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Achieving Harmony: An East-West Coaching Perspective

“Under Heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.

All can know good as good only because there is evil.

Therefore having and not having arise together.

Difficult and easy complement each other.

Long and short contrast with each other;

High and low rest upon each other;

Voice and sound harmonize each other;

Front and back follow one another.

Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no talking.

The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease,

Creating, yet not possessing,

Working, yet not taking credit,

Work is done, then forgotten.

Therefore it lasts for ever.”

- Tao Te Ching, Laozi - chapter 2 (translated by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English)


In the second chapter of the Tao Te Ching, Laozi clearly lays out the law of duality and how everything that exists depends on its opposite for its mere existence. This is the essence of the Way, a process through which all things arise and pass away.


As coaches, we help our clients create meaningful and impactful change. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity, and leadership.”


The question is, how do we adjust our cultural perspectives on power and responsibility to serve both ourselves in our profession as well as our clients?


In our increasingly virtual world of today, many people - not only in corporations but also in start-ups or as digital nomads - communicate across cultures daily.

They may not need to immerse themselves in their client’s culture (as they could still be in their living rooms at home), however, developing cultural intelligence is still of vital importance in order to ensure successful communication between coaches and coaches.

One area of cultural intelligence that I think is of extreme importance for global coaches who work with clients from diverse backgrounds to develop is understanding how we view - and leverage - an individual’s sense of power and responsibility.


As laid out in Philippe Rosinski’s book ‘Coaching Across Cultures’, there are three approaches that humanity takes toward their relationship with the environment.


It is essential for a coach to be familiar with these approaches so that they may first reflect and discover their own approach, and then use this knowledge to investigate if they show any bias towards what ‘maximizing personal and professional potential’ actually means. Once the coach is aware of this, they can serve their clients much better as they’ll take a more culturally sensitive and intelligent view approach to their clients’ orientations towards potential and success.


In addition, since our world is so global and multicultural, in order to be effective, it is important for a coach to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each orientation so that we can help them first see their situation clearly and then find new possibilities and ways of approaching themselves and their lives.


What are the three orientations?

  1. Control: People have a determinant power and responsibility to forge the life they want

  2. Harmony: People should strive for balance and harmony with nature

  3. Humility: People should accept inevitable natural limitations



Control


The famous slogans “Just Do It” and “Impossible is Nothing” encourage us to take control of our destiny, that anything is possible as long as you work hard for it. This orientation is seen most obviously in American culture, where you are respected for making things happen and achieving your dreams.


This orientation “applies to controlling nature, one’s relationships, one’s happiness and one’s business success (or lack of such).” With regards to business success, this is well illustrated by Tommy Hilfiger’s words: “The road to success is not easy to navigate, but with hard work, drive, and passion, it's possible to achieve the American dream.”


The positive side of this belief in control over life is that it leads to proactivity and enthusiasm in reaching for your dreams. The negative side is that it can be perceived as arrogant and many people may feel guilty if they aren’t as successful as they hoped, as they have only themselves to blame.

Many management practices originated in the West such as accountability, autonomy and empowerment also reflect a control cultural orientation. Coaching itself, with its assumption that you have a certain degree of power to create the life you want, originated in the United States and is therefore in fact culturally biased.


Go to any bookstore, and you’ll see hundreds of self-help books with a control cultural mindset ( for example, ‘Think and Grow Rich’ by Napoleon Hill ).


The tried and tested truth of humanity though is that we actually do have limits. Man is not in control of either our own nature or nature itself. We can work extremely hard and still have no money. We can try to stay very safe but still get in a car accident. There are factors in our life that may be luck, or destiny, depending on your perspective. Having an awareness or belief that there are also powers outside of us can help us to reduce our guilt at failure and find peace with knowing that we’ve simply done the best that we can. To quote from the above excerpt from the Dao De Ching, “therefore having and not having arise together.”


Harmony


The wisdom of harmony is found in balance: knowing when to act and when to let go. Finding the balance between control and humility is a central tenet of the Dao De Ching, which has been a defining spiritual way in Chinese culture for over 2500 years.


This quote illustrates how embedded harmony is in Chinese - and many East Asian - cultures:

“In the realm of Ancient Chinese myth, earth’s generative natural process takes the awesome form of a dragon. Both feared and revered as the mysterious force of life itself, dragon animates all things in the unending cycle of life and death and rebirth. As it embodies the process of change itself, a dragon appears only to disappear again, and so is in constant transformation.”

