From vitamins to showing loving kindness

How do those on the fringes of psychology view our profession? Ian Florance meets Michèle Down.

Psychology sometimes seems hermetically sealed from non-practitioners. The British Psychological Society’s Fifth European Coaching Psychology Conference offered counter-evidence: an event attended not only by chartered and student psychologists, but also those who use psychological techniques in their work, whatever their job titles or training.

I met Michèle Down at the conference and we arranged to talk a few weeks later in a coffee bar near Victoria Station. I wanted to get a feel for how psychological techniques inform work beyond its own professional boundaries. It was clear Michèle didn’t fit into any neat categories.

‘I have an unusually rich heritage,’ Michèle told me. ‘My father grew up in Rangoon and in turn was descended from Iraqi and Indian Jewish stock. My mum was brought up in Soho in the 1930s and was of Polish Jewish descent. I am the oldest of three girls.’

Michèle describes her first love as being drama. ‘At school I wanted to be an actress but was realistic enough to decide that I wasn’t good enough to make it: excelling is important to me!’ Interviewing for The Psychologist, I’ve met a number of people who took a route from training in a performing art, to being – for want of a better term – a mind worker. Why did Michèle think that was? ‘Somatic therapy is becoming a more important element in what we all do, so that suggests a link. And much performance and sports training uses techniques which have been applied more widely in psychology and coaching.’

How did Michèle make the transition? ‘My drama teacher was a real role model for me – young, vibrant, creative and inspirational. We stayed friends after I left school and went on to sixth form. She attended a workshop called De Silva Mind Control in the USA, and when it came over to the UK (then called Mind Dynamics) I attended. It was life-changing. I was introduced to the theories of positive thinking (à la Dale Carnegie), psychosynthesis and meditation amongst other things.’

Michèle had never wanted to go to university for its own sake but was advised by the two people running Mind Dynamics that she should become a teacher. ‘I did a BEd at Goldsmiths, planning to teach dance and English. I loved teaching but didn’t like the predictability of the school timetable. I like variety and am strong-minded, so was probably pretty unemployable anyway – I still am! I intuitively felt that there was something different out there for me, though I didn’t know what it was.’

Michèle then met an American businesswoman who was something of a pioneer: selling specialised food supplements and skin care door-to-door for a company associated with Werner Erhart, the founder of the then trendy 1970s EST movement and an early pioneer of extreme and much-criticised coaching methods. ‘I went to San Francisco to train with the organisation, which partly involved selling vitamins door-to-door in San Francisco and Marin County – the best (and hardest) training I’ve ever had. When I got back, I set up Earthlore Ltd, selling, and finally manufacturing, a range of vitamins based in Chalk Farm. My husband joined me in the venture and we moved to Herefordshire, from where we ran the business. We were young, in a niche industry, eager to grow, with little capital, so looking to expand in some way. My eldest son’s dairy intolerance led me to make carob Easter eggs… we became pioneers in the healthy confectionery market. To expand even more, we entered the world of mainstream chocolate manufacture. Eventually, we sold both businesses, and I remained as director of the confectionery business through the transition. Concurrently, another major life change convinced me to leave the business: what was I going to do next?’

Michèle was a Samaritan at the time. ‘It was something I really enjoyed. But our work didn’t go far enough for me, particularly with people who were not in crisis. I retrained as a counsellor, taking a diploma at Newport. I loved every minute of it. At the end of the second year I wrote to everyone I could think of to ask if they needed a counsellor and in December I got a call from the Royal College for the Blind. Their student counsellor had gone off sick and they’d found my letter. Within two weeks I had 22 clients and ended up staying there for three years. It’s the only salaried job I’ve ever had, and although I absolutely loved my client work, which I found deeply rewarding and enriching, I didn’t like office politics or bureaucracy. I decided to work solely for myself once again.’

In parallel with this experience Michèle started teaching a basic counselling skills course for adults in Hereford, ran a BTEC in coaching and set up her private practice. Round about then she set up Michèle Down Dynamics (www.micheledowndynamics.co.uk), ‘where I got particularly interested and involved in the trend of intensive leadership and teambuilding training in the UK and South Africa. I also wrote and ran training in standard areas such as assertiveness. But I began to miss the business world. It occurred to me in the end that my combination of business and counselling/coaching skills would be valuable.’

Michèle sees this issue as important for anyone from a psychology, counselling or coaching background working with any set of clients. ‘You have to understand their experience and talk in a language they understand. This was true when I worked with blind and visually impaired people; it’s also true now I spend almost all my time coaching business leaders.’

Working with high achievers who have hit a stumbling block or feel they can achieve more, Michèle only works with five to six organisations at any one time. ‘I have time and space to understand the ethos of each organisation making my work informed, relevant and meaningful. I help organisations to and through change. What I’m trying to do is help people find real quality of life at work, to discover meaning there, and in that way what I do has huge resonance with the positive psychology movement… I’m helping things get better and I stay the course.’

Michèle is now a registered British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy coach (in fact she is on the executive committee of the BACP’s coaching division), with 17 years’ experience of coaching and a successful business career behind her.

It can be argued that the Special Group in Coaching Psychology is the area of the Society most open to other professions. What did she make of the conference? ‘I was interested, somewhat surprised and delighted, that people seemed to be talking the same language in their discussions after sessions. From the outside, psychologists seem to define themselves by schools, as types of practitioner, as followers of a particular teacher. It was interesting to see so many of them agreeing over issues that needed to be addressed.’

Do you see yourself as a sort of psychologist, I ask? ‘I am one of a growing group of therapists-who-coach. I’d describe myself as an integrative coach – someone who takes ideas and techniques from different places rather than just one school or even one discipline and integrates them into my own model of coaching. I feel as if all my life experiences have merged to inform my work – my business background, my insatiable curiosity about people, their thoughts feelings and motivations and my years’ experience working deeply and psychologically to help people to change and grow.’

Is there anything else you feel coaches and psychologists share – or should share? ‘Well, the creation of a trusting relationship with your client or patient is vital and underpins all the work we do. This can be challenging: although Rogers’ “unconditional positive regard” is not always easy, unless you can accept your client for who they are, and unless they palpably feel that acceptance of their real selves, warts and all, how can they allow you to help them to change? We need to show our clients, for want of a better term, loving kindness as we help them to transform their lives for the better.’

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