The alchemy of coaching

Published by matt on

Alchemy is making a comeback.  Cast into the shadows by the enlightenment and modern science, the notion of alchemy, albeit in a metaphorical sense in relationship to human consciousness and will, is seemingly becoming relevant again.

Definition:    al·che·my   alkəmē/   noun: alchemy

the medieval forerunner of chemistry, based on the supposed transformation of matter. It was concerned particularly with attempts to convert base metals into gold or to find a universal elixir.

synonyms: chemistry; magic, sorcery, witchcraft

“a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination”.

Paulo Coelho’s allegorical novel The Alchemist, written in 1988 and 150 million copies sold, with its central message that “when a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize their dream”, brought the theme of alchemy back into modern consciousness.

More recently, David Rooke and Bill Torbert in their 2005 HBR article on Seven Leadership Transformations, use Alchemist to describe their highest stage of leadership development, with the description: “generates social transformations. Integrates material, spiritual, and societal transformation.”

More description of this stage includes “interplay of awareness, thought, action and effect. Transforming self and others”, and “anchoring in inclusive present, seeing the light and dark in situations; works with order and chaos”.

Building upon this vision of the leader as alchemist, I find alchemy a useful metaphor for thinking about leadership coaching in a number of ways, which I explore in this post.

I am using alchemy in a similar way here to the terms synthesis or transformation.  The practice of alchemy, to my mind, involves at least four essential parts: (1) a crucible, container or context and (2) a combination of elements that come together within the crucible (3) through an essentially mysterious process, as guided or initiated by (4) the alchemist, guide or wise person.

How is coaching like alchemy? Firstly, the coaching session can sometimes be experienced as alchemy, both by the coach and the coachee.  Clearly the coach here is the alchemist or guide, but what is the crucible?  Within psychosynthesis coaching, this is created by the coach containing or holding the being of the other and the space that opens up between the coach and coachee in right relationship.  We sometimes call this the space between, and other approaches might describe this in terms of active presence or authentic engagement.

The elements are simply the contents or substance of the coaching conversation, which can be viewed through different dimensions (see below), for example; the inner and outer agendas the coachee brings, awareness raising, exploring options and finding available will.  In terms of inner exploration, these elements might then include; different parts of our personality (we call these subpersonalities); aspects or levels of consciousness; our thoughts, feeling and bodily experience; the somatic, the systemic and the superconscious.

The mysterious process is what happens beyond the conscious mind to bring these elements into creative tension or synthesis, to initiate transformation or emergence, giving rise to something more than the sum of the parts.  When this happens successfully, both parties experience heightened awareness or engagement, in gestalt terms contact or resolution. If we are fortunate a sense of grace might descend, a moment of timelessness and shared experience, although this is seldom explicitly acknowledged. Good coaches draw upon the energy released to guide the coachee towards choices, actions and future testing by the end of the session rather than simply basking in the experience. Of course, most coaching doesn’t flow so perfectly as this and there are bumps, deviations and challenges along the way.  However, it may be useful for the coach to hold this template of the alchemical process in their awareness, not in the same way as conventional coaching processes such as GROW or CLEAR, but as a way of staying open to what is between and beyond.

Dimensions, levels or elements at play within the coaching space include:

  • Levels of engagement – what level are you working at as a coach? Who is your client?
    • Individual – team – system
  • Coaching agendas – which agendas is your client bringing, both explicitly and implicitly?
    • Inner: change, development, purpose; personal, being, self-reflection, inquiry
    • Outer: change, behaviour, performance; practical, planning, action, review
  • Coaching horizon – when in time is the client’s energy blocked or needs attention? What is their temporal orientation?
    • Past – Present – Future (near to far)
  • Levels of consciousness – which levels of consciousness are engaged? Where are the unconscious blocks?
    • Prepersonal – personal – transpersonal
  • Body-Feelings-Mind – what parts of their experience does the client access easily? Which aspects are suppressed?
    • Somatic awareness – emotional intelligence – mindsets
  • Leadership development – what are the priorities for the client’s development? e.g. skills, intelligences, worldviews, self-esteem, confidence, awareness, will? What are the key inter-dependencies?
    • Horizontal – vertical – inner

The inner development of leaders can also be viewed in terms of alchemy.  The crucible is the leader’s sense of purpose and values, their pull towards meaning and growth, which create a context for personal development, whether conscious and articulated or not.  The elements include the interplay of awareness and will, and the harnessing of the psychological functions (e.g. thinking, feeling, sensing, intuition, imagination) and other resources by the will. The mysterious process of development itself can be described in terms of the personal journey towards self-actualisation and self-realisation, or in terms of lines and levels of development (e.g. see Wilber’s integral model or Frederic Laloux’s leadership paradigms). Who is the alchemist or conductor of all this? In psychosynthesis terms, we view the ‘higher Self’ as an inner guide. Part of the coach’s role is to nurture the client’s connection with their higher Self, to facilitate the process of inner development.

Thirdly, I want to describe coach development in terms of this alchemical process. In psychosynthesis coaching, we use the holistic psychology of psychosynthesis as our crucible, with Assagioli’s egg diagram providing a perfect container for bringing various elements into synthesis as part of our individual and collective evolving models of coaching.  Some of the elements we bring into the mix on our courses include; transpersonal coaching, systemic coaching, somatic coaching, mindfulness, neuroscience and evolutionary coaching.

These are amongst the most interesting developments and innovative approaches in coaching today – they can equip coaches to support leaders in responding to the emergent challenges of leadership in an increasingly complex and high pressure world.  Each will be the subject of one of my posts this year.

On our courses, there is also a creative synthesis of the elements of experiential learning, skills practice and theoretical ideas. Meanwhile, each participant engages in a continuous reflective dialogue between workshop learning and their own professional practice. This whole process of synthesis takes place differently and unpredictably on each course, depending upon our participants and the unique individual experience and perspectives they bring. Thus we are always learning and evolving something new.

One of the reasons I like this alchemy metaphor is that despite the aura of mystery, the original purpose was to create gold from base metal, something very practical. Our challenge as coaches is to stay open to mystery (or that which is beyond the control of our conscious minds) at the same time as staying grounded in the practical and pragmatic, and to help our clients do the same.  To continuously hold the creative tension, for ourselves and our clients. To quote Roberto Assagioli “What is synthesis? It could be defined as a dynamic, creative balance of tensions”.

Thanks for reading