On conscientization: case studies in liberatory practice in coaching and supervision.

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On conscientization: case studies in liberatory practice in coaching and supervision.

On conscienzisation

I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

― Angela Y. Davis

Setting the scene

This blog is adapted from my ongoing PhD entitled The ethics of coaching for social change in oppressive contexts.

It is designed to provide some felt sense of what critically conscious coaching looks like. It is provisional and emerging work, tested out in my coaching, supervision and facilitation work and not presented as perfect and finished. More questions are raised, possibly, than answered, but to my mind that is a feature of critically conscious reflective (and reflexive) work.

Entanglement

Whatever our identity, whether we are in positions of power or marginalised (and we can be both) we are all entangled in the structures we want to change. Even if our position is that of rebellion and dissention our stance can be limited and constrained by what we are fighting against.  Being ‘against’ something is not in itself a form of freedom. Neither is being ‘for’ something if we have no safe way of embodying this ‘for’.

A real or perceived lack of freedom to openly challenge systemic oppression is an embodied entanglement for coaches who aspire to work for social change and justice. The same entanglements affect the people we work with. Coaches occupy positions of power defined by our professional status and the beliefs people carry around our ability to transform lives. We may be blind to this power because our training encourages an assumption that coaching is neutral (Fatien et al, 2023). Some of our coach partners may buy into this assumption, surrendering their agency to our techniques, on the one hand, or feel a direct clash when they perceive our enculturated biases behind our assumed professional neutrality, on the other.

Reciprocal empowerment

It is my view that coaching based on the principle of reciprocal empowerment, the agency that each person in dialogue with another has to define themselves and their situation, has emancipatory and liberatory power (Shoukry & Fatien, 2023). Without a focus on reciprocal empowerment coaching risks alienating people whose lived experience is one of navigating complex dynamics of power and oppression.

My reflective enquiry is: when suffering shows up in coaching how do we deal with it in a liberatory and psychologically healthy way? How do we ‘dismantle’ racism, or sexism, or any other oppressive dynamic that might show up in the space between us and our clients without violating this principle of reciprocal empowerment? I would like to offer the concept of conscientization as an answer to these questions.

What is conscientization?

Conscientization is a concept originally developed by Paulo Freire (1921-1997), a Brazilian thinker and educator who experienced incarceration in, and exile from, his homeland during military dictatorship because of his political and politicising work. His pedagogic approach was developed for the purposes of liberating indigenous Brazilians, and all colonised and oppressed peoples from colonialism and coloniality. Coloniality being the domination and epistemic violence, erasure and denigration of their cultures as primitive. Ironically, cultures which have been (are still being) appropriated and divorced from their ancestral sources in the west. It has become the basis of a pedagogy originating from the global south that now has worldwide and enduring influence. Only recently have I seen it being applied to coaching. It is well established in the rebellious borderlands of education.

I first came to Freire’s work and the concept of conscientization while doing my master’s in education between 1994-6. It informed my professional life as a teacher of English and as a leader in the field until I retrained as a coach in 2015-16. My subsequent search for a liberatory practice in the context of westernised coaching models (that normalise one set of dominant cultural assumptions) led me to incorporate it, at first intuitively, into my coaching and then explicitly into the coach training I developed in 2021. It has also been explored through empirical coaching research by Shoukry & Fatien, 2023.

Paulo Freire

Conscientization is the name given by Freire to the process of developing and strengthening critical awareness/consciousness of our social reality through reflection, theorising and affective action in a circular, recursive movement (a process of ongoing unlearning, relearning and  learning through social engagement and praxis). I understand it as an iterative movement through different states of critical awareness/consciousness and affective engagement with how the world is, how it works and our places in it as collective and individual social beings.

Conscientization as dialogue awakens and utilises our awareness of power and oppression and how they work, so that the oppressed or marginalised can own their own (positive) power/s for transformative use. Movements between knowing, unknowing, naming and uncertainty, emotion and distance, reflection and action, engaging with and building theory as we go.

From this I hope you will gather that conscientization is not in intension or spirit reducible to a set of steps or linear stages as sometimes represented, nor is it a ‘skillset’ to be added to a ‘toolkit’ separated from its epistemic premises. Freire would see this as lumping it into the banking concept of education which he described as peddling the falsehoods that keep us tied to the status quo.  It is a practice centred on an ethical commitment to asking questions or making observations, in a dialogue between equals, about the coach partner’s reality and their chosen relationship to any patterns of oppression that may show up. This also extends to the coach. In engaging in this dialogue, all parties are changed, their empathic understanding of identity, difference and shared humanity is expanded.

