« If you please… draw me a sheep! » This celebrated phrase taken from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book The Little Prince brilliantly illustrates the concepts of depiction, imagination and perpetual differentiation but we will develop other concepts with the tree test and an examination of its application in coaching.
A brief return to the source
The tree test as conceived by the Swiss psychologist Charles Koch in 1952 is a predictive test that can be applied to both children and adults and consists in observing the personality traits expressed by an individual through their drawings. Each element of the tree (leaves; trunk; roots), have a meaning and their graphical representation expresses the subject’s experience with the environment, possible traumas and their level of sensitivity. Koch’s initial instruction was simple: “Draw a tree, any tree you like, but not a pine tree.”, the pine tree being excluded due to the points it leads to as well as the particularly stereotyped visual representation of this tree variety in our culture. Later, the instruction became “Could you draw a fruit tree, to the best of your abilities?”.
The variant developed by Renée Stora requires that 4 trees are drawn. After drawing the first tree – which corresponds to a new constraint in a new setting, whether the setting be academic or professional – the second mandatorily different tree, is drawn and corresponds to a known constraint that demands obedience or adaptation and leads to relaxation, such as the family framework. Then follows the drawing of a tree from a dreamscape, an imaginary tree that represents projects or expectations, and finally, with their eyes closed the individual draws a fourth tree which indicates the weight of experiences lived in infancy and that continue to influence current behaviour.
In all instances, the analysis of the drawings, undertaken by the interviewer with whom they were created, is based on graphological rather than symbolically spatial, statistical data.
Adaptation to Coaching
The drawing of a tree, as far as I can conceive it within the framework of coaching, is very different because the coachee is a client, not a patient. The drawing of a tree is then a tool rather than a test. It is to collect the information that will be used as a base for discussion, but not to diagnose a problem.
Any drawing introduces a new dynamic to the dialogue. It requires a move to action, enabling one to stop philosophising, to avoid endlessly searching for the terms to express confused resentment. It opens the door of the imagination more easily. It says that which words cannot. It leaves the child in pole position. As for the tree, due to its vertical orientation, because of the link it creates between heaven and earth, between the visible and the invisible, it is the universal archetype, the symbol of life, of longevity, of growth. It is also the tallest organic structure. According to Jung, the tree is a means for anyone to express the unspeakable. Furthermore, drawing in general, but especially drawing a tree, is a veritable open-air gold mine that the coach and the coachee can exploit together.
In which situations is drawing a tree appropriate? In reality, they are numerous and varied. An invitation to draw a tree is an opportunity to express one’s relationship with one’s body: balance, strength, possible weaknesses and general state of health (see Fig. 1). .
Fig. 1 – Representation of the state of health
Suggesting that a tree, the most beautiful tree possible, be drawn with coloured pencils is an invitation to express one’s dreams. For the coachee, drawing a professional project in the form of a tree (see Fig. 2 and Fig. 3) is like expressing the ramifications and the organisation of their career with the just importance accorded to each possibility. Drawing one’s company in the form of a tree, and even adding the cabin we’d like to live in or indicating the branch on which we’d like to sit, could bring bad-feelings out of the shadows and help one to understand one’s own ambitions. Taken to the extreme, drawing a forest allows the metaphorical evocation of a social environment, such as with family, friends, colleagues and the place one occupies among them.
Fig. 2, 3 – Representations of a professional project
It can also be used to play with the temporal dimension. Asking the coachee to draw a first tree that shows their present state, then a second where the tree represents the state they would like to achieve in 5 or 10 years, affords an opportunity for the coachee to visualise and materialise their own objectives, at least symbolically. A suggestion at the beginning of the coaching relationship that the coachee produce a self-portrait in the form of a tree and then repeating the same exercise a few months later heightens the perception of change, of growth, of a newly acquired balance or well-being. The drawing of the tree thus becomes an indicator of the impact of coaching, a new energy source.
Without a rigid protocol, in all authenticity and simplicity, the applications of drawing in general and of drawing a tree in particular are infinite, the only limitations being – perhaps – the intuition or imagination of the coach and the spontaneity of the coachee. The opportunities for discussion that this exercise affords to each participant further reinforce one of the ends of coaching, namely: co-construction.