Two experienced coaches, Yvonne and Maria discuss Myths and Truths about coaching.
“A little knowledge/learning is a dangerous thing”
Curiosity and continuous life-long learning is pertinent in coaching. It’s useful when we begin our journey into coaching to be given clear missive and guidelines to help us focus and differentiate what coaching is and isn’t. Like the training wheels we might have added when we first started to learn to ride a bike. Then, after the training wheels have been taken off, we develop our own style of riding, we add features to our bike to make it go faster, or to be able to hold more things, and then we may finally become curious about all the different components that make up the bike and how its processed and put together.
For Maria and Yvonne, after working for a combined years of 20+ years and collectively with over 350 clients around the world, it’s been a while since we’ve taken those training wheel off and in each of our ways moved to that curiosity stage of all the different components that makes coaching coaching. We wanted to share from our experiences some of the myths we hold that when we begin to explore in more detail, that there is more to consider than what meets the eye.
MARIA BIQUET: COACHING IS TRANSFORMATIVE
In theory yes. In real life …?
Coaching can support a person in their development, in achieving their goals, in clarifying their thinking. All of those are steps in the process of development of a person which happens anyway with experience and age. What Coaching does is to accelerate this process and to enhance it by shedding light to areas that the person may not be aware of or may not want to realise.
If the person is open to listen and ready to act, then their evolution will be faster; at the same time, the circumstances may accelerate an evolution in one or to another direction; this pushes the person to develop a new way of thinking, behaving and acting. And that takes time and practice to happen and become the new habit of the person.
Being ready for their next step is crucial to the process because the new behaviour comes naturally as an evolution, not as an imposed rule that may or may not get incorporated and absorbed. If the new action doesn’t get naturally incorporated it will soon get rejected and the change will not last. The level of readiness is one – not the only – of the factors that determine how easy the process will be.
When it comes naturally as the next step in a process that has already started inside, coaching can provide a safe framework and direction, and the person will dance through it. It is necessarily easy but it is smooth.
An Aha moment, therefore, doesn’t mean that the person is transformed. It means that they have a new insight which may or may not lead to a new behaviour. An Aha moment is an acknowledgement of receiving new information and maybe a new way to see the same thing or a new way of understanding an event or a person or ourselves. Even if it causes a new behaviour, it doesn’t mean that the person is transformed to a new human being; it means that they follow their natural proclivity to evolve.
Coaching can nurture, enrich and significantly enhance and accelerate the process of evolution which is natural and embedded in every human being; it cannot be the cause of it.
YVONNE THACKRAY: COACHING IS ALL ABOUT POWERFUL LISTENING
The expectation of coaches to simply ask powerful questions is ultimately the aim for coaching rather than the start. Been given the permission to ask powerful questions rather than been assumed to have the right to ask questions is a crucial differentiator between those who understand what ‘powerful’ means and when it should be used.
There are broadly two situations where I can see how ‘powerful’ questions can be utilised well.
- In the first situation, the coach is considered wise, a role model, someone that the client respects. Their engagement has implicitly permitted them to ask questions perceived as ‘powerful’ to the client.
- The second situation is after some time of listening deeply and openly to what the client is saying, at the right moment, the coach will ask what might be an insightful and curious question that enables the client to know that they have been heard fully and feels that there is sufficient respect to be thrown a ‘curve ball’ of a question that they agree to consider it. This is another way of receiving a ‘powerful’ question.
Considering these two different situations, of which there can be more, we can also observe other power relationships being forged and created. They may be permanent; they may be temporary. The appropriate relationship long-term should be beneficial to the client and the true intent of the coach. In the first situation, the relationship is more of a top-down relationship. For the latter case, the relationship is more client-driven with a mutual working, i.e. coach-client relationship created and forged between the client and coach. If the benefits aren’t mutual and one-sided, this can potentially lead to ethical issues and conflict of interests.
