Research Paper By Cristina Morpurgo
(Business & Executive Coach, ITALY)
Flow is one of the emerging trends in positive psychology theory and research (Kauffman, 2006). Coaching for flow explores the components of flow and some of their possible application to coaching, defined by the International Coaching Federation as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential”.
Flow is an optimal experience, fostering personal development and growth (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002,), as well as engagement. Being an intrinsically rewarding activity, this leads individuals to seek replicating flow experience. It can be thus useful for coaches to get familiar with the concept and its components, tailoring these to their interventions to support clients in finding their own way to access this high-performance state (Kauffman, 2006). Wesson & Boniwell (2007) argue that, considering the benefits of flow and the quality of experience associated, “enhancing a client’s sense of flow can be seen as a worthwhile objective of coaching”.
Application of flow theory can be, for instance, life and executive coaching or peak performance training (Kauffman, 2006). The extensive research on flow, conducted for over 40 years, is considered by Kauffmann & Scouler (2004) a rich reservoir of resource for executive coaching: the coach, for instance, can support the client to learn identifying the elements characterizing flow, and “change their working practice or environment to increase the likelihood of having more flow work experience” (Kauffmann & Scouler, 2004).
Britton (2008), in her article describing ways to apply to coaching five empirically validated positive interventions to raise job satisfaction and engagement, when referring to flow, states that “frequent experiences of flow at work lead to higher productivity, innovation and employee development (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993; 2004)”. She found, in particular, that “most people have experienced flow and miss it when it is not happening” (Britton, 2008).
Wesson & Boniwell (2007) propose the “flow-enhancing model of coaching” (2007), suggesting that the application of this model may determine a higher likelihood of experiencing flow both in the coaching session and outside it.
Definition of Flow and Autotelic Experience
Flow research and theory originated from the desire to understand intrinsic motivation and the so called autotelic activity, i.e. an activity rewarding in and of itself.
The original formulation of Flow dates back to 1975 and was developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He refers to flow as an inner state of experience, and as a “peculiar dynamic state – the holistic sensation that people feel when they act with total involvement” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). The original term used by Csikszentmihalyi to describe this kind of state is Autotelic Experience.
The autotelic experience is one of complete involvement of the actor with his activity. The activity presents constant challenges. There is no time to get bored or to worry about what may or may not happen. A person in such situation can make full use of whatever skills are required and receives clear feedback to his action (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975).
The decision to call flow the peculiar subjective experience originally described as autotelic experience is due to two main reasons. First of all, flow “is less awkward than the former label” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). The term flow was in particular adopted by several respondents of a program of research that involved extensive interviews with hundreds of rock climbers, chess players, athletes and artists (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002), to investigate the nature and conditions of enjoyment in groups of people that emphasized enjoyment as the main reason for pursuing an activity (Nakamura, Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Several respondents of the research program, when describing how they felt when the activity was going well, used the metaphor of a current that carried them along effortlessly (Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh, Nakamura, 2005). The second reason, more substantive, is that in calling the experience autotelic, there is the implicit assumption that it has no external goal or external rewards, and, as Csikszentmihalyi points out, such an assumption is not necessary for flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). However, this is one of the characteristics of flow (Nakamura, Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).
Autotelic, in fact, refers to something rewarding in and of itself (in Greek, auto = self; telos = goal), quite apart from its end product or any extrinsic good that might result from the activity (Nakamura, Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).
Csikszentmihalyi in his works describes the flow state in different ways, highlighting either what people report describing the experience, or the conditions or characteristics common to this state.
For instance, flow is also described as “a subjective state that people report when they are completely involved in something to the point of forgetting time, fatigue, and anything else but the activity itself.” (Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh, Nakamura, 2005).
As concerns the conditions and characteristics of flow, these are labeled as elements of flow experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975) and are described in detail below.
Elements of Flow Experience
Csikszentmihalyi, by means of extensive interviews, has identified a number of elements of flow, without always necessarily distinguishing between its characteristics and conditions (Wesson, Boniwell, 2007).
In this section the elements of flow are described, taking into consideration the first elements identified by Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Beyond Boredom and Anxiety” published in 1975 and the ones identified in the following works of Csikszentmihalyi and others. The attempt here is to divide these elements in two categories, i.e. conditions of flow and characteristics of flow, in line with the classification proposed by Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi (2002) and by Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh and Nakamura (2005).
