A Research Paper By Annalisa Bracciante, Transformational Coach, ITALY
Is a picture worth a thousand words? Benefits of using images, photos, and visual cards in the coaching practice.
Most of us have heard the saying
a picture is worth a thousand words
At least once in our lifetime and for how stale this can sound, in actuality, this sentence holds some truth. In effect, images can communicate complex concepts through the use of shapes, colors, lights, and shades; moreover, the combination of all of them in a given composition can arouse emotions, bring memories to the surface and can stimulate, reflection, imagination, and creativity in the person watching.
Social sciences (psychology, sociology, and anthropology to say a few) have been employing pictures or photos for research or therapeutic purposes for decades. For example, photos are used in the research method of photo-elicitation to enhance people’s engagement with the research, to get richer descriptions, to make it easier the talk about sensitive topics, or to facilitate communication in the case of any linguistic gap between researcher and the person (Belluto, 2017). Images can be utilized in therapeutic settings too; this is the case of photo-therapy created by Judy Weisseras a technique intended to produce a positive change in the individuals or groups through the aid of photos taken, discussed, commented, or even imagined and remembered (Photo Therapy Centre, 2014).
Although the use of images in fellow disciplines such as psychology or counseling is well explored, the same cannot be said regarding the coaching setting. In point of fact, this lack of research is a problem currently affecting the coaching world, also due to the quite young age of this discipline. Thus, despite the great success of using visual aids or creative techniques, it is not very common to read scientific studies or research papers about visual coaching tools and their potential benefits for the person.
Variety of Visual Tools and Methods
A wide variety of visual tools and methods were designed and are currently employed by coaches: photo-elicitation, visual boards or collages creation, graphics creation, use of visual cards, and visualization techniques are some of them (Gash, 2017; Crawford, 2018). Their use can be restricted to a single coaching session or can be suggested as means to support the personal reflection in-between sessions. In fact, according to the direct experience of many coaches, the use of images can facilitate the self-reflective practice, which is the basis for the development of a new awareness and learning in the individual (Donaldson-Wright and Hefferon, 2020).
For the purpose of this research paper, I will focus on the use of photos, images, or visual cards during the coaching sessions as support to the natural unfolding of the dialogue between coach and coachee. I will mention some of the benefits reported by the existing literature, videos, audio, or other sources on the matter. This work does not seek to be exhaustive on the global potential of visual methods and tools but aims to shed a light on the benefits of using images during the coaching session and to offer some practical applications of the findings.
My interest in the subject has been sparked by my lifelong love for figurative arts (photography, paintings, mixed media crafts), my habit of visualization and meditation, and my interest in tools and techniques that can stimulate creativity and imagination. During my years of meditative practices and visualizations, I found out that even watching attentively at a symbol or an image, then closing my eyes, imagining the same image, letting it within, and being in a listening and receptive state, is a powerful method to generate new learning and insights regarding both the inner and the outer world. Obviously, not all the potential coachees are acquainted with meditative practices or visualization, but certainly, most of us are able to watch a picture, describe what we see, and be in a receptive or listening state to the arising sensations, ideas, or emotions.
The simplicity of these tools and their use stands out at first glance and it can be said that visual tools are compatible with a vast array of people. For instance, using images could be of great help in dealing with a person that is not able to rely heavily on verbal expression to talk about their feelings, beliefs, and thoughts with ease. Needless to say, clients with a visual learning style would benefit greatly from the implementation of visual tools in the coaching session (Davis-Brown, 2021). Furthermore, people who enjoy experimenting with creative tools may feel more engagement using creative means during the coaching session (Donaldson-Wright and Hefferon, 2020).
What Coaches Say About Images, Photos, and Visual Cards
An important point of reference for my research is the book: Coaching Creativity by Jen Gash, a coach, and occupational therapist. The author believes that we are going to face considerable transformations in the next decades, so it will be crucial to use new methods inspired by a creative and resilient approach to support clients at their best (Gash, 2017, p. XVI). In effect, since 2019, we are facing a great shift in lifestyles, in the perception of our own normality, and sometimes even a change in values of the single person and collectively. As coaches, we are called to partner with our clients in ways that are mindful of the challenges of the specific context they live in. It seems to me that our world is currently in need of emotional well-being, self-awareness, creativity, and resilience more than ever. One way to cultivate all the above qualities, according to Gash, is by engaging in creative practices and the coaching session may be one of the spaces to do so.