Political and spiritual Work

Within the coaching context, conscientization can be seen as a dialogic process through which coaches and coaching partners come to see each other and the worlds we inhabit in ways that promote wellbeing and balance, challenges oppressive conditions and relationships, including our relationship with ourselves (internalised oppression) and our professional activity. It is both political and spiritual work. Political because it fosters embodied understandings about the impacts of oppression on people, leading us to act in new ways in our relationships and decision making, and spiritual because it is an honouring the power of equality in relationship to reshape visions, possibilities and worlds.

A simple summary of Freire’s theory of knowledge (epistemology) is important here as it differs fundamentally from dominant western thought and practice around freedom and liberation which is often paternalistic, rescuing and thereby disempowering.

The following epistemic premises define what needs to be in place for consciousness raising/affective dialogue to take place.

  • The oppressed generate their own ideas, theories, and knowledge as the basis for liberation, in any facilitative relationship this is done with them as equal partners, not for them or to
  • Liberation that is generated out of the knowledge and understanding of the oppressor cannot liberate the oppressed. At the same time liberation from oppression includes the oppressor. We do not fight oppression to take the oppressor’s place. Without this, liberation turns into another form of oppression, the oppressed remain trapped within the old patterns created by their oppressors, they have either joined the oppressor or change places with them to become oppressors.
  • The oppressed group/person can oppress themselves through the process of psychological/internalised oppression.
  • Solidarity with the oppressed from members of an oppressor group involves recognising how as a member of the oppressor group you are also oppressed. Solidarity is based on a shared vulnerability as the basis of equality in relationship between people of diverse experience and backgrounds.

Domains and states

The domains and states of critically conscious awareness and affective engagement that ‘conscientizing’ dialogue can iteratively and recursively work through are represented in this Venn Diagram adapted from Fernández-Aballí Altamirano (2018).

Venn made of three circles with a vertical arrow

Each circle of the  venn diagram shows the three domains of conscientization/critical awareness and affective engagement. The arrow running through the centre shows two ends of a continuum between critical and naive consciousness. In simple terms: where conscientization is present (in the central intersection of the Venn where each of the three domains overlap) critical consciousness is at work. Where conscientization is absent naïve consciousness is at work.

Two case studies from my work as a coach and coach supervisor will be used to make this concrete. The case studies will be presented in the third person and anonymised, I am the coach and group supervision facilitator respectively in each of the case studies. Because the focus is on oppressive dynamics the naming of racialised and gender-based characteristics are made explicit.

Case study one – one to one coaching (2021)

Context: The coach partner is a white woman in a director level role of a global company. The coach is a black woman, part of a coaching pool that has been deployed to support directors in the company make the transition back to face to face working after the ending of COVID lockdown conditions.

The coach partner has disclosed in the opening session bullying behaviour toward her from her male boss. The behaviour is making her feel bad. She reports feeling unworthy of the role, incompetent, with low confidence and this is affecting her sleep. She reports experiencing high levels of anxiety. What she wants from coaching is help to regain her confidence so that she is in a better place psychologically to move on to another company.

What the coach notices is that these words are being spoken by a highly promoted woman, in her 40s who by any objective standard is a success. She is displaying high levels of negative self-talk. The coach is curious about where this denigrating voice has come from. About its primary source. This curiosity is stimulated by the coach’s developing pyscho-social approach to coaching. As a result, the coach is interested in how their coaching partner’s relationship to herself might be a reflection of the social/external dynamics of patriarchy she has described.

The coach – Whose voice is that?

There is a deep pause. The coach partner eventually responds.

Coach Partner – that is the voice of my (first) former boss who treated me very badly, he would shout at me and swear.

The coach pauses, lets this sink in, she is moved by the emotion she feels in her coach partner. The coach wants to say something that she feels, is hesitant and finally decides to share how what she has heard impacts her in the form of a statement and a question.

Coach – That sounds to me like abusive behaviour, how does it seem to you?

The coach partner says- I never thought about it like that before. (Pause) I can’t believe that I am talking to myself the way that he talked to me. It’s the same tone.

As a result of this opening conversation, we agreed to work on how she could challenge the behaviour of her current boss. She identified that this pattern of behaviour of male bosses to their largely female reports was endemic in her sector.  Nobody challenges it out of fear. She felt that there was no safe way within the system to handle it formally.

We decided to focus on her to ability to use what agency and influence she had to resist and refuse this behaviour by setting boundaries, naming behaviour and refusing to accept them on a one-to-one basis with her boss, which she felt able to do. Her assessment was that he behaved like this due to the performative stresses of the job, this empathy made it possible for her to humanise both herself and her boss. In addition, she also openly discussed the issue with other women in the company she trusted, creating an empowering support network.

I will now demonstrate why I feel this conversation to be a ‘conscientizing’ move by contrasting it to the way in which I would have responded to this coach partner at the beginning of my coaching career. This is how it would have proceeded.

