Doing Vs Being With Karen Liebenguth

Thomas Green here with Ethical Marketing Service. On the podcast today we have Karen Liebenguth. Karen, welcome. 


Glad to have you. Would you like to take a moment and tell the audience a bit about yourself and what you do? 

Yeah, sure. So I live and work in London. I’m an accredited life and leadership coach and I’m also an accredited mindfulness teacher. And so yes, I offer coaching, life coaching, coaching for leaders, people in leadership roles. And my specialty is, if you like, I take my clients out into nature, tapping into the benefits of nature on our wellbeing, mental health. 

Thank you for the introduction. I did want to ask one thing which is I sort of viewed it like a USP, so differentiation in terms of like there’s lots of coaches, but I view that, you know, going out into nature and walking is very much a unique selling point for you. And what do you make of that and what do you find is the difference between coaching generally, like you would over a zoom call and then coaching walking with someone in nature

Yeah, it’s a great question. What’s different is I think that it creates more space for clients to explore what’s happening for them, what’s happening in their lives. Clients often say they feel freer walking alongside me, rather sitting opposite me, face to face or online. They also say it’s easier to walk or be in silence and to process experience or to process what’s going on or to think about the question I asked them and that there is more grounding going on in nature. So it’s a much more embodied experience. That’s all to my own experience as a coach. I feel much more present when I coach clients in nature because when we are outside, we are immediately connected to all of our senses. All our senses are ignited. We’re connected to the earth that’s right there. Solid and present and the sounds of birds around and the colour green surrounding us. So immediately it has an effect on our parasympathetic nervous system that’s really all about feeling safe and secure and present. So it has huge benefits and it’s also very enjoyable. I love being outdoors. It’s when I’m at my best.

About halfway through the answer, I started to feel a little bit relaxed as you were talking. So good, I was being outside. I was going to follow up regarding what the outcome is. 

So I think wellbeing is probably what I would expect to be your driver for doing it, I would imagine. But in terms of, like, if the person was looking for an outcome, I think you touched upon something which was, I mean, if you feel that you are going to do a better job as a coach, that may well be enough of an outcome. But what would you say the outcome is if you were to say to someone, you know, the difference between what I do and what a normal coach does, what’s that outcome gonna be for them? 

Yeah, I think I need to say here that very good coaching happens online or in a room because the work is such an exploration of an issue or feeling stuck with something in one’s life. But I think what’s different is the conditions that nature creates. It creates a bigger space. And also, I think it creates space for some people who find it intimidating to meet someone and to sit opposite someone and to be asked questions and to explore some very personal things in their lives. Nature gives a bigger space where experience can be held. And so some people find the process of change more supportive outside and that’s what I witnessed.

So the outcome as such is the same, I would say. But perhaps outdoors, what I’ve witnessed in some clients, people get to it more easily and quickly, perhaps with more ease and creativity and freedom and trust in a way in the process, get better answers as well. 

Yeah, yeah, interesting inside more, sort of, hard moments, I would say, and more perhaps greater depths. 

Well, then we talked briefly before the episode and one of the things we wanted to talk about was the difference between doing versus being. Would you like to, sort of, define what you mean by that? 

Yeah, it’s really a topic I feel quite passionate about and personally very interested in because I used to suffer from too much doing mode in my own life many years ago when I worked for a big corporate client in my previous career as a film translator and subtitler. And I think it drove me to the edge of burnout being, you know, in doing mode really most of my time. And since I’ve started coaching and particularly my mindfulness work and own practice has led me to understand more fully what it actually means to be doing most of the time and how we need to bring in more being moored and mindfulness practice can help us increase being moored, so doing what really means being on all the time. So having to do lists. Getting one job done after the next. Thinking about the next thing while still doing one job and being moored is very much about resting, going for a walk. Sleeping is part of doing more, but wasteful sleeping, or enjoying a conversation with someone, spending time in nature. All of these activities are being mode activities where we don’t have any agenda, where we don’t want anything or need to do something or achieve something. And often in our day to day busy life, the balance between doing and being mode gets out of kilter and we experience stress as a result and overvalued. 

Yeah. What would you say the differences are between doing versus being versus sort of work versus leisure? Because it just makes me think when you describe doing, I just thought, you know, that’s basically work. People are working too much. And then the being I think, and it might be a bit simplistic but perhaps when people are doing what they want to do, they’re doing the things that you perhaps were referring to. Are there differences there that you see? 

