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Emergence and Coaching

I was reading an article by Patrick Beautement of The abaci Partnership on the potential utility of purposefully exploiting emergent phenomena in organisations and systems. The paper makes the unexpected point that systems engineering can no longer be the tool of choice in producing the secure systems the military needs. Instead he says “… if we do not learn how to exploit [emergent phenomena] then we may never know about some of the capabilities that are waiting to be used because they exist at a higher level of abstraction, of which we are currently unaware - one that conventional approaches will never reveal to us, but that an opponent could exploit.

As I read this, I started to wonder what I do to encourage my clients’ unknown capabilities to emerge in our coaching sessions. It can be tempting to try and ‘engineer’ coaching sessions so as to ensure consistent, predictable outcomes. And the tools we use, the GROW model, goal setting forms, developmental models, etc) do clearly have value (just as systems engineering has value for parts of the security system infrastructure). But I also know that some of my best coaching occurs when I move beyond the known into the space where the unknown can emerge. And its not just about moving into the unknown. It's about creating a space in that unknown for newness (new insight new ways of seeing, new ways of being) to occur. But, given the unpredictability of emergent phenomena, how can we do this in such a way as to encourage and enable creative and productive emergence?

Update: In 2011, Patrick (with his co-author Christine Broenner) addressed exactly these issues in a new book called 'Complexity Demystified - a Guide For Practitioners'. The book (reviewed here) presents a systematic Approach which would enable practitioners to develop and work with the spaces of possibilities afforded by ongoing dynamic change in a successful way. In a phrase, the book explains how to 'put complexity to work' by appreciating how the phenomena come about and the Approach indicates how they can be harnessed and influenced as source of available energy."

Here are some ideas I have received from readers:


I was fascinated to read your little piece on 'Emergence and Coaching'. A Focusing approach can facilitate just this! I think you do know of Gendlin's work. Focusing can be helpful for improving all-round emotional intelligence, and my particular interest, in Coaching terms, is in using it to improve business decision-making. Focusing is really all about facilitating a movement 'beyond the known into the space where the unknown can emerge. And its not just about moving into the unknown. Its about creating a space in that unknown for newness( new insight, new ways of seeing, new ways of being) to occur.' Focusers talk about the 'felt sense' at the 'edge' of what is known consciously. This edge can be sensed into and articulated to create a 'life forward' step, which feels like fresh air, something new, as what is fuzzily sensed is articulated. This has many applications, in emotional, creative and professional spheres. See for more details.

Steve Silverton


You invite your readers to send in any ideas about how they can encourage and enable productive emergence. One of my ways follow and is a mixture of empirical findings, theory, and consequential behaviour (which encourages productive emergence)
1. Our conscious representation is half a second old by the time it escalates from basic sensory experience to conscious abstraction.
2. Therefore in order to extract emergent properties one cannot use the conscious mind as all the client will do is use the same neurological patterning that creates the problem to interpret any new experience. Their behaviour may be different, however at a higher level of abstraction they will be acting in the same manner.
3. One asks the client therefore to imagine what it would be like to have achieved their goal, or to imagine someone who epitomises what they wish to do.
4. Using this construction as the anchor and the reference experience in any TOTE (Miller et al) work, and in a behaviourist way one then supports the client as they try out new experiences that accord with their goal.
5. The three keys I have found when working in this way is ensuring the goal is sufficiently motivating for the client to work through the necessary new behaviours, that the client is sufficiently robust to suspend his/her existing neurological filters in order to engage in the new behaviours congruently, which over time will re-pattern the neurology. Finally that the client is sensitive to the differing nature of feedback his/her environment supplies as a result of the new behaviour.
6. In this way emergent properties often become apparent within the client, that would never otherwise have been experienced as all experience was previously interpreted in such a way that kept the client in a bind that their conscious mind could not fathom.
7. In this way the emergent property is not a function of a higher level of abstraction, it is the same level of abstraction, only differentially abstracted. However according to many clients the results do appear emergent as they feel totally different and of course systemically interact socially and professionally in a totally different way.
8. You will probably recognise this is pure NLP and behaviourism.

Bruce Grimley


You asked for comments on unlocking peoples unknown capabilities. One of my approaches is to explore the actual strategies people use when they are doing something they are good at, and the subsequent strategies they us e when things don't work out first time. As I am sure you are aware this is nearly always done at an unconscious level so it can be helpful to bring this to the surface. In other words, you are trying to work with them f rom the inside out rather than outside in if you understand my meaning! At a very simple level, when people are needing to be energised, I have found it helpful to concentrate on mundane tasks they do well outside of work in order to relate these back into the work situation. I am talking about tasks such as ironing, shopping, school run where their strategies are often well established.

Peter Stokes


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