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The Beholder's Share

Here is a story of how the phrase ‘the beholder’s share’ connects across three apparently different subjects of creativity, neuroscience, and how I go about working in coaching partnerships with my clients. Read on and see where your own ‘beholder’s share’ might allow you to interpret my narrative, providing meaning and relevance which could be specific to you.

Like many of us, every now and then I pick up some well-thumbed book and read a chapter or two of them over again. One non-fiction book that I like to do that with is Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett. Even though it is only a couple of years old I have read it in parts probably three times. I like it because it is short (!), but mostly because it is science writing for public consumption done very well indeed. According to Prof F-B’s own definition this is writing that is high on evidence while not trying to cover the science in rigorous detail. The short book is complemented by a website with more information and, hoorah, the original scientific references to the work being described.

House on the Hill by Karen Welsh

Anyway, on the first reading of this book I was taken with how consumers of abstract art contribute to the interpretation of the art that they look at. Apparently, Marcel Duchamp suggested that the artists does 50% of the work in creating art and the remaining 50% of the creative process is carried out in the viewer’s brain on the back of their sensory experience of the art. The relevance of this observation in the book is part of the discussion about how the brain is the sensory organ which takes input from our eyes and combines it with memories to creating what we experience as meaning. The truth of this will have been experienced by all of us in any subjective interpretation of a sensory input; think wine tasting, enjoyment of music as well as appreciation of art (or not!). What intrigued me was the phrase that was coined to characterise this…..the contribution to art by the viewer is called ‘the beholder’s share’.

This language triggered some thinking for me which reflected on how true this is of any creative or innovative process, whether in science or art. I remember talking about it with friend and artist Karen Welsh who was also interested in the phrase as it gave her an insight into thinking about how she was talking about her art to other people, and the importance of allowing that they contribute their beholder’s share in the conversation.

My interest in ‘the beholder’s share’ connects with my coaching work too. In fact I discussed it with Marcos Frangos in one of our WARES videos which you can have a look at here. What interested me, and which Marco and I mused on in brief, is based on thinking of a piece of art as being a metaphor for a client’s out loud expression of their thinking and feeling. The art being shared is a thing of beauty, and the exploration of it using only the client’s thinking and feeling can be a rich experience, and in a coaching situation lead to outcomes that are valued by the client. In some respects the ability for the coach to concentrate on their client’s way of being entirely, without reference to their own, is a definer of ‘good coaching’.

What of the beholder’s share in this situation? Meaning what of the coach’s thoughts and feelings in response to what their client is sharing? In this metaphor they represent 50% of the creative element associated with interpretation and understanding of the work of art that is your client. To deny them a part in the coaching conversation would be to deny access to meaning, wouldn’t it?

Casting my mind back to very early days of my coaching I realise that I did interpret the coaching process as being one in which focussing on the client’s agenda meant, as best I could, using only their thoughts and feelings. I remember the tension I felt whilst doing this, representing the energy I was using to hold my thoughts and feelings in check. Very quickly I realised that this was not acting in the service of my clients at all. In fact, I was denying them something of value.

For a long time now I have brought my share as the beholder into the coaching conversation and together with the client co-create meaning from the artistry of their thinking and feeling. A key element of doing this is to ensure I have the permission from my client to share in this way. If permission is given, sharing my 50% of the creative process is done with acceptance that it is one of an infinite number of interpretations, and it is not better or worse than any of them…..just different. Often, it is in the difference of interpretation where a client and their coach will find the key to unlocking a client’s dilemma!

I should say that the value in a coach sharing their views in a coaching partnership is codified in coaching competencies described by, for example, the ICF who say that a coach may evoke awareness by sharing ‘observations, insights and feelings, without attachment, that have the potential to create new learning for the client’. While that statement is clear enough I needed another way of understanding what that meant. For me that understanding has come from thinking of coaching as being an appreciation of the artistry of a client’s thinking and feeling, and recognising the importance of the ‘beholder’s share’ in creating meaning within the coaching partnership.

Thanks to Lisa Feldman Barrett for bringing the notion of the beholder’s share into my mind, to Karen for conversations about how it relates to artistic interpretation, and to Marco for thinking about how it applies to coaching and counselling.

If interpretation of the artistry of your thinking and feeling is of interest to you, and you are open to making meaning influenced by ‘my beholder’s share’, please do get in touch (

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