Yeah. I mean, when we are doing we often are at work but work can take different forms and shapes. When we do voluntary work, many people do voluntary work and overdo it because they have, you know, an addiction and urge to be busy all the time. So, you know, we’re doing more, it takes different forms whether it’s paid work or voluntary work. Or when we care for someone, carers can very much be in doing mode and overdo it and suffer from burnout, and being mode can be leisure. Often it’s connected with leisure but being mode can also happen between two tasks. So when I go from one job to the next or between clients being mode can happen within 10 or 15 minutes and just sitting without looking at my phone. Often in the park when I am between clients I just sit and look at the lake we have which is very pleasant of course. But sometimes I need to resist the urge of looking at my phone and maybe, you know, replying to a text message that’s immediately doing mode. But we can create a little bit of being mode time between two things or tasks or jobs.

Or just by slowing down going to the toilet. For example, that’s a good way of bringing in a bit of being mord when we go to the bathroom and we can just slow down a little bit and take a bit more time washing our hands. That’s a bit of being mode time, if you like. You touched upon the person who is perhaps addicted to being to the doing, so just active all the time. Why do you think that occurs? And what advice would you give that person? I think it’s a habit when we get addicted to work as we are addicted to being addicted to work. It’s quite a strong term, but I think it is what happens whenever we have an urge to do something and not being able to do something different to make a different choice at that moment. We may be aware of working too much, but we can’t quite help it.

So that’s a habit, an unhelpful habit of working, doing, achieving wanting and the good news is habits can change. We now know from neuroscience that the brain is plastic, that we can change habits, that neural pathways that form and form habits. It’s like a groove, literally, it’s a groove in the brain actually. It’s like the needle of a record player. For those who remember records and record players, it’s when the needle of a record player gets stuck in iTunes, so that’s how we can imagine habits. So it’s repeated behaviour that happens unconsciously. But the good news is that it can change. We have to become aware of it and bring some kindness to it when we notice it and begin to take a breath in that moment when we experience that urge to do more to pause to breathe, and that’s the moment when we can actually make a different choice and change a habit.

I do often ask guests about, let’s say when you’re advocating a particular activity, they’re an expert in that particular thing because they went through it themselves and you mentioned your corporate job and approaching burnout. Do you want to go into perhaps a description of that? And what was it that actually made you change if you were in the doing mode?

What made a change was me taking on coaching with the coach and realising that I needed to change my life. But what happened at the time was that the workload I was facing in my then job was very high, which often happens and that is an issue. That’s an external condition that we often can’t change. But my thought was that I had the belief that I need to do everything in order to be good, perform well to keep my job. So I got into that drive in my job thinking that I have to do everything, which is not really true when we look at it more closely. In no job, we have to do everything because it’s impossible to do, the list is endless. And that’s the nature of the flow of work. So it’s the relationship we create at work that we bring to it. And that is really rooted in our conditioning and habits in our work ethics. I come from a family with very high work ethics, so that doesn’t help. So resting or taking breaks wasn’t really on if you like or being ill. So the way it manifested was that I got into working very long hours, ten hours or more even sometimes at the weekend. And then also not switching off thinking constantly about work at the weekend. And I started to sleep badly, not very well and not long enough, waking up early in the morning feeling very tired and feeling more and more tired and more exhausted. So exhaustion is really when we run on empty, when there’s not very much left, and when also the good stuff in our life drops off the agenda. So being in nature was dropping off my agenda, meeting friends, and we go into this mindset of not having time to do these things that are good for us, that all of a sudden feel like an indulgence. So work becomes the sole focus and when we do that over a period of time we do burnout and it’s very unpleasant and leads to exhaustion and depression. 

My next question was going to be, if you could coach Karen during that particular scenario, what would you, what advice would you give her? What would you have said to her? But I guess excluding and making sure that you get time for what’s important on the agenda.

Yeah. What would I say to her? Spontaneously to take a break and that it’s okay to take a break and that, you know, we can’t run at that level of working all the time. But, you know, being a coach, I know that that doesn’t always work when we say it or give advice. We as a person have to come to it from our own experience. So what I would say is to give myself permission to take a break. So it has to come from the person and really understanding that it’s okay to work less and physiologically, that it’s impossible to work in that way of not never pausing or stopping, that it’s unsustainable. So sometimes that’s really helpful for people to understand that at the physiological level the body can’t sustain and the brain can’t sustain doing all the time. 

What are your thoughts on the people who say, you know, I can work extremely long hours, you know, working all the time just because I love it. So have you got any takes on that? 

