Coaching: Embodied case study

page-title-services-strategic-faciliation-03aAnna was classically Type A. Trained as a physician but turned high-powered management consultant, she had conquered every academic and professional challenge thus far thrown her way. Smart, driven, hard working, perceptive, and seemingly sure of herself, Anna was on the fast track to making Partner. But in the last six months, she had begun to experience a few disappointments, the nature of which were new and baffling to her. She was passed over for a promotion, for some vague reason having to do with the way she interacted with those around her–a little too ambitious in some people’s eyes, while, interestingly, a bit too reticent to share her opinions in others’. Needless to say, Anna was confused and angry. Whose opinion should she trust in the face of these conflicting perspectives, neither of which she particularly shared?

I began with a series of conversations aimed at trying to uncover her developmental tethers and growing edges. How was she making sense, which things could she see and to which was she blind? How could seeing her blind spots help her to question her implicit assumptions about herself?
It turned out that Anna was both highly allergic to the possibility of being seen as wrong or stupid (thus reticence to share her opinions in some settings) and intolerant of the idea that people less competent than she might be in positions of authority over her (thus the behavior that led some to experience her as too ambitious). Through discussion and roleplay, Anna, who was one of the most eager learners I’ve ever worked with, got very clear about the stories that were getting in her way. She got cognitive understanding. But how to actually change?

Anna needed to do two things in order to move to different action. First, she needed to learn how to exert the right effort, and, second, she needed to move from a form of confidence rooted in a reactivity, to one rooted in a thoughtful sense of herself. Anna’s body had the shape that her life of fear and hard work had created—sometimes tensely leaning into situations and other times shrinking back, rarely seeming to exert the right effort with calm, grounded confidence. She seemed always to be fighting against something.

We set about engaging in a set of practices that could develop a calmer, more centered and confident self. I taught Anna how to ground and center herself through her body and her breath. She felt the difference between not-centered and centered as we went back and forth between the two. She began to practice quiet daily reflection so she could begin to feel what it was like not to be in a reactive mode, to feel the quiet of her own body and mind. She made some declarations about what was important to her as a human being and as a professional, separate from what others wanted her to be, and she centered physically in these declarations. Finally, we engaged in a series of practices to help her first notice and then take different action around the kind of effort she exerted in trigger situations.

Anna was admittedly both a quick study and at a place in her life where she was open to change. After four months of working together, paying attention to both her mind (the stories and assumptions which were implicitly driving her and keeping her stuck) and her body (practices that both helped her notice her physical responses to certain situations and create new muscle memory), Anna was literally transformed. The day I first met her, I felt she was shrouded in a veil of self-protection. At our last meeting, she was soft and open, yet calmly confident. Apparently others had noticed as well, because not only did she get that promotion, she was getting great feedback from both her superiors and her direct reports as well as multiple requests to work with her again.

Carolyn Coughlin

I would never like to be without my conversations with Nicolai. He has helped me to understand new dimensions in myself. It's great that he has such a good sense of my world. His wise questions help me to step up both as a leader and a person.

The founder and CEO of a fast growing, international tech startup