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What does art do in professional coaching?

Many people feel a need to grow and develop within themselves. Hardly anyone wants to make the same mistake twice or let opportunities pass by unused. To realize oneself in one's profession and to steer one's own career requires conscious decisions. In order to do justice to the complexity of life and one's own personality, it is not enough to remain "in one's head". And this is where the art begins.

For more than 20 years, visuals have been a central part of Symbolon Coaching. For example, we present four portrait pictures of Frida Kahlo and ask the coachee to choose which one he or she likes and which one he or she dislikes. We then ask for the associations to the pictures and transfer the "spontaneous" thoughts to the current work situation and the coaching issue. With the works of art we use, we achieve a mind opening, an opening of the thinking. This is essential in order to break free from deadlocked situations and to develop something new.

The ability to promote awareness in the coaching process is a critical core competency of professional coaches. It involves helping the coachee "gain insight and learn through the use of tools and techniques such as. E.g., effective questioning, silence, metaphors, or analogies" (ICF Core Competencies, 2019). We use iceberg, codes, and resonance to describe how art does this and why it is so purposeful in coaching.

Beneath the surface the solution is revealed

The floating iceberg has been used for decades as a model to illustrate that in matters of psyche, communication or corporate culture, the visible area is only about 20% of the whole. The larger part of the iceberg is hidden in the water. The metaphor illustrates that areas below the surface are noticeable and influential, even if they are not visible or conscious. This is especially crucial in professional coaching because: The unconscious determines us more strongly than the conscious in our actions, especially in the everyday, but also in the very crucial things of our lives (Ryba 2018, p. 65).

Business coaching is often about self-management concerns such as a more relaxed approach to emotions or a better overview in time management. To become aware of one's own patterns of thinking and acting, a run on the iceberg is not enough. It takes diving processes to grasp the structures beneath the surface. But how is it possible to track down unconscious patterns? After all, it is the nature of the unconscious not to be seen or recognized.

Images mediate between the world of feelings and the world of thought

Images serve as a medium or translator between conscious and unconscious levels (Messerschmidt, 2015). They act like a spotlight that illuminates the iceberg structures beneath the surface when diving. Multiple Code Theory and Jungian symbol formation explain how images work in consciousness processes.

Bucci's (1997) Multiple Code Theory illustrates that we perceive and receive information in multiple ways. Letters and words are perceived symbolically-verbally, pictures symbolically-nonverbally and body feelings subsymbolically. Images stand between the conscious perception of letters and words and the unconscious perception of body feelings. Images are thus connectable to both levels, the feeling level and the mind. Images can be processed both consciously and unconsciously. This enables them to establish a connection between the emotional and thought worlds (Messerschmidt 2015).

In Symbolon Coaching, for example, we show works of art on which many animals are depicted. In the coaching process, the coachee then chooses an animal that represents his current work situation and a second animal that represents his future situation. While looking at the picture and choosing, the person feels inside which animals feel coherent. This process activates the emotional level. In the subsequent reflection with the animal pictures, a connection between the world of feeling and the world of thinking is made and thus awareness is promoted.

The Theory of Symbols according to C. G. Jung offers a supplementary explanation of the effect of images. Jung sees symbols as "messengers of the unconscious" with the task of stimulating development (Roth 2011, p. 167). According to this, every image that triggers a resonance and touches us emotionally, for example, holds an implicit message. The continuing question is then: What does the picture trigger in me also in relation to my work topics? By putting their associations to the picture into words and feeling into it, the person approaches the unconscious and finds words for what was previously inexpressible. By "putting into words" the unconscious becomes conscious and the message of the symbol is decoded. Through this realization, the perceived scope of action expands.

To remain in the just mentioned example with the animal picture in the Symbolon Coaching: Which animals trigger the greatest resonance at the moment of choice can hardly be grasped rationally. The spontaneous choice happens intuitively. The chosen animal images are messengers of the unconscious. At a later point in time, the choice may well be different. Depending on what the coachee needs for his or her development at the moment, it triggers the individual and appropriate symbolic meaning. The picture is thus the medium, which shows the way to the acute development topics and solutions. As the coachee chooses the animals herself and feels inside herself what feels right at the moment, she is completely with herself. Whatever she chooses is exactly right. The subsequent reflection in the coaching enables her to decode the message and to see beneath the surface. The solution is inherent in the coachee and he becomes aware of it through the Symbolon coaching process.

Resonances trace the path of solution and development

In Symbolon Coaching, the aspiration is to communicate effectively and to cultivate learning and development. By using selected works of art, we use images to promote awareness and make the influence of the unconscious visible (Kranz, 2011). For example, positioning oneself in a painted landscape immediately triggers a feeling of "I feel comfortable here." Yet the spontaneous resonance is "only" the beginning. When feeling into the position, needs, desires, and convictions become clear. Only by letting oneself in and immersing oneself in the associations to the picture does a change of perspective and the recognition of the mechanisms at work become possible.

Through the images and symbols, the coachee opens up a space that goes beyond his or her current thinking. To promote awareness, the use of art in coaching is highly effective and purposeful. The saying makes it clear: A picture is worth a thousand words. Through the resonance to the pictures we are directly at the unconscious issues that are relevant for a solution of the coaching concern. It is then essential to professionally accompany the reflection process with subsequent practical transfer. Asking the right questions at the right time along the resonances is the real expertise in professional coaching with art, which enables profound insights and development.

The shown art in professional coaching makes a difference regarding the level of consciousness on which coaching is worked. With images as mediators, unconscious aspects are recognized and integrated. With Symbolon Coaching it is possible to promote consciousness and to develop personally as well as professionally. Art liberates.

Interested in developing your own coaching skills?

In the Symbolon Academy we offer training and continuing education for aspiring and established coaches. Our trainings are ICF certified. We would be happy to get to know you and discuss possible paths into Symbolon Coaching.

Christine Kranz, MCC

Picture credit: René Magritte, Le Baiser, 1951, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston


  • Bucci, Wilma Ph.D. (1997) Symptoms and symbols: A multiple code theory of Somatization, Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 17:2, 151-172, DOI: 10.1080/07351699709534117

  • ICF Kernkompetenzen (2019) Update ICF Kernkompetenzen.(rev.07.14.21)

  • Kranz, Christine (2011) Durch Selbstreflexion zum Erfolg: Potenziale erkennen, Persönlichkeit entwickeln, Ziele erreichen (2. überarb. Aufl.) Triesen, Symbolon Verlag

  • Messerschmidt, Jasmin (2019) Professionell coachen mit Bildmaterialien. Die Sprache des Unbewussten verstehen und nutzen. Springer

  • Messerschmidt, Jasmin (2015) Das selbst im Bild – Eine empirische Studie zum Einsatz von Bildmaterialien zur Förderung von Selbstreflexions- und Selbstveränderungsprozessen im Einzelcoaching. Frankfurt a. M., Lang

  • Roth, W. (2011) C.G. Jung verstehen (2. Aufl. der Neuausgabe von 2009). Ostfildern: Patmos.

  • Ryba, A. (2018) Coaching und die Rolle des Unbewussten: Neurowissenschaftliche Erkenntnisse für eine wirksame Coaching-Praxis. In Wegener et al. (Hrsg.), Wirkung im Coaching, (S. 57-73). Göttingen, Vandenhoek & Ruprecht


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