Coaching with Heart: Embodying ‘I-thou’ in service of trust and co-creation

In my coaching practice spanning over two decades, I’ve embraced the principle of fostering genuine “I and Thou” relationships, rooted in Martin Buber’s philosophy, to…

Over the past 20 years, I’ve coached people across the world, from South Africa and Europe, to Asia and the Middle-East. During this time, I have been guided by a core principle:

Coaches partner in a relationship of equals to support clients to increase awareness, improve thinking, expand the possible, unlock potential, try out new behaviours and build new habits.

Martin Buber, a prominent existentialist philosopher, introduced the concept of I-Thou and I-It relationships in his seminal work “I and Thou.” In Buber’s philosophy, I-Thou refers to an authentic encounter between people, where each fully acknowledges the other’s humanity, essence, and uniqueness. This mode of relation transcends objectification and instrumentalisation, fostering deep connection, empathy, and mutual respect. In contrast, I-It relationships involve viewing others as mere objects or means to an end, devoid of inherent value or significance beyond their utility. Buber emphasises the importance of cultivating I-Thou encounters to experience genuine communion and enrich the human experience, advocating for a shift away from the impersonal and transactional dynamics characteristic of I-It interactions.

To better understand this concept, let’s explore some examples of how we interact with the world:

An encounter with a Stranger

Picture this: you’re on a train, surrounded by strangers, lost in your own thoughts. Imagine you strike up a conversation with a stranger. Instead of merely exchanging superficial pleasantries, in an I-thou interaction you engage in a meaningful dialogue, sharing personal stories, thoughts, and emotions. Both of you acknowledge each other’s humanity, listening attentively, empathising, and connecting on a deeper level. In contrast, an I-It interaction in this scenario might involve treating the stranger as a passive listener or a source of information. You might engage in small talk out of politeness or convenience, but the encounter lacks genuine connection or mutual recognition of each other’s personhood. The interaction remains superficial and transactional, with little emotional investment.

A walk in Nature

Consider a hike through a pristine forest. In an I-Thou encounter with nature, you experience a profound sense of awe and reverence. You perceive the trees, rivers, and wildlife as manifestations of something greater than yourself. You feel a deep connection to the natural world, appreciating its beauty and complexity with humility and wonder. Alternatively, viewing nature through an I-It lens reduces it to a mere resource or backdrop for human activities. You might see the trees as lumber for construction or the rivers as sources of water for consumption. In this mode of relation, nature becomes objectified and instrumentalised, valued only for its utility to satisfy human needs or desires.

Interactions in the Workplace

In a workplace characterised by I-Thou relationships, colleagues and superiors engage with each other with respect, empathy, and genuine interest. They value each other’s contributions, collaborate openly, and foster a sense of community and belonging. Feedback and criticism are delivered constructively, with the aim of mutual growth and development. Conversely, in an environment dominated by I-It interactions, individuals may treat each other as tools or obstacles to career advancement. Colleagues are seen as competitors or means to achieve personal goals, rather than as fellow human beings with their own aspirations and challenges. Communication is often transactional and superficial, lacking authenticity and emotional depth.

These examples demonstrate how our interactions with the world aren’t just transactions; they are the brushstrokes painting the canvas of our being and humanity, shaping who we are and how we perceive the beauty and complexity of existence.

Laura Perls, one of the founders of gestalt therapy, reported that an encounter with Buber and his dialogic concept of I-thou profoundly influenced her and subsequently Gestalt’s “values of presence, confirmation, authenticity, dialogue and inclusion”. In his poetic and philosophical way, Buber describes I-thou dialogue requiring a loving alertness to mystery, joy and wonder in “whole being” human interactions.

Facilitating an I-thou encounter with my clients is the foundation of my coaching practice. These are the principles I use, which involve an integrative synthesis of a few models anchored in an emerging relational-developmental model that I have developed over the years.

Creating safety and limbic resonance

Siegel’s (2009) neurobiological concept of limbic resonance really resonates with me. It describes this beautiful state of empathic attunement where, through heightened contact, our mirror neurons light up, mirroring the neurological activity of the other person. It is this deep I-thou connection where you almost feel what the other person feels. And then there’s Kline’s thinking environment (1999) framework, which I find incredibly powerful. It is a systematic approach that really fosters this state of limbic resonance, especially in coaching. I strive to pay attention to Kline’s ten components. It’s all about how I pay attention and show up with my listening presence. Creating that safe space where emotions of connection and trust (rather than shame, fear and stress) can flourish is so important to me. I’ve learned from neuroscience that when we engage those attachment emotions properly, it’s a real game-changer. People become more energised, more curious, more creative. They’re open to pushing their boundaries, both for themselves and for others.

