January 11, 2016
By Joel Kreisberg, DC, ACC
How do we arrive at a healing topic? Through dialogue and discussion. Most clients see me with a medical condition that has their attention – a chief complaint. The implied understanding is that the goal of our work together is to “remove” the condition or the symptoms that are causing pain or limiting health. In a conventional medical setting as well as many health coaching settings, “success” is the removal of the complaint – headache, joint pain, excess weight or smoking, for example – a necessary and good outcome. Yet notice that this goal –removal – is about getting rid of something, without much regard to the underlying experiences of self that might be wrapped up with the condition. We have all grown up in a medical system committed to reducing pathology with little emphasis on positive health goals.
In my own practice, after exploring the chief complaint thoroughly, a wonderful moment opens up in which I am able to shift the focus of our conversation to the positive, to a potential healing topic. The most common question I ask is “let’s just say we’re able to find the right treatment to really get you better from your headache (or whatever the condition). If that were to happen, what would you like to have in your life instead?” Invariably, this is question causes the client to pause, reflect, and offer an intimate longing for something currently not accessible. The discussion that follows investigates an aspect of their life that they would love to see grow and succeed. Together we explore the possibilities and consequences that such longings create, and how that would impact their health. As an Integrative Health Coach, I use various lenses to explore this topic, considering behaviors, experiences, shared meaning and social systems in my effort to deepen our understanding of the healing topic.
What emerges? Here are a few samples, stated, as always, in first-person language: a retired women in her 70’s has a chief complaint of chronic eczema – her healing topic is “to be more able to be patient, open and present to the people who are close to me.” A middle-aged man comes with a chief complaint of tinnitus – his healing topic is “to be more trusting in my own healing abilities.” A mother of four, whose kids have all grown and left the house has a chief complaint of menstrual irregularities and frequent acute illness – her healing topic is “to be more able to get the care that I need from those whom I love.” An unmarried women in her forties hasn’t been able to get rid of what she thought were allergies, but seems to be a chronic low- grade chest infection – her healing topic is “to be better able to choose actions that will bring me fuller, more meaningful life experiences.” A young woman, a recent university graduate, struggling with severe digestive weakness, constipation, and an inability to tolerate most foods, yet still gaining weight, has a healing topic “to be more able to nourish myself with greater ease and resilience.”
For most of my clients, this provides an authentic opening into what is perhaps the first time they are able to consider both the negative and positive aspects of a given illness. As well, the topic offers clear direction for improving health in new and novel terms specific to the individual. Finding and identifying a healing topic is an outgrowth of a positive psychology that focuses on growth, satisfaction and positive feelings. Health is more than just the removal of negative symptoms; rather, health and healing are ongoing challenges and opportunities to improve ourselves physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Approaching healing with a positive focus catalyzes internal health resources and deepens the meaning of the challenges we face. Consequently, we grow healthier and more resilient, facing new health challenges with more resourcefulness.
Finally, creating a healing topic allows us to set the focus of our program so we can seek and master new healing skills and behaviors. Learning new skills engages clients in a process that requires trial, error, assessment and, we hope, eventual success. As they learn new skills, clients shift their relationship with current health issues and over time grow into healthier ways of being. The coaching or healing topic offers a robust and nuanced way of setting the intentions of a coaching program. With this mutual focus, the coach and the client can then look into the required skills and capacities that, once learned, may increase the client’s ability to live well and with greater freedom and ease. We call these skills learning objectives – a topic for another blog. For now, with a co-created healing topic in place, coaches and clients can focus their process, apply new learning and finally measure success that includes and goes beyond removing symptoms.