MARIA BIQUET: COACHING IS A WELL-DEFINED PROFESSION
It is often perceived as therapy, counselling, consulting, training, mentoring and God knows what else! It can be close to all of those and complimentary to them but it is different because:
a/ it doesn’t aim at healing trauma and
b/ doesn’t give advice, direction or training.
All of that is in theory though.
All experienced coaches know very well where coaching starts and where it stops and how to incorporate other approaches to get quicker results. If we want to practice coaching, we must remain within a framework of asking thought provoking totally unbiased questions providing context for change and not content. It is about applying a set of models and tools in a process of opening up a new window of fresh understanding and new opportunity for learning for the client.
What about changing behaviour? What about achieving professional goals? Or personal goals? What about getting over internal obstacles and resistance?
Ok. Coaching is not therapy or counselling or consulting or training but it oscillates very closely to those; we sometimes deliberately give advice – direction – information on a topic that we specialise in to speed up the process.
Changing behaviour and rethinking one’s values and life direction is clearly the scope of coaching and not therapy’s but how clear is that in a client’s and in a therapist’s mind?
YVONNE THACKRAY: DELVING FURTHER INTO THEN, WHAT IS COACHING?
Without a common definition for coaching, it’s challenging to understand how specialist careers emerge from coaching comprehensively. Currently, many of the definitions used in the coaching field are a combination of persuasive, stipulative, and reportive definitions.
‘The Sage Handbook of Coaching’ – the proposed ‘go-to academic resource’ – the editors shared some of their opinions in their Introduction of where they see the field heading,
“… it should be noted that this book is nor primarily focused on advancing the professionalisation of coaching. Rather its primary aim is to stimulate the development of the knowledge base for coaching, thereby making a contribution to further establishing coaching as an applied discipline. As such, this Handbook requires no unified definition of coaching, irrespective of how desirable that might be in principle [it provides readers (usually practitioners) with an early indication of the author’s view on the fundamental question: What is coaching?]” (pg 5; emphasis added)
However, if as they’ve stated, “Until a reasonable way of conceptualising coaching is proposed, the onus will continue to fall to researchers to provide clear descriptions of the coaching intervention they study, in order for their findings to be comparable to others.”(pg 7) then practitioners also have a responsibility to contribute to the discussion to support them in the pure endeavours we associate with academic research.
One way I’d like to begin addressing this is to explore ‘what is coaching’, drawing from existing published material and our work as the good coach.
A helpful starting point is to investigate the definition as used by the ICF. “[the] ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership.”
As I read their definition, it is an example of a ‘stipulative and persuasive’ definition that attempts to define a new meaning to a term (differentiating between sports coaching and coaching) and attaches a positive mean to the term ‘coaching’. However, when we look a little more deeply, the meaning of ‘coaching’ is being both obscured and contained circularity.
- Circularity: The challenge here is that it is no way of explaining what coaching is without using the concept of ‘partnering with a client in a thought-provoking and creative process’, which is still broad in meaning because it can be used to include other professions, e.g. mentoring, consulting, training, accountants, lawyers, etc.
- Obscurity here refers to unclear meaning: ambiguous, vague or incomplete.
Applying these two terms to evaluate ICF’s coaching definition the following emerges which raises further questions:
- Lexical ambiguity: This is a single word or term having more than one meaning in the language. For example, ‘partnering’ is being used as a verb(To associate or work as partners; to become partners, enter into a partnership or a relationship) or a noun (the action or work of a partner)
- Referential ambiguity – It is not clear which thing or group is being referred to. This often arises when the context does not clarify what a pronoun or quantifier is referring to. For example, ‘that inspires them to maximise’ – are they referring to the clients, the person coaching, or even both the client and the coach.
- Syntactic ambiguity means having more than one meaning because there is more than one way to interpret the grammatical structure. For example, “coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential” is this referring to what it is the coach is doing or what the client is expected to receive as a result of coaching.
- Vague – A term is vague if it has a fuzzy boundary. For example, ‘maximise their personal and professional potential’…there are no clear boundaries of applications for ‘maximise’ concerning ‘personal and professional potential,’ i.e. how do you know if a person is reaching their maximum value in both their personal AND professional potential? What if they make a small change and has a significant return? Then does it mean the client has maximised their potential in both their personal and professional life? Furthermore, what is the meaning of personal and professional?
