Process Work in Coaching

I met Annette yesterday for the first time. She came to me as a new coaching client but turned out to be slippery as a snake.

Working with her, I suddenly understood why Cindy rolled her eyes the other day. Cindy trains folks in a powerful coaching skill call Process Work.

It’s one of the most advanced set of coaching skills and one of the most effective. It’s is a deeply insightful, powerful and effective way of unfolding what’s trying to happen. It gets clients past blockers, and helps them play to their highest potential. It was invented by Arnold Mindell, who is a physicist as well as a Jungian analyst. Process Work requires years of intensive learning as well as much conscious practice. At this stage in my career I both offer Process Work, and continue to learn it. And part of my learning has been to receive Process Work as well as offer it. I believe in what I do. It’s effective, powerful, and gets results. Both for my clients and for myself.

So Cindy is an advanced level Process Worker and one of my teachers. I went to see her last Monday, and it was a tough conversation. She tried to teach me Process Work by inviting me to participate in it.

But I didn’t let her. I kept flipping around from one channel to another. From the visual to the auditory to the kinesthetic to the proprioceptive to the relationship channel to the world channel and back. I acted like a slippery snake. There was something in my own process that refused to let Cindy get a hold of one channel and help me unfold. I would not let Cindy help me.

Our conversation came to a close because we ran out of time, not because I had allowed any meaningful work to happen. I stood up to put on my boots – it’s winter right now in Chicago – and started to topple over and lose my balance. I realized I could put my boots on better sitting down. So I plopped back down on Cindy’s couch to tug on my boots.

Cindy made an exasperated noise and rolled her eyes. My instant reaction was embarrassment. Who was I to sit back down on her couch and impose on her even more when she had tried her best to help me hone in on one channel, and help me learn Process Work? I felt instantly ashamed, embarrassed and ungrateful. I slunk out of her office deep in self-pity, replaying delightful fantasies in my head of me proudly telling her that I’m never coming back.

At the edge of my awareness, I notice sometimes that things repeat themselves. Especially things that try to happen, don’t quite fully appear, or appear as hints or quantum flirts. Process Work calls these secondary or unconscious processes that are trying to catch our attention.

And that’s exactly what showed up with Annette. She came to see me as an individual client for help to better define her career path, and also for help with anxiety. What I noticed almost immediately in talking with her yesterday, was that she kept flipping around, the way I did with Cindy, and I kept losing her. I’d ask her a question, she’d give me an initial answer, but then she looked down and away from me. And descended into a jag of verbal explaining. I noticed myself going vague and getting lost. In Process Work that’s one sign that you have come to an edge.

The edge in Process Work refers to the boundary between the primary process and the secondary process. The primary is typically something within your conscious grasp, such as the fact that I’m writing this paragraph right now with an intention to share what I experienced to benefit other coaches reading this in the future.

The secondary is a process just around the corner of conscious awareness. Often there is something in the secondary that is trying to catch your attention. It can occur as a sort of quantum flirt, which quickly appears and seems random and then disappears. It’s a signal offering to be unfolded. It’s a sign of the natural energy in nature trying to happen and unfold naturally.

For example, yesterday I taught a course on agile, which is a values-based framework for developing products and software. It is sweeping the planet and represents a revolution in the way products, services and software are delivered today. 80% of IT shops globally are adopting it, according to a recent Gartner study.

Everyone in the training I delivered yesterday was remote. We all had our videos on and could also hear each other very well including the occasional background noises in people’s homes. The group I trained was a group of new employees, or employees new to their role in agile.

Just as we started talking about what it’s like for the participants to be new at the company or new in their roles, a baby started crying in the background. I wondered if that was a quantum flirt trying to catch our attention, a secondary process wanting to unfold. I decided to explore that, and said, “That sounds like a baby!”

The father of the baby said, “Yeah, sorry, she’s two years old and hungry.” So I grabbed onto that opportunity to unfold a secondary. The baby’s cry provided the quantum flirt that gave us the way into that unfolding.

I said, “So we’ve been talking about what it’s like to be new – and now a baby cries who is hungry. What’s new about babies?

The participants laughed and said, “Well, pretty much everything is new about babies. They are new human beings. New to the world and everything is new to them. Even noticing their fingers in front of their faces is a miraculous discovery.”

So unfolding this, I asked “What’s it like for you guys to be “new babies” at this company? Or new like a baby in your new role?”

