An Adlerian Meaning-Focused Approach to Coaching

An Adlerian Meaning-Focused Approach to Coaching

Alfred Adler

Note: What follows is the abstract of an invited talk that our President, Laura Atwood, will be presenting at the upcoming 10th Biennial International Conference on Meaning (Vancouver, August 2-5, 2018). For more information go to:

Alfred Adler, a contemporary and erstwhile colleague of Freud and Jung, was the first great psychologist to focus on Meaning as core to his philosophy and approach. Luminaries such as Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Rollo May acknowledged Adler’s influences, and the fields of Positive Psychology, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, and contemporary parenting theory have deep Adlerian roots. While not as publicly lauded as some of his contemporaries and successors, the heart of Adlerian theory persists, somewhat out of our awareness. Just as we’re rarely conscious of the skin we walk around in, Adlerian principles are also a theoretical “skin” that most of us wear without thinking about it.


Adler has also been nicknamed “The Grandfather of Coaching” because his approach and underlying principles were so closely akin to what we now call coaching. This paper session will explore the many dimensions where Adlerian theory intersects with and provides deep grounding for best practices and meaning-enriched effectiveness in coaching.


Adler’s core principle of Gemeinschaftsgefühl, or “social interest,” gives rise to a core philosophical assumption behind our Adlerian coaching approach, which recognizes coaching as a vehicle for resolving the inherent human dilemma of expressing one’s individual uniqueness, while at the same time operating effectively within a network of social embeddedness. For Adler, meaning was all-important, and he focused on looking at meaning in three key areas of the human experience: work, social connection, and intimate relationships. He pointed to healthy opportunities to connect and contribute as key to meaning and thriving. Coaching can help clients to find their own unique ways to connect and contribute, and thereby to create their own path to meaning.


He also looked at humans as meaning-making and meaning-seeking beings. In his book What Life Could Mean to You (1931), Adler wrote “We are not determined by our experiences, but are self-determined by the meaning we give to them…. Meanings are not determined by situations. We determine ourselves by the meanings we ascribe to situations.” And Adler also said “The hardest things for human beings to do are to know themselves and to change themselves.” An Adlerian coaching approach provides an opportunity to make visible to the client their own scaffold of meaning-making, and to choose intentional meaning-making for future self-creation.

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