The Art in Coaching

The Art in Coaching

How creativity can further understanding between coach and coachee or tell me about your Purple Polka Dot Piano.

According to The British Association of Art Therapists, Art Therapy intends to work with the client using art media as a principal approach for communication and to support a client to influence personal change and growth through the use of art materials. Art Coaching, by my definition, intends to work with the coachee, making or using art references, to reveal where they are at and where they want to go, but with a specific focus on themselves in their working environment. This article aims to share a methodology for an approach to coaching, that of using our greater self to guide us. This includes aspects of transpersonal work..

Transpersonal coaching to help the clients access parts of their psyche and to search for meaning and if need be, to make sense with what they have done, where they have been, what they are doing and where they may want to go. Frequently we are unaware of the symbols we carry around and surround us. These symbols can help us explore some of the conversations that have not been had with the Self. The approach to help the coachee to access their symbols can be varied, sometimes the coachee will be aware of them but will not know why they are experiencing them. Many of us have personal metaphors that we treasure or believe that they are telling us something, but to what these mean may not be so clear with further consideration. As a coach I am interested in from where these personal symbols stem and to what they are telling us to do, where do we go from here, what is the message, where are we now, where do we want to go? Which links closely to what can be referred to as “natural” symbols, those being from the unconscious contents of the psyche and or variations on archetypal images. (Jung, 1964) In short what symbols mean to the person, the Self, rather than a symbol with an external excepted cultural reference as with religious symbols per se. To be able to articulate and explore these metaphorical images is another dialogue, as Diana Whitmore says, “imagery is the language of the psyche”, (Whitmore, 2004, p51) which can allow the coachee to access content that is not available to the conscious mind.

Early in my life I was fortunate enough to enjoy many creative aspects and traditions to a high level. These being mainly, Art School, the Martial Arts and Reiki, which I now realise can become active into coaching methodology. As a practicing coach and through studying for my Masters in Coaching Psychology I have become more aware of the synthesis of these facets of my life.


Deconstructing Art

Knowing how to “read” Art, and how to deconstruct imagery and artistic intention can help the coach and coachee search for meaning with the Self (true state) and knowing the Self through others’ Art.  Careful use of training and development models can employ Art, whether that being personal or chosen imagery, to help the client find significance to their present situation, in turn this may lead to surfacing meaning or the birth of new ideas. The semiotic study can help the coach and coachee find structure and meaning and a language to their work together.

An example of how this works: Use images from contemporary and historical pieces selected by the coach or coachee, explore each piece using several themes. Example questions about each piece could be:

Elements – Why are they there? What are they doing? Where are they from? What do they remind you of? What’s missing?

Colour – How does this emotionally feel? Where have you seen this colour before? Which colour stands out to you? What does this or that colour remind you of?

Sizes and Shapes – What does one shape do to the next? If abstract, what is this piece saying to you? Would you add anything to this piece?

Position and location – If you are in this piece which part is you? If you were in this piece what would you be doing?

The coachee’s opinion of each piece of art isn’t mean to be questioned whether the Art is good or bad, it’s about what is the art doing for them or to them. The axiology of the piece is still important, but the significance for the coachee is more so, this is part of the surfacing of our hidden conversations with ourselves. As a coach I am mindful to follow the coachee’s journey of exploration with the intention of bringing the focus towards the coachee’s position and current circumstance. Respectfully helping the coachee towards further understanding their current climate and perspective about where they are. Through this exploration it is important that the coach doesn’t leap to any conclusions what a coachee’s symbol mean, no diagnosis, as this can lead to assumed self fulfilling prophecies and more subtle revelations can be cast aside. Meaning will gradually transpire from the coachee, time is the natural enricher here. Further to this would be questions about future orientation and next steps. For example, three important elements that can further our understandings of our current position in life are; what is there, what isn’t there, and how do you know?

Try the images for yourself, apply the questions above and see what happens for you.





Another approach maybe to explore how do others perceive us? With this in mind we could explore this using imagery.

On many occasions I have used Metaphor Box. This technique is used so that the coachee can understand how others’ perceive them. A select body of people known to the coachee is invited to post, through a slit in a box, imagery about the person in question. This happens for over a week. Following this , the coachee is shown the contents of the box and coach and coach review the elements within. The coachee talks about their perception of the images and draws conclusions about how they think they are perceived. After the coaching session the group can be brought together to share openly why they chose their images with the coachee. Each time I have used this method, the coachee has felt much better understood and there is a greater level of appreciation for them and the people involved in the exercise.

