The choice of venue for a coaching encounter is often driven by logistics, cost and convenience. But the psychology of place has an important impact on both coach and client, as Neil Kimberley explains.
Where does most coaching take place? In a client’s office, in a meeting room down the corridor, a local coffee shop or hotel lounge? How much thought goes into the selection of our coaching venues other than geographical convenience and minimising costs for the client?
If the sample of coaches from my own research is indicative of the wider coaching population, then the answer is not very much at all. A journey through current coaching literature and thinking would also suggest that the coaching community doesn’t see the need to explore this issue in any more depth, given the distinct lack of writing or discussion on the subject. Do coaches and L&D professionals who sponsor coaching really believe that the places in which we coach have no impact on the quality of the experience for both parties?
A sense of place
Coaching is a magpie-like profession; we borrow the new, bright and shiny from other disciplines and adapt them to fit our needs – Gestalt, psychodynamics, NLP, CBT to name a few. But there seems to have been one important corner of psychology we’ve overlooked – environmental psychology, which has been exploring the impact of environments on the human psyche for five decades and what it shows us is that ‘place really does matter’.
We all perceive our local surroundings in different ways based on our previous life experiences and sensory preferences and this has a direct impact on the emotional and cognitive processing that ensues and thus our behaviours.
People have an inbuilt love of particular places, or ‘topophilia’ – a term coined in the early 1970’s and explored further through the theory of place attachment (PA). PA theory explains why we attach personal importance (both negative and positive) to particular places. They may fulfil physical needs, giving a sense of safety and security; they may offer necessary conditions for achieving personal goals; or they may provide continuity, matching our personal values and representing us or creating a sense of belonging.
Creating a safe space, setting personal goals, exploring personal values – sound familiar? Have a think – where are your favourite places and what do you get from being in them? How do they influence your thinking, emotions and behaviours?
The reasonable person model described by Steven and Rachel Kaplan takes PA a step further by suggesting that “people are more reasonable, cooperative, helpful and satisfied when their environment supports their basic informational needs”. This sounds like a good place to start when trying to create the right conditions for a coaching session.
Are we truly present?
A key skill to effective coaching is being able to have focused attention and be wholly present and ‘in the moment’ with a client. The practice of ‘mindfulness’ is seen as the remedy to reducing a coach’s ‘inner dialogue’ so that they can focus; yet too often coaches make an already difficult skill to master harder by introducing unhelpful distractions from the venues they choose.
Numerous neuroscience studies demonstrate that we don’t have as much control over our levels of focus as we might think. Distractions, or ‘novel sensory inputs’ , can easily break through a coach’s focused attention. Think of particular colours you’re attracted to, how the sound of a baby crying gets your attention, or how hearing your name mentioned in a crowd alerts you, even if they weren’t talking about you (the cocktail party phenomenon).
Perceptual load theory describes how our brains manage a potentially overwhelming volume of information and balance the processing to allow us to be aware of what we need or want to be aware of. Whilst we are largely in control of the processing of information in the cognitive and emotive parts of the brain, we are much less able to do so with the primary sensory areas. So in environments with particular sounds, high volumes, sudden movements, bright flashes or physical discomfort (all of which stimulate the primary sensory areas of the brain), client and coach will have little control over staying focused.
Where could we be coaching?
As one of the coaches in my research quite aptly put it, “we do coach anywhere, and we can, but it doesn’t mean that we should.” Coaches should be exploring the role of environment in much more detail with their clients at the start of the relationship as part of the contracting stage. Helping them to understand what their personal PA preferences are and then finding the time and money to invest in spaces that are more inspirational, creative and that allow mind wandering to occur and thus generate a more impactful coaching encounter.
Should coaches be more insistent on the client getting some physical separation from the environment in which they work? Perhaps it will mean that they can genuinely dissociate from the business issue they are often trying to resolve.
Summer is upon us, so let’s get out into the fresh air, get away from the built environment and see what it brings to coaching. There are so many studies exploring the role of nature on our psychological well-being. The Biophilia hypothesis, attention restoration theory and the Japanese ‘Shinrin-yoku’ (forest-bathing) have all empirically shown how exposure with nature, and in an environment informed by the preferences of the individual, can have a significant, positive impact on both their physical and emotional states.
So let’s start pushing the environmental boundaries of coaching to see how it expands the psychological ones.
Neil Kimberley is the commercial director and leader of the coaching practice at Farscape Development , a behavioural learning and development company. He has recently completed an MSc in Coaching and Behavioural Change at Henley Business School, researching the influence that the physical setting of a coaching session has on the coach’s attention and focus.
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