(The Four Chinese Classics, translated by David Hinton, p. 13)

This shows - and the above quote from the Tao Te Ching - that opposites actually exist in balance and are therefore in harmony. By extension, failure and success exist because of each other, not at odds with each other. People in East Asian cultures are taught to maintain harmony with themselves and others and to be attuned to both their own and others’ emotions.


As the great Chinese philosopher Confucius wrote, “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.”


So rather than pursuing success at all odds, even at the expense of others, greater emphasis is placed both on personal cultivation as well as win-win outcomes for the group as a whole.

Humility


Humility lies on the opposite end of the spectrum from control and emphasizes that nature and external forces are in charge, rather than your own will.


A classic story that illustrates the importance of humility is ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ by Hans Christian Anderson, where the vain emperor is unable to face reality.


An orientation towards humility is not helpful when it encourages passivity or a lack of willingness to try something due to a feeling of hopelessness. It is however extremely beneficial when it allows you to have more gratitude for what you have and your achievements. It also helps us to feel less guilt or burdened by our failures and to appreciate our life for just the way it is (rather than always living in the expectations of tomorrow).


To quote from the above excerpt from the Dao De Ching:

“Creating, yet not possessing,

Working, yet not taking credit,

Work is done, then forgotten.

Therefore it lasts forever.”

Working with Control, Harmony, and Humility


Working with these three orientations means that as a coach, you are aware of both their strengths and weaknesses. One example would be working hard to achieve your goals but then accepting the results of your actions, whatever they may be.


Working with these in combination, you recognize what you are responsible for, and what you are not. For example, what is in your control: boundaries, energy, self-talk, goals, thoughts, and actions, how you handle challenges; versus what is not in your control: time, other people’s actions and opinions, external events, your effort’s outcomes, other people’s mental and physical health.


Some of us may be very driven to actively make our dreams come true (control) while others may wait for them to happen (humility), however, harmony is extremely important. Harmony helps you to listen to your own and others’ needs as well as to adapt to changes as they’re presented (for example, dealing with all the challenges that Covid brought to each of us in different ways).

In the corporate world, Patagonia is a perfect example of a company that has achieved harmony as its business model focuses on developing economic and social value through its products. Patagonia’s mission statement is to “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”


Application for Coaches


All of us have all three orientations in us, just to varying degrees. Being aware that our clients will have a different combination than ourselves can help us to help them ‘maximize their personal and professional potential’ in the most authentic way possible.


It is therefore very helpful to consider what a client’s attitude or belief is based on. For example, if a client has an underlying cultural belief that is quite distinct from a control culture orientation, you may unknowingly encourage them to take an action that is uncomfortable for them, or you may judge them for not being proactive enough (assuming that you have a control culture orientation).


The key point here is to be aware so that we can use this knowledge to ‘coach the person, not the story’ and help our clients discover new options and shift to new perspectives in the most organic, suitable way possible.


Finally, it is important for us to develop as coaches a sense of harmony with our lives and clients as well as a sense of humility toward the process. By taking the steps to develop ourselves as coaches, become certified and work with clients, we’ve already demonstrated the control orientation. It is however also important to include the two other orientations so that we can bear in mind that our work is not to change anyone, but rather to help them find the most harmonious outcomes possible so that they can be even better versions of their authentic selves.


As a final thought, I’d like to comment on my entire coaching journey so far. In the beginning, I began the process with a strong control culture orientation, really pushing my way forward with high energy and enthusiasm. Further along, I experienced many situations where I had to embrace and reflect on humility. Later on, I took a step back and reflected on my experience, and began incorporating it as part of me. This is where the process of developing harmony began and is still very much in process. Ultimately, I hope to achieve outcomes with my clients as outlined above in Chapter 2 by Laozi:


“Creating, yet not possessing,

Working, yet not taking credit,

Work is done, then forgotten.

Therefore it lasts forever.”

_____________________________________________________________


Chinese text of Tao Te Ching, Laozi - chapter 2


天下皆知美之為美,斯惡已;

皆知善之為善,斯不善已。

故有無相生,難易相成,

長短相較,高下相傾,

音聲相和,前後相隨。

是以聖人處無為之事,行不言之教。

萬物作焉而不辭,生而不有,為而不恃,功成而弗居。

夫唯弗居,是以不去。

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