Wu Wei Coaching

iStock_000002981463_Medium “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.
Empty your mind; be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot – it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
–    Bruce Lee

Origins of Wu Wei Coaching

I’ve been coaching people and teams for more than 10 years. At some point of my coaching career I realized that I really couldn’t use any specific tools and techniques to achieve the results I was supposed to achieve. In fact, I even realized that the goals themselves were always changing as a result of conversations, which opened lots of different viewpoints to them. At the end, only thing left to do was to work from the themes emerging in those conversations.

In 2008 I had an opportunity to study the thinking of complex responsive processes with Ralph D. Stacey and Douglas Griffin. It was the most interesting training I ever went through and I have been continuing to learn more about this way of thinking ever since. That training gave me words and understanding about what happens in social groups we usually call organizations. It also provided an environment where it was possible to engage in discussions about what we saw happening around us. I’ve come to learn that there are no organizations, just people creating global patterns while co-operating in local interaction.

In my search for new approaches to coaching I went through 2.5-year training in Family Therapy tradition, which utilized the framework of social constructionism. I already had many years of experience from Solution Focus but Dialogism, Narrativism and Reflexivity really opened my eyes to see what we are doing when we engage in dialogues. It is all about improvisation with emergent narratives.

In 2011 I saw an excellent article by Jeffrey K. Edwards & Mei-Whei Chen about Wu Wei method in supervision and realized this is perfect word to describe what I’m experiencing. Thus I decided to develop my own coaching approach and called it Wu Wei Coaching.

Nowadays almost anything I do provides means to reflect upon what I am doing in coaching. Yi Quan and Mindfulness meditation have taught me to be very sensitive of the movements in the situation at hand – what is happening in me when I engage in dialogue. Tuishou (“pushing hands”) practice provides perfect example of how to train non-verbal communication with another person by being very sensitive of the subtle movements of oneself and the other person. In this practice it is easy to find a flow where the separated subject and object are vanishing – the movement seems to have the mind of it’s own.

The Coach and the Client

TemptationWhenever one is talking about coaching it is important to look into the relationship between the coach and the clients. There are some general principles I have learned to value in coaching:

For me, the most important thing to remember is that we are constantly negotiating our identities in the given situation. It is helpful to look at our minds as social processes. The ways we think and act are related to the groups we belong to. By looking at the conversation and the case from many perspectives it is possible to come up with novel thoughts and acts.

The coach isn’t the expert of the client’s context. Instead he helps client to see his own strengths. The client has most probably already used some strategies to deal with his challenges. Even if he hasn’t been able to solve the challenges, there have been times in his life when those challenges have temporarily ceased to exist or at least were smaller. So the best thing for the coach to do is to help the client to find these positive exceptions. Doing more of what has already worked before will most probably improve the situation. It is also empowering for the client as it highlight his existing strengths. Focusing on the strengths is the way of least resistance.

Way of least resistance can also be found by looking at what is already happening and how to improvise with that. There are always lots of changes happening in any given time and situation. The easiest way to change is to amplify change that is already happening. However, improvisation isn’t following rules and techniques. It will require the use of practical judgment in the particular context.

Mapping Wu Wei Coaching

Competent practitioners have acquired skills to use tools and techniques, but experts need to use practical judgment in particular situations. Practical judgment isn’t just competence of following rules and techniques – it is expert improvisation. The expertise of a coach is the understanding of the context and discourse. He needs to be able to understand the emergent themes in the conversation and work from there. This expertise is developed in reflexive process.

Screen shot 2012-11-09 at 1.35.58 PMCompass 1. Wu Wei Coaching and other coaching approaches.

Reflexivity isn’t the same thing as reflectivity. Reflexivity is about turning your focus back on yourself without making a distinction between the observer and the observed – subject and object are not separated, they are simultaneously present. Reflectivity is more about turning the focus on the outside, acquiring a position of outside observer. In reflectivity the observer might see himself both as the subject and the object, but not at the same time. In this way of thinking subject and object are separated by time.
Reflexivity-in-action is improvised learning in practice. It is the usage of practical judgment. It means to reflect upon what is happening from within the experience (taking the perspective of swimmer). Reflection-on-action means to reflect upon what is happening from outside of the experience (taking the perspective of airman).