- Incomplete meaning – A term has an incomplete meaning if the property or relation it expresses depends on some additional parameter to be specified by the context, either explicitly or implicitly. I.e. “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential” – how does partnering and inspiring are further parameters needed to explain what is coaching.
Critically evaluating one such definition helps us realise that coaching still has a long way to go. The field still has much potential to develop and better represent coaches, who choose to have it as their career, to the broader community and society. And I concur with what the leading academics have said.
“… the demand for coaching services may continue to be strong for a very long time to come, albeit perhaps with more individualistic, industrialised societies where traditional social structures are less evident. Whatever the case, the ability of practitioners to deliver valued services will rest upon the existence of a rich and texted knowledge base that can provide good and relevant guidance for practitioners.” (pg 4)
To better support researchers in their endeavours, as coaching practitioners, i.e. those who do the coaching, I think a handy starting point is to encourage coaches to share and write about how they do coaching with their client, a best practice for CPD or CPPD. This is the space that the good coach has been filling. The next step is through these conversations, dialogues, and engagement. Finally, an acceptable standard can be reached by consensus for coaching practitioners – those who are doing coaching and those who are doing coaching research – that best represents the current ways of delivering coaching before repeating the next cycle. Building upon the strengths of all the stakeholders who work in coaching will enable a more coherent and rigorous set of standards or best practices that properly and more fully represents the coaching membership even with the various nuances or underpinning philosophies.
However, to achieve this suggested proposal and ensure it passes its first steps and reaches a level of sustainability, independent voices from various communities of practices would be requested to participate. The second criteria would be to be already earning a comfortable income so that they can maintain their independence. This may be considered a democratic approach to developing our field, which may appeal to a few more than the many. However, this is one of the possible ways to continue building our field.
And for anyone interested in evaluating our work on the good coach, we include the working definition we’ve been using to guide us in our work.
the good coach working definition for coaching is as follows,
“the quality of attention [used by coaches to] enable [their] clients to reach their potential(s) (growth and development) and build virtue.”
Here clients can refer directly to the clients and/or themselves.
And our current working description of coaching is:
Coaching is used to describe engagements based on a pressing need that uses continuous adaptive learning for an individual to take their first steps to continue growing and developing from their experiences to more confidently and competently engage with their reality.
- Continued Adaptive Learning – a personalised learning space created to match the client’s style, pace, and readiness level for an effective and efficient capacity-building engagement that enables the client to more confidently and competently engage with their reality.
- Engagements – the matching made between the coach and client to fulfil a need impacting the client’s pathway over a set period. Each meeting allows for various conversations to emerge. The end of each session leads to a cycle of actions and reflections that progressively build on their confidence, capacity, and competence to better engage with their reality.
- Growth and Development – actively build in learning time to reflect upon, measure progress, and expand their overall capacity from their busy schedule of personal and professional experiences to more confidently and competently engage with their reality.
Again, this is for both clients and coaches, directly and indirectly, respectively, and this is another reason coaches mutually benefit from every engagement. And if you have any comments of how we can continue to build upon it, we are willing to listen and engage in further dialogue if you’re interested in investing your energy in this space.
MARIA BIQUET: COACHING CAN FIX NON PERFORMING EMPLOYEES OR EXECUTIVES
That would be marvellous! But it is not the truth.
Coaching can support people who have made the decision to work on improving their skills, performance and behaviour. And in those cases, it can have excellent results and lead clients to amazing achievements.
Non-performing employees or executives may be a symptom of a limiting culture, of an inefficient recruitment process or other systemic issues, of market circumstances or of an incapable manager. It may also be the personal decision of an employee of executive that they need a new role, a new context or a new profession which results in them shifting focus and lowering their performance.
1 to 1 coaching cannot fix systemic dysfunctions or external circumstances. It is very useful to a person in order to reconsider their behaviours, ideas and attitude with clarity and make decisions about their next steps towards their progress in the company or out of it.