Coaching Creativity investigates the theme of creativity from several angles, from a more scientific and evidence-based to a more historical point of view, taking into account also the contributions of psychotherapy and coaching practice. In chapter 9 of her book, Gash identifies three main ways in which creative means can contribute to the coaching session. First, taking part in a creative activity can generate a sense of flow. The flow state can bring about the loosening required for our brains to reach new insights and new thinking. Second, working with material objects can stir up feelings and it can enable the process of subject-to-object shifting, which helps the individual to gain more inner clarity. Third, using visual aids to explore ideas can create new insights, can promote creative thinking, and may expedite the coaching process (Gash, 2017, pp. 83-84).
Specifically, further on in the text, the author narrows down her focus on visual practices for coaching and notices how the traditional coaching process relies heavily on verbalization which requires a great of cognitive effort and concentration. However, feelings, thoughts, and insights can be accessed by the person and communicated to others using visual language too, implying that using visual tools can help in expressing feelings and ideas in a less cognitively tiring way(Gash, 2017, p. 155).
Starting from similar premises, namely the accessibility and simplicity of using images in coaching and their added value, Donaldson-Wright and Hefferon designed a qualitative study to investigate the use of photos in coaching. The two researchers employed semi-structured interviews, which were analyzed in light of the interpretative phenomenological analyses (IPA) framework. Their study found that the use of photography enriched the coaching experience of the clients and increased their sense of engagement. Moreover, creating and discussing photographs prompted higher levels of self-awareness. Finally, the use of photographs activated positive feelings and thoughts in the coachees. In fact, photos were described by coaches as a source of positive memories, a source of creative challenges, and a catalyst for dialogue at the same time (Donaldson-Wright and Hefferon, 2020, pp. 172-176). To summarize, the main findings of the study are using photographs creates an increased sense of engagement in the coaching session, greater self-awareness, and a higher level of positive feelings and thoughts.
The coach Anh Thu Nguyen, similarly to Donaldson-Wright and Hefferon, considers visual cards and images as powerful means of self-awareness. Furthermore, she claims that using images in the coaching setting is a way to stimulate intuition in the person, by using associations. In fact, memory and thinking work through associations. When our brain sees an image, it creates neuronal connections to past events or inner knowledge that might not have been accessible so easily otherwise (Thu Nguyen, 2018).
Using images during the coaching process is a way to see ourselves by looking at the cards, since the cards help the individual to exteriorize their inner contents and transport them from the inside to the outside, making that same shift from the subject to the object, described by Gash too. Yet again, another professional coach confirms the worth of using visual aids to facilitate the self-reflection practice and the acquisition of new insights (Thu Nguyen, 2020).
From the sources reported so far, it is clear that for all the cited authors the use of images is a very valuable tool for coaching. Such visual tools, being photos, drawings, or visual cards: can stimulate self-reflection and intuition; can facilitate creative thinking; can simplify the coaching process by not relying excessively on speech; can increase the engagement of the coaches, and can increase the level of positive feelings and thoughts.
Descriptive or Creative Use
At this point, it seems appropriate to reflect on what may be the practical use of images in the coaching session. After reviewing the sources, the most important distinction that comes to my mind is that of descriptive use or creative use of images. The image, in fact, can be used as a means to shift the attention from the subject to the object. Thanks to this step, internal content can be transported to the outside. In this sense, describing an image also means seeing oneself and one’s feelings, thoughts, or beliefs more clearly.
On the other hand, an image can be created from scratch with a drawing or with a collage. The use of active visual creativity to represent a situation or an issue can give more context to the topic at hand and can convey much more information, even hidden or semi-conscious insights to the person. Moreover, as read above, the use of creative tools can increase a sense of engagement in the coaching session and positive feelings and thoughts.
Both the Descriptive and the Creative modality images can be used similarly as a catalyst for the dialogue, as a starting point for exploration during the session, and as a way to get the client unstuck when the person does not know how to proceed further toward their intended goal.
The Value of Visual Tools
In this research paper, I aimed to show the value of visual tools such as images, photos, visual cards, visual boards, and similar instruments for the coach and the coachee. The review of sources available to me confirmed the variety of benefits in terms of involvement, insights, simplification, and speeding up of the coaching process it generates. In effect, creative tools can facilitate reaching flow and it can bring about that sense of loosening required to get new insights. Moreover, the implementation of physical tools enables the process of subject-to-object shifting, which supports the individual to gain greater inner clarity and insights. Another finding, not to be underestimated, is that the use of visual aids helps the person in lightening the cognitive effort required for a traditional coaching session.
Although the conclusions I have reached seem very positive and promising, they are based on a partial review of the literature available on the subject. Furthermore, as already mentioned above, the topic I investigated has not been studied thoroughly at a scientific level in the field of coaching. Therefore, in light of the benefits found so far, it seems desirable to continue the research on the subject, in order to clarify further how and to what extent using visual aids can simplify and enrich the coaching experience.
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