We have been meeting, coaching, working online for the past year, and we are now starting to face the choice about whether, and when, to work online… or not. The following insights from systems-psychodynamic coaching help us to consider how we make this decision, and how to coach effectively online.
Based on seminal texts on presence, relational processes and applications to online work, many of these insights were shared at a masterclasss for Association for Coaching The screen in between: coaching at depth online, offered in 2020 and repeated early in 2021. The focus here is on the relational presence in executive coaching and what difference the screen makes to the process of building a coaching relationship, one of the key factors identified for successful coaching outcomes.1
These key questions are designed to invite your reflections, provoke new thinking and form the basis for our new course: Advanced Coaching Practice: Working with the Tavistock Model in Executive Coaching Online
- Why does it feel the same?
You turn the computer on, click on the video link and there you are face to face. So much is different, and yet many have been surprised at what feels the same in our coaching via the screen. Object relations and attachment theory are both relational psychodynamic theories drawing on infant development to make sense of how we relate. One important aspect of these theories is the human capacity to internalise – to hold a relational image of another person (in object relations, this is an ‘object’ and in attachment theory an ‘internal working model’). We can then use this internal image to aid our relating to another person in a technologically mediated way, when the usual visual cues and the co-presence in the room are not possible, and we can build this image from an online encounter – although then we have not had the experience and the data of meeting in person.
Of course coaching via video connection may not feel the same – or may not always feel the same – for you. When a connection fails, whether literally or in the relationship, we are reminded of the unpredictability not only of technology but of our availability and understanding of each other. This is both the same and different to being in a room when we can lose connection too. But online there is more risk of technology separating us, sometimes at key moments, and there is what psychoanalysts call a lack of ‘repleteness’2 a quality of relating to do with the richness of relating in the room.
How does it feel for you?
- What are the emotional, bodily and psychological demands of this way of working?
Much of the literature early in the Covid pandemic focused on the fatigue and exhaustion of meeting others via screen technology, to do with the novelty, turn taking and attentional demands of the screen3. However it is also suggested that the relating using our internalised images, and capacities to bring another to mind, which makes relating at depth possible via a screen, might also require extra work 4. Whilst for some the sense of distance and lack of emotional cues to process can be a relief when it comes to meeting online, psychoanalytic thinking would highlight the risk of relying on our internalised objects and the ‘as if’ quality we rely on that lacks a certain congruence.
There is the possibility that the less helpful ‘internal working models’ can be evoked when relating across the screen. The screen in between, which mediates connection, can also be a space which is filled with anxious imaginations, for example the sense that the other person has become what Bion termed a ‘wilfully misunderstanding’ other, even when moments before they were experienced as an available, interested and encouraging other. When we coach at depth we are in touch with these aspects of the coaching relationship that can shift and although they are important sources of data for our coaching work, the screen in between adds another ‘thing’ to work with in the relational space, which takes psychological and emotional energy.
What depletes and sustains you working online?
- How do you – and how does your client – relate to technology?
The screen is perhaps most useful when it is not noticed, when the relating that is happening feels seamless and unmediated. But in those more difficult moments – including when technology fails, there is the intrusion of this third ‘body’ into the relational space. How your client, and you, relate to technology can be an important part of how and how far the technology impacts. Do you feel calm and confident or does a malfunction provoke rage or frustration? On the one hand these feelings may not be about technology at all, and may be best understood as displaced from somewhere else, and on the other hand we have all developed a relationship to technology that stays with us. If we think of technology as a mediator that deserves some attention we might allow ourselves to consider the experience of using and relating to technology – in order to helpfully then put those feelings out of the way.
How do you notice the technology coming in and the reactions it can create?
- How do you address the embodied absence?
Alexandra Lemma5 points out that video mediated meetings do not exclude embodied presence because “in cyberspace we are still embodied. What changes is our experience of our own and the other person’s embodiment”. Not being ‘co-present’ with each other means that we lose the experience of the other’s non-verbal and sensory communication. One example of this is how comfortable silence feels. There can be more of an impulse to fill silences without the ‘atmosphere’ that indicates if it is comfortable or uncomfortable, and coaches can lose confidence to go into the more tricky areas without the reassurance and encouragement that subtle body language can offer. There are ways this can be addressed so that we can still pay notice and work with what is unseen or unsaid. For example giving time and attention to your client as they are arriving ‘into the room’ and helping them to become present, taking time to speak about when something has gone wrong, whether a technical glitch or an unexpected visitor, or asking more about what is unseen or implicit in a client’s demeanour so it can be communicated and understood.
What do you notice about embodied absence and how do you respond?
- How do you bring in the organisation and context?
The systems psychodynamic approach to coaching includes attention to the client’s organisation and context. What is it that is going on within the environment that might be impacting on the client’s experiences in the workplace? What is the wider organisational change that is really the source of a current tension? How might the preoccupations of the board be coming into a client’s team meeting? It is crucial not to let the home context get in the way of taking the systems perspective, and staying curious about what is going on in structures, job design and stakeholder networks, for example, to keep in touch with is going on at an organisational level.
What do you find comes to the fore in coaching from home online?
If you found these questions, and insights, relevant to you and your work find out more about our Advanced Coaching Practice Online course here.
- de Haan, E. (2021) What Works in Executive Coaching: Understanding Outcomes Through Quantitative Research and Practice-Based Evidence.
- Russell, G.I. (2015) Screen Relations: The Limits of Computer-Mediated Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy.
- Dent, N. (2019) Ch 21 In Haim Weinberg, Arnon Rolnick, Theory and Practice of Online Therapy.
- Lemma, A. (2017). The Digital Age on the Couch.