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Witnessing Death and Departures in Coaching

Saturday July 25, 2020

Earlier this month I was reflecting on one of my greatest joys in coaching. It’s one of those rare things that makes me feel extra-excited about my work.

Every once in a while, I get to see someone change who they are in a positive way, but also in a way that would have been totally unacceptable to their past self. Even to the degree that they begin a new life.

This could be as simple as listening as someone reflects on a new thing they’ve learned, and then concludes, “I’d like to do more of that, and become more of that kind of person. I wish I could have been more like that in the past.”

The really rare example is when someone says, “I’ve thought about who I used to be. I used to be like [description]. Marc, I know you always try to accommodate that aspect of who I am in our coaching discussions. I’m grateful for it, but I’m ready to move on now and I’ve decided I want to be more of a [description] type of person. For that reason, I’d like to talk about [previously untouchable options, ideas, perspectives] more often.”

Boom! Wow. It’s shocking and exciting—and sometimes they have to repeat this to me a few times, because it’s hard for me to move on! (I’m still sitting there thinking, “is this really happening?”)

I want to share a bit about how and why this is scary and tricky, but another example first:

I once had a client who was outwardly enamored with their own impactfulness, their impressiveness, and the great person they had already become. And there was no doubt—this person had done great things!

I was, in part, grateful that the client had this identity to reference during difficult times. It formed a helpful backstop in some ways, and helped them to gather courage and forge ahead. For this reason, taken in isolation, it made no sense to harbor concerns about the way in which they reflected upon their identity.

However, in another way, the same set of perspectives protected this person against future growth opportunities. It raised the distinct possibility that their ability to harness dynamism as a growth tool was mostly in their past. Meanwhile, they came to me because they had real problems to solve. They had wanted scheduled accountability and an opportunity for reflective discussions.

I asked: “How can we map your past effectiveness onto your current situation?”

In this case, their insistence upon their past-effectiveness led them to announce a bit of a logical contradiction:

  • I’m an effective person, but I’m also not an effective person.

This was a small moment, but a funny one. Usually when this conclusion is announced out loud, it’s a moment where one has to decide what they’re going to do: Continue struggling under an illogical self-definition, or laugh, or go quiet, and steam a bit, or ask for some feedback, or dig into the details, or…what?

There’s this “void” that is reached. New psychological ground, maybe. A new perspective on things which seems to demand reflection. But it’s also blank. It’s a nothingness.

I like to call this “the departure.” In the “dearly departed” sense. In that sense, the subject’s past has become dead to them. Even if just for a moment, all thoughts are upon next moves, not past moves. There is barely even a present tense to grasp.

We could call this the afterlife passage, maybe. In the sense that it’s a transit point to the next “life” for this person.

However, reaching this point isn’t by itself that big of a deal. It’s what comes afterward. The set of decisions. The qualitative result of reflecting on that new point. It’s the “then what.”

The afterlife itself.

And I think what is always impressive is when that set of decisions is reached with a conscious sense of humility. It’s a combination of “yes, I’m great, and I’ve done great things.” SO, AND, THEREFORE, “I can bring humility and reflection and a beginner’s mind into this new problem which I couldn’t solve, and probably still expect a good result.”

I wouldn’t call it a goal of mine to see people make this kind of change, in part because qualitatively deep changes aren’t even really necessary a lot of the time. But it’s a real exciting thing. When someone turns a corner like this, they are usually about to:

  • Make some amazing new discoveries
  • Probably make some scary new discoveries
  • Recognize that their old tools aren’t as helpful as they used to be
  • Attempt to predict the future, with generally poor results (references to patterns from their past don’t help much; even the philosophy or psychology class you took in the past was experienced through your then-perceptions)
  • Feel some stress when they think about the scary new tools they may need to learn, and use
  • Think about developing new tools that integrate their gifts and also help with new growth struggles

I believe we have every reason to fear those scary things. A commitment to learning is a commitment to growth. And a commitment to growth is a commitment, in part, to stress. Stressors. Anxiety. Taking on additional anxiety is, in my experience, best done consciously.

I also believe it’s our capacity to work through that fear that can put us into a new, more desirable position or mental state. Working through the fear allows us to look back and say, “things are much better now, and I’m a new person, and maybe the old me wouldn’t even like who they would think I’ve become. But in truth things are much better here, now.” A strange, funny, scary, but often powerful and enjoyable outcome.

Conversely there are sad and frustrating outcomes for both coach and client. But I’ll have to share more about those another time.

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