A new director said, “I do feel like a baby. I don’t know much about this division I’m supposed to lead. Everything is new to me. And I have some new ideas for developing the product that I’m excited about. So my ideas are new, the opportunity is new, the experience is all new – I can’t wait.”

This went on in this vein for a while with the group, then I said, “And that baby was crying because she was hungry. What are you “hungry” for in your new roles?”

A lot, it turns out. They responded that they are hungry for new experiences, for expanding their careers and skill sets, for meeting new people and learning new ways of developing products and software. And they are hungry to learn how we do agile at this particular company. And hungry to establish their reputation – what they’re good at and what they can be counted on for.

All this from noticing a baby’s cry. This is the power of Process Work in coaching. So when Annette showed up at my door last night and asked for help with the anxiety that eats her from the inside like a swirling dervish who makes her feel like she’s constantly in freefall I thought, “Maybe Process Work would help.”

She said the anxiety was like sitting on the edge of a chair and tipping over. So I laid out a few big pillows on the floor. We sat down side-by-side in chairs and we scooted ourselves up to the very edge.

Then I said, “Let’s be the anxiety. Let the anxiety take over our bodies. Let it tip us off the very edge of the chair.” Process Work often starts with finding a signal in a sensory or other channel and inviting that signal to amplify.

But Annette leaned back in her chair and slumped a little. She said, “It’s not like that.”

Trying to follow her process, I said, “Okay, what’s it like? Show me. Teach me how to do it.”

She leaned back more until she was balancing on her tailbone, her feet and hands in the air. She said, “It’s like I’m falling backwards all the time.” I said, “Okay, good. Let’s fall back together.” She said, “But there’s nowhere to land.”

“Maybe that’s the whole point,” I thought, “Nowhere to land.” But falling backwards in free fall felt very uncomfortable to me. I stepped over it and instead suggested we fall backwards onto the soft couch, which was right behind us. So we did that, and (predictably) it led nowhere.

That’s one big learning I got yesterday on Process Work. It’s this – Don’t step over stuff.

Especially don’t step over stuff that makes you uncomfortable. Because it’s probably a signal of something important that is trying to catch your attention and wanting to unfold.

In Annette’s case, the whole point of being in freefall was her terror that there’s nowhere to land. And of course the horrible experience of feeling like she’s in freefall all the time. That pushed up against my edge of comfort.  But as a coach and process worker, it’s my job to notice things like that. I traveled with her to the edge of that discomfort but then it became too much for me and I stepped over it.

What we could’ve done instead would’ve been to go straight in. I call this “coaching that goes for the jugular.” I could’ve asked things like, “So what’s it like for you, having nowhere to land? How is it to be in freefall all the time?”

I eventually did get around to asking those things, and instead of verbal diarrhea, she looked me straight in the eyes, and blurted, “It’s horrible. I’m tired of it.”

Her voice got lower and her whole body emanated determination. I said, “Geez, I heard that. Let’s do something about it right now. Are you game?”

Bless her, she looked at me straight in the face with a trusting look, and said, “Absolutely. Now, please.”

Since we needed immediate results, and talking a blue streak was not helping her, we stepped right over into my Thai massage room (I’m a Thai massage therapist and yoga teacher). There, Annette learned for the first time in her life, to do the kind of breathing that relaxes the nervous system as well as some biofeedback techniques that deliver results within seconds. By the end of 15 minutes she looked like a different person. Her face had relaxed as well as her entire body posture. She said she felt peaceful and much more calm.

This to me is the magic of Process Work. All I had to do was follow the signals that she herself presented to me. Yesterday those were physical signals, like feeling like she was in free fall all the time, as well as verbal signals like “I’m so tired of this.” And these signals also spanned the relationship channel, when she expressed trust in me.

So for coaches wanting to use Process Work, start by listening for signals. Then invite them to unfold. First through the channel they initially express in, then when the client approaches an edge, consider changing the channel. It sounds simple, and sometimes it is. And sometimes it’s not. It requires much nuance, sensitivity, skill, presencing and courage.

But it’s worth it. Oh, is it worth it. Seeing Annette smile and breathe in a relaxed way at the end of our session was all the reward I could ask for. She still has work to do, and so do I. But we stepped into the flow of the river together last night and will continue on the path.

For more cool stuff on Process Work, check out:

And to learn about some of the techniques that worked so fast, see:


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