The ‘small’ matter of the heart

In the past couple of weeks, I have been exposed to two small things, but two small things that made a big impact on me. The first was a small person and the second was (what may be referred to by movie critics as) a ‘small movie’. I would like to share with you some of my own small thoughts arising from my encounters with them.

The small person I refer to is a woman by the name of Yuri Morikawa, a ‘four feet nothing’ coach from Japan with a huge heart and some equally big questions. She was recently in South Africa to run some workshops and I was lucky enough to hear her speaking at a get together of coaches. The topic of her talk that evening was ‘The Coach as Alchemist’ (the same talk that she had given at the most recent conference of the International Coach Federation in London). What inspired her talk, was her experience of the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake in Japan, an experience which caused her to reflect deeply on the contribution she could make, as a coach, to the world around her.

When I first thought about the title of her talk ‘Coach as Alchemist’, (before arriving at the event), my expectation was that I would be challenged to think about my contribution and my accompanying assumption was that a large, observable impact would be required in order to be regarded as ‘an alchemist’. What however emerged for me was that it is not about creating something really enormous which was outwardly observable, in other words, something strongly in the realm of the ‘doing’, but rather something about ‘being’ more present in the moment to both ourselves and others because it is from the place our ‘smallness’ that the paradoxical possibility for ‘bigness’ arises.

Back to Yuri and her story…..

Yuri lives fairly close by, about 80 km from the places that were most devastated by the tsunami and the earthquake. On learning about the devastation, she immediately asked herself what she could do to help people whose world had literally been turned upside down by this disaster. Given her profession, she immediately assumed that as a coach, she could play a meaningful role in assisting her country people in their time of such great need. And she was indeed right about this. What however was a revelation to her, was the nature and form that her contribution would take.

She had arrived at the site of the devastation as Coach – Coach with a capital “C”, yet she soon realised that the situation required something very different of her. It was not about grand intentions or applying appropriate strategies or tools and techniques which she would usually use to assist her clients become more masterful. Neither was it about her level of competence or performance as coach, aspects which are clearly driven from the head. What was required of her in that situation was to be a coach with a small “c”, which at its most basic level meant being fully and deeply present to another person, present to her/his pain and suffering.

The big question this translated into for Yuri at that time was: what will enable me to have this presence, connection and compassion? And her simple answer to this powerful question: heart – by bringing her heart, she would be able to move beyond ego and expectation to connecting with others, human being to human being.

Not only is ‘connection’ fundamental to the question of what it means to be human, but also it is fundamental to what constitutes the essence and the small yet paradoxically large “c” of coaching. It is through stepping away from the head and our own internal conversations and towards the heart that we are able to be fully present to the experiences of others, or as we say in coaching speak ‘to meet others where they are’.

To me, this idea of coaching with a small “c” applies equally in many other areas such as managing with a small “m”, leading with a small “l”, teaching with a small “t”, or parenting with a small “p”. I say this because whether we are coaches, leaders, teachers, parents or for that matter, politicians, the question is still the same: what is the essence of that which I am doing? Even if we are doing different things, the essence is still the same – being present and connected to those around us, and the critical ingredient here is our capacity for empathy and compassion. Where we are able to access this, or in Yuri’s words, “bring our heart”, our roles become so much less about Managing, Leading, Teaching or Parenting and so much more about being able to be the alchemist, irrespective of the setting we are in.

The second ‘small’ thing which had a big impact on me which I mentioned to begin with, was a ‘small movie’ – small in the sense that it did not feature big names, will not make a big money at the international box office, or headline at big cinemas. But despite its smallness, “The Sapphires” is a deeply moving piece set in Australia in the 1960s and inspired by a true story. On the surface it is the story of three sisters and a cousin who leave their native Cummeragunja Reserve in New South Wales to sing to US soldiers in Vietnam, accompanied by their manager, a somewhat hapless Irishman. At a deeper level, it is a story about dispossession of Aboriginal people, of their land, their families and their dignity – incredibly painful subjects which the movie deals with in a very beautiful, big-hearted yet gentle way.

One of the things that I found intriguing about the movie, in looking beyond the observable human behaviour to the story of what underlies human behaviour, was the character of the oldest of the three sisters, who showed up as a prickly, angry and generally oppositional individual. But under that very scratchy exterior, was the hugest heart in which she carried a great depth of feeling. It was however, this depth and intensity of her emotions which seemingly kept them deep below the surface and kept her trapped in being irritated and angry with the world while carrying its weight on her shoulders. Surprisingly or not so surprisingly, it took the most unlikely of characters, the rather out-of-the-lines, irresponsible Irishman to help her access her heart.

How did he do this? By bringing his heart, in the most amazingly honest and non-judgmental way. In practical terms, what he did was use a metaphor (or what we in Integral coaching call a ‘distinction’), of herself as the ‘mama bear’, the fiercely protective and profoundly caring matriarch, to help her see and understand herself in a way that she had not before. His use of the metaphor enabled her to access that deep place in her heart which she had become disconnected from, and through connecting to this place, with all its pain, opened the possibility for her to connect to others in a way she had not been able to for a very long time.

The Irishman was present to her pain and suffering, just as Yuri Morikawa was present to the pain and suffering of her community.

And I wonder how often we get locked out or disconnected from our hearts or how often we are unable to bring them more because of our own judgments of ourselves i.e. that we are not worthy or that we have to prove something through bringing our big letter Leader, Manager, Coach. Or, we become disconnected because of our judgments of others – that they are not worthy. Or on the other end of the spectrum, we are blocked from bringing our hearts because of over-stating our own importance, and in being so fixated on the big things and impressing ourselves and others with our ‘capital-lettered selves’, that we forget about the small but all important “c’s” like compassion, connection and real communication.

So some daily questions I leave you and me to reflect on are:

  • How did I bring my heart today – what did I do?
  • What enabled me to bring my heart – what did I let go of to do this?
  • What impact did bringing my heart have on me, others and my world?
  • If I wasn’t able to bring it, what constrained me?
  • If I want to bring more heart tomorrow, what do I need to let go of?
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