Pillars for Coaching in Socially-Turbulent Times by Larissa Conte (guest)
2016 was a tumultuous year across all fronts—politically, ecologically, socially, economically—and 2017 is poised to be similarly ripe with turbulence and great change. In this global and social context,
What is the role of coaching and the contribution of our field?
How can we support individuals and teams to grow into their potential and be agents of change, while also taking steps in our work to affect larger, positive social change?
Following the U.S. election of Donald Trump as president, I shared a rich conversation with the good coach’s incisive and wonderful, Yvonne Thackray, about these questions and my approach to showing up now as a coach. In general, I believe we’re here, as coaches, to hold space, create clarity, and offer practices for our clients to grow into their greatest selves. So how does our practice shift or evolve to meet these times?
I call upon the following pillars for myself and with my clients to more effectively navigate and positively contribute in these times. Interestingly, the core principles are the same for both coach and client.
Prioritize your foundation of self-care
Make space to process what’s going on
Learn about change, uncertainty, and fear to better surf the waves
Be curious about your biases and blindspots
Take a stand for what you believe in
Find your leverage points, prioritize, and act
In addition to outlining dynamics or approaches for each pillar below, I share illustrative stories from my experience applying these pillars (in italics) to more closely align my coaching practice with a socially-relevant business model for these times.
1. Prioritize your foundation of self-care
The night of the U.S. presidential election, I went to bed prior to the winner being announced because the outcome, while not final, seemed clear and I was exhausted. I’d been holding space for great anxiety amongst my U.S. and international clients in the days leading up to the election and had very intense feelings of my own. I knew if I was going to be of help to anyone the next day or the rest of the week, I’d need to connect to my foundation and resources, amongst which sleep is primary.
The same was true for my clients in the days after the election. I realized this as every single one of them expressed energetic turmoil and emotional exhaustion. I encouraged them to prioritize sleep, minimize media consumption until they could feel centered, and created a visualization for them that served as an antidote to the internal tornado they were experiencing.
Why? I strongly believe in self-care as the foundation for effective change, since it directly influences our health, growth, and leadership. If we aren’t taking care of ourselves, we can’t possibly show up well for others. That’s why I champion self-care and inner listening from the outset of each client relationship, and hold it as critical to my own business success. Whether in times of calm or great change, our self-care routines are the foundation that ground and nourish us. They act as both anchors and wellsprings, and we need routines on all levels—physical, emotional, mental, spiritual—that fill our well and allow us to show up. When the seas of life are stormy, self-care helps create an inner calm from which we can meet and best navigate the outer storm.
On a deeper level, the practice of self-care and the listening that’s required to create alignment in our own beings allows us to have deft skill at perceiving misalignments and key leverage points in systems. We need this skill as coaches, of course, but all of us need this at this time as our systems—social, political, ecological, etc.—are evolving to address the different friction points and misalignments that are threatening the health of our systems as a whole.
To me, it seems that if we are to make great strides collectively, we must make individual strides toward internal alignment by no longer choosing to abuse ourselves or ignoring what we most need.
2. Make space to process what’s going on
After going to bed on November 8th, I woke up in the middle night, heard that Donald Trump had won, and went outside to sit under the stars. Being inside felt too small to hold all that I was feeling. It happened to be a clear night in San Francisco, and I sat on the roof for 2.5 hours bearing witness to the massive emotions roaring through my heart. I not only felt myself, but the city, the country, the upset and tensions in the human collective, Life and the Earth, the arc of history, the mystery . . . It was a lot to feel.
The heart, I’d recently learned through personal experiences, is an organ of sensation rather than an organ of action. Much like a riverbed, the heart is meant to let the river of emotions flow through the act of feeling. And so I sat there feeling everything—tension and all—knowing that (1) I wouldn’t be able to be of significant service until I’d tended to my own feelings and (2) clarity on what to do or how to take action would arise in the ebb of the emotional tide.
Living at this time brings up so many feelings. The constant stream of stories about war, injustice, cruelty, death, innovation, art, brilliance, survival, triumph, etc. are coming faster than humanity has ever had access to. Often, faster than we can digest and incorporate in our beings. This can be profoundly overwhelming, and sometimes we don't want to feel because opening up to all of this—truly letting it in—can feel like we're going to drown because the feelings are so strong. The downside of choosing to be numb, though, is that the feelings accumulate and are more difficult to access and release, the longer we let them stagnate.
That’s why we, as coaches, can play such an important role for our clients by regularly giving them a space to pause, feel, and process how they’re being affected by larger events. We can also ask them, “How else are you making space to process in your life?” since we are not always available for them.
