Research Paper By Shane Yan
(Life and Career Coach, Singapore)
Coaching is at the intersection of the mental health type-of-help continuum (Cope, 2004). Coaching helps all types of individuals to get extrinsic as well as intrinsic solutions to their issues, to help themselves and help others in a collaborative mode while focusing on performance as well as potential at the same time. Its purpose is to help individuals master their own well-being and achieve their potential in the short and long term by moving the individual from current thinking, behaviours and performance to expanded thinking and enhanced performance towards a more integrated self, sustainable development and success.
According to Servan-Shreiber (2004) methods that enable us to act via the body helps us to tap on the limbic brain which is responsible for emotions and natural self-healing mechanisms. In recent years, there has been an explosion in the practice of mindfulness. Some of these mindfulness activities that connect us with the body include body scan meditation, sound meditation and breathing activities.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, ‘Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
In this paper, we will explore the use of Mindfulness-based Coaching as a means to tap into the emotional state of an individual to help him or her master their own well-being.
Why is this important?
Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher said ‘‘People are not disturbed by events, but by the views, they take of them.” To add to this statement, perhaps it would be more holistic to say that people are not disturbed by events but by the view they take of them in their minds and the insufficient attention given to them in their hearts.
In today’s world of analytics where facts and data are of increasing importance, we are more comfortable making decisions based on our rational brain and its cognitive capacities. However, decisions are not made by the rational brain alone. The limbic system which deals with the emotional brain also plays a key part. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s client named Elliot illustrated this. Elliot was an intelligent and successful businessman. After his brain surgery to remove a tumour near the amygdala (a critical part of the limbic area of the brain), Elliot lost his emotional capacities and motivation and also his ability to make decisions. His logical thinking which was unimpacted was insufficient to help him make simple decisions.
Essentially, research (Kleckner et al, 2017) has shown that the brain requires a feeling process to help it predict possible outcomes. The head and heart together can help the brain to predict what is likely to bring us the greatest happiness. Ignoring our emotions limits the possibilities of outcomes and can affect our wellbeing.
It is therefore important, in coaching, that we are able to support people to pay attention to their physical bodily sensations more, identify their emotions and convert them into words.
What is Mindfulness-Based Coaching?
Mindfulness-based coaching is a technique that provides the individual with the safe space to be more mindful of the body sensations they are experiencing to support them with self-healing and enable transformations. It combines visualization and mindfulness with coaching to take the individual on a journey of being in the present moment with their emotions to uncover their barriers, create a deeper awareness of their desired outcome and discover the solution they need to help them move forward. In many instances, this involves being more aware of the emotions that they are experiencing and making sense of it.
The following beliefs and behavioural concepts, taken from Collard & Walsh (2008), are frequently shared by a Mindfulness trainer while taking participants through different mindfulness activities. I have converted it to show how they are being utilized in mindfulness-based coaching from a coaching perspective and how we can support our coachees through the session.
- Non-judging attitude and acceptance: Invite coachee to be an impartial witness to their own experience by just observing what they are experiencing and acknowledging that they exist. Some coachees may find it awkward to be doing this activity so inviting them not to judge and ensuring we provide a safe space for them is crucial.
- Patience: Have the patience to allow the coachee to be completely open to each moment they are experiencing.
- Trust: Develop a basic trust in yourself to go with the flow and to hold the space for the coachee to trust themselves and their feelings rather than always looking for external guidance.
- Non-striving/letting go: Support the coachee to let go of the need to create a justification or find a purpose to everything but to be themselves and be present to what they are experiencing. Help them identify what they have to let go off in order to be present.
- Enlightened self-interest: Work with the coachee to explore and identify what they are experiencing really means to them.
There are three key steps that I have come up with based on my own applied research on utilizing and refining the method. Through active listening when we can sense that the coachee has emotions surfacing or when the coachee is experiencing some other body sensations, we can help to bring this to the awareness of the coachee and tap on the power of mindfulness through the following steps.
