Coaching or Companionship – What’s the Difference?

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Because I provide both leadership coaching and spiritual companionship, clients sometimes wonder what the difference is between them. They may also wonder (worry) if they’re going to get (unwelcome) spiritual advice when what they want is coaching, or coaching when they want companionship.

Questions about spirituality are typically taboo in the secular business world. Religion (and politics) are generally considered too hot to handle in most organizations. These concerns are well-founded if we want to avoid the very real pitfalls of coercive and toxic spirituality.

But is it possible that healthy spirituality has a role to play in organizational success? Could this be true even in secular businesses?

My experience is that healthy spirituality has a great deal to offer leaders and their organizations. Exploring the differences between coaching and spiritual companionship provides a great way to approach these questions.

To begin teasing apart the difference between coaching and spiritual companionship, we can borrow an idea from French philosopher Gabriel Marcel. He argued that (and I’m paraphrasing) “There are problems to solve, and mysteries to behold.”1 At the risk of oversimplifying, coaching is most often associated with solving problems. Spiritual companionship has more to do with beholding mystery.

If you and I meet in a classic coaching relationship, our focus will be on solving problems. We’ll begin by assessing your current level of leadership agility. This model is based on the ground-breaking work2 of Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs. You’ll identify your desired level of agility, based on the complexity and volatility of your situation. Together we’ll develop a game plan that focuses on practicing the critical-to-success skills that you need to build to increase your agility. Then week-by-week we’ll reflect on your experience and plan for the high-leverage activities that are coming up.

In this way, through repeated cycles of reflection, planning, and action, you’ll live into a higher level of leadership in service of your and your organization’s goals.

If we’re meeting for spiritual companionship, our focus is quite different. In spiritual companionship, our focus is on Mystery. I especially like mystic Jim Finley’s image for this. He invites us to imagine we own a large tract of land, and we spend years walking the land to get to know it. We get to know the trees and the rock outcrops, the flora and fauna. This is our life of awareness of ourselves in time and space. But in getting to know this land, at some point we may come upon something that is not like the rest of the land. It’s not like the surface of our lives. And when we investigate it further, it is as if we’ve discovered an entry to a cave that we didn’t know was there. As Finley puts it, “You discover, even more to your amazement, that the vast interiority of the cave is even bigger than the land. That is upon your land, you came upon something that opened out upon something even greater, that’s foundational to the very land on which you’ve been living your life.”3

Finley calls this the depth dimension. This depth dimension is what we explore in spiritual companionship.

Now the interesting thing is that the depth dimension is always lived out in the context of the surface of our lives – our life in the horizontal axis of time and space. But spiritual companionship tackles questions of the depth dimension: mystery, the vertical axis.

One of my favorite questions to invite someone to ask themselves in spiritual companionship is: “All things considered, what’s the most loving thing I can do for myself and all others in this situation?” That’s a great question for spiritual companionship.

In most executive coaching environments, that question would be a head-scratcher: “What’s love got to do with it?”

In fact, in my experience, coaching often opens out into spirituality. It seems to happen for one of three reasons.

First, spirituality can come into play because the person being coached comes out of a faith tradition, and they have a strong desire for integrity between their profession of faith and their daily activities. This was certainly my personal experience as a young leader. I was an active member of a faith community, with a sincere desire to live a life that was morally and ethically consistent. Faith wasn’t just for Sundays. I believed it should show up in how I behaved all the days of the week.

(Reflecting on this now, I’d have to say that my tradition didn’t provide me much help in doing that. It didn’t teach or foster an adult spirituality that was developmental. And It provided very little support for congruence between my Sunday experience and my secular business career. My search for an integrated and developmental spirituality led me into working with a spiritual companion, and ultimately to becoming a spiritual companion.)