It’s fascinating how our brains work! Look at the amygdala – it’s this little powerhouse that can either build barriers or foster rapport in our relationships. And then there’s this idea of the ‘theatre of emotions’ we each carry within us, shaped by our experiences and encoded in our brains. But the best part? Our brains plasticity. That means we have the power to cultivate new feelings, to stir up awareness in both our clients and ourselves as coaches. It has endless potential for growth and transformation, and I find that incredibly inspiring.

Reinforcing the client’s sense of being an active and influential partner in the process

An important step is creating a supportive, non-judgmental dialogue that supports the client’s agency, especially in the context of Rogers’ person-centered approach (1951) – allowing them to choose their own outcomes and directions. He sees this immense potential in every person, waiting to be unlocked through genuine support and understanding. I love how Rogers puts it: “when the therapist truly embraces the idea that any outcome, any direction is possible, that’s when the client realises just how capable they are of taking constructive action.” It’s empowering, isn’t it?

In my work as a coach, I strive to embody this philosophy. While it’s important to evaluate outcomes and directions for their relevance and usefulness, I want to hold a space that’s both wide and deep for creative exploration and the affirmation of agency. It is also important that I hold regular reviews with clients to ensure the relationship stays relevant, helpful, and effective. It’s all about maintaining that sense of equality, honesty, and openness – the foundation of any meaningful coaching relationship. This emphasis on regular check-ins is crucial, especially in cultivating that deep, I-thou connection where both parties are truly seen and heard.

Working with the wider system in true I-thou relating

At the same time, however, I align with Mann’s (2010) position that a coach can go too far in over-identifying with the individual client at the expense of the expectations of their broader system or multiplex. It’s something that hits close to home for us at Multiplex Partners. We’re all about recognising the complex web of internal and external factors that influence every individual and organisation, drawing from Lewin’s field theory. Buber himself criticised an “overemphasis on individual existence at the expense of human inter-existence”. Coaching is not Rogerian therapy; I believe it is important to reference clients within their broader contexts or we can inadvertently diminish them, thus rendering true I-thou relating impossible. 

Creating a containing space with my client and acknowledging the needs of their role and the systems in which they work, are central to how I work as a coach. It’s about acknowledging the interconnectedness of everything. And I’m not alone in this approach. This is echoed, for example, in Kahn (2014) who notes that the aim of business coaching is to facilitate alignment and integration between the person being coached and their environment, with coaching goals often seen to signal gaps or barriers in the axial relationship. It’s all about fostering that harmonious relationship between the individual and their surroundings.

Co-creating with clients

A further aspect of Buber’s thinking which excites me is his concept of “the between”, referring to the co-creative space that emerges between me and my client.  It’s like this beautiful dance unfolding right then and there. I find it so fascinating, this idea of experiencing the world phenomenologically, fully immersed in the here-and-now. This “dance in the moment” is well-articulated in Kimsey-House and colleagues (2018) co-active coaching model emphasising discovery, awareness and choice. Their model affirms my beliefs that clients are “creative, resourceful and whole” and reiterates an I-thou attitude of working with the whole person in coaching.

It’s moments like these that remind me why I love coaching so much. There’s this synergy that happens when you’re fully engaged with your client, exploring possibilities, and co-creating solutions together. It’s like tapping into the limitless potential of the human spirit, and it’s incredibly inspiring.

Affirming the coaching relationship as the primary catalyst of change

This further underlines the significance of the coaching alliance as the core vehicle of change and the dialogic, phenomenological process where both the client and I are touched and transformed in our encounter.  This requires me as a coach to be able to “understand [my] presence and what it evokes in others, to what extent it is grounded and integrated, and whether [I] can bring flexibility and intentionality to it”. 

I am moved by Nouwen’s reflection that “I must create some free space in my innermost self to offer others a hospitable place where I can really listen”.  Nepo also adds “To enter deep listening, I’ve had to learn how to keep emptying and opening, how to keep beginning.”  The spirit of Egan’s description of the active listening process has been foundational for me since beginning my journey as a coach, although I resist formulaic paraphrasing and restating.  Although I recognise the efficacy of processes such as symbolic modelling using Grove’s clean language, my approach to listening is non-directive – I create the space where clients can explore, grow, and ultimately find their own answers. And I feel privileged to be a part of that journey with them.

