Life coaching is at heart about helping people find their way in the world, about personal development. Coaches work with clients to examine their thinking, solve problems in their lives, build careers and relate to other people, among other things. So far, none of this sounds very anticapitalist – and much of the time it isn’t. A lot of coaching is focused on helping people achieve explicitly capitalist/individualistic aims, like becoming more productive or self-reliant. This post is intended mostly as a statement of why I think a lot of coaching falls short and why I think anticapitalist theory and praxis can help us do coaching differently.
The three main problems that I see with mainstream coaching are: 1) many coaching containers on offer are predicated on unspoken norms and value systems. An awful lot of coaching sells because it sells supposed shortcuts to normative success (making more money, finding a partner, etc) 2) coaching predicated on normative values tends to ignore how external systems intersect with individual minds, and 3) a lot of coaching promises quick and easy transformation. This is not to mention (for now) the issue of marketing techniques rooted in scarcity, client-shaming and pain, all of which are very real and prevalent in the coaching industry.
Firstly, I think coaching is limited when it focuses on normative definitions of success. This is both because it excludes clients who are not interested in these things, and because we live within systems that are designed to keep most people from achieving them. A lot of coaching sounds sort-of progressive, on the surface, like the idea that women should aspire to be million- or even billionaires, for instance, but at heart it sticks pretty closely to the well-trodden paths of the dominant culture. The idea that more women should become millionaires does nothing to challenge the systems that prevent so many people from thriving. It produces only the most incremental change because it benefits the few and ignores the many. Perhaps being born into Margaret Thatcher’s Britain makes me more cynical than many about the idea that simply being born a woman makes a person capable of being a kind and compassionate leader.
This is not a new idea. Paulo Friere talks about the difference between liberation and oppressed people ascending to become part of the oppressor class in Pedagogy of The Oppressed. Audre Lorde talks about how we cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the masters’ house. Minna Salami expands on this in her book Sensuous Knowledge, delving into the dual meaning of ‘dismantle’ to mean unveiling or bringing to light as well as physical interruption. These are reminders to think more boldly, to not just strive for our own success within the existing systems, but to look instead for transformation that helps more of us thrive. Dismantling or unveiling our thoughts gives us the agency to stick with our existing thinking or cultivate new beliefs. When we dismantle in this way, we situate our current belief systems within society and our lineage.
What I realised is that coaching tools can be put to more radical uses than pursuing our own individual successes in ways that are -at best- agnostic to the wider collective. We can use life-coaching tools to unpack our relationship to the culture, and that opens up more possibilities for clients to explore. Like any other human activity, coaching relies on the perspective and socialisation of both the client and the coach. If I am unaware that my worldview is made up of my own thoughts (as opposed to it being an objective description of reality) and I subscribe, to, say, the idea that everyone should make as much money as possible, I can coach someone on their thoughts about making a million pounds, but I likely won’t coach them on unpacking why they think they need a million pounds to count as successful. If I believe that we live in a meritocracy where the value of everybody’s work is equally recognised and rewarded, again, I am limited in what I can offer clients.
The systems we live in do affect our lives, regardless of our mindset. We are all shaped by the cultures we live in. When coaches say something like “all problems are thought problems” I think they are oversimplifying. If I lose my job, it is true that I get to choose what I think about that. It is also true that losing my job could have material or relational consequences for me and to people I am in relationship with. And what consequences those are are a function of where I am situated within the systems, because I am not just a mind in a jar, but a person existing within webs of relationships and power dynamics and lineage. By considering the material world in the coaching process, by acknowledging relationships and systems, we empower ourselves in making decisions and our decisions and actions feed back into the transformation of our material circumstances. I think this makes it easier to disentangle the parts of the problem where we do have agency from the parts where we do not. I think it makes it easier to process and move through shame.
