May 31, 2024

Autonomy vs. Agency? What are we coaching for?

Coaches often invite their clients to limit their coaching goals to things that the clients can control and discourage talk about other people. Sometimes talk about other people gets labeled “complaining” or even “whining” and coaches may even seem impatient to get the client to talk about things that THEY can change or influence. The thinking behind this stance is that it makes no sense to talk about people who are not here or that the only thing anyone can ever control is their own behavior and not the behavior of others. Coaches want to help the clients “discover” or “increase” their own agency, i.e. their power to do something about a situation they find themselves in.

Recently, I have been wondering if this approach does not unnecessarily buy into Western society’s individualism. It can also sometimes border on victim blaming: “You cannot do anything about how other people treat you, just accept it and move on.” If the client is in an abusive situation, the coach would not be demonstrating a lot of compassion with this stance! Western society (sorry for the gross overgeneralization) wants us to buy into the idea of the lone hero changing their fate. This culture tends to ignore that humans live with other humans and that they need the exchange, help and collaboration of others.

Remember how in Corona-lockdowns everyone was hording toilet paper (the Germans) or condoms (the French)? That literally helped no-one. I believe that in any kind of catastrophe it makes more sense to know the skills and resources of your neighbors than to hoard a pantry full of stuff that you throw out every few years because it has gone bad. I remember to this day the stories I was told in Bosnia, how a little village managed to stave off the Serbian army by joining forces and building bazookas in the various workshops around town: one could forge and weld metal, the other make gunpowder etc. and in the end, they had something that was impressive enough for the Serbian forces to go around their valley. Had everyone fended on their own, that would not have happened.

So, when we are encouraging clients to talk only about what they can change, it seems to me that we might be forgetting the relationships our clients can lean on. Of course, many of our clients, too, might have bought into the dominant narrative of: “I need to be autonomous, otherwise I am weak!” This is a narrative we might explore in coaching (if the client wants to, of course). Talking about “autonomy” versus “agency” makes a difference, in my view. Yes, we want to encourage our clients to make changes in their desired directions. No, we do not want to encourage them to rob themselves of the resources of their connections by supporting the illusion of “autonomy”.

Asking our clients who in their life supports their coaching goals, what these people know about the client that makes them confident the client can reach the goal, which interactions they might have in the coming weeks that would strengthen their resolve or steps toward their goal are important questions that support the client’s agency without buying into “autonomy”. Even if clients currently do not have anyone who seems supportive, we could ask clients if they would like to find people and if yes, where they could find them. Even people who passed away can be supporters. For example, if a client had a good relationship with their grandmother and knows that she would have been supportive, we can ask about what the grandmother would have wished for the client, how she would have supported etc.

We live in a web of relationships and in many ways, we ARE our relationships as much as we want to fool ourselves into thinking that we are these autonomous heroes who swoop in and save (our) day, we are not. If you’d like – think about yourself and your clients: who supports you and them? What’s your web of relationships like? Who supports you as a coach?

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