Talking about coaching and climate change with Rita Symons

Talking about coaching and climate change with Rita Symons

protest banner that reads there is no Planet B

28 November 2023

Our guest in the upcoming December episode of the EMCC UK blog is Rita Symons, former President of EMCC UK, who launched our climate coaching initiative in 2019. Now the lead for the EMCC Global’s Climate and Sustainability Centre for Excellence, she talks here with Hannah Butler, in this podcast transcript, about coaching and climate change.

What was the main reason for introducing the EMCC UK climate coaching initiative?

I think a number of things at that time aligned. I wish I could say that as EMCC UK President I was a driving force behind this, and that I was at the cutting edge. The reality is I wasn’t, but what I did do was respond to members.

At that time, what was really pivotal was a very public call to action from a number of coaches, including Zoe Cohen, Linda Aspey, and the late Alison Whybrow. This first came to light in an edition of Coaching at Work, in which they challenged the professional bodies to ask: what are you doing about this crisis? Their challenge stimulated action. ICF, APECS, AC and ourselves started to get together to have a conversation. This was about the then presidents and leaders of those organisations starting a discussion, but very much prompted by our memberships.

I think one of the other things that happened was that I became aware of Peter Hawkins’ eco-phase model which a number of people around coaching and climate were working with. This was something very personal for me, as I wanted to get from being eco-curious to eco-informed. So some of the conversations we were having then were really around, how do we need to educate ourselves?

How did ‘becoming informed’ begin to take shape?

I was doing some quite interesting reading at the time and there was one book in particular by Miki Kashtan called Reweaving Our Human Fabric. I’ve always been interested in politics, but I think I really made the connection with social justice and with the idea that, as a society, as a human race, we’ve become very constrained in how we think we can organise ourselves. We begin to think that we either need a neoliberalist model or we need a communist model. There was a realisation for me that there is another way of being, and to ask: what is our role as coaches?

As coaches, we are here to create awareness and stimulate action. I generated a real interest around, how can we do that through the broader agenda around social justice? Going through that journey with colleagues took a little while, but in May 2020 we released the joint statement from the professional bodies, and that felt really important in terms of us working together. Our ambition as professional bodies working collectively was to create awareness among our members, but also to create safe and challenging spaces. These were spaces where people could start to talk about the issues, and start to engage in a conversation about what my role might be as a coach. And so through that, I together with colleagues went on a bit of a journey together.

At that time, there were a number of coaches, mentors and supervisors who offered challenge, so it wasn’t all plain sailing. I wonder what you might say to those people who think that coaching isn’t a space for us to bring in an agenda?

The first thing I would say is obviously I respect and I’m really interested in hearing different views. I think there’s something around not getting into a polarised debate around this, and actually having a reflective dialogue. I can understand coaches who’ve come from a particular paradigm which is primarily focused around the needs of business and clients. If they’ve been trained in that way, I can see why that would be – that whole thing about being client-focused is a really important part of coaching.

I guess my argument is that I take a much more systemic approach. Everything is interconnected, and we can't keep ourselves out of this. Part of the work we need to do with clients is to raise their awareness of the more systemic lens, and the consequences of what they do. I also think there will be a small minority who will be very resistant. To those people I would say that I respect your views, and that the coaching profession has moved on, and we need to move on, too.

What developments have there been since this time in our professional field?

I think there has been quite a shift in the last four years or so. Interestingly, in the EMCC Global working group, we are just about to publish some research we’ve done with members. My sense is that there is a very small minority of people who are still very anti us working in this area, but that percentage has reduced in the last few years. Most people want to do something and I think the challenge is how we in EMCC can support people with that.

I think there’s also more awareness of eco-anxiety. There have been some really pivotal research studies on how young people feel powerless and quite anxious. The levels of anxiety in our young people in particular are very high. And I think more coaches have felt comfortable stepping into that more holistic space. People are talking much more systemically. They are talking about connectedness, belonging, human connection and social justice.

Maybe it's just the people I mix with in my echo chamber, but my sense is that more coaches are feeling comfortable about being more upfront about their approach, and you see more websites that talk about issues such as climate. I think more coaches are comfortable bringing some of that into their initial, contracting conversations with clients. I see a shift in terms of a greater number of coaches, and especially younger coaches, who are much more comfortable in this space.