Making Art, Doing Art, Viewing Art

On different occasions I have used different methods for coachees to explore their domains. To make Art with coachees can help the coachee unlock emotions without words, which, I have found, with some, is less difficult for them at first than verbal discussion. What gestures, movement and body actions used to bring forth imagery may have some emergent messages for us about how we are going about our lives in general or more specific conditions. The use of the body is important to the overall effect of those things that we make, for example, Japanese brush and ink drawing and Iaido (Sword Drawing), Jackson Pollock, and more contemporary performance artist like Tony Orricco has provided some amazing examples of how we can use our body to release and realise inner understanding externally. By using the idea of inner release I have had coachees produceing images that have formed part of their self-realisation, which has contributed to them being able to move forward with intention and direction. Some have produced their own mandalas which when completed have formed a touchstone for their focus on life. On other occasions have given rise to coachees have becomeing more aware of their being by moving. My expertise in the martial arts has meant that I understand how the whole body benefits of being able to move more freely and the flowing of energy can release emotions and trapped feelings, from this, shared discussion about their sense of being between the coach and coachee can explored with greater significance.

Using Art and imagery has become a feature within my work; Art to help us know what we know and don’t know about each other can further communication between coach and coachee. Some more traditional coaching methods such as the use of   the Johari Window and Kelly’s Construct Theory can be revised to bring about self-discovery. For example, as a coach may ask coachee to draw themselves on one side of the page and another person they are concerned about on the other side of the page. I ask questions about the coachee’s feelings by how they have drawn themselves, and then the other person who is represented can then be discussed. Comparisons, similarities and differences can be examined and any conclusions that may arise from this exploration between the two drawings and the relationship between the coachee and their person of concern. Sometimes a coloured drawing can bring forth even more information. For example, the uses of unnatural colours have a reason to be. “Tell me about the purple polka dot piano, in the drawing”. An extension to this, if appropriate, is to ask the other person in question to complete the same task, then the coachee can compare drawings with the other person and the coachee becomes the role of mediator for the paired discussion. Often quite surprising and revealing conversations can be had when this method is used. At a later date more drawings are made and the relationship between the drawings made at different times can be studied for similarities and /or differences. By using drawings made at different time scales the coachee often finds it easier to remember how they felt at those different times, thereby making it easier to talk about how things have changed over a period of time.

Touchstones, Metaphors and the Transpersonal

Metaphors and symbols have become a stronger feature within my work. They are and have been part of my own journey as a coach, but to be able to coach others to use and explore their metaphorical landscape has returned some personal privileged learning and growth, I always feel honoured to be part of anyone’s transpersonal journey. These artistic narratives can help to bring us forward, knowing where you are at, knowing a direction and the next steps with less or without trepidation to do so. We all enjoy our ventures and experiences if the way there is more comfortable.

A past coachee was struck by a recurring image that was causing him significant unease and emotional distress, that of the lion eating the sun. This image seemed to be ever present in his life on musical album artwork to advertisements, so much so, he asked me to help him understand the significance of the image, if the image had any symbolic reference and whether or not it was metaphorically significant for him in his life. Our journey together explored the image, and eventually through alchemical understanding, we both recognised that he was going through transformation. This transformation was part of a life stage transition from one realm of manhood to another and an adjustment in romantic expectation that was a constant painful series of rejections from another he desired to ill effect in his work place. The symbol was indeed reflecting these things as a transition through this lesson of the self and heart. This was an uncomfortable period in his life albeit rich and important for his sense of self.

I recently had the luxury of working with one coachee whose rich metaphorical journey, dynamic, passionate and ultimately life changing in a very short space of time. His voyage to find meaning through his symbols was abundant and we worked with his icons to liberate a thread of developing themes which eventually amassed into some clear decisions and changes in his life, restructuring his company, divorce, re-engagement of spiritual pursuits. The methods we used were the making of a mandala, research on flacons and angels, ancient oriental stick and body movement and dreamwork. The emotions were not easy to witness at times, but necessary towards positive actions that surfaced for him. His distinct sensory appetite made it all deeply engaging for me, he told  me that he found the coaching to be more than he had expected. He said had broken down the old road, a time of darkness and had forged a new path to the light, some of his metaphors were road and ground based; he had certainly grounded his new energy and could see a new way forward.

It is important here to explain that while this was developing I was mindful of not to create any dependency, the key issue here is to be a coach/guide, a critical companion on the journey but not someone to be dependent upon, we are always on a journey together for some of the time, this is true about all our encounters and relationships no mater how long that seems to last.

