The following is a guest post by Rama Kannan, Coacharya alumna. Rama coaches senior executives in the corporate and social sectors across countries. She has been a Coach and Mentor for over 9 years and is also a Director on the board of a listed company. Her strength as an executive coach is built on 16 years of corporate experience in large multinationals in senior strategy and marketing roles in the Asia pacific region. She is a trained PCC coach from ICF (currently on her MCC journey), and she holds an MBA from National University of Singapore.
Recently I had a long conversation with a close friend that left me with a feeling of, what I can only call as, being ‘content’ – content with who I was and what I was doing. Considering I had started the conversation feeling unhappy about something I did, it was a remarkable transformation. I talked about my doubts, including my warts and all, and as I talked I could see them objectively and instinctively I knew they didn’t define me. I also got ready to take an action, a difficult one, which I had not even thought about before! What changed in the conversation, I wondered later. As I reflected on it, I realised that I could talk of my failings with her without feeling inadequate; she just listened to me and asked questions that clearly showed more belief in me than I had myself. As I was speaking, I was identifying the feelings I didn’t know I had and before the end of the discussion, I knew I could even take the difficult step. The catalyst to this change was her utter and complete trust in me as a person and even what I could be.
I got reminded of it as I read ‘On becoming a Person’ – it hit me – that is exactly what Carl Rogers was talking about! About showing utter and complete positive regard for a person (that she instinctively offered me) and how that helps the person to make a positive change.
I was introduced to Carl Rogers when I began the MCC (Master Certified Coach) journey that I am currently on. ‘On becoming a person’ is a compilation of lectures and manuscripts written by him between 1951-1961 and he is credited with the ‘client (or person) centred approach’ in psychotherapy.
Developing Person Centred Approach
Rogers came to the profession with the assumption, like every other therapist in those days, (and some even now) that he would be the superior practitioner ‘solving’ the problems of whoever came to see him. But he came to realise that this model was not as effective and that progress for the client depended more on the depth of understanding and openness between himself and the client.
In the book, he takes us every step of the way along his journey to how he developed person-centred therapy, a revolutionary way of regarding clients of psychotherapy. Instead of trying to ‘fix’’’ the client, he felt it was much more important to listen fully to what they were saying, even if it seemed “wrong, weak, strange, stupid or bad”. It means that we listen to the other person without evaluation, judgements and negative attitudes. When someone expresses some feeling, attitude or belief, our immediate tendency is to feel “That’s right”; “That’s stupid”; “That’s abnormal”; or “That’s unreasonable”; Very rarely do we permit ourselves to understand precisely what the meaning of the statement is to them. Rogers maintains that for unlocking our potentialities, the therapist must be aware of their own attitude and practise “empathetic listening” – To listen, to help the individual explore their “self”. For realising the true self, ‘the need is to free oneself from all the facades: pleasing others, trying to be good etc.”.This allows the person to be fully accepting of all their thoughts and to begin accepting their real feelings.
What struck me were these words – “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I
am, then I change”! And that with it, “comes the beginning of trusting oneself and one’s own
Influence on Coaching
He is also called by some, as the father of the Coaching profession and I can certainly identify with that. Even though his writings are about psychotherapy, some of it resonates with coaching so well.
For Rogers the nature of the relationship between the therapist and client is pivotal to the success of therapy. According to him, the role of the helper is not to diagnose the issue that the client is grappling with and then provide tools and input to manage the treatment; it is essentially to create an atmosphere between the two, which is “permeated by warmth, understanding, safety from any type of attack – no matter how trivial, and to accept the person” as they are. To “hear the words, the thoughts, the feeling tones, the personal meaning, even the meaning that is below the conscious intent of the speaker. This atmosphere leads the client to drop their natural defensiveness, open up, and communicate at a deeper level.
And this is exactly what I want my clients to experience from my coaching relationships with them – The relationships have “Genuineness (honest, open and congruent in self-disclosure), Acceptance (unconditional positive regard of the client) and Empathy (to truly listen and understand the clients’ perceptual world as opposed to labelling what they
say)”. These, to me, are what form the bedrock of the coaching relationship.
There are two other key elements of coaching which I believe have stemmed from this seminal book. The first relates to a learning I’ve had over the years of coaching, that while the client may articulate some tangible goals, the ‘who’ of the person needs to be explored to achieve that. The ‘who’ here refers to the values, beliefs, the ‘world map’ etc. that makes
any particular person that particular person instead of another; in other words, the identity of the person – Exploring the identity goes to the core of the person. There is tremendous value for the client to get the insight on why they want the goal and then they put all their efforts to achieve it.
And Rogers shows us in the book, how this ‘insight’ for the client is developed – “How may this individual come to an effective understanding of self?” And he goes on to define it with the following elements:
- Accepting one’s impulses and attitudes – good, bad or previously repressed
- Understanding pattern of one’s behaviour and seeing its connections and consequences
- Looking at a new reality based on a fresh understanding and acceptance of oneself
- Planning new or more adaptive behaviours and actions to cope with reality
Rogers then asks the important question, “Under what circumstances is this spontaneous insight most likely to be achieved?” And his research and experience gave him the answer: that spontaneous insight is facilitated when the client is free from the need of being defensive; when they can talk through problems in an atmosphere of being genuinely understood and accepted, and in which there is no need for them to protect the self. “When someone really hears me without passing judgment on me, without trying to take responsibility for me, without trying to mould me, when I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way. It is astonishing how elements which seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens”.
In coaching, this may also be supplemented by reflecting statements or feelings back to the client so that they gradually become aware and they own their perceptions.
The second important tenet of Coaching is that it is ‘self directed’, that means the client finds the answers to their dilemmas themselves – here too, Rogers’ contribution is immense. It was he who first posited that it was more effective to let the client guide the path. And that it was the nature of the relationship that would make it possible. The client knows what emotional experiences are deep buried, what problems to solve and what direction to go. He
explains it thus: “just as an acorn has all the resources it needs within it to realise its potential of growing in to an oak tree (and never accidentally a sycamore!), so does a human being. And just as an acorn needs the right conditions (sun, space, air, water, soil, time, etc) so a person needs the right conditions too”. With that, the client grows to be their best selves. And the end result is a self-directed and process-oriented person, open to experience, its feelings and its ambiguity. This crucial insight was what led him to develop the ‘client centred approach’.
Similarly as a Coach, the challenge is to control our need of being perceived as a clever and learned person and to fully trust that the client is resourceful and has answers to their questions – Letting go and equally, Letting be is key!
The takeaways for me from the book are centred on what he has outlined as essential for a
great trusting relationship with the client:
- To be empathetic and allow myself to enter fully into the world of the other’s feelings and
personal meanings to see it as they do.
- To consider the quality of the client as a whole, with unconditional positive regard.
- To act with sufficient sensitivity so my behaviour is not perceived as threatening; freeing
the client from the threat of external evaluation and thus to become self-responsible.
- To be strong enough as a person to be separate from the client.
- To not assume undue control or responsibility for the client.
- To be congruent and expressive enough to communicate what I am feeling.
Yet his approach doesn’t describe coaching in its entirety – Coaching can also be challenging, provocative, inspiring, confronting, solution focussed and much more. However, the heart of the coaching relationship is in the ‘partnering’ and that is what can be learnt from this book.
While I have been a coach for many years, the journey towards MCC has made me see more inwards; and reading this book has reinforced my learnings even more. He so beautifully explains that “humans need witness and listening, and that will go a long way toward enabling the person to find their own answers within themselves” – And this is exactly what I as a Coach want to strive to follow with my clients!