Balancing Intimacy with Strategy to serve both the client and their organisation

Referencing Leary-Joyce’s Strategy, Intimacy quadrant, I aim to embody the following:

  • I strive to meet my client where they are with full, loving, non-judgmental attention in the spirit of an equal partnership (High Intimacy). 
  • I echo Evans and Gilbert’s (2005) assertion that being a coach is not to offer a neutral presence as approaches such as psychodynamic and behavioural coaching do.  Rather the coaching space I aim to create “honours the uniqueness and contextual influences of both of us”, with the central aim to support the client’s awareness and growth.
  • Being fully present to support my client in the here-and-now requires me to acknowledge and work with my own vulnerabilities in the client’s social interactional field. I manage my energy and awareness, observing my triggers and taking responsibility for my responses.
  • Acknowledging that learning often happens at the limits of the known, my presence aims to support and challenge the client for their growth and that of their organisation (High Strategy). 
  • In creating a space of limbic resonance building on, for example, the tools of active listening, I support my client’s agency, flexibility and responsibility in a co-active, dialogic relationship.  This creates a platform for challenge and vulnerability, whilst mitigating feelings of shame.  I have found that helping leaders develop self-compassion can be a valuable starting point. 
  • Supporting agency requires ongoing contracting and monitoring with the client to better understand their experience and continually strengthen the working alliance.

Affirming I-thou versus AI coaching

Promising early results of AI-driven chatbot coaching challenge me as a coach to reflect on how my principles support my clients in ways that differ from what advanced AI coaching could offer.  Although an experienced coach’s knowledge could be mimicked by AI, what AI cannot offer is a co-creative and mutually developmental encounter of two human beings working with each other in a space of limbic resonance.  Coaching is a journey of mutual development. It’s not just about the client growing and evolving; it’s about both the client and the coach expanding their capacities together. As we work together to enhance the client’s ability to respond creatively to challenges, both parties stand to gain in awareness, skill, range, and repertoire.

Conclusion

The principle of fostering genuine I-Thou relationships has been at the core of my coaching philosophy developed over 20 years of practice. From chance encounters to workplace dynamics, embracing this principle has proven transformative, fostering deep connections and unlocking potential. As we navigate the evolving landscape of coaching, I look forward to continuing to prioritise authentic human interaction, and recognising its irreplaceable value in fostering growth and transformation for both coach and client alike.

References

Brown, P., and Busby-Earle, D. (2014). Neurobehavioural modelling: Applying neuroscience research to the development of coaching practice. In Passmore, J. Mastery in Coaching; A complete psychological toolkit for advanced coaching (2014). London: Kogan Page.
Buber, M. (1958). I and Thou. New York: Scribner.
Cox, E., Bachkirova, T., and Clutterbuck, D. (2014). The Complete Handbook of Coaching (2nd Edition). London: SAGE Publications.
Egan, G. (1994). The Skilled Helper. A Problem-management Approach to Helping. Pacific Grove, California: Brooks / Cole Publishing Company.
Evans, K., and Gilbert, M. (2005). An Introduction to Integrative Psychotherapy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Garvey, J. (2010). Circles of Love. Daily Readings with Henri J. Nouwen. Mumbai: St Pauls.
Joyce, P., and Sills, C., (2010). Skills in Gestalt Counselling and Psychotherapy. (2nd Edition). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Kahn, M.S. (2014). Coaching on the axis: Working with complexity in business and executive coaching. London, UK: Karnac Books.
Kimsey-House, H., Kimsey-House, K., Sandahl, P., and Whitworth, L. (2018) Co-active Coaching: The Proven Framework for Transformative Conversations at Work and Life. (4th Edition) New York: Aladdin, Simon & Schuster.
Mann, D. (2010). Gestalt Therapy 100 Key Points and Techniques. Hove, East Sussex: Routledge.
Nepo, M. (2012). Seven Thousand Ways to Listen. Staying Close to what is Sacred. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centred Therapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Siegel, D.J. (2009). The Humanistic Psychologist, 37: 137–158, 2009 Copyright Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 0887-3267 print=1547-3333 online DOI: 10.1080/08873260902892220 (Accessed 27 December 2023).

Author

Cathy

Farlam

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