“They should issue a warning before we sign for this thing!” “There should be small print in the contract, telling us how we will not get through this Masters unchanged”. “How many of us have given their lives a dramatic turn? How many have left their jobs? How many have even changed something in their love relationships? This is heavy stuff! Not to be put in the hands of children! Don’t try this at home!”. We were laughing heartily in a pub in Berkhamsted, just outside Ashridge, releasing the tension we had accumulated over this day of exams that had been nerve-wracking. We had passed, we were profoundly relieved, but we knew that behind our laughs lay the bare truth: Ashridge had changed us profoundly. Let me tell you the tale.
I will never forget my very first real contact with the institution in the person of Charlotte Sills, conducting an on-boarding interview by Skype. She balanced very professionally her desire to give a warm and supportive welcome with the need to uphold the high standards of Ashridge. Here, I was, recently emerged from 30 years in the finance sector. Somehow, the latest events, especially my decision to leave my firm that was going through yet another restructuring, had thrown me into a rollercoaster where periods of self-doubt and despair were followed by the excitement of undertaking something new. Thank God, Charlotte knew nothing about all this (leave aside the fact that she had probably figured most of it out just by speaking to me, that is how good Charlotte is at listening). And as I had been able to produce some solid recommendations, the interview went well: I was accepted. Charlotte was to be our guiding leader, our inspiration and amazement, our smiling and somewhat naughty accomplice. Someone called Charlotte “the Mick Jagger of coaching”: a fitting image. The journey could begin.
Our first workshop: a sunny mid-week day in March 2017, the Ashridge Estate in all its gorgeous splendor, impeccable grass, large beds of flowers in the exquisite gardens, sun flowing abundantly into the immense rooms of this Harry Potter castle. The older parts of Ashridge date back 700 years, and were home to Princess Elizabeth in the sixteenth century, but the main part was built in gothic revival style, from 1808 to 1825, with large windows opening on to the gardens, the park, the hills (and occasional squirrels). In spite of this fairytale setting, or maybe because of it, I had knots in my stomach. Somehow, the repressed anxiety of the last months was pouring out of me from all parts, and I had difficulty just listening to anything that was being said. I wasn’t alone. A colleague, who would become one of my closest companions in this journey, was the first to let her tears flow, something we would quickly get used to and create a supportive container for amongst ourselves, with the help of the faculty. Clearly, they knew what this journey meant for some of us and were determined to support us through this, as we would later support our own clients.
I can’t possibly begin to describe all the things we have experienced at Ashridge. We jokingly said in our group: what happens in Ashridge stays in Ashridge. What it all comes down to, though, is that as we were learning the drills of coaching, we were ourselves embarking on the sort of journey we would later propose to our clients: a journey to ourselves, or “our better selves” as we say to sweeten it and give ourselves a bit of courage. I am reading at the moment Grand Hotel Europa , from Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer.
In this book, the author is having a go at tourism and tourists, saying in short that the sort of travel tourists undertake, in spite of their search for authenticity and adventure, is nothing but escapism and cheap oblivion. Travel, says Pfeijffer, is losing oneself. Instead, heroic travel, the Odyssey, is actually a coming back. It is somehow a ritual passage that allows the Hero to become himself, to come home to himself. That is what Ashridge has been for me and I believe also for my companions on this journey: a coming home. This passage was tough: it involved introspection in the compassionate presence of our colleagues, and a sharing of our happy memories and our traumas, our anxieties and our desires, our hopes and our fears, our scars and our blessed moments,. It came with ups and downs, with tears and laughter, with stumbling and standing up. But it was something we were doing together, allowing ourselves to make a step when we were ready for it, when we were feeling safe enough, in the supportive presence of the group. I have in mind Irvin Yalom’s book The Schopenhauer Cure , and the wonderful group work described in it. Our group work, as in the book, was about being able to share our emotions and about giving each other feedback, about understanding our interpersonal relationships, about “confirming” one another, in the words of Watzlawick .
I know myself better now. I understand some of my reactions, my beliefs, my relation to the world and my relation to others. And I am resolved to continue making changes to how I stand in this world, and to become a bit more myself every day. And I know, because I have undertaken this journey of change, that I can now help my clients do the same. It is simple, really, but it is profound. What we learnt is not a “technique”, “an intervention”, “a method”. We have experienced in our bones what change is about, the difficulty of it, the force of resistance that is dictated by our older sense of self, the time it takes to shake off our old skin and grow a new one. Most of us, if not all, have freely engaged in therapy, extending this journey into ourselves with a therapist, much like psychoanalysts must have made their own analysis. But then, coming out of this and into the world again, the rewards are great. As a coach, I have the privilege of entering into this relation with my clients, where we have an authentic dialogue, and where I have this rich feeling that I am actually helping them to come to themselves. How cool is that?!
The thing is: I have not yet found the words to describe what the sort of coaching that Ashridge has taught us is really about. In my initial “chemistry” meetings with prospective clients, time and again I have difficulty putting into words intelligible to a busy executive, caught up in the maelstrom of his daily work, what makes my coaching – our coaching – so special. Yet it is special. Relational coaching, the Gestalt coaching we have been invited to explore at Ashridge, is founded on the belief that in the encounter between the client and his coach lies the possibility of change. A true encounter, a true relation, one where the coach is able to bracket his judgment and to really be open to the presence of his client and to connect with his client, will create the possibility for the client to understand himself, and explore how he can be more authentic, more congruent, more himself. It is a lot, but it is, in the end, nothing more than two persons, sitting together, “having a conversation that they have never had before” . I have said in my writing “the emperor is naked”, to express how sobering it is when one realizes how simple such an encounter is, yet how powerful, and this is how I feel in my chemistry meetings too. Time will tell me how to be naked and profound enough for my clients to trust me and decide to enter into this relationship.
So, yes, as we are ending this Odyssey, I think we are entitled to feel the distance we have travelled and boast how much transformation we have gone through. As we sip our drinks, I look deep into the eyes of my companions and I marvel at our connectedness, our complicity, our silent awareness of ourselves and the others. And there is sadness in this moment too. Because we know that something must end for the next phase to unfold, and that in this ending we will see each other less frequently, in spite of all the promises we make to keep in touch and keep seeing each other. And in this moment, I look with tenderness at this part of me that I am leaving behind.