Psycho-spiritual psychology for coaching – unpacked

Published by matt on

8 April 2018 

Aubyn Howard

It is now fairly widely accepted in the coaching world that good coaching needs to be under-pinned by coaching psychology in some way, in terms of the education and training of coaches, their understanding of themselves and their clients, the approaches and methods they bring to their practice. Beyond that, there is not much consensus about what that looks like and there is much variety and experimentation in both theory and practice.

In this post, I’m going to present the case for psycho-spiritual psychology for coaches who want to want to work at the deepest level and in the most impactful way with their clients within the context of today’s emergent leadership challenges.  The first part is a little theoretical and complex because it involves making some subtle distinctions using language, but it is also very important.  I invite you to stay with it and promise we will show its relevance to coaching!

What is psycho-spiritual psychology?

Psychosynthesis is a psycho-spiritual psychology of Self and Will that was developed by Roberto Assagioli. Quite a mouthful, so what does that mean? First of all, it is concerned with the whole human being, with the human psyche and all levels of our consciousness and unconsciousness. Explicitly this includes (i) the higher unconscious or superconscious, otherwise described as the transpersonal or spiritual realms, (ii) the middle unconscious or realm of our personality and personal psychology, (iii) the lower unconscious, the realm of history, trauma and prepersonal psychology.

We sometimes describe Psychosynthesis as a holistic psychology for including all these levels (whereas say, psychoanalysis only focuses on the lower level) and at other times integrative for its capacity to bring together different psychologies into a relational whole; but psycho-spiritual says it most distinctively, because it emphasises the relationship and interplay between the psyche (lower, middle and higher consciousness) and the spiritual, transpersonal or higher Self. Psychosynthesis (see Assagioli’s Egg Diagram below) offers an explicit model of the human psyche that includes the Self. Psychologies that have no such central model of self often lack coherence (viz. NLP, Gestalt or TA – having worked with all three of these modalities, I will describe the problems they encounter because of this another time). It is important for coaches (and therapists for that matter) to have a model or concept of the psyche that includes the Self, because without one, we can lose sight of the being and get caught in the processes and contents of the mind.

Transpersonal and psycho-spiritual psychology are often conflated but there is an important distinction. The former focuses on working at the transpersonal level, the latter with all levels. As Assagioli says “I would like to stress the validity of a basic principle of psychosynthesis, that “we can benefit from, and utilize every function and element of our psyche (lower, middle and higher unconscious), provided we understand its nature and purpose, and place it in its right relation with the greater whole”.

[A quick aside about the use of the word spiritual – we are using it here in the phenomenological sense to describe higher aspects of subjectively experienced consciousness.  We are not concerned here with religion or even spiritual practice and psychosynthesis as such is neutral with respect to these. It is also neutral in relation to new age or alternative conceptions of spirituality that tend to be over-associated with what is called the pluralistic or relativistic paradigm.]

Structure of the psyche – Roberto Assagioli

What do we mean by Self (with a capital S)? Assagioli explains, the “transpersonal Self is basically “ontological”. Onthos means being – which is not process, but is something standing in itself. Self is the unchanging, enduring reality; a stable centre of life on its own level, which has functions but is not a function”. Perhaps a more familiar way of talking about this is in terms of our being – who we are most essentially, how we experience ourselves when we are most present.  This is a question we encourage psychosynthesis coaches to reflect upon when working with someone; “who is this being most essentially? If I open my heart to them, who do I see? What is emergent?” Thus, we start with the Self, who this person or being is most essentially and we remind ourselves that we are coaching the being, before the doing or the behaviour. How are we coaching the being? We work with Self and Will and how these are experienced and manifest in the world, for example towards self-realisation and self-actualisation.  Of course, any coaching also involves working with action and behaviour, but the context for psychosynthesis coaching is to first hold awareness of and to reflect upon the being.

Psychosynthesis is also a psychology of Will, again using capital W to indicate our Transpersonal Will as distinct from our everyday strong will, skilful will and goodwill, which are aspects of will.  We often say that ‘Will’ is the first expression of Self, it is the way in which who we are comes into the world, the essential act of will that also manifests with our conscious experience of I or everyday self. Will is therefore next to Self and comes before the various psychological functions of the mind.  Healthy and well-rounded will has the capacity to focus and direct the psychological functions of our minds – thinking, feeling, sensation, intuition, imagination, desire, etc., in service of Self.  However, much of the time we experience the reverse, with our will blocked or distorted by aspects of our personality and the way that our minds work.

