She felt that no one understood her. Yet, she reluctantly invited me into her world. “Tell me what you understand about where I am,” she challenged me. So, I closed my eyes and immediately found myself in darkness. Groundless. I was falling. There was nothing to hold onto. I felt utterly alone. I was the only inhabitant of a world that had been demolished. I saw no way of rebuilding this world. I had very little hope that it could be rebuilt. I trusted no one. All was lost. I could only live one day at a time. One conversation at a time. I could not see beyond now.
I described all of this to her. She said nothing. She covered her face and cried. I stopped talking. I could hear her sobbing. After a few minutes, with some surprise, she said, “You understand me. You see me. You really understand me.” I noticed something strange happening then. As she kept repeating that I could see her, I experienced some light entering her world and ground materializing beneath my feet. And then it was my time to weep. More moments of silence passed between us. Then, I apologized for all the times when I suggested or otherwise hinted that she could move on from the woundedness she had experienced. A few months ago, I did not understand that what I was suggesting felt impossible to her. I did not see her. She did not feel seen. It seemed that her ability to move on was inextricably linked to her being seen. How was it that I could see her? How is it that I was able to enter her interior world so fully?
I had this encounter with someone recently. I have a story about the encounter and the questions I was left with. The story is linked to my experience and bias about developmental assessments and coaching. A developmental coaching conversation is unlike any other conversation I have ever been in. I have experienced these conversations as first the willingness and then the practice of extending one’s awareness into the inner landscape of another so as to genuinely discover what it’s like to be them, to see the world as they see it, and to meet them with a nurturing and growth-oriented heart and mind. Developmental coaching conversations are like spiritual gatherings where souls meet and witness each other. Where souls meet is a sacred place.
Some of my colleagues are exploring the connection between adult development and spiritual development. I think the two are mutually supportive and often co-occurring. Being willing to see others and to be seen by others is spiritual work. It is love in action without action. During our dark, lonely, disturbing, and unstable moments, being seen by others materializes some ground for us to stand on. I have these experiences when reviewing developmental assessments and engaging in developmental coaching conversations – either as the coach or as the client.
Three years ago I thought I was going crazy. My entire world was turned upside down. My beliefs, truths, assumptions, stories, desires, identities, and goals had become like woolen clothes after a cycle in the dryer. They no longer fit and I felt suffocated and exposed. On top of that, there was a man sitting inside my consciousness that only I could see and hear. I was sure I was mad. Fortunately for me, I was working with a developmental coach at the time. I mustered up the courage to share this discovery with her in an email. I expected her to confirm my insanity, but what she did instead was to open up her heart to me. She immediately responded to my email with “A true spiritual teacher can be far away or right within your soul” and ended her brief response with “Your well-being is my deepest wish.” At seeing those words, I bawled like a baby. Those seven words shed some light into my dark world and reified some ground for me to stand on. I felt less mad and alone.
I often hear leaders and those who serve them talk about how lonely it can be as a leader. Many of the university graduate students I work with in the Caribbean say something similar. They feel that they are changing. They feel unstable and alone. Even when they perform well, many of them do not feel seen. The same can be said of leaders. And it’s not that they are hiding, although some might have concerns about being too vulnerable with their people. They are not seen beyond their role, their performance and competence, their ideas, or their power. This is usually where developmental coaches make a unique difference. Developmental coaches are more concerned with clients developing their meaning-making capacity so as to meet the increasing demands and complexities of their professional and personal worlds than on them solving problems or achieving some fixed outcome. By so being, they invite leaders to be seen and known. Feeling seen and known can facilitate deep change and growth for leaders and for the organization. It would seem to me that when a leader feels seen they in turn see others.
Despite my confidence in developmental coaching, I am not suggesting that it is the only discipline for seeing people and supporting leaders. It is quite effective though. I am also clear that leaders who already feel seen and grounded can also benefit from developmental coaching. Leaders go through change and transitions. They also make developmental moves that impact the meaning they make of themselves, others, and the world without some of the psychological disturbances I described earlier. Developmental coaches have insights about these experiences and can support leaders with making sense of and growing through them.
Supporting people’s development is one of the great demands of our time. Many of us want to grow, to thrive, and to be seen. Developmental work is the practice of seeing others with a nurturing and loving orientation. It also allows room for intimacy and the opportunity to draw from a well of radical empathy and infinite compassion. Irrespective of the context – individual or organizational – developmental coaching is sacred work. It is also courageous work for both the coach and the client. Together, coach and client journey deeper inside their interior worlds and are exposed to both the joys and perils of a shared humanity. This can make the inner landscape precarious and at the same time an opportunity for healing, for self and collective liberation, for growth, and for love. Supporting others as they journey through and make meaning from this inner space is the privileged path developmental coaches get to walk. And I bow to everyone who allows us to walk this path with them.