Coaching Outdoors - a Walk in the Park
'When we walk two halves of our brain converse'. Julia Cameron (Walking in This World).
As the landscape of coaching and coaching supervision grows and develops we need to stay fresh, perceive deeply and resource ourselves more and more to meet the challenges we face with our clients. One way of working together that can bring surprising and very beneficial results is taking the coaching or supervision conversation outside and walk in a park or garden.
Working in this way opens us up to a spacious and creative energy that acts as a catalyst to whatever the topic being discussed. When we reconnect with this powerful yet simple resource a green space provides an additional way to help us think through issues. Whatever the weather, in urban or rural green spaces nature offers a thinking environment that can impact positively on body, mind and spirit if we only give it a little bit of our time.
Walking and talking reflectively is centuries old. Aristotle is said to have taught as he walked around the Lyceum in Athens sharing and exploring ideas with his followers who became known as 'peripatetic philosophers'. St Augustine, the 4th century philosopher, is credited with the quote solvitur ambulando - we solve it by walking. And he had a point! Coaching by walking as part of a reflective practice can tune us into more of our own deeper insight and wisdom in doing so.
If we walk outdoors in a mindful way, tuning into the here-and-now of being fully present we give ourselves an opportunity to slow down and breath a bit more deeply than we might ordinarily do. This moment-to moment awareness is regenerative in and of itself. We recharge our batteries and boost our well-being. The coaching conversation that emerges, when it does, has a different kind of flow as we put 'efforting' and striving aside.
On a purely physical level we already know walking is a healthy option. It increases blood circulation. It helps oxygen and glucose reach the brain, enhancing energy production and other body functions.Maybe this is why we say walking can "clear the head".
It is not unusual for our clients or supervisees to arrive at a session with the 'overwhelm' of the day. They may bring feelings of anxiety or stress, as they constantly juggle competing priorities. As we shift our focus simply to the business of walking our brain slows from its normal beta wave activity of wakefulness, quick thinking and multi-tasking to the slower alpha waves of deep relaxation. This has a positive impact on the quality of creative thinking and imagination. In addition, a blast of vitamin D from being outside in the sunshine, especially in wintertime, has many benefits.
Here are three advantages of taking a coaching or coaching supervision session or a part of one outside into a green space.
First the Coachee's or Supervisee's has some time to engage with all of their senses in the environment around them as they walk. It can help to bring a kindly yet alert attention to both the environment and to the motion of walking. The benefit is an awareness of an inner spaciousness and an outer calmness in the midst of the bustle and pressure of a busy life that allows them to just 'be'.
Second, whatever the time of year the language of the changing seasons can be inspirational. We can turn to nature as a teacher. Some reflective questions a Coach or Supervisor might use, depending on the season, might be:
- What needs to go to ground and hibernate?
- What ideas will you sow now that you want to see bloom in Spring?
- What new beginnings need green-housing to protect them while you experiment?
- What needs savouring, just now?
- How can you celebrate what is ripe?
- How will you harvest your best endeavours this autumn?
- What is emerging that has been dormant so far?
Third, even a short walk can be helpful when, in a coaching or supervision session, a client is struggling with the burden of an issue or feels in a stuck place. Leaving behind the usual accoutrements of the office- computer, papers, walls and desks- and other assorted 'baggage' clients cross the threshold to travel lightly for a little while and see what emerges when they do. By leaving what they habitually load themselves up with, literally or actually, the pace and perspective of the walk is different. A shift in the work can bring fresh ideas and options to the fore.
A bonus is that each green space environment is full of metaphoric possibilities: bridges to cross, fresh pastures, new growth, gateways, muddy paths, even rubbish bins and litter have been woven into the narrative of some stories during coach walks!
For coaches to recharge their well-being batteries it doesn't need to take a long time to feel the benefit. Last year my colleague Ian Mackenzie and I ran a monthly lunchtime reflective practice session for coaches in London's lush Green Park for 18 months. We met whatever the weather. We offered a combination of mindful walking, guided exercises and discussion. Rosemary Sandham, a regular participant, said: 'It was a wonderful experience offering opportunities to work alone and as part of a group. It enabled me to move into a more perceptive space to new learning. Taking a lunch break in this way is a marvellous opportunity to attain a healthy work/life balance and leave feeling inspired, refreshed and invigorated.'
Other coaches using walking as part of their approach report a range of benefits too.
Stefan Powell of Pinionperformance
Lisa Rosetti a Power of Stories™ coach and story-practitioner does mentor walks encouraging participants to reflect as they let go of habitual boundaries, allowing them to learn from nature Clients report greater congruence between inner and outer states by walking their issues and telling their stories.
Coaching outdoors isn't exclusively a 1:1 coaching activity. Jacqueline Harris has developed a concept called 'A Breath of Fresh Air' (www.breathoffreshair.uk.com) which has led to great success. Jacqueline talks about people putting their 'thinking boots' on. She brings teams into beautiful locations to combine a framework of topics for discussion as they go on a facilitated walk. The walkers listen and offer each other coaching. The groups change as they move through the route.
Case Study – from a client's perspective
I was stuck with a de-motivated team that I inherited. I tried different kinds of activities to get them more engaged but it wasn't showing up in increased sales. My coach suggested we try something a bit different and suggested we go for a walk to see what might come up. We did a short 2-part exercise. I was asked to go for a short walk in a very determined and focused way to different points in the park of my choosing then I was to do a second walk this time with no rules except to just meander.
When we talked about the two walks I realised the first one was pretty familiar; racing from point to point, not taking in very much around me. It reminded me of the way I dealt with many things in the department. I'm a quick thinker so I get there before the others, then I look pretty impatient. I never slow down; if anything I speed up when the quantity of work increases. In the second walk I could feel, even in the short time we had, a loosening in my shoulders. When was the last time I took a walk just to enjoy it- except on holiday? The experience gave me this:
- First of all I never walk around anywhere slowly. Doing it here in the park I become much more aware of everything; colours were brighter, the beauty of the park hit me. I walk through this park to get to the station and I rarely notice what I have noticed in the walking exercises. I wonder what else I miss back at work?
- I felt surprised at the ease it created in me when I stopped trying so hard. I would have thought 5 minutes had passed rather than only 15.
- I am astonished how much different it felt when I changed my pace. I never noticed that before.
I realised by rushing around I wasn't paying real attention to individual team members helping them have sense of significance in the overall outcomes of the department. I have a plan for doing something different with them to ignite some fresh enthusiasm. (Robert, Sales Director)
Here are 5 tips to get started:
- Think of a reflective outdoor walk as a part of or as a whole coaching session- you can even contract for it in a previous session so you are both ready for it when you need it or 'spot contract' spontaneously in the moment
- If possible the coachee should have as little as possible to carry so there is more freedom to move
- Beforehand, if possible, take yourself around the green space you will be using. Your ease in the setting is helpful for you both and you will know where shelter might be if the heavens open!
- You can use fixed points to walk towards, or use structured exercises however a stroll without a specific destination can be just as valuable.
- Allow the environment to inform you both. All weathers have something to offer metaphorically so draw upon the seasons for inspiration.
Coaching in motion is an opportunity to...
- Create a greater sense of inner and outer spaciousness
- Connect with nature as a teacher
- Recharge your batteries by gentle exercise and fresh air
- Encourage a mindful state to reflect in
- See the 'known' with a new perspective
- Refresh problem solving and creativity
Going outside for a coaching walk has all the possibilities of enhancing the experience in a coaching or coaching supervision. There are no drawbacks other that the risk of a soggy moment or two. Conversations in whatever weather can be rich and often transformative. For me it's a walk in the park!