Seven perspectives on personal development for coaches

Published by Aubyn Howard on

Topic Series: Personal development and the leadership coach

Part 2: Seven perspectives on personal development for coaches

In my last post on this topic I described personal development as “a vast and complex topic that can be approached in many different ways… inter-woven as it is with the whole field of psychology, the story of the human potential movement, the leadership and talent development world, the popular self-help industry and of course the modern coaching profession”.

In this second post I explore seven key perspectives for coaches engaging with personal development, whilst continuing the theme that personal development is a context to hold simultaneously for both ourselves and our clients.

1: it starts with an attitude

Personal development is about an attitude, an orientation, choice and commitment to yourself and the ideaof personal growth.  In what appears to be an increasingly deterministic world, in which we are impacted by a multitude of complex external forces, your attitude is one thing you have choice and freedom about in your life. We always have the choice to nurture an attitude that embraces curiosity, openness to learning and some humility. Without these we can easily start to crystallise and become fixed in our view, shape and pattern in the world. Indeed, our capacity to contain ambiguity, uncertainty and not-knowing alongside continuing to inquire, discover and explore both the inner and outer world, shapes not just our path of personal development but also our ability to survive and adapt within an increasingly complex world.  

There is a paradox at the heart of personal development, which is that however much progress we make we are also always starting out from where we are now.  Although we might have worked on and developed ourselves over many years, it is our openness to continuing to develop and grow which makes the most difference to how we are now as a coach.  So, we are continuously facing the choice to renew our attitude, re-chose the path we have chosen.  Even the best attitudes can become tired and stale and morph unconsciously into something less helpful. Attitudes are closely connected with moods and emotions, which can be coloured and changed by any little event of the day as well as over a longer period by all manner of situations in our lives. Therefore, our attitudes need continuous or at least periodic reflection and renewal.

From this perspective, personal development can be a continuous process throughout our lives. To quote Roberto Assagioli, when asked whether there was a point of arrival or stable state at the end of the self-realisation journey: “Life is movement, and the superconscious realms are in continuous renewal. In this adventure we move from revelation to revelation, from joy to joy.  I hope you do not reach any ‘stable state’. A ‘stable state’ is death.”

2: know thyself, know thy client

Personal development starts with self-awareness and the capacity to self-reflect.  This then extends outwards to include our awareness of others, how they are different and how we impact and relate with others. Awareness and self-reflection are the starting point to knowing what ‘our stuff’ is, what our personality edges and developmental issues might be.

Essentially, we need to seek to know ourselves in order to know and work with others on their inner lives, to better understand and appreciate the psychospiritual territory in which we are working.  Inner work with others is best accessed through your direct experience of your inner work on yourself, rather than through the study and learning of theories and models (which then help in your own sense making). 

Within the psychosynthesis context, the coach is playing the role of a guide to the coachee in terms of their long term psychospiritual development. We are using the term of guidein a loose sense, in that it doesn’t necessarily mean that the coachee is following the same developmental path as the coach (they may be very different to you), or even that the coach is ahead of the coachee on the path (as a therapist might regard themselves).  Some coaches like to think of themselves as accompanying the coachee on their unique path, walking alongside them so to speak, and this can be a useful metaphor. What is important is that the coach has a living experience of what it means to be on their own psychospiritual developmental journey and therefore is able to guide and support the coachee in relationship to embarking or continuing upon their own journey.  There is also potential for synergy and a degree of reciprocity here, although not explicit – with the coach’s personal development benefiting vicariously from the work the coachee is doing. At the same time, we must be wary of becoming too identified or self-referencing with our clients and remember that what was right for us may not be right for them.

“the more I understand myself, my identity, my business and direction and wider possibilities… the more this flows into my work with clients in helping them understand themselves, what they are doing and their direction…” AY (PGCPLC student)

3: What’s my stuff, what’s their stuff?

We need to know our stuff so that we can be aware of when it is triggered and distinguish it from our client’s stuff.  If we are caught by our stuff when coaching and we are not aware of it or unconsciously react out of it, then we are not in the best place to serve our client. We need to be continuously curious, to ask ourselves as coaches in relationship to the other, what’s my stuff and what’s your stuff and how does my stuff get along with your stuff (e.g. do they play nicely together or get into a fight?). 

What do I mean by ‘stuff’? Our personality edges and issues, our blind spots and trigger-points, our unwanted patterns and preoccupations, wherever we have an emotional charge as a legacy from the past which can be activated automatically or unconsciously in different situations or by different types of people. Where are you caught?  Where do you get stuck? What reactivates you? What gets you into trouble in situations or relationships?  What is my part in these problems that I experience?These are the sort of questions that can help us inquire into our stuff and our baggage from the past. It is important to say that we should not be seeking to get rid of our stuff, rather to become more aware of it, to be able to own it and have greater choice in relation to it. Over time, we might then notice that something (e.g. my anxiety when speaking in a large group, feeling intimidated by tall people, etc.) is no longer such an issue for us and that the focus for our development takes a new direction.