The coach partner would have shared her thoughts and feelings, the coach would notice the negative self- talk and offered reframing of thoughts and feelings (a cognitive behavioural coaching model). Some strength-based approaches would also be offered to reconnect the coach internally to positive thoughts and feelings about herself based on real achievements. The coach would not have connected the self-talk to the internalisation of a pattern of abusive relationships endemic to the sector’s workplace culture. Does this matter? Yes!

It matters because of the impact of this way of proceeding on some of my coach partners at this point in my career. I was forced to move away from this approach because I could see it causing harm. The focus on self-talk amplified the voices rather than removed or reduced them. Anxiety increased.

My conclusion after thinking and reading widely was that this approach sited the issue within the coach partner, individualised it and isolated them and the issue further within their own heads and bodies.  The other approach by seeing it as a social issue places the source outside of them into a systemic pattern of relating that they have internalised, in Freire’s conception they had moved from being oppressed by an ‘other’ to oppressing themselves.

Naming this freed them from that form of (internalised) oppression.  This does not solve the systemic issues by ‘dismantling’ patriarchy, but it did release energy and resourcefulness in the coach partner and felt healthier and more balanced to the coach. The coaching felt more ethical.

Case study two- Group Supervision (2023)

Context: This case is based on the second of six group supervision sessions using the Critically Reflective Action Learning (CRAL) process described in my article ‘A Decolonial Take on Ethical Maturity’. This was an all-female, ethnically diverse group with members located in the South Africa, Spain and the UK. One member of the group, a white female coach strongly committed to anti-racism as a lens in her work, brought the following to group reflective practice.

The coach had a coach partner who was, to her mind, experiencing systemic injustices in the workplace at the intersection between race and gender. The coach did not feel free to openly challenge these systems in the work they were doing within the coaching partnership a) because the coach had not contracted for this with the organisation and b) the client did not see themselves as oppressed by the system, they wanted help managing a life limiting health issue, not to explore the impact of race/racism.

In conversation with the coach the group surfaced that this Black, African woman (the coaching partner to the coach) had a sense of identity and power that went beyond the limiting identification of her as a victim of her racialised and gendered identities. The work done with the coach fulfilled her needs, but this contrasted with the feeling of dissatisfaction left with the coach because she had felt she had failed to address race as an issue.

Further exploration in the group surfaced the importance of the reciprocal empowerment that was present in the relationship. We did not give it that name at that point. This was theorised later when the facilitator made the link to critical sociological theory on power and oppression in their critical reflection on this session.

Reciprocal empowerment (Freire, 1975, 1972; Prilleltensky & Gonick, 1996) describes the power and freedom of the ‘oppressed’ to define themselves, based on their in-alienable power of self-determination in relation to the equal rights of others to do the same. Seeing the person we are coaching as a victim of oppression can reproduce the very dynamics of power we are seeking to challenge in the coaching relationship if we are imposing that interpretation upon them. The coach had not done that in her relationship with the coach partner but judged herself later in group supervision for not raising the issue of race.

A critical dialogue around how Whiteness (as a performance of power) can show up in coaching for social change was prompted. In this mode anti-racist or anti-oppression work becomes defined by performative moves, rather than by a deep connection and honouring of the perspective and wholeness of the person being coached.  The work itself had been informed by this coach’s intuitive honouring of her coach partner while her performative expectations led her to distrust or negatively judge the quality of her work. The facilitator also realised that the language around social change and social justice attached to the supervisory process may have compounded this invitation to ‘perform’ an interpretation of this relationship as a problem or issue for supervision.

This is not the first time I have shared case study one. It has been a staple activity within the course I created informed by my PhD. In the context of the course, entitled Coaching for Social Justice: decoloniality as a Systemic Lens, some coaches have challenged my choice to ‘name the system’. They have asked, is this not pursuing an agenda? Is it not risky, what if the person being coached had not resonated with your perspective? Were you not imposing your perspective on them? Another question might be is there not a contradiction between the two case studies? in the first applying race as an oppressive context was not appropriate, in the second applying patriarchy as an oppressive context was appropriate.

I will share some emerging analyses of these questions in my next blog.

References

Altamirano, A. F., (2018) Handbook of Communication for Development and Social Change, Springer Singapore.

Freire P (1994) Letters to those who intend to teach. 21st century, Buenos Aires.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Freire, P. (1975) Cultural action for freedom. Harvard Educational Review Monograph

Mindell A (2002) The deep democracy of open forums. Hamptons Roads, Charlottesville.

Mindell A (2008) Bringing deep democracy to life: an awareness paradigm for deepening political dialogue, personal relationships, and community interactions. Psychotherapy Polit Int 6:212–225.

Prilleltensky, I. and Gonick, L. (1996) Polities Change, Oppression Remains: On the Psychology and Politics of Oppression, Political Psychology, Vol. 17, No. 1 , pp. 127-148, International Society of Political Psychology.






The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations we seek to escape, but the piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.