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On coaching and love

Evgeny Shadchnev
Evgeny Shadchnev
3 min read
On coaching and love
Photo by Brooke Cagle / Unsplash

Our deepest relationships are based on love. This is true in personal life but also in business, coaching, therapy, mentorship, line management or any other kind of relationship, including the most important one: our relationship with ourselves. Yet, we often misunderstand love.

We often equate love with a romantic attachment or familial ties. However, love, at its essence, is an unconditional positive regard towards another person, without an attachment or agenda. To love means to unconditionally accept another person. Love is characterised by a sincere desire for the other person to thrive and by our willingness to care, to understand, to see another person as they are. To see them as unconditionally human in all their complexity.

We often equate loving and liking, as if loving were a more intense form of liking. This isn’t true. We don’t have to like someone to love them. It’s only natural to have preferences, desires and aversions, while at the same time extending unconditional love, empathy and care towards everyone.

Carl Rogers, who pioneered the humanistic approach in psychology in the mid-XX century, taught that relationships based on love enable others to grow because when we feel that we are loved as we are, including our supposedly unattractive sides, we learn to accept ourselves, which is the first step towards positive change.

As a coach, I’m yet to meet a client who’d ask to be loved. Yet, this is what nearly everyone needs and what I’m striving to offer as a coach (and as a human being in all my relationships). To me, love, as defined above, is the foundation of relationships that help us thrive.

However, it’s not enough to decide to love. Another important finding of Dr Rogers was that in order to unconditionally accept someone else, we need to learn to hold the space for ourselves. Holding the space means non-reactively observing what’s arising in our experience. For example, if I notice my anger arising, I can watch it manifest in my body and thoughts without acting it out (and regretting it later) or suppressing it by distracting myself with something else.

We can’t hold space for others unless we can hold it for ourselves because strong emotions in others, if we feel connected to them, evoke emotions in ourselves. It doesn’t need to be the same emotion: someone’s anger may give rise to my fear. Someone’s success can trigger my own envy or self-judgement. If we can hold the space, we will be aware of our own emotions and thoughts as well as the emotions and thoughts of others, and we won’t react to it.

One training for holding space is meditation. A myriad of different meditation techniques boil down to paying attention to something boring like the breath or something unpleasant like bodily discomfort, noticing when our attention goes away and returning it to the object of meditation. This trains us to hold space for ourselves and enables us to hold it for others.

Holding a space for myself also helps me to love myself. Early in my childhood I internalised a belief that to love oneself is selfish. As an adult, I learned that not only is it possible to love oneself in a healthy, non-selfish way, but this is a great gift I can offer others because I can’t truly love others unless I know how to love myself. In a way, I still don’t and never will because life is a never ending journey of discovering unpleasant parts of me that need some love and learning to love them. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of new shadow sides to love.

I never know in which direction a coaching conversation might take my client and I. In the moments before a coaching call, I remind myself: I’m here to love. I’m here not to judge but to accept the other person as they are, be aware of what’s arising in me and let it pass, unconditionally support them on their journey without an attachment to the outcome or the means to get there. That’s not everything that happens in coaching but this is the basis of a good coaching relationship, on which the rest of our work is built.

Many years ago I was in a group coaching session with a dozen other CEOs led by a world-class coach. It seemed like he was doing hardly anything at all and yet the energy in the room was palpable. Many of us in that room remember that retreat as a turning point  in our professional growth. I remember wondering what on earth was going on because I had no words for it. Now I know: he loved each and all of us, including our insecurities and fears, our dreams and desires, and he loved all of his own shadow parts too. He was fully present and he cared.

Growth, well-being and performance in the boardroom aren’t simply compatible with love. Love enables growth and transformation, learning and development. Love is where it all starts.