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The Place of Reality in Coaching

What's the place of reality in coaching? If the client's perception is shaped by their early experiences and clashes with reality, causing distress, how can they find reality as it is? And should they?

Different schools of thought answer this question differently.

Cognitive-behavioral therapists and coaches

CBT therapists and most coaches would say that 

  1. the client must find reality because cognitive distortions lead to distress

  2. the therapist/coach can give them an objective view of the world.

Sounds authoritarian, doesn't it? That's because it is. 

Say a client holds a belief that wealth equals freedom. As a result, the client is overlooking the freedom he has now and occupies all his time with work to make more money. A CBT coach/therapist will label this belief "dysfunctional" and offer a belief that reflects reality better from their point of view (e.g., "freedom comes from choices, not just money"). Many clients, apparently, view the therapist/coach as an expert in life and readily accept the offered new belief. Success! 

Therapists of these schools of thought even agree that, indeed, they are experts! What gives them expertise, you ask? They studied psychology! I don't know about you, but that does not convince me. How do 4-6 years of studying psychology make you an expert in other people's life?

So, let's keep on looking.


Postmodern thinkers and Rogerian therapists 

As David Bell discusses in his paper, postmodernists would argue that one cannot know objective reality, and it is a mere illusion. They would celebrate the plurality of realities that people live in due to their unique lenses shaped by their upbringing, cultural background, ethnicity, gender, social class, and so forth. This view is familiar to all of us today, as it reflects the zeitgeist. Contemporary thinkers reexamine history, commonly accepted beliefs, and even scientific discoveries and question whether what was claimed to be true represents only a specific point of view. For example, psychologists today are questioning whether what we believed to be true about all human behavior applied only to the types of people we sampled in our research, i.e., WEIRD people - White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Likewise, sociologists question whether what we thought to be true was only a perspective supporting the needs of dominant groups.

Taken to the extreme, this train of thought questions all universal truth and limits the relevancy of any observations to the observer himself. As Bell discusses in his paper, it is fundamentally unclear where to draw the line of relevancy: should we say that something observed by a white academic in England is only relevant for white, educated, middle-class English men? Or should we also consider their specific location, marital status, literary preferences, and blood pressure? Eventually, this logic leaves each individual with a reality that is only true for one person - himself. Every person has their own truth.

This position accepts the inevitable human predicament of experiencing one's life subjectively. Indeed, from the humanistic perspective, every person is unique, with their individual values and potential. Every person spends his life realizing that potential, i.e., becoming himself. Life, then, is a creative endeavor. The client is an artist who paints a picture of his own world. The coach/therapist has no right to impose his view of the world upon the client — who is he to do that? All he can do is help the client explore the intricacies of his (client's) own worldview, identifying its benefits, limitations, and nature. 

Here, the goal of coaching/therapy is not to remove one's subjective lens to see the world clearly but to choose a more convenient lens. Therefore, if we take transcripts of Carl Rogers' sessions, we won't find any attempts to challenge the client's point of view. Rogers focuses on understanding the client empathetically, helping him to clarify his views and feelings more and more. Having been accepted and understood, the client gains more freedom to redesign his worldview. Redesign it! This means creating a new painting — NOT replacing watercolors with a microscope!

There are great benefits of this position in coaching/therapy. For one, it is undoubtedly a step up from the authoritarian stance of CBT. Coaching/therapy becomes a conversation between two equal parties, where the coach/therapist is not trying to fix the client but to help him understand himself and express himself creatively through his own life.

However, as Bell points out, if I accept that I live in a unique, subjective world, I lose the opportunity to be challenged and proven wrong. There is a certain degree of arrogance in that. If the client keeps running into a wall while wearing his VR glasses, he may just need to take the glasses off. 

Psychoanalysts and existential therapists/coaches

These practitioners, while embracing the notion of subjectivity, don't reject reality.

Freud demonstrated people's tendency to have cognitive distortions, which serve some deeply held needs. However, as Bell points out, he never suggested keeping it this way! On the contrary, his technique aimed to help people uncover the nature of these distortions and break free from them. Psychoanalysts believe that exploring our personal distortions of reality allows us to get closer to the truth. They argue that, while we experience reality subjectively and it is important to understand the nature of our perceptive lenses, reality exists out there, objectively, and there are certain things we cannot argue with.

So, how do we continue to respect the client's subjective perspective while honoring the reality, too? It is helpful to separate objective facts from the meaning one creates from them. 

Knowing reality as it is allows you to get better at making meaning. It is useful to know that this is green and this is blue — but it is still up to you what art to make with all these colors. 

Let's take the example from above again. A person believes that money means freedom. She grew up poor and saw rich people only on TV and social media. Those people look free, while she does not feel free. Hence the conclusion: money buys freedom. As a result, this person tries to make all the money in the world to reach freedom. At the same time, she overlooks the real degrees of freedom she has now and may lose by making more money. 

In this example, the objective reality is the actual lifestyle that money can give, with its benefits, limitations, and risks. That is our watercolor set. Yet, what to make of it remains open-ended and subjective. What ought to be does not follow from what is. You can create an infinite number of paintings with the same watercolor set.

The therapist/coach and the client see the world through different lenses (their parents fucked them up differently, if you will), and their views may contradict each other. Examining the differences between their lenses allows them to get closer to seeing the world as it is.

Thus, in this form of therapy/coaching, both parties are equal in their search for truth. However, once the truth is found, the therapist/coach merely supports the client in his (client's) act of self-expression. Now that we have found all the colors, the client will decide what to paint.

(Some may wonder why I placed existentialists with analysts instead of Rogerian (humanistic) therapists. Unlike Rogerian therapists, existentialists do not withhold from challenging the client's view of reality, which we can see by reading Yalom or Bugental)

So, what's the conclusion?

Let's return to our original questions: 

  1. Should the client find reality in coaching?

  2. If so, what helps them do that?

Answering the first question, I believe that being able to see reality is necessary when VR starts to clash with the real world. Otherwise, there is no need to take one's VR glasses off.

How do you find reality in coaching or therapy? Those who believe that a therapist/coach is an expert in life can stick with a CBT practitioner's version of reality. Others (like myself) are left with the approach of psychoanalysts and existentialists: exploring what the world looks like through different lenses and forming a theory about its real nature.


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