Cultural hegemony is the term developed by Antonio Gramsci to describe how certain ideologies and aspects of dominant cultures become so central to human lives that we view them as simply common sense – and by doing so we consent to upholding systems that harm us. Coaching tools that are developed to help us surface subconscious “limiting” beliefs can model and unpack social conditioning too. Note that I put the word “limiting” in quotes here. That’s because I think it can often be interpreted as implying that our beliefs are shameful or wrong and when a word is so often misinterpreted, perhaps it’s time to look for something different? I think that unpacking our conditioning from a place of unconditional positive regard is fundamental to liberation work. Again, I am not original in saying this – and that’s essential. This is not the work of any one person. It cannot be.
Third, coaching is guidance and support with the process of transformation, coaches co-create results with clients, but this requires active engagement on both sides of the partnership. Coaching essentially transforms us through a dialectical process – the coach and client move backwards and forward between conflicting or competing ideas and the coach holds space for the client to grapple with and hold multiple concepts. Often clients present with a problem that is the result of a choice they are actively making. Giving clients a non-judgemental space to dig into and untangle these scenarios is what coaches do. Often old thought patterns resurface in new ways. This is how we learn. Unfortunately, a lot of schooling teaches us to passively consume knowledge, rather than actively grapple with it. And a lot of coaching caters to this expectation. I think good coaches hold the container and don’t coddle clients – they help clients increase their capacity to stay with discomfort.
With hindsight, I realise that I began this work when I was nine years old, when a teacher told us about rainforests in the Amazon being cut down and the devastating effects this was having on both humans and wildlife. I remember that moment of shock, of something becoming clear in my mind that could never be erased now that it was known. That moment stands out to me as the one where I became conscious of how connected we all are. People and planet, all of us are enmeshed in these systems. I started to listen and read and think about systems on some level that day, although I had no idea how to make it my life’s work and I’m still deep in the process of figuring that part out. What I do know is that I am really good at is naming and describing systems, asking questions and holding space for people to wrestle with questions and maybe find answers and loving people while they learn to love themselves. For me, this work will always be a process.
Anticapitalist coaching doesn’t mean only coaching for free, although finding ways to make my work free and/or accessible is integral to my process. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to make any money or that I think money in and of itself is evil. I want to be fairly compensated for my work. I want you to be fairly compensated for your work. Anticapitalist coaching doesn’t mean I want to make you agree with me or convert you to my politics. What it means is acknowledging that coaching is fundamentally a dialectical process and that personal and collective transformation are in always relationship with each other. I am not a perfect anticapitalist or an authority, because I cannot be – like my clients, I was born into these systems, at this precise moment in human history. Chasing after ideological purity is, in a roundabout way, a product of the values of our systems, because seeking to be perfect pathologises making mistakes and leaves no space to restore harm. Anticapitalist coaching acknowledges that when we do countercultural work we are always in process, in dialogue with one another and with the culture we seek to change – we’re figuring things out together. Anticapitalist coaching means acknowledging the complexity inherent to both personal and collective change and allowing change to happen at the pace it requires. It means staying with the complexity (if it was easy, we wouldn’t need coaching tools). It is slow and seasonal, like tending a garden.
I began to feel uncomfortable with coaching early on in my coaching journey, when a coach told me that I was limiting myself when I said I wasn’t interested in earning a million pounds. Their thinking was that I was limiting myself because women are raised to “think small.” But my definition of success for my business feels so much expansive than having a million pounds in my bank account does. It’s not that I think I am incapable of making a million pounds – I just have different goals. I’m imagining a business where my future colleagues thrive, where we tend to and support each other, where my/our work contributes to creating economic justice, where growth doesn’t come at the cost of anybody’s humanity. And maybe this vision is big, given the systems we live within, but it makes my heart sing. And if I had listened to the coach who told me that my vision was limited, I might be on a different path.
And you know what? Your dreams and desires and vision of success might look very different to mine. You might want the million pounds. I’m not here to moralise at you and I’m not interested in trying to dissuade you of your beliefs (I save that for organising, not coaching). I just want you to know that you are an active participant in shaping our culture, because we all are. And if you want to grapple with that, I’d be honoured to be your guide.