Monday 10 July 2023

The Importance of Closure

Closure has been on my mind a lot recently, for various reasons. One is that I have just finished the final Futures programme with Colin Riordan, who conceived the programme back in 2006, and with whom I have run it every year (bar Covid) since - in three different universities. As Colin retires from his role as VC at Cardiff this year, we will not be running it again.

Closure has also arisen in the context of supervision: one of the coaches I supervise works in an environment which means that people she coaches may be re-located at short notice; so sometimes the coaching is left hanging, with no possibility of closure.

And I was in an interesting conversation about coaching the other day with other coaches, discussing the merits of a fixed number of sessions versus open-ended coaching. I suggested that an agreed end-point was often useful, even if at that point it was agreed to carry on - precisely because I think that closure is important. 

So what do I mean by closure, and why is it important?

There are many ways of coming at this, and I will pick two of my favourite. One is to consider the Gestalt Cycle of Awareness (about which I have blogged previously, here in relation to Kline's Thinking Environment, and here as  a structure for coaching).

I think that the expression 'unfinished business' derives from this understanding: that if the cycle of awareness is not completed satisfactorily, (that is if resolution and closure are not accomplished, followed by withdrawal of attention from the issue under consideration) then it remains a drain on emotional energy. Too much unfinished business, and we risk being seriously depleted. 

So, considering the issues that made closure salient for me, I would observe that the Futures work was satisfactorily closed: indeed we had a celebratory event, and reflections and learnings were shared. But the coaching client who is re-located at short notice will lack closure, as will the coach. I can't do much about the client, but part of the job of supervision is to help coaches to reach closure in precisely such circumstances.  And the risk of the open-ended coaching approach is precisely that there is no closure: it just runs on, with accompanying risks of loss of purpose and possible client dependency.

Which raises the question again: what is closure and why is it important? Another way of thinking about this is to consider our need to make meaning out of our experience (my excellent book Shifting Stories is crucial reading here, of course!). A story has a beginning, a middle and an end; and it is at the end that we are best able to discern what meaning we can make. So a key aspect of closure, in my understanding, is to reflect, so as to derive the meaning from our experience. In an urgency-addicted culture, that may be difficult, leading again to lots of unfinished business and depleted people.

In coaching, for example, both coach and client benefit from reflecting on the work done together, the learning that has arisen, how that has translated into behavioural change, how it has been and will be sustained, and so on. That is why I think it is good to create end-points in long-term coaching relationships, where these are the focus of the conversation; even if then it is agreed that there is more work to be done together; in which case, re-contracting is appropriate. That minimises the risk of both drifting into general chat or developing a dependency between the coach and the client. 

In a sense, closure is artificial: at the end of a coaching relationship, the client (rightly) withdraws: and therefore may well never know what happens next for the client. Occasionally I meet someone whom I coached years ago, and they tell me about the enduring impact of the work; but that is the exception rather than the rule; normally I simply don't know.  But the very fact of its artificiality means that it can be constructed in unlikely circumstances: such as when a client is re-located without any chance of a final session. The point is for the coach to be supported, first in constructing what meaning she or he can from the situation and secondly in finding peace. So there is an emotional, as well as a rational, component to closure.  

And maybe that's as good a definition as any of effective closure: finding peace; so that the issue, relationship, conflict or whatever, can be laid to rest.

The ultimate closure, of course, is death. Which is why an unprepared death, though it may seem a mercy in some ways, is often very traumatising. Given that understanding, it is important to talk about death, and break our current taboo. But on that topic, I point you to a wisdom much better informed than mine, in Kathryn Mannix's book With the End in Mind (about which I have previously written on the Shifting Stories blog).

Which leaves me with one final problem: how do I close a blog post about closure? Perhaps with these questions:

What meaning are you making about Closure and its importance in your work and your life as you read this post?

And given that, how will you find a place of peace with the topic?

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