December 1, 2022

Holistic coaching - what it really is

Many coaching approaches claim to be holistic – but are they?. Most marketing language around holistic coaching begins by separating a human being into different spheres: physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, for example. Sometimes there is even talk about the thinking mind and other ways of knowing.

This makes me a little bit suspicious: if you are claiming to be holistic, why are you separating a human being into parts right from the get go? I don't want to create a straw man here, so please let me know if I am completely misunderstanding something: but if you truly view a human being as whole, why this artificial separation?

The argument seems to be that we are privileging our thinking minds in today's world and we are underusing the spiritual, physical and emotional spheres. You can find such ideas in somatic, holistic coaching and in coaching approaches using the concept of emotional and other intelligences. However, the whole argument around using privileging one sphere over the other rests upon the assumption that a human being consists of separate spheres.

The idea that a human being consists of a mind and a body was popularized in the Enlightenment especially following the ideas of Rene Descartes, who needed to argue for a separation of body and mind/soul in order to make a case for the mind and soul to survive a human beings physical death. He was a catholic priest, after all. Of course, I am saying this a little bit facetiously – all philosophers among my readers, please forgive me.

Solution Focused coaching is a little bit more radical here. As a Solution Focused practitioner, I do not believe that it makes sense to talk about separate spheres as if they were independent. What I am thinking influences what I am feeling. How my body is, influences what I can think, feel and experience. What I think and feel about spirituality influences what I intend and value in my life and therefore influences what I think, feel, and do. What other people around me are doing influences what I feel, think do – how I am?

Whenever emotions, bodily sensations or spiritual experiences are talked about in coaching sessions as if they were some things separate from the whole experience of a human being, the discussion becomes decontextualized. For me, with my philosophical understanding of what a whole human being is, this is very strange. I assume that it is a whole, inseparable person who engages in activities like thinking, feeling, experiencing, etcetera. When I am coaching this whole, inseparable human being, I am inviting them to describe their current and preferred ways of being, their current and preferred identities and whatever else they would like to do in co-creation with me.

Instead of asking the client to feel where the problem is in their body or to direct them to repeat a gesture and feel into it in order to gain insight, I would ask fora holistic description of the desired future. In Solution Focus this rich, holistic description includes how the client would notice progress toward their desired future, how their environment might notice, what they might do differently, feel differently and what this has to do with the intentions they hold for their lives. For me, there is no need to pretend there is a separation between mind, body, soul, environment, emotions, etc. or to privilege one way of discussing over another.

When I am talking to a client, I am so holistic that I even include myself. The relevant unit of coaching for me is the coach and the client. It is about what we are doing together in this session. Privileging the analysis or description of the client’s body or emotion has the danger of individualizing the client. What maybe an issue which the client is experiencing in context, can become decontextualized and an internal problem of the client. Let’s say the client is suffering due to bullying – would it not make sense to include the environment?

I'm sure that individualizing is not what my holistic and somatic colleagues intend. Also, I presume that these approaches work just as well as any other approach, when clients and coach agree that the approach is a good method for gaining insights and moving forward. However, I think the coaching world could benefit a lot from our joint examination of the premises on which our coaching approaches rest and the consequences that has for our coaching approach: what do we mean when we say “holistic”, how do we conceptualize “a human being”, their way of learning, etc.

Otherwise it discussing coaching turns into the dodo verdict: “We all have one and we all must have prizes”. I would love to have more conversations around the foundational philosophies of coaching!

If you're interested and discussing and exchanging views, would like to discuss a case or learn about our programs please join us for our free meet up and exchange.

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