Screen shot 2012-11-09 at 1.36.08 PMCompass 2. Wu Wei Coaching and other coaching approaches.

Another way of looking at reflexivity is to think about being vs. doing. Being is more concentrated on the experience of what is happening whereas doing is more concentrated on the process of what is happening. There can be also distinctions on the focus of the coaching. Client centered coaching focuses the conversation on the client and how to understand him in relation to the case. This enables the work with different perspectives and identities emerging in the dialogue. Case centered coaching focuses the conversation on the case and how to solve that. The client is abstracted from the case as a general agent.

Wu Wei Coaching is an attempt to put more focus on the reflexivity-in-action. It is highly client centered, “being focused” coaching approach. The reason for this emphasis is that these perspectives give possibilities to keep the dialogue on what is really happening in that particular moment. Otherwise it would be easy to fall into 2nd order abstractions without even realizing it. An example of second order abstraction would be to talk about “organization” and how to change that with some specific methodologies such as Lean or Agile. Wu Wei Coach might approach that kind of conversation by focusing the dialogue to the patterns of cooperation that the client has been part of and how he relates to them. How he sees his and the client’s identity in those activities.

Another reason for this focus is that as Wu Wei Coach is engaging in reflexive dialogue, he is participating in a process of developing both his own and the client’s expertise.

Wu Wei and Reflexivity

In order to gain deeper understanding of reflexivity, it is useful to distinguish the different elements of it and compare it with cybernetic systems.

reflexivityPicture 1. Model of relations between cybernetic systems and reflexivity.

We can use thermostat as an example. Thermostat is a 1st order cybernetic system. It includes measuring device that measures the temperature of a room and a heating device, which can be set on/off. Whenever the temperature is below or above the set target state, the heating device goes on or turns off. This system can be expanded to 2nd order cybernetic system by making it a nested system. Another system is created to adjust the target value of thermostat. That can be based on some other measurements like the temperature outside of the room. Human being might also function as this other system – if the temperature feels too hot or cold he will adjust the target value, which affects the equilibrium of the thermostat.

This is where the 1st order reflexivity comes also into picture. Human being is able to reflect upon the data that he sees or feels. What is the meaning of this data to me in my particular situation? Is this even meaningful data? Based in these reflections the human being can develop understanding of what this data means for him in his particular situation. He is able to use his practical judgment to know what to do. All of us are able to do this at some lengths. The 2nd order reflexivity is lot harder to learn and that is what distinguishes experts from competent practitioners. 2nd order reflexivity requires the person to reflect upon how he is acquiring the meaning for the data. How do I find out the meaning of this data in my particular situation? How do I participate in creation of this particular situation? Is this even meaningful situation? Who am I in this situation?

Wu Wei Coaching attempts to keep the 2nd order reflexivity ongoing. There are two reasons for this: First of all, 2nd order reflexivity enables lots of different perspectives to the situation. Instead of being stuck with one or two viewpoints this process enables shifts in the identities and thinking of the participants, which enables novel ideas and viewpoints to emerge. Second reason for this focus is that expertise is developed in the 2nd order reflexivity.

Wu Wei and Dialogism

Dialogue is like a cocktail: It has three parts of listening and one part of talking. Whenever you are involved in dialogue you have to listen to 1) What the client is saying, 2) What you are saying and 3) What is happening in your silent inner dialogue.

Screen shot 2012-11-07 at 9.31.51 AMPicture 2. Different parts of the dialogue cocktail.

Wu Wei Coach is especially interested of what is happening in his inner dialogue, as this will enable him to engage in the 2nd order reflexive process. All the parts of listening are feeding back to that inner dialogue. Listening includes both verbal and non- verbal communication, emotions and feelings. So, in order to be very sensitive of the situation, the coach has to try to listen carefully of all these different processes that are going on. If the coach is able to make some of this process visible, it can also coach the client to listen with “Wu Wei ears”.

The writing of this document can be used as an example of dialogism. While I am writing this document I’m reading the words I type, I’m sensitive of my feelings and emotions. I’m also taking the perspective of other people who might be reading this document and imagining their responses. All these ways of listening are affecting my inner dialogue, which affects my writing right now.