The conditions of flow include:
- Clear set of goals, described as: “coherent, non-contradictory demands for action” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975) and “clear proximal goals” (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). The aim of these goals is to add “direction and purpose to behavior”, and their value consists in their capacity to “structure experience by channeling attention rather than being ends in themselves” (Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh, Nakamura, 2005).
- Balance between perceived challenges and perceived skills, described as: “perceived challenges, or opportunities for action, that stretch (neither overmatching nor underutilizing) existing skills; a sense that one is engaging at a level appropriate to one’s capacities” (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). In 2005, Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh, and Nakamura specify that what matters at the phenomenological level is “the perception of the demands and abilities, not necessarily their objective presence”.
- Immediate and unambiguous feedback, described as: “unambiguous feedback to a person’s action” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975) and “immediate feedback about progress that is being made” (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). The immediate feedback serves the objective of providing information on how the individual is progressing and in suggesting appropriate corrective measures (Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh, Nakamura, 2005). The feedback, being referred to an activity in the flow that takes place at a high level of challenge, can also be “negative”. If this is the case, Csikszentmihalyi and others (2005) specify that, from a phenomenological point of view, the negative feedback will not necessarily diminish the task involvement, provided that the person perceives that he/she possesses the skills to take on the challenges of the activity.
Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh and Nakamura (2005) acknowledge that the elements described above are not the exclusive ones to encourage flow, but are all necessary features. The authors (2005) reckon that “research on task involvement suggests that the importance an individual places on doing well in an activity (i.e. “competence valuation”) predicts the individual’s involvement in that activity (Greenwald, 1982; Harackiewicz & Helliot, 1998; Harackiewicz & Manderlink, 1984), as does the congruence between task-specific, behaviorally based goals and higher level, more abstract goals, with greater congruence leading to greater involvement (Harackiewicz & Helliot, 1998; Rathunde, 1989; Sansone, Sachau & Weir, 1989)”.
This leads to adding to the elements classified and described above, two additional factors affecting the degree of involvement (Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh, Nakamura, 2005) and commitment (Wesson & Boniwell, 2007) in one activity:
- Importance the individual places on doing well in an activity.
- Perceived congruence between higher and lower level of goals (Wesson & Boniwell, 2007).
Under these conditions, “experience seamlessly unfolds from moment to moment” and one enters into a subjective state which has the following characteristics (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002):
- Intense and focused concentration on the activity in the present moment (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002), also described as full investment of attentional resources in the task at hand, generally impeding other elements beyond immediate interaction to enter awareness (Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh, Nakamura, 2005), and a "centering of attention on a limited stimulus field" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975).
- Merging of action and awareness (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002): there is no dualistic perspective, meaning that the person in flow is aware of its action but not of the awareness itself (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). When the awareness is split, i.e. the person starts to reflect about the act of awareness itself, perceiving the activity from the "outside", flow is interrupted (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975).
- Loss of reflective self-consciousness (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002): with the required attentional resources described above, a loss of self-consciousness usually emerges in flow state, and the "usual dualism between action and actor disappears" (Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh, Nakamura, 2005). This element of flow was described in many ways, such as "loss of ego", "self-forgetfulness" or "fusion with the world" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). This condition is possible as activities which allow flow to occur usually do not require any negotiation by the participants, since they are based on freely accepted rules (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). As long as rules are respected, flow can be maintained.
- A sense of control, described as a sense that, in principle, it is possible to deal with the situation, being able to respond to whatever happens next (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Put in another way, this represents "a lack of anxiety about losing control, that is typical of many situations in normal life" (Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh, Nakamura, 2005). Csikszentmihalyi and others (2005) specify that this sense of control reflects more the possibility, rather then the actuality, of control. They also point out that this characteristic (reduction of worry whether one can succeed or not) of flow makes the experience enjoyable and thus rewarding (Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh, Nakamura, 2005).
- Distortion of the sense of time, referred to as distortion of temporal experience (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Csikszentmihalyi and others (2005) quote Friedman (1990), stating that “during flow, attention is so fully invested in moment-to-moment activity that there is little left over to devote toward the mental process that contribute to the experience of duration”.
