Managing relationships: a somatic-relational lens
I notice patterns in the topics that clients bring to their coaching, and lately I’ve been working with a number of clients challenged by managing upwards or managing relationships with peers.
When belonging is challenged
There’s the client who thinks more adventurously than her peers, and who – as an innovator by nature – also finds herself in tension with the message of her cultural background, which is not to make waves, but simply to blend in. So she’s working with tensions in two respects: the tension between what she believes to be appropriate and the risk of not belonging in her peer team, and the tension between what she believes to be appropriate and her loyalty to a cultural belief, which also challenges her belonging.
Not being heard
There’s the client who feels constantly unheard by her line manager, who seems set on his own path without making space to consider other perspectives or the broader picture. The line manager sincerely believes he’s absolutely right about the path he’s following, so my client is unable to have any conversations beyond the immediate task or to get approval for any suggestions for improvement. She feels shut down and crushed, and has no idea how to reach her busy and preoccupied line manager to explore negotiating a different kind of relationship.
Frustration with perceived competence
There are two clients (in totally different sectors) who are frustrated by what they see as their line managers’ incompetence, resistance to dealing with conflict, and failure to face reality. Both clients believe they could do a much better job themselves.
Anxiety and isolation
There was a degree of anxiety for my clients that was associated with all these tensions. And there was also a sense of loneliness: they all felt isolated from their line managers or their peers, like separate unconnected atoms, and they all felt unable to have the impact they wanted. It seemed to me that finding a way of feeling more connected might be resourcing in these situations, and also that any sense of change might come not from addressing the difficulty head-on but rather through the somatic (bodily) experience of my clients in these relationships. An added advantage of this was that it allowed all these individuals to detach from the emotional charge of the indignation and anxiety.
My coaching approach
In a variety of ways, I invited these clients to become aware of the bodily sensations and impulses towards movement that their individual experiences evoked for them. We worked together on the meaning of those sensations and impulses for them, and we worked at depth on any links with the various facets of how their ‘problematic’ relationships showed up in practice, looking at them through a range of lenses, with compassion and with a focus on the potential that new types of connection offered. Old messages and out-of-date interpretations came to the fore, and in each case, because of the new awareness, the client was able to make new and experimental choices about their relationship to the relationship itself.
In a learning and development context such as coaching, good outcomes often tend to emerge rather than being one-off or slick ‘solutions’ (and the emergence itself allows for more curiosity and learning than a once-and-for all ‘solution’ – which can be superficial and lack subtlety, and so lack sustainability). Across these clients’ experiences was an acceptance of ‘what is’, and an acceptance of ‘the other’ as they were rather than trying to fight it or resist it. They became more perceptive about the impact of ‘the other’ on them and theirs on ‘the other’. They felt more settled, safer, more trusting of themselves (which was fascinating) with greater personal peace, and a reconnection with their own and the other’s uniqueness.
In two cases the clients also realised how, over time, their wider system benefited: a sense of abrasion (‘grittiness’) in the culture was soothed, acceptance became more ubiquitous, and so too did psychological safety.
Something calmed, and not only did my clients experience their sense of belonging – arguably the greatest human need – as enhanced, but they enacted more of their own true capability with a sense of greater space and freedom. Something important was released for them.