Yeah, I mean that might be true for some people and I would say I am probably someone who likes to work and I often work long hours. I think what we need to understand is that that is not the issue. It’s more about iis this sustainable long term? Is this sustainable long term? I’m just thinking of a very helpful model that the psychologist Paul Gilbert has simplified for us. And this comes from evolutionary neuroscience and in this model that helps us to understand our emotional life better and what we need to have a balanced life and to enjoy our life and to feel resourceful. This model has three categories and the first one is called the protection or threat system. That’s all about protecting ourselves from threat or danger. And when we are in that system, when something happens that threatens us, the fight or flight response is triggered in us. And the second system – and this model is the thrive or drive system or resource seeking system, if you like – and this is all about our natural need to thrive to do well to achieve things. And that includes working or doing voluntary work. So we need that to be well to thrive to contribute in life. And then the third system in this model is the contentment or soothing system, and that’s all about not wanting anything, not having an agenda, leisure, connecting with others, playing, having fun.

So Paul Gilbert with this model really helps us to understand that we need all three systems to be well and to maintain good mental health and to enjoy life long term and to thrive. But often many of us operate in a drive system and threat system. And that is really what long term undermines our immune system, our wellbeing, our joy. So we often spend very little time in the contentment system which is all about connecting and resting with restoring. So I think that can be very helpful to understand long term we’re talking, you know, it’s okay to want to work and love work, but how do we do it and how do we balance it with what else we need? 

Yeah, it’s a good point. And I think at least my perception is that it’s probably a habit, like you were referring to.

So, you know, once, once a habit of working all the time, for example becomes normal and you adjust to that, then that’s going to be normal for you and you can say you’re happy with it. But I guess if you don’t, it comes back to something which you mentioned a moment ago, which was that other things fall off in life. And if you get to the end of your life, for example, and you realise that all you’ve got behind you is work and everything else is not really present. Do you think that’s the problem? 

Yeah, It is. I think it’s interesting. I’ve recently had a few clients who said to me – you know, more in the late 50s – I wish I had worked less in my life. Looking back now, I wish I had worked less. I think we often discover more in our mid life how important it is to pursue our passions, our interests, and that work is actually not the whole of our life like friendships, for example. Many people neglect friendships and then later in life they realise, I wish I had spent more time maintaining my friendships or spending time with friends, making time for friends in that respect.

I think it is an issue. Yeah. And I also wanted to say one thing which has to do with our culture and society. Often working a lot or being busy or being stressed is overrated or even misinterpreted as doing well. As you know, you must be busy, you must have a lot of work, you must be really good at what you’re doing, you must be performing well. I think that for many people that is confusing, I guess, in the way we view stress or being in doing mode all the time. 

Yeah, there’s a difference between being busy and being productive. Yeah very much. And I think that’s often confusing. You mentioned passion or finding your passion. Any thoughts on, let’s say if you’ve spoken to someone who didn’t have a passion and was looking for one how they might go about finding that?

Many people find it hard because of being in the doing mode too much and find it hard to connect to their passion, but we all have passions, we all know deep inside what makes the heart sing and enjoy life. I often ask people what they enjoyed when they were a kid and people know immediately when they laughed when they were young because we all did things when we were kids, most of us, you know that we really loved, you know, playing in the forest or with the kids or painting or playing in the mud or, you know, building sandcastles on the beach, you know whatever it is. You know, you’re doing all sorts of mischievous things like I did and often that reconnects people with their passion. I have a client who reconnected with her love of playing the trumpet And it turned out that she had not touched her trumpet for 30 years and that it had been sitting on top of her cupboard for all those years and she got all excited and a bit scared of, you know, taking the instrument into her hands again, but she did it and that became her new passion or renewed passion.

So it’s there and I think we need to be in the being mode to reconnect with passion. We need to go to places where we laugh and sit and listen. It doesn’t happen when we are being moved up in the head, in the more conceptual mode of thinking that we can reconnect to passion. Passion is in the body, is in the heart. What would you say? Your passion is nature? Really spending time in nature. So I often go on my own, I call this solitary walks or days I take myself on a walk and my own good company and I love it. I am the happiest person really. When I go to my favourite places like the South Coast in England, sitting or walking overlooking the sea, that’s when I have my best ideas or feel most present and grounded and all is well, sort of, you know, with that feeling and mindset. And I also love spending time with good friends, sort of ideally in a one to one scenario, you know, and ideally while walking where I feel there’s always a flow of connection and exchange and listening to one another and coming away feeling really nourished by that. 