- The activity is intrinsically rewarding (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002), also defined as autotelic, as “it appears to need no goals or rewards external to itself” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975).
Flow interventions and their application to coaching
Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi (2002) acknowledge that flow principles have been translated into practice in many different contexts. The authors distinguish two types of interventions:
- Interventions seeking to shape activity structures and environments so that they foster flow or obstruct it less (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Examples of these are, for instance, interventions in the work environment, learning environment, just to name a few. Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi (2002) highlight that also several art museums, including the Getty Museum of Los Angeles, incorporated flow elements during their design of exhibits and buildings.
- Interventions attempting to assist individuals in finding flow (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). As an example, the authors refer to schools (for instance Montessori schools or the Key School in Indianapolis), which supported students to form interests and develop the capacity and propensity to experience flow.
These two types on interventions can be applied to coaching, as further described in the following sections.
Flow in coaching conversations
The first type of interventions, i.e. those seeking to shape activity structures and environments so that they foster flow or obstruct it less (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002), can be applied, for instance, to the coaching session in itself, in an attempt to maximize opportunities for finding flow during the activities of coaching. This is, for instance, one of the objectives at which the “flow enhancing model of coaching” of Wesson & Boniwell (2007) aims.
Wesson (2010) conducted an empirical study considering flow in context of coaching conversations. In her study, fifteen clients and twenty-seven coaches participated in an online questionnaire providing details of their subjective flow experience during coaching sessions. A grounded theory methodological approach was employed. Findings referred to coaching sessions concern: characteristics of flow, factors facilitating flow and post-flow experience.
As regards the characteristics of flow during coaching conversations, Wesson’s study (2010) confirms the elements identified by Csikszentmihalyi and others, in particular: intense and focused concentration on the task at hand; loss of reflective self-consciousness; transformation of time; merging of action and awareness; sense of control; autotelic experience.
From the outcomes of the questionnaire Wesson (2010) identified additional features of flow, related to coaching conversations, such as:
- the possibility to lose some aspects of dialogue convention, e.g. slower pacing and correct wording;
- higher levels of mirroring, referring to both language, posture, experiences;
- coach and client sustaining flow, moving back and forth as “primary-contributor role”;
- high confidence in silent space, with the coach knowing exactly the right time to intervene.
Moving now to the factors facilitating flow in clients and coaches, Wesson (2010) identifies six categories:
- Relatedness: individuals could relate to the other person and the subject under discussion.
- Commitment: both parties recognized the importance of “the other” being committed to the work of the alliance. Wesson highlights that it was “vital to the client that the coach worked on the clients’ agenda”. Another element facilitating flow was the perception of confidentiality. On the side of the coach, flow is facilitated when the client understands and commits to the coaching process and method applied.
- Facilitation: particular styles of coach-client engagement seemed to facilitate flow, such as: effective observation, feedback and structuring of tasks by the coach; openness of the client; urgency due to the circumstances of the client; ability of the coach to draw on training and experience, making it possible for the coach to work intuitively.
- Continued successful engagement: sensing achievement or growth makes participants continue to be absorbed by the activity and experience flow, in a sort of virtuous cycle.
- Physical and mental resources: as concerns coaches, they reported the emergence of flow in times when they had sufficient energy and were well rested; clients highlighted that it was important that the coach was sensitive to the level of mental and physical resource available. One client referred to the ability of the coach to match his energy level, making the client take thoughts to more in depth levels. Matching the pace and the energy level of the client, as well as accommodating different learning styles and patters, could facilitate and maintain flow in a coaching conversation.
- Situational factors: comfortable meeting rooms and no distractions.
Wesson (2010) groups the six factors facilitating flow in three classes (Exhibit 1): person-specific pre-conditions; event specific pre-conditions; flow experience.
|Phase of the coaching conversation||Factors facilitating flow|
|Person-specific pre-conditions (before the flow experience)||
|Event-specific pre-conditions (before the flow experience)||
Source: Adapted from Wesson (2010).
As regards the post-flow experience, Wesson’s questionnaire outcomes (2010) suggest that individuals reported similar characteristics of flow, except when referring to the sense of self, which was higher during the post-flow experience. Clients referring to post-flow reported, for instance, “drive and energy to complete the task” and “feeling of peace”.