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During the past few years I have been integrating my experiences and knowledge from different traditions of thought & practice to form a somewhat stabile way of thinking what I am doing in my work as coach, process consultant and counselor. I feel that I have now gained enough insight both to the theory and practice of what I do in order to put it into words. I decided to name the approach Wu Wei Coaching.

Wu Wei is a Taoist term that can be translated as “effortless action” or “without action”. It fits perfectly with what I’m trying to put into words. I got inspiration for this name from an excellent article by Jeffrey K. Edwards & Mei-Whei Chen about Strenght-based Wu-wei supervision. I think they do a a great job in the article describing a non-violent, non-authoritative way of doing supervision, drawing from the systemic thinking of second-order family therapists.

I have used several thinking frameworks to make sense of what is the core of my professional practice. I too draw from the strength-based practices (dialogic, narrative, reflexive and solution focused) that I have been studying for several years. I have also been a practitioner of meditative work for more than 10 years and studied the holistic thinking of the east. I see a lot of similarities between the systems thinking tradition and eastern philosophy. However, I also challenge and expand the systems thinking framework with the insights coming from the complexity sciences. Especially from the work of Ralph D. Stacey and Douglas Griffin which they call “complex responsive processes of relating”.

So what does Wu Wei Coaching mean?

It is impossible to define strict boundaries around this topic. What I draw here with words is more like a finger pointing to the concept than the concept itself. However, my experience has shown that there are some general guidelines and repetitive patterns that can be pointed out. I also believe that some of those can be used by others too. My goal in this post is to draw a picture of the general framework of Wu Wei Coaching. I plan to expand this topic with future posts too.

Dialogue is the way

Wu Wei Coaching is based on the assumption that people are dialogical beings who build their reality and identities in a social process. This process can’t be fully controlled by any single human being but is a result of many local interactions happening everywhere in the society/organization. In the context of coaching it means that there can be no predefined end-states or interventions for the coaching. Wu Wei Coaching assumes transformative causality where the future state can’t be known. Instead the coach is seeking together with the clients the way of least resistance. The most important job for the coach is to attach himself to the ongoing dialogues and work from there.

The coach isn’t making diagnoses of the situation and developing actions based on those. Neither is he following any specific methodology or predefined process. The coach is observing and attending the dialogue as an equal participant. He is using his knowledge, skills, personality and identity as an instrument for making the emerging dialogue itself transparent. The potential change is coming from the dialogue – both the public one that is verbalized and also the private inner dialogues that people are having by themselves. It is the change in thinking and perspective that will cause changes also to the context of work and organization. This change is “effortless” in a sense that it is a natural outcome of changes in the thinking patterns. People are naturally finding harmony between how they think and act.

It doesn’t mean that the change won’t be painful or require lots of work – it might. But it is effortless in a sense that it is the natural course of action. Once something is really understood, that understanding doesn’t need to be sustained by anyone. Thus the change in the private dialogue of a person is naturally affecting also the public dialogues he is attending. This means that the change in the private dialogue of single person creates ripples in the social interaction that can affect a wide popularity. What exactly will happen in that wider context is a result of many local interactions happening in many different places of the society/organization. Thus it is impossible to predict accurately what kind of changes will happen.

Wu Wei Coach is aware that he has great power to influence the ways of thinking and working in the whole society/organization – through the dialogue. He also knows that he can’t control the end results of that dialogue or the effects of it at the global level. Thus the coach assumes and maintains a “not-knowing mind”. Despite of all his knowledge of organizations, people and dialogical processes, he can’t know what is the best outcome or course of action for the client. The coach might have well based opinions of his own that he shares, but the client must always take the agency and responsibility himself, as he is also the one who must deal with the results.

Theoretical/pragmatic frameworks of Wu Wei Coaching:

  • Dialogism: Put the focus on the dialogue – what has been said and how? Listen to 1) what the client is saying, 2) what you are saying and 3) what is happening in your own inner dialogue.
  • Narrativism: What kind of stories are built? What do they tell about the identities of the clients? Who are the people participating in building of these narratives? What is the context? Move within the stories and help to build new ones.
  • Reflectionism: What is happening? Use reflective groups. Seek for multiple voices / polyphony.
  • Solution Focus: Try to hold the focus on what works, the solutions, not on the problems. Transform the problems as goals. Be interested of the positive exceptions – has there been times and situations when the problem was smaller or gone totally? What are the differences making the difference?
  • Complex Responsive Processes: Be sensitive of what is happening between the people. What kind of gestures/responses are made? What kind of power figurations there are? What kind of patterns of behavior you see (power games, inclusion/exclusion, cult values, functional values…)? What kind of meanings are created in the acts and how those are transforming?

Principles of coaching:

  • Creativity and improvisation are more effective than planning and using methodologies
  • Don’t go to the diagnosis, leave the case open as long as possible – and even longer
  • If the solution/problem becomes fixed change the rules of the game so that it is under negotiation again
  • Effortless action – find useful change that is already happening and amplify it
  • Multiple voices: Try to hold several different viewpoints visible all the time
  • Look at the topics from different causality assumptions (efficient, rationalist, formative, transformative). Find language to explain the situation from different causality assumptions.
  • Not-knowing mind: Be curious of what it is that you are talking about. And when you get it, change the viewpoint so that you don’t get it anymore…
  • Put focus on the language and conversations, not on the abstract tools and processes
  • Assume that there are no tools and processes, only people that are trying to make sense of the big picture/cooperation by using concepts such as tools and processes
  • Beginner’s mind: “Can you explain it to me as if I was five-years-old?”
  • Keep the focus on this moment: How to affect things here and now, with these people in hand?
  • Be aware of the protosymbols, verbalize them
  • Empower the client, enforce his agency (step aside with your fancy thoughts and “killer interventions”)
  • Be transparent with your interventions
  • Assume the client to be the expert on his own work and situation
  • See the organization and the roles as dynamic processes, not static entities and structures
  • Look at the cult values and functional values, be aware that these differ with different groups and even within the people in a same group
  • Use reflecting teams to create polyphony
  • Be present and alive
  • Perceptual development: It is always possible to perceive more possibilities for action
Wu Wei Coach’s identity:
  • Expert on the theoretical/pragmatic frameworks introduced before
  • Expert in an exploratory conversational process, in which she or he engages collaboratively with the supervisees in the telling, inquiring, interpreting, and shaping of the supervisee’s narrative (Anderson & Swim, 1995, p. 2)
  • Improvisation artist
  • Creative
  • Self-reflecting
  • Mindful, aware
  • Humble, knowing that he does not know
  • Knowledgeable of the different thinking frameworks used in the context
  • Comfortable dealing with ambiguity
  • Fearless of calling “the game” into question, even if it means conflict
  • Compassionate for the client’s situation