Personal Learning through Art and Synesthesia

What does this all mean for me? Well, there has been and still will be a lot of self-reflection and learning. Being able to use and revisit some of the skills I have learned and be able to use them again is engaging, enriching and in return more learning through coaching about whom I am. Art and art forms have always had an influence on who I may be. What we are, I believe, is not known, it’s a continuous exploration along the way and sensing this I believe we evolve through what we do. I have Synesthesia,a condition where one cognitive sensory pathway leads to another cognitive sensory pathway, for instance, numbers reveal colours to me. it’s not extreme for me but it does play a significant part in my life. I tend to feel my way through things, definition is mutable and occasionally I am surprised that my understanding of things is not so obvious to others. Colour for me is not just understood as theoretic happening but is emotive and sometimes surprisingly placed, as with my number/colour, lexem/colour and emotion/textural/colour synesthesia. Some of my perceptions about colours, sounds and emotions are apparently confused at times, for me this isn’t an issue it is normal and at times quite enjoyable. The experience is non theoretical because we are perceiving rather than conceiving (van Campen, 2008) my condition, I trust, helps me be more conscious and at times can support my level of connection with people. There have been studies that claim synesthetes to be sensitive to others’ emotion, when actively in session with people I would say this is true and is something I witnessed earlier in my life when working with people using Reiki. I could indeed ‘feel their pain’. Emotional interpretation of dreams and imaginings can help me connect on different levels often with some unanticipated results. Sensing what the other person may be experiencing emotionally and the imagery that goes with it, being experiential rather than an abstract concept. The two seem to work together as one. Synesthetes, some being natural empaths, spring to mind, feeling the pain and relief of others due to the “mirror touch” neurones in the brain (Banissy 2007). This seems to make sense to what I experience much of the time. Often I have a sense of what I like to call a persons emotional shape, this becomes stronger on touch. As a Reiki practitioner this engendered certain things to happen for the client, as emotions would be released and often they would realise something for themselves. I was just being a sensitive conduit for there energy to flow more freely.

As a practicing artist, I regularly venture into making. Making art is much about healing the self as concluding an artistic act. Many of my paintings are about realisations. They emerge, often figuratively and don’t necessarily start from one idea in mind. They also conclude through a nascent thought process through the emotions and when the sensation declines the piece of work is finished. Often I believe this is how many of us go through life moving from one surfacing experience, through a series of happenings and then we move on, never the same experience, sometimes similar or new. All these sensations overlapping in a sensory cocktail of colour and emotion, like many of Nabokov’s characters and the enjoyment of the metaphors of the senses (O’Malley, 1957).

With great respect to my all present and past coachees’ I have learned so much and I am still learning not only about how my coaching practice has evolved but how I am evolving as a person on many planes, for this I am humbled by their experiences and bravery to confront their symbol worlds giving me the strength to confront my own.

Using art and creativity in my coaching practice has certainly brought together an array of creative incidents for me, from my experience and understanding, when the coach and coachee are on a creative journey there is an illuminating restoration of truth for themselves and between each other, the wounded healer phenomenon springs to mind here (Yallom, 2009). So, I look forward to my next jaunt with another coachee and relish the thought of what they may imaginatively produce. A decent inspired travelling companion can make the expedition more meaningful.

Images to try and deconstruct

Image 1: Richard Long, “Garonne Black Mud Circle”. 2010

Image 2: Pierre Bonnard, “Dining Room in the Country” 1913

Image 3: Choo San, Body Art. 2012



Banissy, M.J. (2007) “Mirror-touch synesthesia is linked with empathy”. Nature Neuroscience published on line. Retrieved from  Last accessed January 2013


The British Association of Art Therapists.  Last Accessed January 2007



O’Malley, Glenn (1957). “Literary Synesthesia.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 15, No. 4. (Jun., 1957), pp. 391-411. Retrieved from Last accessed January 2013


Van Campen, C. (2008) “The Hidden Sense: Synesthesia in Art and Science” Leonardo Book Series, Massachusetts Institution of Technology


Jung, C. (1964) “Man and his Symbols.” Aldus Books. London


Whitmore, D. (2004) “Psychosynthesis Counselling in Action.” 3rd Edition. Sage Publications. London


Yallom, I. D. (2009) “The Gift of Therapy.” Piatikus Books. London

Serpent - Carl Jung

Often I find that others find their archetypal parts of their construct when they discuss their fears and aspirations. When I ask them to take part in making imagery the elements they choose in those pieces also help to surface these parts of their personality.

This works for myself as for others. To draw out these elements to our conscious world can help is feel more focused towards our self efficacy…

“We’re going to kiss the snake snake on the tongue. Kiss the serpent. But if it senses fear, it’ll eat us instantly. But if we kiss it without fear, it’ll take us through the garden, through the gate, to the other side. Ride the snake… until the end of time”. – Morrison, J

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