Will is not the same as motivation – motivations can be come from any part of our personality or mind and don’t necessarily spring from our Will to realise or actualise ourselves in the world.  So a major difference between psychosynthesis coaching and more behavioural approaches is that we are seeking to help the client release or activate their Will in relationship to their purpose and goals; rather than helping them find their motivation for doing things (although this may be a consequence of activating will).

How is this essentially different from conventional psychology?

Psycho-spiritual psychology challenges and changes the basic orientation of conventional psychology; from human doing, looking at “the mind and how it dictates and influences our behaviour” (British Psychological Society definition), in other words, from how humans work and what they do; towards human beingwho we are most essentially, how we function as human beings and within that, how the mind works and influences our behaviour.  This shift re-orientates the direction of psychological inquiry into a new sequence: from who we are (Self/Being), to why we are (Will), to how we work (mind/body) and what we do (act/behaviour).  Rather than; from what we do (behaviour), to why we do it (motivation), to how that works (mind), and then to who is doing it.  It may be easier to follow this in the diagram below:

With the conventional way around, the Self is lost or never found. Neuroscientists cannot find a place in the brain where the Self/self/I exists and end up concluding that it is an illusion or a figment of our imagination created by our ego functioning. The evidence of our subjective experience of consciousness and the value of inner inquiry are discounted or ignored and we end up in a world where the Self no longer exists. This can have consequences for us all, not just individually, but in society as a whole.

The original meaning of the word psychology (from the greek – psyche and logos) was the study of the soul. I suggest modern psychology has somewhat lost its way through successive attempt to become more scientific, which ironically have led only to it becoming more partial and philosophically at least, less scientific (see Ken Wilber’s ‘A Theory of Everything’ if you are new to this argument and want to explore it). Ramesh Bijlani (in a post on SpeakingTree) tells a succinct version of the story of how this happened: “psychology, in order to assert its status as a science, underwent a voluntary amputation.  It got rid of those elements which did not fit within the framework of science.  The first thing that it got rid of was the soul, because science denied the Divine, of which soul is the essence.  Consequently, psychology became the study of the mind. However, even the mind is difficult to quantify. Hence psychology gradually became the study of behaviour.”

Neal Goldsmith (in a post on Psychology Today) seeks to “bring psychologists, my clients, and us all back to psychology as the study of the psyche, to a focus on the ground of our being, to the soul, because it is this part of us that is the earliest, deepest, and the most authentic part of us.”

Psychology has deep roots and perhaps it can find a way back to include the soul or Self again.  We can also go back to draw upon shamanic wisdom which looks in the four points of the medicine wheel and invites us to ask the questions ‘Who am I?”, ‘Why am I here?’, ‘Where have I come from?’ and ‘Where am I going?’ – although not quite the same as my questions, they follow a similar direction of inquiry.

What do you think?  How might this realignment of the questions that psychology answers, fundamentally shift our understanding of human beings and being human?  What does this mean for leadership and coaching?

Why do we need psycho-spiritual psychology now for leadership coaching?

Put simply, there is an emerging and growing crisis of leadership that I suggest calls out for a psycho-spiritual perspective. I recently touched upon the nature of this crisis in a post on the leadership gap.  The crisis of leadership can generally be explored at three levels: individual, organisational and societal. The societal crisis of leadership, in particular in politics both nationally and globally, continues to be widely observed and commented on in our media and beyond.  This whole topic and how a psycho-spiritual approach can help, deserves a fuller treatment than I can give here, so below I focus on what it means at the individual and organisational levels for coaches.

Individual leadership crisis

The organisational and leadership landscape has changed significantly since coaching first started to become accepted and even commonplace in our organisations.  As we all know and are frequently reminded, organisations are being increasingly impacted by change, uncertainty and complexity and need to become more innovative, collaborative and adaptive.  What isn’t talked about so much is how the fundamental relationship between the individual and the organisation is changing and what this means for both leaders and coaches. The typical individual leader is facing mounting organisational challenges and performance pressures that bring corresponding personal stress and psychological pressures.  The boundaries between business and personal are becoming blurred and harder to manage.  More to the point, being a leader these days has a very personal dimension that needs to be recognised and supported.

