Just what is Developmental Coaching? Well, we might begin to see what it is by way of understanding what it isn’t. In conventional coaching, we hire someone to help us refine what we’re doing and hold us accountable in order to get what we want. When we hire a consultant, we find someone who has experience with our problem—sales or management or health for example—and they show us how to engage with the best practices of our field. Teaching happens whenever someone with a lot of information gives it to us—ideally in a way we’re able to absorb–after which it’s up to us to find our way to using it. And when we hire a therapist, we’re asking someone to help us explore something we’ve avoided feeling or find intolerable and if the therapy is successful we reintegrate a part of ourselves that we’ve either split off or repressed.
In developmental coaching, some or all of these things may take place, but the fundamental intervention is aimed at a transformation of the client. We find ourselves alive in the kind of world that continuously transforms itself from simple elements into rocks and roses and giraffes and the laughter of children. Everything from the big bang to this moment is a story of transformation. And what we all know about this kind of thing—whether it’s the transformation of a super nova, or the Declaration of Independence, or the birthing of the cell phone industry—is that, in transformation, new structures emerge and old ones fall away.
In this kind of world, the problems we encounter—from building a business to being unhappy in a marriage—are not usually the symptoms of things gone wrong. These problems are really this world’s way of insisting that we discover the barriers, in us, to being fully alive. The inspiration that’s emerging insists we discard the out-moded structure. But the trouble is we often don’t recognize just which structure that is.
My wife tells the story of Carl Whittaker, who’s often referred to as the father of couples’ therapy, being asked by an attendee at one of his trainings how many times he’d been married. The therapist paused, looked up as if engaged in a mental inventory, and as he turned to his wife in the front row for confirmation said “Well, I think I’m on my fourth.” He left a little space for the audience to gasp—was he really confessing to multiple failed marriages? —before he continued “I’ve been fortunate that all of these marriages have been to the same woman.”
Whittaker had been fortunate to recognize it was the structure of the earlier marriage which had to fall away, not the marriage itself.
There’s always tension between the inspiration of the new and the structure we already know. My dog Noah can’t do this, but we human beings have a way of identifying ourselves with what we do. That’s one of the structures we use. Some time ago I’d completely identified with being a manager of construction and even though I could feel all the juicy sweetness of my life slowly draining away, I was unable to let go of it for years. It didn’t seem possible to give up all I’d have to give up–the sense of being in control of things, the recognition, and the money–for something more congruent to emerge. So I held on, and right about then the movement of my life just stopped.
Eventually, we come to the question: How do I become what my life is asking me to become—not what I want of it, but what it wants of me? We have so little experience with this question that at first it’s confounding. Especially when we feel that there’s a lot at risk. How do we move through that stuckness, that confusion and fear? How do we discover the real potential of this human life?
In order to be receptive to that, we have to find a way to shift what we’re able to feel, what we’re able to see and what we’re able to know. In that construction management identity, all I could feel was my fear of feeling how afraid I was of my own fear. I couldn’t see the process I was in, I just thought I was screwed, with no way out. I didn’t know what was possible; I didn’t know about letting go; I didn’t understand surrender.
My work is not so much about changing a client’s circumstances—although that may happen—or even changing what they do—although that may happen. It’s about helping the client transform in a way that makes it possible for them to feel differently, see differently, know differently. And certainly not every client needs developmental coaching. Sometimes all we need is a good consultant. But when you’ve done what you already know to do, and the movement of life is still arrested, this form of coaching opens a huge array of new possibilities.