The psychological concepts that help us understand ‘our stuff’ include transference and counter-transference, as well as projection and introjection.  Sometimes our client’s stuff is reactivated simply by entering the situation of being coached, which combines with whom we might remind the client of from their past.  We call this transferenceand the way that you as the coach pick up that this is happening (usually in your emotional subconscious), we call countertransference. Transference can be positive (e.g. the coachee sees a good parental figure in the coach) or negative (the coach reminds the coachee of a harsh or critical parental figure).  For the most part, the key thing to remember as the coach is to simply be aware that this is going on and not to react out to it, to hold and contain the coachee and whatever might be going on for them in the space.  These concepts are more fully explored elsewhere. For now, I am challenging you as the coach to consider situations or relationships where transference might be present for you (a clue – most authority figures tend to activate some transference, e.g. boss, trainer, coach, therapist, supervisor, etc.).

4: ways of working on yourself

There are some subtleties to the meaning of the phrase ‘working on yourself’.  On one hand, I might say I am always working on myself within the context of personal development, at least in an ad-hoc informal way through ongoing reflection and deepening awareness (and sometimes I am really not working on myself, I am taking a break, hanging out, not thinking too deeply, etc.).     

On the other hand, there are specific actions, practices and activities we can engage in to work on ourselves within the context of personal and professional development.  The most obvious are training and development courses and programmes, ranging from weekend seminars and retreats to Masters’ degree level programmes.  Then we have engagement in any kind of helping professional relationship, whether coaching, counselling or psychotherapy, both individually and in group settings, both short term and longer-term. Then we have self-directed and individual practices, including any form of meditation, contemplation or mindfulness as perhaps the most commonly followed or proscribed.  Any self-study involving reading, reflecting and writing can be contextualised as a personal development practice, as might be any artistic and creative activities. So can any physical practices and exercise routines, such as Yoga, Chi-Jong, Tai-Chi, Pilates, etc., as well as simple stretching, walking, running cycling, etc.

Self-reflection is an important part of any personal development and can take many forms or be assisted by a variety of activities, coaching being an obvious one. Journal writing is also a very common form of self-reflection and integration. Going on retreat or spending extended time in contemplation or meditation is also important for self-reflection.  Retreats can mean different things to different people and the distinction between personal development and spiritual practice can become blurred, although I don’t see this as problematic – an activity can be contextualised in whatever way is most useful to the individual. For example, for the last 10 years I have spent about an hour most days walking in nature as a way of reflecting upon and integrating what is happening in my life. At the same time, I consider this way of communing with nature as a spiritual practice, often finding myself in what I would describe as transpersonal states of consciousness. These are all just examples and ideas for personal development activities and practices but really the options are endless and nothing should be excluded.

Ken Wilber has espoused an approach to integral practice and development is which we simultaneously include a range of different practices in our self-development. As he says in One Taste (p77-78); “anybody can put together their own integral practice. The idea is to simultaneously exercise all the major levels and dimensionsof the human bodymind — physical, emotional, mental, social, cultural, spiritual…. Pick a basic practice from each category, or from as many categories as pragmatically possible, and practice them concurrently – “all-level, all-quadrant… In short, exercise body, mind, soul, and spirit in self, culture, and nature.”

Working on our personal development can also be part of our everyday lives and work without engaging in any special activity, to the extent we might bring awareness and self-reflection to what we are doing, experiencing and learning. Clearly this is more likely to be true for some professions and types of work than others. Coaching is obviously a profession that is suited to people who are interested in their own personal development and our central theme is that developing as a psychosynthesis coach and engaging in your own personal development are mutually supportive and inter-dependent.  One of the amazing things about the coaching profession is that it provides continuing opportunities for the coach to further their own personal development – we need never stop learning from coaching our clients. However, we still need to give time and space to the self-reflective process in which we make meaning for ourselves, which is why supervision is so important for the coach and can be as much about your personal development as your professional practice. For myself, in this phase of my life, the most fruitful form of personal development seems to be working to support the professional development of others, as a teacher, facilitator, coach and supervisor.  And yet I notice the need to be in individual and group supervision relationships in which the roles are reversed.

5: finding your edges to work on

One the hardest parts of personal development in my experience is identifying and focusing the psychological issues and personality edges that I need to work on. The nature of the issues we might need to work on is that they can be elusive and slippery, our minds don’t want to acknowledge or remember them because they are part of our ingrained and unconscious survival strategies! This work connects with the theme of transforming mindsets which I have written about elsewhere. This is different to creating a broad vision for your personal development and setting high level developmental objectives (which is important but relatively easy), although these two levels of focusing can and should inform each other. 

A few approaches come immediately to mind.  The first and easiest to do is journaling, writing stuff down either in the moment when the thoughts come or as a regular discipline, e.g. daily or weekly.  The second, rather obviously, is to use coaching, to talk through the edges and issues you want to work on with someone else. Sometimes we expect people to come to coaching with their goals or the issues they want to work on fully formed – whereas surfacing these this can be the first and often most important part of coaching. As a coach I have often worked with leaders to simply reflect upon, unpack and make sense of the most troubling or problematic situations and relationships they have experienced since the previous coaching session, and in most organisations, these are usually plentiful. They key here is the depth of self-reflection and the willingness of the coachee to focus on their part in the problems they experience. A third approach is to use formal or informal feedback alongside personality or leadership profiling.