We also need to prioritize such space for ourselves, whether it’s with our own coaches, therapists, colleagues, friends, or family. I make this space for myself through regular 1:1 check-ins with colleagues and friends, and am beginning to convene a regular circle for colleagues to feel and process together in this New Year.
I’ve also been asking myself, “How can I hold space for wider circles of society in meaningful ways?”
3. Learn about change, uncertainty, and fear to better surf the waves
As I sat under the stars that evening, I could feel fear in the big field and its impulse to rise up in me. But I’ve experienced the damaging effects of allowing fear in my consciousness and body, so I held an acute awareness to not let it take root. Instead I watched the impulse and breathed through it, opening back up into the feeling, into my center, and into not knowing what the future holds.
While the exact details of each new event or moment of change differ, there are underlying patterns and principles that, when understood, make navigating change and the mystery much easier. Here are some of the patterns I’ve experienced humans having in relationship to change, uncertainty, and fear.
Change makes us present to the uncertainty and mystery of life, and always poses a great opportunity to grow and learn as we encounter new circumstances. It shakes up the illusion that we are in control and have any idea what is going on. This can be exciting and ripe territory to grow, but it can also be uncomfortable, destabilizing, and generate an impulse to latch onto something concrete. Interestingly, fear often fills this role.
Fear distracts us from feeling our feelings or being present to the bigness of the mystery because it focuses in on a very specific point and just ping-pongs around the field of our awareness. Fear is a very, very small aperture and the payoff we get from it is that we don't have to look at the big picture. We don't have to look at or feel the complexity, intensity, or the overwhelming, crushing reality that we have no idea what's going to happen. There’s something in humans that really can’t stand not knowing, so we have a strong incentive to distract from the reality of the mystery. But the cost is that fear delays the digestion of feelings, it clouds our vision, and it cripples our creativity. In my own experience, fear also palpably poisons the health of my body.
It’s a subtle position to find the place of realistic honesty about the state of things, not be naive about where certain aspects of the tide may go, and also hold an optimistic and committed perspective for the greater good. Ultimately, I believe in the possibility that we can find our way forward together. I shared these perspectives on change, fear and the mystery with my clients the next day and in the weeks after as relevant and they felt empowered by knowing why we give into fear and how we can reorient our awareness to a creative, grounded place.
4. Be curious about your biases and blindspots
As coaches, we’re trained to dance with the fact that each person has a subjective (aka limited) experience of reality, we each adopt unique behaviors and biases based on our beliefs about reality, and we each carry blindspots about ourselves and the nature of things. Basically, we make a living off of helping people see their limiting beliefs and blindspots and learning to grow beyond them based on our own life experience.
I think we have a great responsibility as coaches to own our own biases and limitations, and how they impact those we serve. To see the ways we’re limited in what we can offer and the ways in which we are divisive, judgemental, adversarial, uneducated, or closed. It’s tough work, but feels utterly necessary if we are to be effective guides in helping others examine and live beyond their shadows.
In addition to leaning more into helping my clients examine their blind spots and limiting beliefs about the collective, I’ve been more curious about how to leverage these skills more broadly for society and ever more deeply in my own self-examination. Especially as societal events arise, I’ve been asking myself:
Who do I think I am? What’s my concept of myself as a participant in the collective?
How am I racist, classist, gender normative, xenophobic, etc.? How do I other or separate from people?
How am I using my skills and privilege, and for whom?
How is my self-concept or my commitment to human thriving as a coach mis/aligned with my other beliefs and behaviors?
What’s required for me to own, feel, learn, and do, so I can be a more effective agent of healing?
I believe that so much of the work right now is about,
Recognizing where and how we’re fractured,
Listening into those divides and shadows with curiosity,
Asking what’s required to evolve to more life-supportive patterns, and
Understanding the interrelatedness between the individual and collective levels.
It's brutally uncomfortable to delve into this territory, and yet it’s required for evolution. It’s also part of the gift we as coaches can contribute—holding space to encounter and learn from personal shadows and our collective shadows.
5. Take a stand for what you believe in
After some sleep, my night vigil, and grounding the morning after the election, I knew I was in a place to give to others on a day when many in the country, and around the world had heavy hearts. On that day, at that time, emotional support felt like the most critical thing to give. I wanted to give people a sense of love and fellowship in an immediate way, especially those who had been most targeted by Donald Trump’s slurs and threats and those who’ve already been in the long fight for civil rights who were feeling exhausted looking at the road ahead.