What does this mean for coaching? Most coaching has been focused on performance improvement, modifying behaviours or managing change, with a secondary focus on personal development that may support the leader to achieve their objectives in these areas.  To the extent that psychology or psychological approaches have become part of the coach’s context, method or toolkit, the emphasis has been on behaviourally oriented psychologies, such as CBT and NLP or the newer positive- or neuro- psychologies that can also be highly effective at supporting performance improvement.

There is a place for all of this and performance improvement is not a bad place for a coach to begin their practice, particularly when working with Achievement-centred leaders.  At the same time, many leaders now need a more balanced approach, which places equal emphasis on the inner and outer dimensions of their lives as leaders, that can support them in dealing with the business and the personal, with the light and the dark, with depth and height, with higher purpose and meaning, as well as with day-to-day challenges and sometimes the shadows. Some coaching focuses exclusively on the positive and ignores these shadows, the parts of ourselves and our consciousness we are less ready to acknowledge; echoes of trauma, suffering and our history, how we have learned to survive as a personality. I am not suggesting the coach should work on healing the past, but these aspects can be very present and relevant to the coaching conversation and as such may need to be recognised, acknowledged and included.

Organisational leadership crisis

Readers of this blog will be familiar with how the developmental psychology perspective provides a map of how individuals, teams and organisations evolve and develop over times, as described in terms of organisational paradigms and leadership styles (e.g. see post on Frederic Laloux).  In a nutshell, Laloux describes seven organisational paradigms that broadly follow the emergence of human consciousness and societal worldviews over thousands of years of human history, and mirror the developmental stages that individuals work through as they grow up and mature in adulthood (at least in potentiality).  These are; Reactive, Magic, Impulsive, Conformist, Achievement, Pluralistic and Evolutionary.  It may help to think of these as ways of thinking and operating in the world, which are more or less activated within an individual, group, organisational or society depending upon history, circumstance and situational factors.  With his book “Reinventing organisations’ Laloux explores examples of the emerging ‘Evolutionary’ paradigm and examines the three common principles of self-organisation, wholeness and evolutionary purpose that he finds helps to activate this paradigm.

One simple way of characterising the current leadership crisis in organisations (and there are many) is that the current challenges and crises organisations are facing (e.g. complexity, agility, purpose, engagement, etc.) require an Evolutionary response, but are largely met with leadership centred at the ‘Achievement’ or ‘Pluralistic’ paradigms. Laloux focuses on organisational development towards the ‘Evolutionary’ paradigm, whereas it is often more relevant and practical to think about how to develop pockets of Evolutionary leadership (e.g. in key roles) within largely Achievement-Pluralistic organisations.

If you are working with a leader who is awakening to the Evolutionary paradigm, you will benefit from the context and methodology of a psycho-spiritual psychology, both when working with issues of wholeness and evolutionary purpose and when helping leaders in their vertical development.  Often such leaders experience a crisis of transition, whether a crisis of meaning or duality or some form of spiritual awakening.  Training in a psycho-spiritual psychology is important both for recognising what is happening for the client and knowing how to support them. More generally, there is a growing need to include and address the whole human being in organisations – so we need a psychology that includes the whole human being that helps us do this.

How do we apply this to leadership coaching?

What do we mean when we talk about applying, or bringing or drawing upon any psychology in relationship to coaching?  We actually mean some quite different things which are usually not well distinguished and can lead to confusion and even poor practice.

I have found that it helps to distinguish three different spaces in which we can apply a psycho-spiritual psychology as a coach. These are the coach’s space, the client’s space and the coaching space.

The coach’s space

First, we should attend to how any psychology we are studying applies to us and our personal and professional development.  This is particularly true for psycho-spiritual psychology where our subjective knowledge and experience of the territory is so valuable when it comes to supporting the client. All self-aware professional practitioners already know that the work always starts with themselves, that inner development informs outer inquiry and practice.  In hindsight, this is how I first drew upon psychosynthesis for many years before I started using more explicit models of psycho-spiritual coaching (such as Roger Evans’ Trifocal Vision, which we touch upon in this post but warrants a further post of its own).

A mature, vastly experienced and highly competent student on one of our coaching courses recently shared that for her, personal development never ceases and that her experience of effectiveness and mastery as a coach has directly increased in proportion to her work on herself. My experience is the same. From this perspective, as coaches we work on ourselves to increase our capacity to be with and know ourselves; which transfers directly to our capacity to be with and support our clients – what an amazing profession to be in!  Contrast this with conventional academic psychology that seems to miss the practitioner entirely except as a thinking machine that observes, analyses and diagnoses what is going on over there.