6: assessing your personal development

How might we assess our personal development? Self-reflection, drawing on our own subjective experience, is the cornerstone for any self-assessment.  This is best supported by keeping a learning journal and by periodic discussion with a coach. On our courses we ask students to keep a journal of some kind and at the end of four months, to write a paper reflecting upon their personal and professional development during the course.

Any self-assessment is enhanced by setting well-formed developmental objectives and reviewing progress periodically against these, again ideally with the help of a coach. This can be supported by the use of 360 feedback and personality profiling exercises, and this is an approach I use with many of the leaders I coach. 

How about assessing the personal development of others, the people we are coaching for example? In Leadership Development, we can make the distinction between horizontal, vertical and inner development, and each of these perspectives lend themselves to different assessment approaches.  Horizontal developmentmostly concerns abilities, competencies and skills and there are well established approaches to assessing these within the organisational human resources world. Increasingly, personal development is playing a more prominent role in leadership development competency frameworks, for example the focus on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and now Social Intelligence (see Daniel Goleman’s works on these for some useful assessment tools). 

Vertical developmentis less straight forward in that a ‘paper’ self-assessment of vertical development isn’t always reliable and 360 feedback is problematic if assessors are less vertically developed than the person being assessed.  Harthill’s Leadership Development Framework, which involves sentence completion analysis by experts, is the most widely accepted approach to this, but now feels somewhat outdated and exclusive. Leadership coaches need to develop their own capacity to assess and evaluate the vertical development of their coachees and there is work to be done to support this.

Inner development– the core development of self and will, building our awareness and capacity to act, that is eventually expressed both in terms of horizontal and vertical development – is even harder to assess, and I would suggest is best grounded in the coach’s subjective awareness and observation.

Let me illustrate what I mean by this. I notice that when I start coaching a new leader, I tend to automatically and unconsciously start formulating a view of their level of self-awareness and ability to self-reflect, as the most significant aspect of their inner development. For example, how easy is it to start to create an aware relational space with them? I then start looking for signs of their how aware they are of others and the differences in people, as well as recognition of how they impact others. I am wary of coachees telling stories about problems they have with others in their lives that do not include some awareness of their part in it. I might also start to assess how aware they are of the bigger picture they are part of and the systems forces that are impacting them. Can they see and respond systemically to what is going on or are they the unwitting victim? Alongside the leader’s levels of awareness (of self, others and the wider system), I am also looking for indications of their capacity to act in the world, the availability of free will in their lives. This tends to take longer to assess and comes partly from seeing evidence of acting upon the realisations, choices and decisions that take place in the coaching space. Finally, I am interested in their attitude and openness to learning (as described in the first point in this piece) and their willingness to ask for help where appropriate. Can they invite and be open to feedback, can they show any vulnerability or are they too well defended? The more senior the leader, the more wary I might be of the egotistic or hubristic leader, who knows it all and can do it all.

I have just described the five dimensions of a developmental model which can be used as a way of gauging inner leadership development.  This is Roger Evans’ Five Dimensions of Leadership (2019), which is more fully elaborated elsewhere, along with Roger’s approach to scoring yourself and others along these five dimensions. For now, here is a quick summary:

1DL – Ability to self-reflect – self-awareness
2DL– Awareness of one’s impact on others, understanding difference and group dynamics
3DL– Ability to consistently see the whole picture and the dynamics between the ‘parts and the whole’. The art of ‘thinking systemically’ and understanding system forces.
4DL– Free will, individual freedom to make clear decisions and to deliver in the face of resistance – ‘to be blown in the wind, to bend but to stand firm’
5DL– Ability to ask for appropriate help and support – internally and externally to the organisation. Humanity, humility and openness to feedback.

7: knowing it’s always personal

Being a coach is always both personal and professional, especially so for psychosynthesis coaches. Personal, in that we can never leave ourselves out of the picture in our reflective professional practice – our subjective experience is the ever present filter through which we engage in the professional relationship, so paradoxically in order to achieve some degree of objectivity in our perspective, we need to be ever attentive, curious and inquiring about who and how we are, about what is going on with us in relationship to the other.  Beyond this, as coaches we are also always learning about how to use the self as an instrument of change – and there is more scope to be actively and personally engaged in the coaching relationship than in therapy (see Stacey Miilichamp’s recent bookfor more on this theme), at the same time as always maintaining the context of the professional helping relationship.

What’s next

The primary task of personal development is getting to know and mastering our personality, through exploring all levels of our consciousness. In my third and final post on this topic, I will offer an overview of some maps and models to help us recognise our personality types, our psychological preferences or biases, and given these, our likely edges or issues to work on.


Aubyn Howard

Aubyn Howard

Aubyn has 30 years’ experience as an organisational consultant, facilitator, educator and coach, supporting transformational change and leadership development with leaders.