Living in San Francisco’s Castro neighbourhood—one of the first gay neighbourhoods in the U.S.—I was inspired to run down to the morning commute trains wearing a t-shirt I made that said “Free Hugs.” I stood there for 2.5 hours offering everyone who walked by a hug. About half of the people ignored me or acknowledged me and politely declined. But the other half either softly stepped into the offer or walked directly to me through the crowd. Each hug differed in its tone—some hopeful and light with a laugh saying, "I totally need a hug today," while others collapsed into my arms with sobs and the heaviness of grief. Some were brief and guarded, while others stretched into a deep embrace. Some said, "We're going to be OK," and others lamented in great despair. A gorgeous spectrum of people—gay, straight, Black, Latino, Asian, White, women, men, disabled, mostly adults, and one baby.
Feeling all these hearts, meeting all these hearts as I hugged each person was a profoundly moving experience. Each heart, whatever it held in it was beautiful and I could feel the strength, goodness, love and beauty that connects us all. All told, I hugged about 175 people and shared the story with my online community, which cascaded its own wave of impact.
One of the great gifts of our feelings is that they reveal to us our values and inspirations. When we are so moved internally, it can cause us to act externally. These times we live in ask for each of us to stand for what we believe in. As a coach, as one who stands for the potential of each individual, I stand for the potential of all individuals, all of life. So I am communicating this ever more clearly in my practice and how I choose the business I take, in addition to the actions I take in my personal life.
6. Find your leverage points, prioritize, and act
Ultimately, we have limited energy and there’s only so much we can do to affect change. On top of that, the current arc of change seems to be more akin to a marathon than a sprint, so being strategic with our energy and focus is key. Given this, how does one prioritize which actions to take?
I asked myself this question a few days after the election, focusing on how to best leverage my networks and involvement with them, since collective intelligence seems crucial to address these never-before-encountered challenges on our plate. These four guiding principles seemed key for my strategic action:
Leverage your strengths
Connect with allies working in the same space to fortify best practices
Connect with allies working in different spaces to cross-pollinate efforts and teach each other
Choose 1-3 networks/circles to invest in
Then I identified six main circles that connect to my gifts and passions and narrowed down to the following three:
Coaches and healers
Cross-sector change makers who share a common community connection
Heart-centered business allies
In convening these circles, the next steps I outlined were:
Issue the invitation to potential circle members or accept another’s invitation
Agree on the purpose of the circle
Get clear on how involved each person wants to be and in what role
Start prototyping and experimenting together to see what's possible
Evolve from there
With my clients, many of them experienced a swirling of indecision about what to do after the election and where to direct their energy. I helped them focus and prioritize with the following questions:
Based on your skills and your position in life, what can you do to be the most effective lever for the change you wish to see?
What are your strengths that you can lean into to really leverage? Yes, we all need to grow right now, and it's also a time to use your strengths.
What’s next? Getting involved across scales
Many of our opportunities for learning right now seem to be about how we take care of the self while being a contributing participant in the collective. This doesn’t mean subsuming the self into the collective, but rather holding awareness and a sense of accountability for our individual bodies and beings, as well as the collective body. We get to learn how health and thriving on different levels interrelate.
There are massive imbalances in our social and ecological body right now with so many points to intervene. It’s as if we’ve had a shared quadruple bypass globally. Now we get to look at where the blockages exist and try to create the connections that lead to greater flourishing. The complexity of challenges before us are beyond any one person’s capacity to solve, so we must work together to find a way that isn’t yet clear.
Yes, turbulence is intense and can be exhausting and full of loss. But it is also ripe with creative opportunity and movement that emerges into the space created by the shedding. May we each use our best skills and listening to discover a way forward that works for the whole.
How do we do that?
How can we not be adversarial whilst at the same time not being be naïve?
How can we learn from each others’ perspectives, and ask what none of us have considered yet?
To connect with Larissa Conte, firstname.lastname@example.org
Larissa is a leadership coach and rites of passage guide through her business, Wayfinding. She teaches leaders to navigate from their deep listening into greater alignment by blending ten years of experience in leadership coaching, culture consulting, ecosystems science, ceremony design and facilitation, and holistic healing.
Larissa’s offerings range from 1:1 coaching and leadership circles to nature-based rites of passage and leadership qigong. All of her work is designed to help clients foster integrity through inner listening, embody their authentic leadership style, and navigate from their center, so they can more skillfully serve as stewards of creative energy. She’s worked with hundreds of leaders across the Fortune 100 and startups and is based in San Francisco.