What do you feel there is still to be done from a coaching, mentoring, supervision point of view?

I think there's a huge amount still to be done. Where I've shifted is that although I rarely talk about climate specifically in my coaching, there are  things I've started to do more comfortably. I bring nature into my coaching more, and I feel that the Covid pandemic helped this. I think people reconnected with nature during the pandemic, and this time was meaningful, when the only thing we could do was go for a walk, for an hour a day. Over this period, I feel there was a fundamental shift.

It’s hard to think back to five years ago and imagine that I would now routinely ask questions such as: if that tree were to speak to you, what would it say? The reality is that this is the sort of practice that has just become part of my coaching. I think the thing for me, and what I try to do with my clients, is to challenge their boundaries, and get them thinking more systemically, about the interconnections.

If I'm working with business setups, I will ask questions around how do you measure value? How do you measure success? This supports people to get beyond the idea that it is all about profit, or shareholder dividends. I support their thinking in terms of what is the value they want to achieve, and not just thinking about money. I know that's difficult, because our whole world is designed around money as king and kingmaker. My practice is really starting to challenge some of that.

How can we encourage challenge and change in our own practice?

I do a lot of work in the NHS. One of the things I've been talking to people about is how the World Health Organisation and a few other organisations created the One Health Joint Plan of Action. This plan talks explicitly about how human health is linked to the health of animals, the health of ecosystems, the health of the planet. It may be that by using some of this detail we can start to shift people's thinking.

We know, don't we, that if we challenge very openly, if we try and make people feel guilty, if we try this sort of push, then it doesn't always work. I admire the work of other organisations, such as the Climate Coaching Alliance, where there is more advocacy, campaigning and supporting development through a number of lenses, encouraging growth. I see my role as a coach and I see our collective role as coaches as shifting the dial in terms of more systemic thinking, and challenging how we fundamentally choose to live. I mean, that's quite a big thing, isn't it?

Is there anything else you would suggest for our coaching community that would be a way of gently introducing the issues, if it's something you've not worked with before?

I play with nature-based approaches. I ask questions around value and what's important. Another area I find really powerful is questions about legacy and future generations. A really powerful coaching question is, what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want future generations to say about you?

There are tools and support from the EMCC UK and Global websites. At Global we have produced a reflective guide with a number of tools that support members. We recognise that a lot of members are actually nervous about stepping into this space, so our commitment is to create and update resources.

The reflective guide is a really good place to start, because it takes you through work such as the Hawkins and Turner eco-phase cycle, and other tools you may want to use. I would say, from an EMCC member point of view, if anybody wanted to engage directly with us in the Global work group, we're really happy to welcome new members.

Coaching and Climate Change Resources – EMCC UK
Climate Change: Global Statement from Professional Bodies
Climate Action and Sustainability – EMCC Global

I think there is something we can all do individually, and something we can all do in terms of modelling personally the behaviours that we need. I know that people need to make their individual choices, but actually, if we all as individuals consumed less stuff that we don't need, if we grew more, then actually, as individuals, we would have power. I was reminded a couple of weeks ago while working with a colleague about the quote that's attributed to the Dalai Lama which says: ‘If you think you're too small to make a difference, try spending a night in a tent with a mosquito.’

It's really easy to feel that this is such a big challenge, that it's just hopeless, and you don't know where to start. I would definitely say to coaches, start to introduce this into your practice, but actually think about what you personally can do as well, because the more of us that make those lifestyle changes, the better in terms of future sustainability.

How can we hold the tension between what we invite a client to engage with and what we have truly engaged with ourselves?

By invitation! We invite people to pick up the reflective guide. This was very intentional in its development. What we absolutely didn't want to do was impose a view – this is what you should be doing; this is the right thing for coaches to be doing. What we're offering instead is a tool that will hold people through their own self-work, and we absolutely are not preaching.

Rita Symons

About Rita Symons

Rita Symons, a former President of EMCC UK, is an experienced health and care leader, and a leadership consultant. She is passionate about helping leadership teams learn how to have courageous conversations which allow them to grow and develop. She is an accredited EMCC Coach at Senior Practitioner level and accredited coach supervisor who is passionate about inclusion and developing cultures which celebrate the power of difference.

Photo by Markus Spiske