Coaching from the top of mountains: how we choose an environment and transform it into a coaching space by Simon Darnton


I've always been interested in how we create the right coaching environment for our coachees and especially how we can use that space to add even more value to our work. This summer I had some experiences that have made me think differently about the coaching space.

Before I start, there are two distinct elements to the coaching environment that I want to differentiate.

  1. The first is the coaching or learning environment that is so commonly referred to in coaching education. This is what I call a figurative space; the kind of space we call things like 'thinking' space. It provides our coachees with a quality of space that isn't actually a physical or literal thing, but is nonetheless both meaningful and valuable.

  2. The second is the literal coaching environment, or more specifically, the physical environment.

Luckily for me, I have always received good feedback from clients that I am able to provide the space they need to think, question, and talk about things they wouldn't otherwise feel able to discuss. But the physical environment of coaching is of special interest to me. I love the aspect of coaching outdoors with my sports clients and one year I enjoyed spending a whole summer meeting an executive coaching client in various London parks. At the same time, however, I've always been niggled by how I end up doing executive coaching in the same kinds of environments. I follow the same old pattern. The pattern that is working in offices, meeting rooms, coffee shops, training rooms, my own study/garden office etc.

After my experiences this summer, the aspect of the physical environment in coaching is sitting quite uncomfortably because it has raised a new question for me about my coaching. This is because it is about the space *I* need as a coach and how I facilitate this for *my* benefit.

I appreciate this emphasis on my *self * as opposed to my *coachees* may not seem entirely apposite as in coaching the focus is usually on the space needed for a coachee. I've now become curious about how I enable this for *myself*.

So here is a little of my story.

In the middle of a session with a long-term client I was overcome with an urge toward movement. I just needed to move about. I was aware that this related to where we were at in coaching, but my sense went beyond a metaphor of movement. And so during the session I raised this and we discussed it, deciding mutually to have our next session as a moving one. We would each walk during the session, but we would do this remotely. I was at home in Bath so I decided that I would walk the Bath Skyline. My client was in Spain and he found a beach along which he walked.

I found the experience of this remote walking session really refreshing and it was very different from the times I'd walked with clients during sessions, like round a park or a race circuit with a motorcycle racer. Whilst the walk did provide movement within the coaching umbrella, both literally and figuratively speaking, I also noticed some other things. At certain points of the discussion I had to stop and sit down because I couldn't concentrate enough on the conversation while I was moving. Each time I needed to stop, however, I searched for a location with wonderful views (and somewhere to comfortably perch myself). I found I was using these views to help me think, formulate my questions and statements. I suspect that I must have used the vista to help my perspective. Each time I stopped, it became intuitively clear to me when it was time for me to move again. So my conclusion here is that it is obviously not uniformly beneficial to move and walk about while coaching.

Soon after this remote session, I took my two boys away on a road trip around Sweden for the summer. Except for a small number of clients who specifically asked for time, I put a hold on my work. Apart from the ferry tickets from Dover to Calais and back again I had not planned any of our trip so I had no idea where I would be for the sessions I'd scheduled in. They were in the diary and we'd just have to see where we found ourselves at the time. This caused me a little anxiety because we were going to explore some of the Swedish wilderness. I had no idea if I'd be able to do the calls. However, I was also not going to restrict the road trip for my work! Especially given the distances we were driving. I'd simply have to see where we were and sort it out from there.

As a bit of an aside, I needn't have worried about the infrastructure. It was amazing. Skyping on 4G was as smooth as butter at nearly every location we stayed and luckily we found ourselves well connected on the occasions I had sessions booked in. Actually, I had better connectivity there than I often experience around both Bath and London and particularly my travels on the train in between!

What came as a real surprise to me during this trip was how I experienced something different in my coaching and I put this down to the environment. For one, I chose where I wanted to hold the sessions, entirely for me, knowing that my clients would be where they were. This meant more freedom. For example, on one occasion I was sat in a lovely clearing in a forest, surrounded by beautiful birch and pine trees. My client commented on the 'awesome' backdrop. On another occasion I decided to walk to the top of a small mountain from where I had the most inspiring views across mountains, lakes and forest. An expanse stretching out to the horizon.

Physically I felt really good. Mentally I felt different. It was novel and on one occasion I left the call wondering whether I had actually been doing any coaching as everything flowed so well. For example, the smell of pine in the forest made me want to take in deep refreshing breathes and at the top of the mountain my lungs just opened themselves out. I was drawn to take in the natural perspectives out of which I felt my questions and statements grew. I felt more pleasant, relaxed and at home with myself. At ease.

After the sessions I felt great but this was slightly sullied by a sense of guilt about getting away with working in such a way. But it offered some tantalising possibilities.

The importance of choosing the right physical environment for coaching

Now this experience of myself is probably better illustrated by my son's experience of our trip to Sweden. Within 24 hours of arriving in one of the most beautiful regions of Sweden, my son is walking around saying: "wow, this is so peaceful and it makes me calm. I feel so good just being here, I can just relax."

Reflecting on my own experience this is also how I felt and so if this is a quality that I enable myself to bring to each session, what will that do for the coaching work I do? And so the question rattling around in me is about the forgotten importance of choosing an environment that is good for me to coach in as opposed to merely considering the coaching venue and environment for each coachee. If I'm in a place I love to be, what will this do for the coaching space, both literally and figuratively? And more generally, can I as coach really create the best coaching or learning environment by following the traditional routine for creating a coaching space, or could I perhaps use the physical space to more efficiently - as well as organically - allow a better coaching environment to emerge?

From a more practical perspective, I think the natural follow on is to wonder about other aspects of how I structure coaching work. For example, why I persist in travelling to see some clients in central London, a journey that is tiresome on the best of days, only to arrive at some office that probably isn't the best of spaces for me to be in. If instead I insist on working remotely, using the technology available to facilitate me being in better locations, how could this enhance what I offer?

Perhaps it is time to rethink face-to-face work and the role of the physical environment entirely? Now that's a thought...

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