Wu Wei Coaching puts the emphasis on this process of listening with three ears at the same time as this helps to be more in tune with the situation. This sensitivity towards the inner dialogue will also help to engage in the 2nd order reflexive process, where it is possible to understand how we are creating the meaning for the particular situation. This enables lot of different viewpoints that can change the course of that particular dialogue.

Three Ways of Seeing the Organizations

There are three common styles of thinking when people are thinking about organizations mechanistic, systemic/organismic and complex. Most people intuitively use all of these viewpoints, but probably are drawn to utilize some of them more than others. My experience is that the mechanistic viewpoint is used the most, while the systems thinking is gaining more popularity. The complex viewpoint is still quite unknown to wide audience – although in practice the complex patterns of behavior are evident (and inevitable).

iStock_000020736619_SmallMechanistic view looks at the organizations to be like a machine, clockwork. The people with their roles and responsibilities are like cogwheels and the processes are the common design of the clock. The manager is like the clockmaker who can control the efficiency of the machine by supervising and giving orders to each of the cogwheels.

This thinking is evident e.g. in the traditional performance evaluation systems. The efficiency is simply the result of the individuals performing their job. If everybody is fulfilling his or her roles and responsibilities properly, the clockwork is functioning well. If there are problems in the performance, each of the cogwheels can be evaluated by themselves and corrected/switched to a better one. This is done until the clockwork is functioning well again. If this isn’t enough, the overall design can be improved. In reductionist manner, the same principle can be applied to the managers also. Each of them are then responsible of the design/functioning of their part of the clockwork.

iStock_000003102856_SmallSystemic view looks at the organization from a different angle. Here the interactions between the parts of the system become more important than the parts themselves. The “teams” become more important than the individuals. Instead of controlling the individuals, the managers design boundaries for the teams. The roles and responsibilities become boundaries also – they are somewhat flexible enabling the people to adapt to the situation, but they also guide the behavior in certain limits. Managers can still control the organization with the same tools (roles, responsibilities, processes), but they become boundaries for the parts of the system and not direct control mechanisms for individuals.

The analogy used here is an organism. It is impossible to build an organism in a mechanistic manner – you can’t first draw a design for the organism and then take different kinds of cells to build it from the scratch (like Frankenstein monster). You have to grow the organism – take a seed, put it in the soil, give it water and expose it to sunlight. A beautiful bonsai tree starts to grow according to it’s inner design, but the gardener can prune it, steer the dimensions of the branches with robes, allow the sunshine only from certain angles, control the humidity of the air and soil, etc. Again the manager is in the position of designer, but instead of an architect he is now a gardener.

Scrum is an example of systemic methodology. Thus it isn’t very surprising that it develops inner conflict with mechanistic HR processes. Peer evaluation systems try to solve this conflict with “both-and” logic – teams are both organisms and individuals. Individuals are important ingredients of the team and thus it is possible to evaluate them. But instead of clockmaker evaluating them like cogwheels, the peers can be seen like parts of the organism that are guiding each others so that the bonsai is fulfilling it’s inner design. The manager can then observe the growth of the team and steer the development with his “gardener’s toolbox” to suit better with the goals of the bigger system. In isomorphic manner, this same philosophy can be then applied to managers themselves. The gardeners themselves can also be grown and gardened.

It is also worth noting that it isn’t uncommon to see one manager utilizing mechanistic thinking and his own manager utilizing systemic thinking – or vice versa.

iStock_000000050711_SmallComplex view takes yet another angle. It challenges both the notion of autonomous individuals and the view of organization as an organism. In complexity view the organization is seen as a dynamic process of cooperation between interdependent agents. There aren’t really any fixed entities called “team” or “organization”, instead what we see are patterns emerging from this cooperative communication. “Organization”, “team”, “roles”, “responsibilities” and “processes” are conversational patterns used as tools in the daily politics of organization. They are second order abstractions. People use these abstractions in their conversations as gestures that call forth responses. However, nobody can control all the responses he might get. Nobody can control all the other conversations that are happening locally between different people. Because of this, the processes of organizing and product making are always unpredictable even though they are also somewhat predictable at the same time.