The client’s space

Second, we can consider how psychology can be used directly in working with or on the client’s personal process or development; for example, using a specific technique, exercise or method, either formally or informally, working at the prepersonal, personal and transpersonal levels described earlier. For example; using guided visualisation to catalyse transpersonal creative expression; mindset reframing for addressing personal level blocks to change; and identifying and owning projections in difficult relationships, as a simple prepersonal level intervention.

Working at the prepersonal level is where the greatest caution is needed and there are boundary issues between coaching and therapy or counselling to be recognised (see my post on therapy versus coaching) – for example as coaches we do not engage directly in the therapeutic process with our client, although we may contextualise it, refer to it and even support action towards it.

Many practitioners rush too quickly and eagerly to use their chosen psychology to work on the client and I tend to caution against this – don’t bring a technique to coaching for the sake of it – only in response to an emergent need or working in the gap to address blocks or impasses. The most common example I have come across is the zealous NLP practitioner using technique after technique with a client, intoxicated by the magic of instant apparent change. With some clients, I may never formally introduce a technique because all the important work happens naturally and informally in the coaching space.

The coaching space

So, thirdly and perhaps most importantly, our understanding of psychology can consciously and unconsciously inform and influence the coaching space, the coach’s engagement with the coachee in the coaching session; the coaching conversation, dialogue, process or journey – however you want to characterise it.  This alchemical space naturally touches upon and weaves between all levels of consciousness, all dimensions of time and the inner and outer lives of our clients, as we follow the coaching process in service of the client’s goals, purpose or needs.  As psycho-spiritual coaches, we hold awareness of the Self of the other as we explore the current reality and work in the gap to release available free will (Trifocal Vision).  This creates a right-relational being space, which is where the mystery can be present and magic can happen, mixed up with more prosaic progress towards good outcomes from hard work, usually involving helping the client identify and take the next small step towards their goal. You may recognise this transformative space (sometimes experienced as a state of grace) that can enter the coaching space in the way that you work – it obviously doesn’t need you to have studied psycho-spiritual psychology, but I recommend it if you want to develop your understanding of and capacity for recreating the transformative space.

Much more can be said about working in this transformative space as a coach, and how it differs from working on the client’s process. For a start, we bring our authentic presence as a coach, we can use ourselves as an instrument of change, we can bring ourselves as a resource – but always within the context of the coaching process and in service to the client’s Self and Will, or as Sir John Whitmore contextualises, for increasing the client’s awareness and responsibility.

The three spaces are summarised in the graphic below, which shows that in effect we are working at three levels in three spaces – so there are nine dimensions in all for applying psycho-spiritual psychology!

Three spaces for applying psycho-spiritual psychology in coaching

Why is this important?  For new or inexperienced coaches, it helps to break down the task at hand for bringing psychology to their learning and practice, to gain perspective and prioritise their own learning. For more experienced coaches, this model helps us identify where we are strong and perhaps where we are weak or blind.  It helps us navigate the territory and increases our options.

The graphic below (developed from one in my last post) describes similar territory, but from the perspective of leadership coaching agendas, process and context:

To be capable and comfortable working across this broad territory, the leadership coach can benefit from being grounded in a psycho-spiritual approach. To work with leaders in the inner domain of personality and self, raising awareness of mindsets, attitudes and emotions; with the higher realms of purpose, meaning, values and identity; as well as with the outer domain of behaviour and change, coaches need to draw from psychology that is concerned with the whole human being; basically, we are describing a psycho-spiritual psychology such as Psychosynthesis.

It is important to say that many experienced coaches working successfully in this way with being and doing (and I have met many who are members of APECS), have arrived at their current state of personal and professional development through their own unique learning journey, in which they have brought together different eclectic experiences (e.g. as leaders as well as coaches), approaches (e.g. leadership, OD and coaching models) or disciplines (e.g. backgrounds in psychology, counselling or therapy) – in effect they internally create their own holistic or integrative approach. Psychosynthesis simply offers a more direct path to internalising a psycho-spiritual psychology for both those setting out on this journey or those wishing to go further.

Thanks for reading.


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