Beyond good intentions

Article by David Birch and Tammy Tawadros. This article originally appeared in Coaching Perspectives.

Relational coaching takes centre stage as David Birch and Tammy Tawadros invite us to go beyond conditioned responses and understand how history is at play when we get caught up in conflict situations.

Reconciliation, is, at its core, a process of transformation for both sides in a conflict.1

Valerie Batts

Most of us avoid conflict. When we come up against a clash of needs, opinions or principles, we tend to separate ourselves from the other person, either by blaming them (that’s outrageous; how dare they; what’s wrong with them?), or by blaming ourselves (this keeps happening to me; I always screw things up; I don’t know why I bother). From a psychodynamic perspective, what we are doing is unconsciously defending ourselves against our feelings of anxiety or helplessness, by splitting ourselves off from the other and making it completely about us, or by projecting our culpability onto the other and making it all about them. This has the effect of absolving us (or the other person) of any responsibility for what is happening between us.

In organisational settings, these defensive routines can be amplified by structures and hierarchy, for example when a team member feels that their livelihood will be threatened if they come into conflict with their boss. In coaching relationships, the power imbalance between coach and coachee can have a similar effect; for example, if a coach takes sides when hearing about their client’s controlling boss, they may unwittingly reinforce the polarising split that casts the coachee as ‘all good’ and the boss as ‘all bad’.

Most approaches to conflict resolution seek to bridge this split by highlighting the distinction between intention and impact (your intention may have been honourable, but your impact was hurtful), or by surfacing the underpinning values and beliefs that may be at play (what’s this conflict really about? What’s at stake for you here?).

These ideas have become common currency in our social and political discourse. Many of us have learned to respond in ways that aim to defuse conflict (I’m sorry that you feel that way, that was never my intention), especially when it comes to disagreements about difference and identity. The trouble is, this kind of differentiation between intention and impact can divert us from what really needs our attention. As academic and author Ken Hardy points out, when we are in a privileged position we talk about intentionality, but people in a subjugated position (on account of their social difference, for example) are more concerned about consequences.2 He asks us to imagine that we have unintentionally trodden on someone’s toe and broken it. Do we start to go on about our intentions or do we attend to the broken toe?

What actually happens between us, what occurs in our relationship, matters more than what one of us may have intended

Encouraging both parties in a conflict to listen carefully to one another and appreciate each other’s perspectives is undoubtedly a useful approach when mediating active conflicts. But, it is also limited. As relational coaches, we take the view that what actually happens between us, what occurs in our relationship, matters more than what one of us may have intended. As the philosopher George Herbert Mead observed, ‘the meaning of the gesture is revealed in the response’.3 In other words, our gestures carry meanings that are only revealed when the other person has responded to us. From a relational perspective, there is much we can learn by inquiring into how meaning is co-created between us, irrespective of intention and without getting stuck in unproductive rounds of blame and defence.

To illustrate with a personal example, one of David’s coachees had a strong reaction when told at the end of the assignment that he would not be keeping in touch, but that she was free to contact him if she wanted to. His coachee felt angry at what seemed to be a dismissal of them, and angrier still when David told them that he was not intending to dismiss them, but rather simply upholding professional boundaries. It was only when he allowed himself to appreciate the validity of his coachee’s response that he was able to find a place of humility and acceptance of his contribution to what had occurred between them. They too were able to recognise how their conditioned expectation – that their needs would always be overlooked – had been activated. This led to an almost instantaneous improvement in their relationship and subsequently some deeper reflection on David’s part about his approach to endings in general and the ending of coaching relationships in particular.

In the coaching relationship, this appreciation of the co-created nature of conflict can open up a rich field of co-inquiry, irrespective of whether the conflict is occurring ‘in here’ within the coaching relationship or ‘out there’ in the wider organisational or societal context. Instead of seeing conflicts as problems to be resolved, we can treat conflict as a normal, everyday outcome of human relationships – which we are nevertheless prone to avoiding, suppressing or missing entirely because they are out of our conscious awareness.

Rothberg challenges the reductionism of a simplistic ‘victim and perpetrator’ understanding of conflict, drawing our attention to the ways in which we are all effected by these historical events.

To offer our own biographies as examples, Tammy grew up in a country that had thrived in the years immediately following independence, despite the cultural, political and social erosion brought about by decades of colonial control. Her family migrated to the UK in the aftermath of a war directly related to the geopolitical consequences of independent rule. She experienced history and the prevailing power imbalance at a very personal level, becoming an unfamiliar stranger, dependent on the sometimes inhospitable shelter of the country that had colonised hers. David gained a scholarship to a prestigious independent school, offered to children educated in the state sector. It is only recently that he learned that the original founder of the school had been a slaver. Knowing this reinforced his sensitivity to his own privilege and the suffering upon which it had been founded.

These are implications that we can observe and identify, but there are many others that are out of our direct awareness, where there is no immediate or obvious connection. How are we implicated in the apartheid system in South Africa for example, or the destruction of the Amazon rainforest? Rothberg invites us to reflect on our relationships with these events and how they have influenced our identities, positions and privileges. There is an interactive, iterative process that occurs at multiple levels – personal, relational, institutional and socio-cultural – in understanding the imbalances of power, and repairing their dysfunctional and unjust consequences.

We have found that this deeper reflection on our implication in past and present conflicts and oppressions prompts us to consider our ethical responsibility to engage with different narratives, histories and uncomfortable truths. This involves accepting feelings of anger, guilt and shame, without assigning blame or bending over backwards to make amends. Instead of being something to avoid or defend against, these troubling conflicts offer an opportunity to explore and examine our differences. They can also help us to learn about how our biases and assumptions – including our sense of identity and agency – are not separate from the world we inhabit.

In our coaching work, this means welcoming all of our subjectivities and histories into the room, working with both what is known and also what is felt in our bodies. This is the work of personally and politically productive self-reflection, the work of unlearning the conditioned fear, threat and ambivalence that we may experience in the presence of the socially different ‘other’, or indeed the socially privileged. It is also about finding ways to anchor our ‘implicated bodies’ in safety and connection, and to harness the potential for relational coaching to be a powerful source of emancipatory personal and social change.

We gratefully acknowledge the radical hospitality and the other-wiseness of Foluke Taylor and Robert Downes, who held us and helped us to reimagine.


David Birch is an accredited executive and team coach, supervisor, mediator and UKCP-registered psychotherapist. He has a background in leadership and organisation development going back to the 1990s, when he held a variety of internal roles at PwC. He joined the consulting group at Ashridge in 2000, and since 2012 has been retained as adjunct faculty at Ashridge Centre for Coaching, where he contributes to the AMEC (coaching master’s) and ADOS (supervision diploma) programmes. He is an associate at Metalogue Consulting LLP and The King’s Fund.

Tammy Tawadros is a coach, supervisor, OD practitioner and work psychologist. She has a practice and research interest in the areas of identity and equity, technology and resilience, and responsible leadership. Tammy is a member of adjunct faculty at Ashridge Centre for Coaching, where she teaches on the AMEC (coaching master’s) and ADOS (supervision diploma) programmes. She is an associate at CCE (Centre for Charity Effectiveness) at Bayes (formerly Cass) Business School, where she co-leads their open leadership programmes and is conducting research on the experience of leading in radical uncertainty. Tammy has an independent practice offering coaching, supervision, leadership and organisational development.