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How My First Book “Emerged” through Gestalt Coaching. The World Looked Away – Vietnam After the War: Quoc Pham’s Story

by Dave Bushy

I met Quoc Pham at lunch one day in 2014. My brother knew Quoc’s son Hung and had asked me to consider writing Quoc’s story about imprisonment in post-war Vietnam and his eventual harrowing escape by boat into the South China Sea.

The idea of writing a book, or even a short story about someone’s life, was not my focus that day. After retiring from corporate life in 2013, I had been building a coaching practice and even temporarily shelved writing a story about my grandfather’s war exploits. But my twin brother, who served as the captain of Hung’s ship at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, gently prodded me to “just meet” Quoc Pham, who was visiting from California.

Curiosity comes naturally to me. So does conversation. I’m an extrovert who loves to engage individuals and learn more about them. The intensive coaching training I received at the Gestalt International Study Center (GISC) gave me tools that focused and harnessed my abilities in ways I could have never imagined. Perhaps the most important is this: Really, really listening to someone and working with them towards a shared perspective and feeling. We call it “co-creation” in coaching. Wrapped into that listening is attentiveness and recognition: discerning the softness in someone’s voice when they speak about a loved one; or the change in their breathing when they relive a painful experience. Even the cadence and tenor of a voice can arouse curiosity in me easily now, thanks to GISC. Pursuing that curiosity through appreciative inquiry and provocative questioning can allow ideas, thoughts or “figures” to emerge that the client might have not been noticed before. As my favorite instructor Mary Anne Walk says, “The only question you’ll regret is the one you don’t ask.”

As I asked questions and listened to Quoc that day, I carefully watched his face. He had been through more than anyone I know; yet there was a serenity about him that was calming. He had experienced brutal conditions in the Reeducation Camps of Vietnam, been punished for being in the South Vietnamese military and saw his family lose everything. He had been beaten, nearly starved, and seen people die, yet here he sat, placid and kind. And yet… I shifted my eyes from his whole face and looked deeply into his eyes and saw something that I had not seen since I left the Army. I saw a glimmer of regret and grieving. It was merely a glimpse, but it was enough. That one glance reminded me of what I had seen in the U.S. Vietnam Veterans with whom I served in the Army, who had been through the horrors of war so far away, and then watched as the “enemy” defeated their own country.

Our lunch that day was more to just get acquainted, but I filed that feeling I had experienced in a safe place in my heart and mind, and nodded my head affirmatively when Quoc said, “Will you be willing to write my story?” I then said, “Let’s try a couple of chapters and see.”

We agreed to meet every two weeks via Face Time, as Quoc lived on the opposite coast. We began right away, adhering rigorously to a schedule of one hour every two weeks, which would continue for three years. Our routine evolved into an hour of interviews and coaching, followed by about six hours of drafting by me, followed by comments and editing from Quoc. Like any solid coaching engagement, one session built on another; trust grew between us and figures emerged routinely. At one point, I saw Quoc’s son, who had seen some early chapter drafts. “My father is telling you things my siblings and I have never heard – how is it that you and he communicate so well?” I just smiled and thought about coaching and knew that something was in synch for Quoc and me as we co-created in our sessions in order to tell the story of his life.

How does a fledgling author interview someone about their life’s journey, let alone the most intimate and brutal experiences a human being can endure? As I carefully took notes and recorded the interviews, something emerged for me. I was not just being a reporter, asking things like, “What happened then; and who was involved; and where did you go next?” I was actually being a coach, encouraging someone to explore areas of their memories that they might have forgotten, or perhaps didn’t want to enter. I was looking for how someone felt and how he had made meaning of his experiences. I was noticing something about a man, and I was pursuing it with gentle inquiry, continual prodding and genuine attentiveness. By intention, I was seeking to know everything about his journey through the years in the camps and his escape by sea. “What happened next?” was followed with “How did that make you feel,” and “Tell me more about what you experienced at that moment.”

Often, I gave Quoc time – sometimes long minutes – to collect himself. Part of coaching is giving someone time and space to think. Such silence is uncomfortable for humans – we just don’t cope well with long gaps in conversation. But those gaps can allow the person with whom you are working have thoughts emerge that might never have surfaced.

Quoc’s and my journey together in our calls and my follow-up draft-sharing were the vehicles we used to create The World Looked Away – Vietnam After the War: Quoc Pham’s Story. In it, you will see and feel his deepest thoughts about not just his camp experiences, but his feelings about the woman he loved and the family that nurtured him.

Being a coach has expanded my range of possibilities and helped me understand those of others. I use the tools of Gestalt Coaching every day in every conversation, be it coaching or dialogue with friends and family. I know I could not have joined another on his journey and completed a 400-page book without the benefit of my coach training at GISC.

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