The second reason that coaching can open out into spirituality is this: there is a pragmatic connection between spiritual practices and leadership capacity. It turns out that Joiner’s research on leadership agility shows that a key capacity that a growing leader needs to develop is what he calls ‘reflective action’. “The ceiling on a leader’s level of reflective action determines the ceiling on their stage [of development] and agility level.”4

So what is reflective action? It’s a cyclical process of mentally stepping back from that action to gain greater awareness. Joiner uses the metaphor of zooming in and out with a telephoto lens in photography. Zooming out brings an awareness “with greater understanding of the context surrounding what you’ve been focused on.” Then using that insight, you form an intention to adjust your actions to better meet the situation and zoom in again and take the new action.

As Joiner says, “Reflective action is a process of experimentation. We reflect, then act, giving it our best shot. Then we learn from what happens and keep moving forward, toward our aspirations. It’s a practice, something you get better at, the more you practice it.”

So what does this have to do with spirituality? Spiritual practices such as meditation help people develop their capacity for reflective action. Joiner writes: “Research has shown that regular, daily meditation over the period of a year or more can, in some cases at least, assist a person in developing to the next stage (of leadership agility).”5

In other words, research shows that in very pragmatic ways, contemplative practices such as mediation work because they increase a leader’s capacity for reflection. I experienced this firsthand as I began working with my first coach. She encouraged me to increase my fledgling commitment to contemplative practices such as journaling and meditation. I already felt drawn to these because of my developing spiritual journey, but my coach helped me connect them to the practical work we were doing.

Finally, there is a third factor at work here. This may be unprovable, but still true: the challenges leaders face in an increasingly complex world often cross over from problems to mystery. Leaders are, after all, people; and they are leading other people. People are fundamentally mysterious. We may want to think of them as problems, but at some level the people we lead are not problems to solve, they are a mystery to behold.

We engage that mystery all the time in spiritual companionship when the people we’re companioning ask questions like, “What is my deepest vocation?” and “I’m good at what I do, but it’s sucking the life out of me. Why is that?”

These questions also come up in coaching. There may be pragmatic answers to these questions, but they are also mystery. And sometimes when a leader is faced with a “people problem,” the deepest question that emerges may well be “All things considered, what’s the most loving thing I can do for myself and all others in this situation?”

As a coach and companion who wears both hats, I am sensitized to the difference between coaching and spiritual companionship, and I am highly committed to always be clear about which hat is primary in any relationship. Persons coming to me for coaching know that I am also a spiritual companion, and they typically have some interest in “going there” – that is exploring the caves of the depth dimension – during our time together. Nevertheless, I do my best to be fully aware and fully transparent about this transition. I might say, “You know we’re getting into something deep and mysterious. Do you want to explore that, or would you prefer to stay with finding a practical solution?” And we go where the client wants to go.

The people that come to me for spiritual companionship may want help addressing practical problems they’re facing. It is a subtle but significant shift in the relationship and needs very careful thought and discernment.

In that situation, I might say something like, “We could shift into coaching mode here, but we risk losing sight of the spiritual aspect of this situation. You came to me to focus on that dimension and I’m reluctant to let that go. If you’d like to work at this from a coaching perspective, we should probably set up another meeting (or series of meetings) just to work at that, and then come back to spiritual companionship when you’re ready.”

Coaching and spiritual companionship both offer rich opportunities for deep, meaningful conversations. Coaching focuses more on problem solving. Spiritual companionship focuses more on the meaning, the depth dimension of each situation. Each can be rich and transformative in and of themselves, depending on the person and the situation. The client decides at the outset if ours is a coaching relationship or a spiritual companion relationship. The client is always in control of any shift from coaching to spiritual companionship, or from spiritual companionship to coaching.

1 Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Volume 1: Reflection and Mystery. (St. Augustine’s Press, 1951), 211.

2 Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs, Leadership Agility. Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change, (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass). 2007.

3 James Finley, Seven Stages of Spiritual Healing of Trauma. (Unpublished talk for Fetzer Institute, transcribed by Evan Miller from tape TransformingTraumaII-2.mp3), 4.

4 Bill Joiner, Private Webinar on Reflective Action, Oct. 6, 2020.

5 Joiner and Josephs, 281.