Well, I can sort of see how you’ve engineered your professional life here. Have you done a good job of mixing the passion with the profession?

That’s right, yeah, I mean, it can’t get any better, I think. And the idea of taking my clients on a walk in nature happened when all of a sudden I thought, gosh, you know, this is what I need to do rather than sitting inside. That’s how I started my coaching practice, inside in a consultation. And rather than doing that, I can do it where I most feel alive and at my best, that’s how it started.

Yeah, I can, sort of, imagine lots of different, should we say niches, coming up as a result of this. So, like, people watch this and you think, you know, maybe I could be a coach and running, I’ll coach people while going around a track or I’ll coach people while skiing or something. Have you ever seen any of those types of examples or not? 

I haven’t, I would say coaching clients like walking or doing any other activity needs to have a fair amount of being mode in it. I think it’s hard to go skiing down the slope or running and having that sort of space for, you know, thinking to process or for taking a new perspective of things. I think it means a certain amount of slowing down to do the inner work to really connect to what’s happening, what the issue is. 

So coaching while doing Formula One, racing is going to be out there?

I think so, yes, sorry. But there are many being more activities which is interesting in itself being moored activities. So this is actually important. Being mode doesn’t mean doing nothing. Being mode means slowing down a bit, creating some space and most importantly not having an agenda. So coaching in a way has no agenda. It’s an exploration. Of course, there’s an agenda around what people bring and what they want to get out of it, which is always held as an overarching frame, but the coaching session itself has no agenda, which makes it so effective. Some coaches don’t actually give advice as a rule, so it’s kind of like the exercise of attempting to get you to come to the answer yourself. 

Do you ever step into the shoes of someone who would give advice or is it all helping the other person get those answers on their own? 

Yeah, it really is what makes a good coach to stay in questioning mode. Question mode, I sometimes ask a client, you know, can I say something or can I make a suggestion? So it’s important to ask permission if someone wants it. Often people do, but it’s not very often needed to make a suggestion. I think it’s often that we think, you know, our advice might be the most helpful thing which very rarely is the case. And it’s often also the most annoying thing we can do to anyone to give advice. And because it’s often not what works for us, it’s very individual and when people find out what works for them it’s much more satisfactory and works as a way forward. 

Have you got any coaching examples that you’re particularly proud of? 

Well one is the client who I’m really happy with. I just remember the client with the trumpet and who started playing her instrument again. That was just wonderful. Really magical. And other examples. Let me have a little think. Usually what is most rewarding is when people really begin to do what they’re most loved doing. Yeah. I have another client who wanted to reconnect with her love for gardening and landscaping. And she hadn’t done it for a while because of having children and feeling under confident of doing it again after having stayed at home. And we explored it and worked out her next steps, what she could do to reconnect with her profession, what she really wanted to do, and she did it. So she is now back in her landscaping gardening profession – doing it part time, not full time anymore – and seeing her soul fulfilled in it and satisfied that she actually had the confidence to do it again, was very rewarding.

I think – correct me if I’m wrong – you’d be an advocate even if someone was to, let’s say not take up coaching at this time, but you’d still sort of encourage them to get out into nature every day. Why is it that you think that it’s a simple thing, you know, going out for a walk? But why do you think we need so much encouragement or reminding to go and do it? 

I think we have lost touch with the benefits of nature. We’ve disconnected, I think, from our place of origin. We come from nature, we are part of nature. I think our urban and busy lifestyles have somehow eliminated us from that sense of being interconnected with all life. And I think that is why we need so much reminding that nature is good for us and we as human beings and with the untrained mind are very easily distracted by social media, by what’s going on, what’s going on elsewhere in the house, with the family, or on the news or, you know, searching the internet for something to keep us busy. So that’s the monkey mind, the mind that constantly, sort of, needs to hook onto something. So that’s really a result of our busy lives and technological lives. And Ian MacKaye Gilchrist and he’s a neuroscientist and philosopher and psychologist. He talks of our three great estrangements and the first one is our disconnection with the natural world. And in the same sort of sense, he talks about all three great longings and the first grade longing is to reconnect with the natural world, to have experiences that connect us with the natural world. And I find that very interesting. And when we look at how we lived just 200 years ago, which was very different and much more in close connection with nature and many more of us lived in close connection to nature and then today you mentioned social media and the phone as well.

Are you purposeful about how much you get access to that kind of stuff? 

