can only give away what you have.” To interweave nature-connection in your coaching practice, you must first live a nature-connected life. Here are some ideas that are true to the essence of coaching:
- Set daily, weekly and monthly routines of reconnection with self and nature.
- Practise staying with nature, in a peaceful place you can visit regularly. Take your mind to your body and your body to the mind, noticing everything that you feel inside of you and around you. Start with just five minutes a day and gradually increase to 25-30 minutes to get maximum benefits.
- Make friends with a tree. Visit it regularly. Dedicate time to observing it and feeling it, trunk against trunk, in a comfortable posture. Feel its breath, be at one with it.
- Go for a meditative walk, slowing down to a rhythm that allows you to take in every single sensory input. Become transparent and silent. Walk in a way that feels like a massage, letting pleasure permeate every district of your body. Release tension, step after step.
- Bring challenging emotions into a dialogue with nature. The next time a strong feeling takes you out of alignment, go to a natural place and ask your body to find a spot where you’ll let your attention sink into contemplation. When your mind is silent, ask the place if there’s anything it can teach you about the emotional issue you’re facing.
Coaching with nature is, like coaching itself, about love – a love which encompasses the wider ‘more than human world’ around us. Building a practice that includes nature is an opportunity to develop our ecosomatic intelligence: the natural ability to live, grow, adapt and evolve. By connecting ourselves and our clients more deeply to nature, we may catalyse new action for our planet – action we sorely need.
About the authors
- James Farrell is a chartered environmentalist and Associate Certified Coach (ACC-ICF). He is director of the Natural Coaching Company, founding partner at the Human Nature Partnership and operations manager at a Government agency.
- Diana Tedoldi is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC-ICF) and founder of The Nature Coaching Academy, where she teaches how to coach in connection with nature. She is also the co-founder of Biomimicry For Business.
For access to coaching, and free resources email:
James Farrell: email@example.com
Diana Tedoldi: firstname.lastname@example.org
Find out more
- Nature Coaching Network: https://bit.ly/2THEqWp
- Natural Coaching Company: https://bit.ly/2TDFCdJ
- The Nature Coaching Academy: https://bit.ly/35wESti
- P Aspinall et al, ‘The urban brain: analysing outdoor physical activity with mobile EEG’, in British Journal of Sports Medicine, 49(4), 2015
- J Barton and J Pretty, What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis, in Environ. Sci. Technol.,
- Friends of the Earth, England’s green space gap: How to end green space deprivation in England report, 2020
- E Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973
- The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: www.iucnredlist.org
- S R Kellert & E O Wilson (Eds), The Biophilia Hypothesis, Island Press/Shearwater Books, 1993
- J Launay, R T Dean and F Bailes, ‘Synchronization can influence trust following virtual interaction’, in Exp Psychol., 60(1), 2013
- R Lumber, M Richardson and D Sheffield, ‘Beyond knowing nature: Contact, emotion, compassion, meaning, and beauty are pathways to nature connection’, in PLoS ONE, 12(5), 2017
- J Maas et al, ‘Morbidity is related to a green living environment’, in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 63, 2009
- Natural England, People and Nature Survey for England Experimental Statistics, April 2020 – January 2021
- OECD, Biodiversity and the economic response to COVID-19: Ensuring a green and resilient recovery, 2020
- A Pritchard et al, ‘The relationship between nature connectedness and eudaimonic well-being: A meta-analysis,’ in Journal of Happiness Studies, 3, 2020
- Public Health England, Improving access to greenspace: A new review for 2020. UK Government: https://bit.ly/3vvEYMp
- Statista, ‘British children struggle to name common wildlife and plants’, 14 August 2019 https://bit.ly/35vLbgY
- R S Ulrich, ‘Natural versus urban scenes: Some psychophysiological effects’, Environment & Behaviour, 13 (5), 1981