Sample Coaching Questions
Invitation to be aware of their body experience
What are you observing happening in your body?
Paying attention to your body in the present moment, what do you notice is going on?
Making sense of the body experience, Acknowledging the emotions
What are the body sensations you are experiencing telling you?
Tell me what you are noticing about the body sensations.
Visualizing needs and action steps
Given what you are experiencing, what might you like to do with it?
If you can convert this bodily sensation into something different, what might that be? What will you need to help you?
Alice came to the coaching session looking tired and wanting to talk about her relationship with her husband. The following extract was taken from a coaching conversation with one of my clients using the mindfulness-based coaching process. Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Alice had already begun to share her relationship challenges, the external voices of family and friends that have been influencing her thought processes and it had been brought to her awareness that she seemed resigned that her marriage was going to come to an end. When she realized that there was another possibility, there was a slight change in her countenance and she looked less tired.
Step 1: Invitation to be aware of their body experience
Coach: Do you notice any difference in yourself when you first stepped in and now?
Coach: What did you notice was the difference?
Alice: I feel less heavy like a weight has been lifted.
Coach: Would you be open to partake in a mindful exercise to get in touch and be present with what you are experiencing? (for some coachees, we can add that it might feel awkward but to encourage them to try)
Coach: Close your eyes and be aware of what is going on in your body. Where do you feel the heaviness?
Alice: (closes her eyes and focuses) In my chest area
Coach: Place your hands on your chest and get in touch with what is going on. What are you noticing?
Alice: I also feel something in my head.
Step 2: Making sense of the body experience, Acknowledging the emotions
Coach: Ok, place one hand on your head as well and let’s take time to explore what is going on in our chest and in our head. What are we seeing/feeling?
Alice: (with her eyes still closed, she begins to breakdown) I feel guilty that I am the cause of all these…and I have been keeping it inside of me for so long
Coach: (provides the space for emotions to flow) … Tell me more
(for some clients, they might tend to be more metaphoric about their experience. E.g. a client saw a lamp in his chest and it was telling him to follow it)
Step 3: Visualizing needs and action steps
Coach: What do your head and your chest say about what they want?
Alice: I really want him back and for us to be together. I don’t want it to be over. I want us to start again.
Coach: What might that look like?
Alice: I want him to come back with an openness and willingness to accept that things are possible. I want him to believe in me and not rehash the past.
Coach: What needs to happen to enable that?
Alice: I can apologise to him and acknowledge that I …
Coach: What did you realize about yourself from the conversation?
Alice: I have been making a lot of assumptions and that has been holding me back.
In this coaching case study, the coachee was influenced by the advice of parents and friends and her assumptions of what her husband might want. By going through this process, she was able to turn her attention away from her rational side and listen to herself and emotions to understand that she did not want the relationship to come to an end. She was also able to recognize the many assumptions she was making that was not helping her. This process worked for her because it enabled her to steer away from simply rehashing the problem and focusing on what really mattered to her.
In summary, mindfulness-based coaching is effective to help the coachee get in touch with their emotions and be present to what is really bothering them. It moves the coachee away from logic and the noise and influence of the external world so that they can listen to themselves and what they want.
Collard, P. & Walsh, J. (2008). Sensory Awareness Mindfulness Training in Coaching: Accepting Life’s Challenges. J Rat-Emo Cognitive-BehavTher (2008) 26:30–37
Kleckner, I., Zhang, J., Touroutoglou, A. et al. Evidence for a large-scale brain system supporting allostasis and interoception in humans. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0069 (2017) DOI:10.1038/s41562-017-0069
Mike Cope (2004), The Seven Cs of Coaching: TheDefinitive Guide to Collaborative Coaching. Prentice-Hall Business, 2004 – Business & Economics
Servan-Schreiber, D. (2004). Healing Without Freud or Prozac. London: Pan-Macmillan.
Jennifer Riggs (2018) Resolving the Head vs. Heart Dilemma