This is the fourth and final post in a series of blog posts by Charly Cox and Sarah Flynn on the role of coaching in addressing climate change, to accompany the release of their book, Climate Change Coaching: the power of connection to create climate action (Open University Press).
What comes to mind when I say the words ‘climate change’? Maybe images of the natural world, or technological solutions such as wind farms. Or maybe you think about traditional activism, with people waving placards, marching down the high street.
What you might not so readily think about, however, is identity, yet how we connect our deepest sense of self to this issue has a great impact on what we do about it, and how we cope with its lived effects. Our identities inform whether we consider ourselves to be ‘the sort of person who flies for a holiday’, or ‘not be the type to go on a march’. When it comes to personal choices that are linked to our formative experiences, for example from childhood, we may find these things even more ingrained.
Emily Buchanan in our team, who helps people develop planet-friendly diets, often notices that old identities about what it means to be a parent can surface when it comes to cooking the family meal, without meat.
Just as our sense of identity can make it hard to engage with change, it can make it tricky to disengage from it too. In the fourth and final section of our new book, Climate Change Coaching, we offer tools for readers to coach themselves through their climate work, whether as sustainability practitioners, environmental workers, campaigners or coaches. We consider the role that a climate identity can play in our ability to switch off from the urgency of the climate crisis.
Many who are active in the climate world can find themselves working all hours, feeling gripped by a sense that every second counts. In this state, it is easy to form attachments to things being done in a specific way, and feels like being locked in by the high stakes around certain events – ‘if X political party loses, then X, Y and Z will happen’. When we are tightly attached to a set agenda it’s much easier to become triggered by someone else’s positioning, and we become vulnerable to responding unskilfully, with blame or criticism. This can drive us apart, exactly when we need to be brought together.
As coaches, we can help our clients to ‘put down’ their attachment, and to recognise other perspectives that they may not have been able to see on their own. As Buddhist scholar David Loy writes in our book, ‘Buddhist training teaches us to respond moment by moment, situation by situation, and that is especially important in this time of ecological disaster. This is at the heart of acceptance; that we accept that the way things are is the way things are and do our best to respond appropriately.’
Although all of us logically know that we aren’t responsible for the climate problem alone, the sense of panic can manifest as tightness in our bodies, and franticness in our breath. While this can be seen as a sign that we care deeply, the attachment to outcomes and pressure we put on ourselves to achieve, not only erodes our long-term sense of enjoyment of our work, but makes it harder for us to connect with others and enrol them to join us. Would you join someone who looks exhausted and sounds scattered and panicked?
Coaches are trained to cultivate an unattached, non-judgemental presence, in which clients can bring any topic and we will not only be open to influence but deeply believing in our own not-knowing. If a client tells us they want to be the next head of state, we believe in their ability to achieve it, given enough time. Yet as climate change coaches this can be harder to do, because we too have an emotional and literal stake in the climate crisis; we live on this earth too. If we find ourselves triggered by these feelings we end up in our heads rather than over there with our client. This can be detrimental to the very sense of presence for which our clients rely on us.
In our book, Liz Hall, the editor of Coaching at Work, shares the mindfulness practices she uses to ground herself in this respect. ‘Both before our coaching sessions and during them, we can learn a lot about our own relationship to the climate by taking even just a few silent moments to be still with our thoughts, and even to be honest with our clients when their fears ignite our own.’
Some years ago, I was lucky enough to see Margaret Wheatley speak at a conference in the UK, at which she observed that when we are working to create a revolution in the outside world, ‘we have to be prepared with a rich inner ground, to face this time of groundlessness… And that gives you the capacity to persevere in a way that goals, illusions and progress and all of these things that open us up to despair.’ For me this means that in order to take part in the dramatic change required to tackle the climate crisis, we need to cultivate a deep sense of self, unconnected to our successes or failures.
As experts, activists, or even climate change coaches, we are not immune to becoming tightly attached to these identities, feeling threatened or lost when the world moves on and no longer needs us, or when someone else rivals us. It can also be difficult to really celebrate our successes when we are triggered in this way.
While we can easily be replaced in terms of what we do, no one can take our presence from us, and when we lean back into who we are as a definition of ourselves, we relax about competition and rank. We can instead turn to our solid inner ground, in which we know and trust ourselves. Just as coaches know that presence is more important than tools, we can all be mindful of cultivating a sense of self that is not dependent on what we do, but that is grounded in who we are ‘being’.
When we become tightly attached to achievement, we are not only setting ourselves on a path to potential burnout and stress, but we’re also unfortunately aping the current paradigm – the very thing that we are seeking to change – in which rest or family life are hidden or deprioritised over work and ambition. By standing back, resting, and making time for non-work (even when that work is unpaid), we are planting a seed for a life lived multi-dimensionally, not only as workers or consumers, but as citizens, community-members and simply as living, breathing organisms within this rich world of ours.
Read all the blog posts in the series:
What does coaching have to do with climate change?
How can coaches help define a climate dream to run towards, rather than a nightmare to run from?
What role can coaches play in changing organisations and systems for the benefit of our climate?
How can coaches cultivate a solid inner ground to withstand outer world shocks?
For more information visit Climate Change Coaches
Buy the book: Climate Change Coaching
Image: David Marcu on Unsplash