This was published in the @Coaching at Work magazine last summer (Vol 12 Issue 4 ) , and is finally topical again. I'm currently making the most of the joyful Coaching and Supervision space that's right ouside my back door....
Several years ago, I was lucky enough to attend a workshop run by Aboodi Shabi, during which we explored the question ”What do you long for?” At the time, I did some personal work around this, alongside incorporating the spirit behind the question into my coaching practice. However, it wasn’t until I moved into a house with a large garden that I finally found my own answer.
So for the last two and a half years, I’ve been a gardener (and singer) as well as a coach. The role my garden is taking in nourishing me, and therefore my coaching practice, is the theme of this piece. The learning from my time in the garden is multifaceted, and I hope to share the flavour of these sometimes complex, sometimes very simple experiences in the same way that my apple trees just keep giving every year, without me having to do all that much to encourage them.
Inevitably the garden is a metaphor. When I first reflected on how the garden was nourishing me and my practice, we were settling into Autumn, and everything was quietening down. Although there were a few roses left, on the whole it was a time for raking leaves, chopping back dying foliage and waiting. From a coaching perspective, this reminds us of the need for fallow time, the recognition that it’s the process that is key, that much of the work goes on outside the meeting between coach and client. Adding to these reflection in spring, the effect of leaving things fallow becomes clear as the new growth comes though, sometimes you’d expect, but sometimes not so. The wisteria we thought we had overpruned flowered profusely, but it took a nervous few months of overwintering to realise this. Was this radical chop back the right intervention? Or would it have flowered anyway without any work at all? The reflective practice of the gardener is not at all dissimilar to the reflective practice of the coach.
The garden also reminds me to accept as coach my own limits and boundaries. I would truly love to have been able to clear overgrown parts of the garden that had been allowed to establish themselves as prickly, thorny places with very deep roots. I fantasise about being a human rotivator, and having the physical strength to change all this right now. But I’m not, and I don’t. As coaches, it’s good to check ourselves for magical thinking, the expectation that we are able to bring about lasting change within our clients despite the prickliness or depth of root. For me it‘s taken a certain amount of humility to recognise that I need to ask for help and supervision when I don’t actually have the strength to dig as deep as is needed. There are times when the client needs more than coaching, and when a coach needs to do their own work in building the right muscle if they want to work with the thorny bits.
One of the joys of acquiring an established garden is the wonder of the unexpected. During the first spring here, I noticed one tiny blossom struggling to grow in a piece of overgrown shrubbery; it was a hidden lilac. So, with some careful pruning and feeding, the following year it became a much bigger, happier lilac. As coaches, we may spot a strength that the client is not aware of in themselves, and bring it into the light, negotiating the pruning process if necessary.
Sometimes the unexpected is less pleasant, however, yet the metaphor still holds good, particularly in the context of supervision. Imagine a shared “eek!” in response to a dead mouse under a pile of leaves; how do you and your client/supervisee contract, consciously or unconsciously, for the tricky stuff that arises? Do you both pretend it didn’t happen? (Not a mouse, really.) Do you expect the client to dispose of it? (Your mouse, you bin it.) Or do you avoid that part of the garden just in case there is another one? Or do you recognise that it’s a normal part of the process, deal with it and move on?
I’m sure that it would be possible to generate gardening metaphors for as long as anyone, coach, client, supervisor, might care to reflect on them. As the gardening correspondent of the Independent, Anna Pavord,[i] wrote “The point of gardening is the doing of it, not having got it done. It’s the process that matters. ” As coaches, this gives us plenty to ponder on.
However, one of the most profound parallels between coaching and gardening , that deepens with my practice of both, is the experience of myself as client to my garden, and the garden as client to me. Much of my reflective practice takes place in the garden these days, and I can find myself processing client work ( and everything else) at a different level when I’m digging or planting or simply sitting and enjoying ,watching the insects or listening to the wind in the trees. The garden gives me space to be, to recharge my batteries and to breathe clean air, bringing me both its peace and its insights. Today, I had a to do list as long as my arm, but fifteen minutes of just sitting , listening to the birdsong, brought a clarity of perspective that a good coaching session would have done.
As my client, my garden needs me to know when to intervene before things get out of hand, to water and to add compost, and to not feel squeamish about chopping something back that is taking light or nourishment from a new or rehabilitated plant that needs space to grow. It needs me to know what I’m seeing, to be able to differentiate between a weed and a wildflower and to have the confidence to plant something new. It also needs me to ask for input from people with more experience, and to keep on learning about what works and what doesn’t. And it needs me to enjoy being out there, not in a “wouldn’t it be nice” sort of way, but for real. Gardens demand grounded action; it’s possible to plan forever, but without getting your hands dirty, nothing will happen.
More prosaically, the garden has also become a really amazing coaching space. At the end of a summer session, a supervision client and I followed the advice that Dr Anthony Kasozi shared in his keynote presentation at Coaching at Work’s annual conference in July 2016; we both took off our shoes to feel the grass under our feet . This helped both of us in grounding some of the exciting outcomes from the session.
I do realise how lucky I am to have this little plot of learning within immediate reach, but would suggest to any coach who wants a battery recharge that even a little bit of time in nature, or even planting seeds in a window box, would bring quiet time and, maybe literally, food for thought.
[i] Anna Pavord : To everything there is a season. The (Last) Independent Magazine. 26.03.16. p36.
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