If one looks at the different performance evaluation systems from this perspective, it all looks quite different. The whole notion of “performance evaluation” becomes a conversational tool, a social object established in the conversational patterns of the organization. It is a tool in the organizational power games. Managers use it to establish hierarchical power relations, but also the subordinates use it at the same time to different purposes (e.g. legitimizing their own actions, gaining recognition, etc). Power relations are always complex and dynamic – they don’t follow the official hierarchical structures. Thus the subordinates might easily have power over their managers too.

Wu Wei and Thinking Styles

Different thinking styles can affect a lot to the way a coach will work. Thinking styles affect how people see their clients, their own role, the social environment and the purpose of coaching. As the environment of the client is often some kind of organization, it is useful to look at also some Organizational Development (OD) methodologies. Picture 3 maps various Coaching and OD methodologies to different thinking styles.

Screen shot 2012-11-07 at 10.51.47 AMPicture 3. Coaching and OD methodologies mapped to different thinking styles.

Mechanistic frameworks are making the assumption of coach as an outside observer. He can look at the client and his situation and point out what needs to be done in order to get the machine working well again. This is quite often used thinking in OD. Example is “Scientific Management”, which is taught in many MBA programs. In coaching this thinking framework isn’t so widely used as the whole concept of coaching has been formed from a perspective where the client often has more expertise than the coach. Still this kind of attitude is seen in some approaches, which I label as “cognitive coaching”.

Systemic frameworks are also assuming a position of outside observer for the coach. Organization is seen as a concrete entity, like organism, which has characters such as culture and identity and sense of purpose. Coach is looking at the purpose and goals of the organization. What is the direction they are growing towards, what are the ingredients affecting it, how to steer the direction and how to nourish the organism? Agile methodology focuses on teams as self-organizing entities that set and reach goals for themselves. Lean methodology focuses on systems analysis trying to optimize the workflow to reach the purpose of the whole organism.

With individual coaching, the systems thinking can be seen e.g. in Solution Focused techniques. The coach helps the client to vision a preferred future, a future state where the problems of the client have ceased to exist. What are the differences in that
situation, what are the signals that tell that the problem has vanished? Then coach helps the client to build steps towards that future state. In family therapy, instead of looking at the individual alone, the whole family system is studied.

Complexity thinking denies the existence of autonomous individuals. Instead the individual is seen to be forming in a social process. Individual is the singular form of the same phenomenon which society is a plural form. When coaching individuals, the coach has to think about the whole group that creates that individual. When doing OD, the coach has to think about the individuals that are forming the organization. Both are present at the same time, but not as a static entities but instead as a process. Dialogism, narrativism and reflexivity are all frameworks where the focus is on the processes of conversations instead of static objects. These frameworks don’t specify what the coach should do with the understanding of these conversational processes. Because of this, the coach needs to utilize practical judgment to be able to use that understanding. In other words, he needs to have developed ability to engage in reflexive processes while coaching. He needs to use reflexivity-in-action.

The thinking of complex responsive processes is a meta-framework to understand what is happening, not a tool. Whenever you are utilizing tools or techniques that can be put in a form of rules, you are inevitably utilizing the systems thinking or mechanistic thinking. However, real life in social groups is always complex. So it would completely miss the point to say that different methodologies would lead to systemic/mechanistic/complex activities. These are just thinking frameworks to understand what is happening, the difference can only be seen in the way you see and talk about it.

It is interesting to note that these different thinking styles are mapping quite naturally to three different management frameworks in Chinese philosophy: Wu Wei is ideal management style for executive management, Confucianism is ideal framework for middle management and Legalism is ideal framework for low level managers.


This document has been an attempt to look at the Wu Wei Coaching from many different perspectives, so that it would become possible for the reader to get some kind of understanding of what it is all about.

However, you can’t really find Wu Wei Coaching from any of these pages, I can’t capture it in words and concepts. What I have presented here are just abstractions. You are interpreting them according to your own experiences and perhaps you are even reflecting on your interpretations. If you are able to do that, then you are able to use some of these principles such as 2nd order reflectivity and listening with “Wu Wei ears”. That is where you might then find the real Wu Wei Coaching.

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water.”

1 thought on “Wu Wei Coaching”

  1. Very nice. Thank you.

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