Coaching Personal Development

The Reconstruction Of Meaning

This article is adapted from Sunny Stout Rostron’s book, Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: Unlocking the Secrets of Business Coaching (2009) which is available from Knowledge Resources (

Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life (Victor Frankl, 1946:105).

Reconstruction of meaning is one of the most important levels in which practitioners work with their coaching clients. In coaching today, clients raise the issue and often focus on the meaning and purpose in their professional and personal lives. Whitmore (2002:119) mentions that one of the goals of humanistic psychology is the fulfilment “of human potential through self-awareness”.

Elisabeth Denton defined spiritual intelligence as “the basic desire to find ultimate meaning and purpose in one’s life and to live an integrated life” (Whitmore, 2002:120). Zohar and Marshall (2001) in Spiritual Intelligence say that in business today people are facing a real crisis of meaning. This theme is being carried forward in most of the contemporary coaching literature.


Many coaches work and integrate meaning in all four quadrants (Wilber, 1997) and work at the levels of IQ, EQ and SQ (rational, emotional and spiritual intelligence) with their clients inside the coaching relationship.

John Whitmore in Coaching for Performance (2002) highlights the mind as the source of self-motivation, and insists that for people to perform they must be self-motivated. Maslow said that all we have to do is to overcome “our inner blocks to our development and maturity” (Whitmore, 2002:110). The highest state in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs was the self-actualizing person who emerges when “esteem needs are satisfied and the individual is no longer driven by the need to prove themselves, either to themselves or to anyone else” (Whitmore, 2002:111). Maslow saw this as a never-ending journey.

Associated with self-actualizing is the need to develop meaning and purpose. Clients “want their work, their activities and their existence to have some value, to be a contribution to others”; this relates to motivation because “people seek to engage in those activities that help them to meet their needs” (Whitmore, 2002:112). Through my work with coaching clients, I have come to believe that coaches are responsible for helping both themselves and their clients become aware of their own unconscious thinking processes, and how these impact on their behaviour in the world. To understand their own behaviour, clients need to understand their own intrinsic drivers at a conscious level.

The coaching intervention ranges from questions which explore feelings, motivations, perceptions, assumptions and attitudes, to reflected statements, reframed questions, role-plays, structured question frameworks, observation, or silence. In this respect, Boud, Cohen and Walker’s Using Experience in Learning (1996) had a profound effect on my thinking about the coaching conversation, and the space it opens up for coaches to help clients to learn from their own personal experience. Below are the five propositions that Boud, Cohen and Walker (1996) make about learning from experience.

1. Experience is the foundation of and stimulus for learning

It is meaningless to talk about learning in isolation from experience. Learning can only occur if the experience of the individual is engaged, at least at some level, and every experience is potentially an opportunity for learning (Boud, Cohen and Walker, 1996:8). In other words, learning always relates, in one way or another, to what has gone before. This means that the effect of all experience influences all learning, which further implies a seeking of new meanings from old experience. We do not simply see a new situation afresh, but we see it in terms of how we relate to it and how it resonates with what past experience has made us.

2. Individuals actively construct their experience

Individuals attach their own meaning to events, and reach commonly accepted interpretations of the world. This suggests that experience is always subject to interpretation. As in existentialism, the meaning of experience is then not a given. It is interesting that “relationship” comes up as an important factor in learning from experience. According to Boud, Cohen and Walker (1996), experience is created in the “transaction” between the individual and the environment in which they operate, in other words, it is relational. How learners construct their experience is what Boud, Cohen and Walker (1996:11) term the individual’s “personal foundation of experience”.

3. Learning is a holistic process

graduation capThe authors make a common division between cognitive, affective and conative learning. Cognitive learning is concerned with thinking, while affective learning is concerned with values and feelings. Conative or psychomotor learning is concerned with action and doing, as “conative” pertains to the nature of conation, or expressing endeavour or effort – conation is the part of mental life having to do with striving, including desire and volition (Webster’s, 1989). Learning is cognitive, affective and psychomotor; therefore learning involves feeling and emotions (affective), the intellectual and cerebral (cognitive) and action (conative).

4. Learning is socially and culturally constructed

Individuals do not exist independently of their environment, and learning does not occur in isolation from our social and cultural norms and values. While individuals construct their own experience, they do so in the context of a particular social setting and range of cultural values. Other considerations are language, social class, gender, ethnic background and our own learning from an early age. The most powerful influence from the social and cultural context on our learning occurs through language. This is critically important for those coaching in multi-cultural contexts.

5. Learning is influenced by the socio-emotional context in which it occurs

Denial of emotions leads to a denial of learning. There are two key sources of influence in learning: past experience and the role of others in the present that support our learning. Furthermore, different kinds of learning occur depending on whether the context is perceived as positive or negative. “The way in which we interpret experience is intimately connected with how we view ourselves” (Boud, Cohen and Walker, 1996:15–16). This determines how we develop confidence and self-esteem, which are necessary to learn from experience.

An existential and experiential learning dilemma

One of my financial sector clients recently discovered that he was not to be promoted into the top executive position in his organization. His dilemma became one of “now what?” – “Do I stay or do I go?” – as everything he had been working towards had been aimed at taking over this particular position within his organization. Coach and client looked at the pros and cons of all the possibilities. We used his experience in building, maintaining and running the business as the base point to answer the question: “Where do you have freedom of choice?’ We identified three potential scenarios: (1) accepting the new reporting structure, in the short term, to sit on the new Board; (2) accepting the status quo of his position yet influencing the continued independence of the business unit; or (3) looking elsewhere in the financial sector for a new position. As coach and client reconstructed the client’s experience, it became clear that he had many possible scenarios for action that would enable him to continue to create change and build relationships internally and externally, which was his forte. We identified what the current position gave him in terms of: freedom of movement, integration of activity within the organization, and being able to manage his 700 people in a relationship-oriented way. His key learning that would ultimately influence his final decision was that he was not observant of the politics which had influenced the choice of his new line manager. Coach and client began to reflect on the areas where the client was resistant to identifying how and when to play the game of politics within the organization, and how he would choose to learn to do so, or not.

Discovering barriers to learning

With a focus on the client, practitioners need to identify what are the barriers for their clients in beginning to learn from their own experience. How does experience transform their perceptions? What is the relationship between their personal experience, and their ability to reflect and learn? As coaches, do we provide enough time for reflective activity? Reflection on experience leads to awareness and an ability to identify what is working, what is not working, and what needs to change.

Finally, how can you as a business coach use your coaching model to help the client reflect on and learn from their experience? Whatever else we do as reflective and reflexive practitioners, it is important that we help the client to consider their entire experience as relevant and not be too surprised, when reflecting, that they make connections which they were previously unable to see.


Boud, D., Cohen, R., and Walker, D. (Eds.). (1996). Using Experience for Learning. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press.

Frankl, V. E. (1946). Man’s Search for Meaning. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Maslow, A. (1968). Toward a Psychology of Being. New York, NY: Van Nostrand.

Stout Rostron, S. (2009). Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: Unlocking the Secrets of Business Coaching. Johannesburg: Knowledge Resources.

Whitmore, J. (2002). Coaching for Performance: Growing People, Performance and Purpose. London: Nicholas Brealey.

By Sunny Stout-Rostron Associates

Sunny coaches at senior executive and board level in corporate organizations and educational institutions. She has a wide range of experience in leadership and management development,  business strategy and executive coaching. With over 20 years’ international  experience as an executive coach, Sunny believes that there is a strong link between emotional intelligence and business results – she works with leaders and their  teams to help them achieve individual, team and organizational goals, gaining  wisdom and knowledge through their own experience.

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