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Coaching to the Bonds that can Bind and Blind Us

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We human beings are very much into bonding with other people (and even other animals). We have some of the strongest proclivities toward bonding among all species. This is quite understandable, given that the human infant is much more vulnerable than most newly-borns and need considerable protection and nurturance for many years while maturing. A prominent psychologist, Shelley Tayler, has even suggested that the pull toward bonding (she calls it “tend and befriend”) may be as strong as the pull toward fight/flight among human (especially females) when faced with environmental challenges.

Oxytocin and Three Forms of Bonding

At the heart of the bonding proclivity is the hormone called “oxytocin”. It is usually associated with the tendency of humans to spend time together, to nurture one another and to protect the young. I would propose that the drive toward bonding, accelerated by oxytocin, comes in three forms: (1) operational (helping others), (2) relational (emotional connection) and (3) protective (“Don’t fool with my loved ones!”).

In his exceptional new book, Behave, Robert Sapolsky notes that oxytocin not only leads us toward bonding with those who are close to us, it also leads us toward defining the “Other” and acting frequently against this “Other” – even in a violent manner. This might be closely linked to the third form of bonding I mentioned: protective.

Implications for Coaching

Are there ways in which these findings about human behavior can be of value when engaged in professional coaching? I would suggest three ways in which coaching might be engaged—each way related to one of the three forms of bonding I have identified.

Protective Bonding

As a coach I can challenge (or at least encourage) my client to reflect on the perceptions she holds about the “other” against which she is protecting someone in her family or organization. Do we distort our image of the threatening “other”? Do we lump them into a bigger category of “other” (an expanding enemy)? Object relations psychologists describe the “splitting” function that can occur when we identify and protect against the “bad.” This splitting and the resulting distortions is dramatically illustrated in the movie “Alien.” We should remember that the monster (“alien”) was actually spending most of her time defending her own off-springs (eggs), just as our heroine (played by Sigourney Weaver) was protecting her own crew. Both images are distorted in this movie (and in real life).

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