I recently read with interest an interview with the musician Cate Le Bon, and how recording an album during lockdown helped her embrace a new way of thinking.

When faced with the prospect of trying to make a record when her plans were no longer compatible with a new reality, she took the bold step to abandon fear and surrender to not knowing, by leaning into curiosity and hope.  From this space she found she was able to innovate and be creative in a way that helped her music feel more spontaneous and authentic.

Cate credited this to reading about what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’. Keats himself only used the phrase fleetingly to describe the qualities he saw in the greatest writers of his time, who he saw as possessing the ability to accept “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. Negative capacity is not just the preserve of the artistic world though, the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion proclaimed the importance of purposely holding an openness of mind to new possibilities whilst tolerating the discomfort of feeling lost.

Many of us will have had to reach into the unknown over the past two and half years.  Many of us will also have supported others via our coaching to grapple with the uncertainty of these times.  But it is not just pandemics where we as health coaches work with people experiencing uncertainty, and complexity.  Whether it is fear following a new diagnosis, the uncertainty of being on a waiting list unsure when a treatment or operation will be scheduled or navigating a path to live with a chronic condition.  Coaching people in these situations can be some of the most challenging but ultimately rewarding work we engage in.

All this may seem an antithesis to the approach of encouraging positivity that we often deliver in our leadership and coaching interventions. Positive capabilities however are the resources familiar to us, our strengths, skills, and knowledge. Thinking of it in this sense negative capability is not pejorative but an opposite, one of two poles. Developing negative capability therefore offers us an alternative to our often default approach to change.

So that brings us to the question of how do we work with people in these situations to build their own negative capability?

Sitting With the Discomfort…

  • It can be uncomfortable to experience the unknown and the emotional impact that comes with it.  Often when we are presented with these stressful or anxiety-inducing situations our response is to try and control them or run and hide away from them, but this can heighten those feelings of stress and anxiety.
  • If we can learn to sit with the discomfort and just notice the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise, we can learn more about ourselves, increase our negative capability, and our capacity to deal with situations in the future.  Whilst this may take us out of our comfort zone in doing so, we create room for something new to grow, and what matters to us most may become clearer.  Working in this way requires both us and our coaches to take a risk, to become comfortable with not being comfortable.

Not knowing can be conducive to creating…

  • Which is maybe why the idea of negative capability is often embraced within the artistic world.  In the rapidly changing world we live in, flexibility in our thinking is essential, and by embracing uncertainty we are suddenly presented with an infinite number of ways in which something can be tackled.  Encouraging our coachee’s to explore their thinking patterns and belief that there must be a template to follow, and instead explore new perspectives puts them in a better place to develop new insights, and to work in a more creative way.
  • Negative capability can also help our coachee’s enjoy the journey.  Working with our coachee & to visualise where they want to get, and what could be, as opposed to what should be, can support them to understand what is possible, despite not knowing what the future might hold. Then as the future does become clearer this image can help them position themselves in it.

Strength from humility …

  • Being able to sit with doubt, or to admit that “I don’t know” can be a real challenge for some people and can drive us to want to give an answer.  However, accepting we don’t always need to have all the answers and know immediately what to do can be liberating, and an opportunity for further learning and development.
  • One of our qualities as coaches is our sense of curiosity.  Encourage your coachee’s to be equally curious, to question their assumptions and long held beliefs, and to listen to the ideas of others with the purpose of understanding not just responding. In doing so they may learn more about themselves and others than they expected.
  • Guiding your coachee’s into a more mindful states through meditations, relaxation exercises, or visualisations will help them foster their negative capability and learn to accept what is rather than apportioning judgement.

These ideas however are just a starter, and I am interested to hear what you think about this topic of negative capability. How do you support others to lean into curiosity, and be comfortable with not knowing?  Send us your thoughts and ideas we would love to learn from you.