The most recent information about the neurologic processes that make possible learning as we know it, is due to the synergic effort of neuroscientists, psychologists, and hi-tech.
Such efforts allowed us to gather enough data to elect emotions from a constrain for rational processes to an integrant part of them. In fact, emotions are not only part of learning experiences, which are usually considered purely cognitive: they seem to shape our learning, fostering memories and cognitions.
Learning and emotions
The world’s interest in emotional intelligence and its impact is increasing. From different perspectives, Goleman, Damasio, Mayer, and Salovey debate the role of emotions and their perception (feelings) to shape characters, experience moods, and seeing things.
Insofar, the research that focuses on the way we learn (from what we pay attention to, to what we memorize for the long-term) never excluded the emotional component. For example, by looking at the theory of adult learning developed by Malcolm Knowles, we will notice that three of his six assumptions contemplate emotions:
- One or more motivations to learn
- A need to know
- to feel responsible and in control of the learning process.
The adult learner is not less emotional than a child or a teenager would be, the emotions might in fact just be channeled differently; previous research showed already how even young students approaching adulthood already follow the same patterns (Harper and Ross, 2011).
In adults, the need to know is emotional, for emotions are triggered by physiological stimuli that are then rationalized. What’s in for me? How this can help me? These questions, which are driven by extrinsic needs, may as well be the fruit of an inner urge. We can feel that we need to learn a specific skill. It is what eLearning marketing is about, and what sales copies are used for: to instill that urge to learn something because it’s a cool thing to know or use, based on the content creator’s promise.
We have then motivations. These are also extrinsic and intrinsic. Money and fame belong to the first group, while pleasure and meaning belong to the second. Often, external motivators do not provide sufficient fulfillment for the adult learner, which surrenders at the first challenge.
But at last, the adult learner wants to have full control of his learning experience and decide what is useful and what is not; the format of learning; and the time to allocate for it. And feels frustration the moment an external constrain is e added to the game. Being forced to learn something isn’t in the picture, bringing disastrous results.
These three digressions illustrate how learning truly is an emotional experience, not just cognitive. As we acknowledge that, we narrow down our scope to some specific learning experiences, the current object of study and debate: transformative learning.
How much of what we learn is implicit?
For learning to be transformative, it needs to have a certain impact on our personal beliefs and assumption. At the moment, Mezirow’s theory of transformative learning is the leading one. Its one requirement is critical reflection, which is a rational and conscious process aimed to self-assess our beliefs, values, and orientations. In practice, for transformative learning to occur, we must challenge our assumptions alone, or through critical dialogue – one example of which is the coaching conversation.
But what about the irrational, and the uncovered elements? Adult learning does not exclude emotions; transformative learning is one part of that big picture, and so it cannot be purely rational. Taylor (2004) suggests, after researching literature, that the importance of the emotional spectrum and its underlying relations with dreams, implicit memory, tacit knowledge (the one we have but we hardly can rationalize about) is minimized when compared to the rational aspects of learning. That probably happens because of how challenging is for individuals to define these elements as the opposite of conscious knowledge (Cox, 2006).
But, truth to be told, critical reflection does involve acknowledgment, analysis, and explanations of our emotions, feelings and moods concerning events and findings. The more introspective a reflection is, the more importance is given to our emotional sphere. This is a key fact for us to know. We do not simply rationalize emotions, giving a justification to them – that is not how transformative learning occurs. Rather, we ponder them critically, as a part of the equation, rather than an undesired and secondary factor.
Because of it, we may ponder that part of knowledge we cannot recollect in the form of “facts” or “stories”, but that is a constant in our life. Think of non-verbal communication. The specific non-verbal behaviors of our interlocutors tell us what are they feeling, and even when something is not right; if they are trying to recollect a memory, or if they are building up some information. Non-verbals can be taught and studied, but they always existed as a form of communication among human societies since prehistory and can be different across different cultures.
That is also what makes the “diverse” stand out to our eyes as a sore thumb. Many things do not upset us because we were born with such rejection, but because history and society shaped us to reject possibilities like homosexuality, different skin colors, louder or colder social manners, and gender equality. We needed ideologies and battles to put society in pairs, and that work is far from done. The very same happens at the individual level, and is an internal struggle between our integrity and outside standards.
The emotional cost in coaching
Coaching conversations are a form of transformative learning that involve both participants. During the session, the coachee is prompted to think and reflect upon an inquiry process that revolves around goals or challenges. The examination of the “status quo” against the desired outcome provides a time and place to discern the coachee’s assumptions from the facts, reframing the story more objectively.
The coach aids this process both cognitively and emotionally. In moments of conversational flow, the pair can achieve peak moments: memorable events of enlightenment, also known as “aha-moments”, where suddenly all becomes clear. Using my own words, peak moments are cutting-edge situations that can be intended as: the revelations that come at the right time, following the right question, under the right atmosphere.
Trust and well-coordinated communication between the elements of the coaching dyads are, of course, necessary: flow occurs when the sense of time fades out, and the subjects are deeply focused on the experience. The coach can achieve that when is himself devoted to the conversational flow, with no assumptions and distractions over the head and in the right emotional state.
Alas, these can be rare experiences for coaches who do not ponder their emotions prior to the coaching conversation, and on the overall definition of how do they intend to perform coaching and with whom.
While coaching is discussed as a practice, we cannot forget that it makes its way into the world as a profession. This requires more than setting boundaries with the coachee. In some circumstances, it also means working with sponsors, marketing, and lastly, in the case of coaching employees, the company that pays for it. And finally, although as coaches we love what we do, we may feel strange and uncomfortable with certain clients.
