Nudging the Dial of Human Consciousness: The Path Ahead for Coaching?

By: Jenny Devine • 4 years ago •

An article about a GP/poet/writer who has recently won a prestigious book award caught my eye this morning.  Dr Glenn Colquhoun commented that he had “fallen in love with medicine late in life and it’s all the sweeter for it”.  Early in his medical career he describes the pressure to get everything right and the resultant noise in the head. But with time he has learned “If you just sit (with the patient) and let the story unfold you start to see the shape in things and you can use intuition to ask the right questions. All of a sudden medicine went from being this thing that frightened me to something full of beauty and poetry.” Colquhoun understands connection and the need to ‘bear witness’. He says “They (patients) want you to be in their moment and truly listen to them and see them without judgement.”

It is interesting that this GP, who may know nothing about professional coaching, has captured the essence of it. The presence. The non-judgement. The listening. The intuition. The “right” questions. The beauty and poetry.

I relate so well to this story because I can remember a time, earlier in my coaching career, when my head was also full of noise, meaning the ability to be present for my clients was completely sabotaged.  I had all the right things going for me: sound and thorough coach training, part way through a masters degree in an associated field; even a health background that was about connecting with people in times of vulnerability.  But as a coach, I didn’t have it. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I tried so hard! I was determined. I learned all the “powerful” questions. I had a great structure to work from. I thought I was beautifully prepared for my clients.

But for all of that, the sessions were little more than functional. They delivered something for the client, I am sure, but the process was about shifting the “what”, never the “who”. Unsurprisingly this was an accurate reflection of my life at the time. I was deep in intellectual learning about human consciousness and therefore, my application of the coaching process was intellectual; a problem solving process heavily reliant on IQ and significantly lacking in EQ or heightened self-awareness.

There was functionality, but no beauty, no poetry, no dance and no magic.

With the gift of hindsight, however, I now understand that the presence of these four “alchemical” aspects represent conscious coaching and hold, what I believe, is the key to coaching’s future.

Let’s consider for a moment the world we live in. Though few of us need reminding, nationally  and internationally we face critical issues including non-adaptation to climate change, profound social instability, food crises and instability created by imbalanced population and economic activity. These highly complex and inter-related issues are providing the greatest challenges for human kind.

But if, as Einstein reminded us, problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them, it begs the question, are coaches capable of catalysing mindsets that are significantly different across all levels of society?  And if coaches were capable of facilitating such a transformational shift, what would be required to fully prepare them for the task? How could they be in a place of such attentive presence that they could influence their clients to offer creative and innovative solutions to a complex world?

Socrates, sometimes described as one of the earliest coaches, declared that he could not teach anybody anything; he could only make them think.

This was the philosopher’s gift. To stimulate human enquiry, curiosity, reflection and exploration. Not only of the external world but also the internal world of human consciousness or self-awareness. Many of the early philosophers knew the dangers for humanity when this essential work was lost and how critical it was for them to continually explore and evolve their own consciousness. Thus the inscription above the Temple of Delphi in Ancient Greece, “Know thyself”.

To be more conscious is quite simply to be more self-aware of our inner world; that which we believe, feel, understand, know, intuit, perceive, react to, choose, create, experience etc. It is what the philosopher Teilhard de Chardin referred to as the “whatitfeelslike from within”.  It is also, what I have come to recognise, that which truly defines human intelligence.

The International Coach Federation (ICF) has, for many years, advocated a very conscious approach to the coaching process via their Core Competencies. An online ICF document I was perusing recently outlines the skill requirements for an MCC or Master Certified Coach (the highest of the three credentials) around the competency of Coaching Presence. I noted how ICF provided, quite successfully I believe, guidelines for senior coaches at an advanced level of conscious coaching.

For more information see

“The connection is to the whole of the client, who the client is, what the client wants, how the client learns and creates, and what the client has to teach the coach. The coach evidences a complete curiosity that is undiluted by a need to perform. As with trust and intimacy, the coach is in a complete partnership with the client where the client is an equal or greater contributor to the conversation and direction of the coaching than the coach. The coach is willing to let the client teach the coach and is unafraid to be a student of the client”

Research conducted recently by Kimberly Perry explored the developmental consciousness of a sample of credentialed ICF coaches, using Harvard academic Robert Kegan’s theory of adult development/consciousness as its foundation. Perry argued that in order to facilitate the transformation of clients, professional coaches arguably need to be, at a minimum, at Kegan’s fourth order of consciousness.

For more information see ResearchPortal at

Kegan believes that around 70% of adults function at what he terms level three. They are well functioning in society but remain culturally conditioned. Around 20% of adults reach level four where they are no longer confined by cultural expectations, are exploring their own path and accessing inner creativity. Kegan believes only about 5% of the adult population reach level five. At this level the adult is more deeply engaging their shadow aspects and moving to a place of holding all of who they are, both dark and light. Kegan argues that, given the complex demands of work and life, adults need to be at least at the fourth order of consciousness.

Of 36 coaches interviewed, Perry found a correlation between Kegan’s order of consciousness levels and their style/philosophy on coaching. Specifically, the higher the level of consciousness:

  • the less concerned the coaches were about credibility and success in other’s eyes;
  • the more courageous and vulnerable they were while being able to create and hold a point of creative tension with clients;
  • the more likely they were to be ok with either perceived “success” or “failure”;
  • and, finally, they were comfortable being in the “not knowing”.

One of the key recommendations of the research was that all coaches must continue the “Know Thyself” process. A reminder that there is no “getting there” for coaches. Or as the contemporary teacher of consciousness Eckhart Tolle states, “When we get there, there’s no there there!”

It was Socrates who declared “I know that I am intelligent because I know that I know nothing.”  Paradoxically, I have learned, it takes years, even decades, of emotional and psychological maturation to get to the sublime place of entering into the client relationship knowing nothing. Enabling the extraordinary curiosity about that human to human interaction, that emanates.

The path of evolving our consciousness, however, is not marked with individual signposts. Compounding the challenge, there are endless distractions for our busy human minds, particularly in this digital world with its explosion of information. The pull to exercise the intellect is always, it seems, stronger than the pull to reside in quiet reflection. Neuroscience and its exciting discoveries about the brain and nervous system is a case in point. Many of us would rather read about or attend workshops on neuroplasticity than do a bit of self-reflection about why we may be resisting change and the creation of our own new neural pathways!

Deepak Chopra has expressed his “sadness” that many scientists think that philosophy has no place, because the role of reflection, contemplation, meditation, self-enquiry, insight, intuition, imagination, creativity, free will, is, in a way, not given any importance, which is the domain of philosophers.

This view tends to be mirrored in society where the work of developing one’s conscious is often considered, ironically, as “new age”, with the various, usually negative, connotations that accompany that.  But at some point there is a call from within that becomes hard to ignore. It demands a deeper understanding and exploration of the “I” and our place in the world, paradoxically, so that we can ultimately let go, emotionally, of that same “I” and enter more fully into the collective “We”.

If we truly want to be transformational change agents at every level of society, then this is our challenge and the first and most critical step to nudging that dial of consciousness. The more that dial of consciousness begins to move upwards for us, the more beauty, poetry, dance and music is catalysed in our client interactions and the more we, concurrently, invite our clients into that same space.

A gentle warning to our egos. There will be no orchestra playing for us as we, collectively, begin to wake-up. Rather, from this quiet and unassuming place, coaches will find themselves uniquely placed as a profession to contribute more fully to the human journey and, ultimately, to the evolution of human consciousness.

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