A Coaching Model Created by Chris Keating
(Executive Coach, UNITED STATES)
The ancient Celtic people placed great importance on trees as part of their belief system and culture. The Celtic Tree of Life symbolized the union of natural forces that create harmony and balance. Both its above-ground and below-ground features are visible, creating a connection between both upper and lower worlds, heaven and earth, the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknowable.
The Celtic Tree of Life is associated with positive energy and health. It is a localized ecosystem that provides food and shelter to living things while also drawing upon local resources for its own growth and well-being. As its root system is connected to the outer branches, it ultimately symbolizes both full integration and the continuous cycle of life on earth.
How a Client is Like the Celtic Tree of Life
Many parallels can be drawn between a coaching client and the Celtic Tree of Life. Just as many aspects of a client’s being can be readily sensed (appearance, speech, actions), there are deeper layers beneath the surface (thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs) that are available for discovery and consideration. A client has a relationship to nature and is a part of a set of physical and social ecosystems. The tree gets its energy from the sun, its water from the rain, its carbon dioxide from the air, and its nutrients from the soil. Where does our client get their energy and nutrition (in all senses) from? While a tree is connected involuntarily to all living things around it (birds, insects, squirrels, moss, etc.), our client is also connected but has more choice in the matter. How well are they connected to the living things around them? Where the tree provides beneficial outputs (oxygen, food, habitat), our clients are also producing for others in the forms of work, nurturance, and so on. How satisfied are our clients with their outputs? Just as a tree goes through seasons, periods of growth, and periods of renewal, our clients have similar phases of life and cycles of growth. And just as no two trees are alike, neither are any two clients. Certain categorizations may be helpful (think of an MBTI for trees that revealed ideal soil PH levels or the need for a cross-pollinating partner), but in the final analysis, each tree and each client have their own individuality and potentiality.
The Coach as Arborist
If a client is like the Celtic Tree of Life, then what is the role of the coach? For starters, a deep understanding of tree structure, function, and health is imperative. Imagine a tree that is losing branches at an alarming rate. An arborist would look at the tree holistically – what is the composition of the soil? Is there enough sunlight? Are there too many aphids? Is the tree still budding properly? Are the roots competing with other flora? Similarly, if a client is having a recurring problem, the source may be a limiting belief, a self-defeating behavior, a misguided strategy, etc. The coach supports the client to a greater awareness of their own tree-like system of connected attributes to identify the true root (no pun intended) of the issue. The coach also provides the client with tools for greater self-care and overall health.
Now imagine a client that wants to develop a new skill. This would be akin to growing a new branch on a tree. Ensuring that there is ample sunlight (positive energy) would support the goal. Encouraging the consumption of nutrients (gratitude, structure) would support the goal. Helping to prune dead branches in the area (letting go of unwanted psychic clutter) would support the goal. And so on.
My Own Application
I think this model suits me well because I bring some special skills and attributes to my coaching that help a client get to know their essential truth (and the tree to be fully healthy and functional).
Sense of humor: I have been making people laugh since I can remember. Clients, fellow coaches, co-workers, family and friends have been telling me for decades that I have a “disarming” sense of humor, one that invites others towards a lightness and sense of play. It is no accident that I pursued improvisational comedy for many years, as well as sketch comedy, acting, and cabaret performing as a singer and piano player. I love to interact with my audiences in a completely immediate and light-hearted way. I use the same approach to cocreate an authentic, present-in-the-moment, laugh-with-me relationship with my clients. Its puts them at ease and lets them know that they are in a safe space.
On a much deeper level, my studies of comedy led me to a great insight: comedy is ultimately a revelation of truth about our own human nature – our pretenses, our foibles, our egos, and the lies we tell ourselves. In other words, all the things that get in our way! Why is it funny when someone slips on a banana peel? Because it reveals the truth: that for all of our posturing, we are not more powerful than nature, or in this case, gravity. Comedy allows us to re-align with reality. (In this way, we are not like trees or animals – we are the only species that laughs because we are the only one with the capability to pretend to be something we are not.)
Problem-solving: From an early age, I have also been a puzzle solver and analyzer. I am a critical thinker, spotting flaws in logic, finding hidden premises, and turning arguments on their heads to see what happens. Using these skills, I can usually spot inconsistencies in a client’s thinking. Other times, I can sense when there is a piece of the puzzle missing and it’s time to explore some unseen areas (similar to the tree’s root system of values, beliefs, feelings, etc.).
Tools for self-discovery: My life changed at age 19 when I read “The Road Less Traveled”. This was the beginning of a lifelong journey of curiosity into human nature, spirituality, and the connectedness of all things. Along the way, I have collected all manner of tools and exercises for awareness and exploration of the self. For some clients, this sort of introspective work (sometimes “homework”) has been missing for the majority of their lives and represents a sort of spiritual nutrition that is badly needed in order for growth and the realization of their goals. It can also provide amazing insight and recollection of key beliefs and events that shaped the client’s life.
This coaching model has some inherent flaws. In many ways, a client is not like a tree (clients can move!) and a coach is not like an arborist (why does the coach get to be a person while the client has to be a tree?). But I think there is enough validity to use it as a lens through which to view the coaching relationship. Many more applications could be added, including the relationship of two trees (people) to each other, or a group of trees, or a whole forest. Diagnostics could be created that analyze the health of the tree, the stability/suitability of the environment, and so on. I look forward to building upon this initial model in the future.