In all these cases, the coach is prone to experience emotional labour (Cox, 2006). This occurs when the coach must suppress some feelings, or evoke others, in order to provoke the right conditions for the coaching to happen. While it is true that the coach needs the right state of mind to do what he or she does best, it is also evident that forcing positive emotions to emerge (or faking them) in spite of the negative ones is counterproductive, so that flow and peak moments cannot be achieved.
To make it simple, it is about keeping appearances for the sake of business or reputation, paying the price of authenticity and integrity – which is higher than it seems: such discomfort is a source of fears and anxieties, and can lead to burnout and withdrawal (Kemp, 2022).
Managing the emotional labour
As of now, despite emotional labour being a serious threat for coaching practitioners that aim to debut in the business world, there is little recognition of the problem, as Kemp stated in his most recent article. Yet, this might be one of the underlying reasons for which there is not a universally accepted definition of coaching.
Maybe that is why, regardless of the evolution of both the practice and the profession, the deontological dilemma is still open: “what is coaching?”.
We can assume it is a set of skills (i.e. coaching skills like those taught to managers and executives); it is a profession (sports/life/executive coaches, etc.); it is a philosophy that encompasses more of these aspects, such as in my case.
Emotional labour is a common ground for coaches and psychotherapists, and probably that applies to mentors and consultants, too. Then, the emotional component is common for the two participants of the coaching dyad. After all, the coach is a human being and cannot become an entity of pure reason. There are ways to minimize the risk of emotional turmoil, though.
For some, methodological perspectives become a mantle to wear at all costs (Drake, 2008). That is preposterous: we become subject to the form, while we should rather ponder how we think and we are as a coach, ruling out the boundary that our chosen method became, returning it to its role of instrument.
In order to do that, we should be honest with ourselves when assessing our knowledge, experience, and ignorance. That would help us reduce unnecessary tribulations.
Situational awareness and mindfulness are the two best practices that, adopted as an integrant part of the lifestyle, grant a more critical view of the world at the time. These are present-based practices, which rely on the examination of the reality in becoming.
Situational awareness consists mostly of observing our surroundings and gathering quick wits. Using our senses to achieve highly qualitative information on the surface, to infer about their substrate. An example already given is that of non-verbals to better acknowledge the other’s emotion. To that, we could add para-verbals, information that aren’t necessarily visual, such as the pitch of the voice, smells, and something abstract like the choice of words.
Mindfulness is about self-monitoring, instead. It is continuous control of what is happening within us, basically a form of self-awareness. With mindfulness, we can acknowledge emotions triggered by events such as something that is said and how it is said, the meaning we perceive behind it, and so on. Mindfulness is, for the most, conscious.
The right dosage of situational awareness and mindfulness can result, with practice, in a natural selection of what is important to the ongoing coaching conversation and what is not. The mastery of both practices gives us, as result, the ability to use less to achieve more. Thus, we could use the rest afterward, through critical reflection. This way, coaching becomes transformative learning also for the coach.
The coaching experience carries a certain degree of emotionality, and the coach should not let go of his own feelings. If we are entangled in a situation where we suffer emotional labour, the antidote may be a critical reflection that combines a retrospective about what we remember and taking note of the conversation, and then introspecting our feelings for the sake of our individual wellbeing.
- Emotions shape the way we learn at conscious and non-conscious levels. Much of our decisions and behaviors are decided by tacit knowledge, one that we have but cannot recall and explain (you can think of it as intuition).
- The outcome of learning defined as “transformative” is a change in our beliefs and assumptions. Coaching is a form of transformative learning, that at its peak moments can produce unexplainable moments of enlightenment for the coachee.
- Coaching is a transformative experience for the coach, as well. Reflecting on the concluded conversation both retrospectively and introspectively offers the possibility to examine the recent happenings cognitively and emotionally.
- Emotional labour occurs when we sacrifice integrity for performance. Going against our beliefs to conduct the coaching practice/business we drift away from enjoyment, peak performance, and flow. This can lead also to burnout and withdrawal.
- To reduce emotional labour, the coaches should define their working ethics and degree of acceptance upon selection of coachees, third parties and sponsors; practice mindfulness and train their situational awareness. Critical reflection post-coaching completes the cycle.
- Although there is evidence of the effect of emotional labour on coaches, the phenomenon needs more acknowledgment. The studies also consider the impact on individual coaches and do not yet consider the impact on the morale of allyships. Which, in my mind, becomes a more critical problem in an increasingly competitive environment.
- Cox, E. (2016). Working with emotions in coaching. In T. Bachkirova, G. Spence, & D. Drake, (Eds.). The Sage handbook of coaching, 272-290.
- Drake, David B. “Finding Our Way Home: Coaching’s Search for Identity in a New Era.” Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, vol. 1, no. 1, 2008, pp. 16–27., doi:10.1080/17521880801906099.
- Harper, Lin, and Jerry Ross. “An Application of Knowles’ Theories of Adult Education to an Undergraduate Interdisciplinary Studies Degree Program.” The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, vol. 59, no. 3, 2011, pp. 161–166., doi:10.1080/07377363.2011.614887.
- Kemp, Rob. “The Emotional Labour of the Coach – in and out of the Coaching ‘Room.’” International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, vol. S16, 2022, pp. 185–195., doi:10.24384/H98Q-Q162.
- Taylor, Edward W. “Transformative Learning Theory: A Neurobiological Perspective of the Role of Emotions and Unconscious Ways of Knowing.” International Journal of Lifelong Education, vol. 20, no. 3, 2001, pp. 218–236., doi:10.1080/02601370110036064.
- Wejers, Kay AM. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, vol. S16, 2022, pp. 159–172., doi:10.24384/8xqy-pv21.