I find myself asking this question more and more often in my coaching work. Asking this question (with a tone out of curiosity and appreciation) tends to generate particular reaction from the coachee. They would pause longer than normal before saying anything. Their facial expression would soften e.g. loosening of the furrowed lines on the forehead, relaxation of muscles around the mouth. The question seems to send them to a place of ‘positive puzzling’.
But this post is not just about reflecting on the Appreciative Inquiry approach – to which some would argue that this question belongs. This post is more about my realization on how important enabling agency is in practicing the Systems-Psychodynamics approach.
A Case - 'Victimising self to demonise authority'
Let me reflect through a recent incident - Li (pseudonym) heads up the country finance function in a global healthcare giant. He brought to our coaching session the issue of having a difficult boss. According to him, the new boss did not trust him at all e.g. always interrogating his every idea, and broke the promise of promoting him despite him achieving agreed results. The latter added to his anger out of the belief that the company has been under-rewarding him for years. He was very animated and energetic in elaborating how much he has been suffering. Interestingly, he also highlighted occasionally that he was awareness of himself i.e. deep distrust to authority and tendency to dis-credit himself. He mentioned that he has been doing inner work through therapy.
Yet, he appeared to shy away from applying such awareness to the presenting problem. For example, when I asked him questions like ‘How may you have contributed to the difficult interaction with your boss?’, he dodged, and instead elaborated more how the company has been unfair to him. I felt annoyed and then somehow irritated as his complaint spread to our coaching as well. Partly in response to my enquiry of his contribution, over half point of the session, he said ‘I do not feel like I am getting what I want from this coaching.’
It seemed that his unconscious processing of ‘victimising self to demonise authority’ was in action with me as a coach as well. And if I yielded to my irritation to ‘attack back’, we could likely get into a downward spiral. A working hypothesis was that there has been a similar downward spiral going on between him and his boss. I thus changed course (see footnote below) and our conversation then went on as:
Me: ‘You said that you want to improve situation. So, what is your initial thought on how to handle the situation?’
Li: ‘Well, I think I shall talk to her’
Me: ‘You mean you will initiate a conversation with her to talk about how you have been working together?’
Li: ‘I think so.’
Me: ‘Oh, how did you manage to take up such a proactive position?’
Li: ‘…. Hm…. I just cannot let this continue… I thought the new boss would be much better than my previous one…’
Me: ‘What made you having such positive expectation in the beginning?’
Li: ‘I worked her before. She was smart, supportive and knowledgeable. I enjoyed working with her at that time.’
Me: ‘I wonder how she may respond if you told her your such view about her… assuming that she does not know yet?’
In the following coaching session, Li expressed excitement and hope in initiating and having a ways-of-working conversation with his boss. It seemed that the downward spiral at least paused, if not started to reverse, by the leverage – his proactiveness to engage and willingness to expressing genuine appreciation as well as disappointment. In the session, I then furthered into the ‘How did you manage to do it?’ line of enquiry e.g. ‘How did you manage to convince her into the chat?’.
Conventionally, the Systems-Psychodynamics approach itself focuses on building awareness on unconscious processing. Some can readily benefit from the ‘aha’ of knowing what is really going on. But some may simply feel helpless as they realize how powerful the unconscious could be. It is particularly the case when the approach is coupled with linear causality or even determinism e.g. I always play the victim role BECAUSE of my abusive childhood. Even worse if the coach adopts the Sherlock Holmes style i.e. “I know better and let me tell you how the unconscious processing has screwed up your life.’
Yet, things can be different if we also build agency in the coachee….. with caution. No matter how small the coachee has done to counter the unconscious processing, enquire into it. The aim is not just about realizing better how to do it, but also about installing in the person the sense that he / she has some control over it. (Embarrassingly, as I am preparing this post, I realize that I had a blog post back in 2007 about the importance of building agency to competence enhancement.)
The ‘caution’ part is about the risk of colluding with the coachee without awareness i.e. Asking those ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ questions out of avoidance and falling into the dynamics of ‘I will say nice things about you and your coaching if you let me avoid painful learning about myself’.
Reflecting further how my take on the Systems-Psychodynamics approach – in short, my evolving take is like this (illustrated by some related previous blog posts):
Build the working alliance. Establish the Ideal as the intrinsic drive to make change. Raise awareness on what in the person and the system have got in the way. Celebrate any conscious effort to counter those counter-productive unconscious processing. Highlight any related strength in the person as well.
This stance actually integrate other schools of thought including Appreciative Inquiry, the 'Intentional Change Theory' by Richard Boyatzis into the Systems-Psychodynamics approach.
BUT, a big BUT, it is not meant to be linear or programmatic. It all depends on the coachee and the context. Sometimes, a GROW approach is sufficient. Sometimes, simply becoming more aware of unconscious processing already enables the person to be less caught up by it.
Footnote – Applying the idea of Circular Causality in System Thinking (somewhat different from the 'System' in the Systems-Psychodynamics approach), it is much more useful to be aware of such spiral and identify the leverage, rather than look for the ‘root cause’ of the ‘problem’. I thus paused my enquiry for him to face his potential contribution, especially given his resistance.