To parody Otto Scharmer, there is a blindspot in coaching theory, training and practice, as well as in our everyday social experience. This blindspot concerns the outer place – the physical environment – where the coaching is situated. While Scharmer argues convincingly for us to turn our attention to the inner place from which our interventions originate, I want to argue that it the outer place where our work is located that is no less worthy of our consideration.
Most of us tend to view the space where our coaching ‘takes place’ as an inert, passive backcloth to the ‘real’ work that – if quiet and comfortable enough – can be ignored so that we can focus on our client. Coaches rarely get trained or encouraged to use the actual place where our coaching happens as an integral part of our work. We get supported to improve our contracting abilities, develop our listening and relating skills, finesse our question-sequences, deal more effectively with challenging clients and situations, handle ethical dilemmas sensitively, and a whole lot of other very important aspects of the coaching process… However, rarely do most of us consider using the physical environment where the coaching takes place as a natural part of our repertoire.
This is regrettable, as our physical environments (just like our bodies) can be a rich source of support and a significant resource for breakthrough. Psychologist James Gibson believes that we do not perceive places and the things in them objectively, but subjectively in terms of their potential use to us. He talks about environments ‘affording’ us different possibilities to complete unique developmental tasks.
So every place has its latent ‘affordances’ – which are not neutral, but which actually invite us to develop according to our needs at any one time. For example, steps on a staircase are an affordance to a toddler learning to walk and climb, but are not an affordance to a newborn baby. The affordance is not the stair but a property of the environment relative to us. It is as though the place in which we talk as coach and client, actually talks back to us, responding to our developmental yearnings. Seen from this radically different perspective, the environment where our coaching takes place is deeply relational and ecological, in the sense that we depend on the places where we work for different and quite personally-tailored action possibilities.
For example, I once coached a client in my home-office rather than in his glass-and chrome corporate meeting-room. The more intimate setting itself afforded him a new opportunity to talk about his feelings of separation from his colleagues – a different subject than he said he wanted to explore at the beginning of our session. As he spoke of how cold and distant he felt, my dog (who was in the next room) barked – and I noticed he looked excited! I asked him if he wanted to meet her (I have a beautiful and very friendly Great Dane called Cariad) and as she came in to the room, he began stroking her, and playing with her – even even to the point of getting on the floor and rolling around with her! I watched in fascination, as she was not just my pet in that moment, but an affordance of the environment that enabled him to explore connection, closeness, and relating warmly, through touch – in ways that would have been impossible anywhere else! Our session continued without her, but her presence was essential to what happened in his enquiry into relating differently at work.
Of course, there are a million other ways in which different places – rooms and their various objects – can afford us possibilities for growth and development in ways that are unique to our needs at the time. We are not separable from our environments, no matter how blind to them we might be. All that we need do, as coaches, is to look beyond the bodies in the room, to what the room itself can offer. Citing Ikujiro Nonaka’s concept of ‘ba’ (the spirit of a place) Scharmer noted that knowledge creation and innovation are always located, are always happening in places. Perhaps our clients might make more progress if we make better use of the affordances of the places where we coach.