Yeah, I am and it’s a constant practice. You know, my mind also likes to look at my emails and particularly LinkedIn and so I’ve reduced my social media channel to one which is LinkedIn. I also don’t have any notifications anymore on my phone because somehow when there’s a little sound – I have no sounds anymore on my phone. So when there’s a sound or a little red, you know, symbol telling me there’s a message, my mind also wants to go there when I’m not aware. So I have to work with it every day and I try to have a, sort of, social media device free time before eight o’clock. So I like to get up early and that between six and eight is my time, my being time, being more time when I do yoga and meditate or just sit with my coffee and not look at anything.

So that starts at eight and my lunch break I try to mostly keep free. Device free sounds relaxing. Years ago I decided to make sure that my phone wasn’t allowed to alert me in any way. So it’s always on vibrate for me. But it does mean I’m not very good at answering my phone but, you know. Well yeah, but how good do we really need to be at answering our phone? I think that’s also an expectation now that we need to be really quick or if we don’t do it within the two hours, something is wrong with us or something has happened to us or we are not good at replying, you know, instantly. So I think we can also relax a little bit around how available we need to be. How important are we? I think we take ourselves a little bit too seriously sometimes and too importantly.

I think you’re a pretty good example of that in the sense that you kind of set the terms of how you want your life to be.

And then people work around it because that’s kind of what your preferences are. But maybe some people just don’t set their preferences and they kind of work to other people’s expectations. 

You think that’s true? 

That’s absolutely true. That’s an issue all the time in my coaching work with clients wanting to fulfill expectations of others and their self view that if we don’t meet other people’s expectations that we let people down or they judge us, but really we judge ourselves when we don’t meet those expectations. And I think that’s really important in the personal work we can do for ourselves to free ourselves from those expectations, which are simply most of the time, not true and don’t happen. Most people are far too busy with themselves and thinking about the expectations they have on us.

You know, we are busier, you know, working with our own expectations in the way. That’s an expectation we put on ourselves when we want to meet other people. People’s expectations – because often we don’t even know what other people’s expectations are unless we ask them. Is this what you expect of me? And people often would probably say, what do you mean? 

Yeah, like you say, they’re too busy thinking about the expectations for them. It’s a good point. Is there anything which you think would be of value to the audience on this particular topic which I haven’t asked you about today that you think would be valuable? You know what we’ve just talked about? 

You know, I think I want to encourage everyone – and this is my ongoing practice, I haven’t mastered it – you know, working out my own preferences and having healthy expectations of myself and also giving ourselves permission to be more. That doesn’t mean to be lazy or self indulgent, but truly to be more and to enjoy life more. 

Was that then being driven by achieving and thinking we need to do all the time? 

I think it makes such a big difference in our life, even if we just bring in a little bit more of that.

Good answer. I’m interested to know what you’re gonna say to this question because I ask it on every episode and that is, what are your goals? So do you have goals in the traditional sense?

I don’t really like goals but I am aware that somehow we need goals and more people to talk about purpose in life because I feel it’s a more holistic approach to having aspirations in life, which I think is really necessary to keep us alive. Having a purpose which for me is making a positive difference or contribution to mental health and wellbeing. 

I’m going to do a bit of verbal gymnastics here. Have you got anything that you’re working towards at the moment which will give you more purpose in your life? 

Yeah, there are several things, that’s probably why I’m hesitating. So my ongoing practice is to spend more time in the contentment zone, coming back to the three emotional systems I talked about. So constantly or keeping a good level of being mode activities through regular meditation, spending time in nature, getting out, getting out of London, going on retreats. So it’s an ongoing practice for me too. Bring it in and to make time for it and to take time off and particularly lockdown. It’s been one of my greatest challenges too, and not overwork because I had so much work and I really needed to be on the ball to allow myself to be my own good and kind boss, if you like. That’s probably – here we go. Here’s my purpose after having ruffled for a moment here. I’ve said this a few times, becoming my own kind boss, which I think we all have to do. You know, whether we are self-employed or not, but people who are self-employed, I think need to become their own good and kind boss. 

Well you certainly don’t want to be an unkind boss to yourself, do you? 

No, absolutely not. But maybe you’ve experienced that before, right? 

Yeah. I have actually gone through being very driven and it doesn’t work long-term.

It doesn’t work. Karen, thank you very much for the calming conversation today. Where’s the best place for people to find you?

Go to my website, Everything is on there. 

Okay. Thank you very much. 

Thank you.