Sometimes a client arrives for their session clearly carrying something with them which will get in the way of a productive session if it isn’t declared and discussed. That ‘something’ isn’t necessarily on the agenda we have established so far, but the fact that it has made its way into the session makes it part of the agenda, at least temporarily.
Take the case of the manager who arrived fuming about a difficult report she had just had a meeting with. Her anger and indignation needed to be allowed out in all its gory detail before she would be able to engage with the real issues around the report: low self-confidence, a lack of readiness to take responsibility and different definitions of work ethic. And so the session began with a volcano erupting quite spectacularly. (You can read the case study here)
In coaching catharsis helps to identify and explore obstacles, and provides the starting point for finding out what unblocks the individual. It also helps the restless coachee settle into the session. Once the vulcano has slowed down spewing the hot stuff, we can start walking across the cooling lava and start probing it for the fertile matter it is. Humour plays a big part in this cathartic process: release often comes in the form of raucous laughter, while tears of grief or relief are also a common sight.
Catharis and catalysis
Catharsis is powerful on its own, and can pave the way for the coachee to move on from an incident. Sometimes it is all a client needed, and most of the time, it is only the beginning. The next step is catalysis.
This is where I often get surprised responses from clients. ‘where do I go now?’ The illumination and relief the cathartic experience brings is already a significant breakthrough for them; to be invited to go beyond it is daunting to many. ‘You mean to say there is MORE?’ appears to be the question.
Well, yes, if you want there to be – and as your coach working to your agenda, I might already know there needs to be more.
The coach’s ambition for the client
Harvard psychology professor Robert Kegan famously wrote:
Among the many things from which a practitioner’s clients need protection is the practitioner’s hopes for the client’s future, however benign and sympathetic these hopes may be.
Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self, 1992, p. 292
While this is true, I also know my clients come to coaching not because they want things to stay as they are and have nice chats about it, but because they need change. They didn’t invite a mate down to the pub for a good old rant, but chose a a professional with a deep understanding of the processes involved in adult development. Fully engaged clients do want their coach to stretch them further. To do that, I do need to have a view on things. It is a well-known dilemma among us coaches.
Catharsis and catalysis working in tandem can truly be a transformational experience. Illumination, insight, dots being joined to form a whole new scene the possibilities and consequences of which were previously unimaginable. Seeing how it all fits together, even if the edges remain blurred and more, new questions are generated in the process. I do harbour this ambition for my clients, knowing they will choose to take it or leave it. Perhaps that is precisely what Kegan means.