If coaching could fix all performance issues, we would have solved the most important and burning professional issue of all times in business and we would be the best paid professionals in all business areas. But this is obviously unrealistic because performance problems can often be the symptoms of complex situations and causes in the organisation. If coaching is adopted at a large scale in the organisation and if the there are no other underlying systemic reasons for underperformance, then the problem could possibly be solved.
Coaching is perfect for: behavioural change, clarity, decision making, performance improvement, team work building, abilities and skills development, goal setting, personal & leadership development with one condition: that the person really wants to take action and responsibility for the outcome.
If the job requires knowledge, specific expertise, practical experience then the person needs training and education on their subject. We cannot pass knowledge with coaching; we can support the person to understand their need for that.
We can support people understand what they need, what they want and what they need to do to achieve their goal; but the goal has to be truly theirs, not their company’s.
YVONNE THACKRAY: WHAT ARE CLIENTS BUYING WHEN THEY REQUEST FOR COACHING, THEN?
Clients don’t buy you for your coaching credentials and training only. Clients buy your services because of everything you can bring and utilise in the engagements to enable them to reach their potential more efficiently and effectively. So the presumption that clients do not know what they want from coaching or simply don’t know is a myth. Furthermore, ethically we’re breaking one of the core codes in coaching of starting where the clients are starting from. Assuming they don’t know what they don’t know is a false starting, because whilst they may not know what a coach can or can’t do, they are definitely more aware of what they are looking for in a person to help them, especially if they have had various help before in multiple aspects of their work and life.
Ignoring all the experiences and knowledge of coaching and replacing that with the current coaching doctrines provides a disservice to the clients we are supposed to serve. What is important and the care of attention we need to have as coaches, especially those who consider them as professionals, need to understand how our experiences can unnecessarily influence our intentions and expectations from sharing relevant cases with our clients. As coaches, we have different ways to introduce additional information that can enable our clients to be offered different experiences and solutions to consider as they create their solutions.
I often see coaches become embroiled in a vicious circle around giving advice and feeling the need to clarify when they are wearing different hats. Both are considered clear ‘no-nos’, and these are useful ‘black and white’ rules to follow when you begin your journey into coaching, especially if you haven’t fully considered how you are applying and using them. Without a doubt, this is a straightforward rule to follow, and it sounds that it can be applied usefully in all and every situation. More importantly, being explicit with our clients about why we do what we do gives us coaches clear conscious and clear boundaries that we’re working in; however, if you need to do this repeatedly in various sessions, who is this serving.
Are you sharing this information for the benefit of your client or yourself? If it’s in your benefit and you think this is in the benefit of the client, and the responses from your client are contrary to that, then it’s clear that this isn’t correctly serving your client’s interests. In most cases, our clients aren’t looking for us as coaches to label what we’re doing until they’re curious to ask or want to know a little more of what we do or interested in applying some of the skills we use in a similar situation. However, if you notice that inappropriate and even manipulative behaviours occur in your sessions, then reclarifying the boundaries is a clear situation where a coach needs to apply this.
Finally, we came back full circle; our clients have chosen us to work with them because we are bringing something they don’t easily access in their current situation and environment. Knowing what we’re bringing needs us to closely examine what our clients frequently request from us, leading to a mutually beneficial relationship that fulfils the contract. It may be all of what we bring, it might be a facet, or it could simply be our skills as a coach. It’s our responsibility as coaches to fill in those gaps for our clarity, confidence, and ability to weather the various opportunities and climate for the work we offer. This is significantly more valid for coaches with a vision or aspiration that requires that to work at the leading edge of the field and industry. Saying that, once coaches begin their journey into coaching and decide to take it the long haul, we’ll find our path and progress forward at our pace that gives us the most incredible meaning and satisfaction from the work we do. All I’m offering right now, and to be tested over time, is whether the major signposts are useful guides as you come to your crossroads or glass ceiling as a coach.
MARIA BIQUET: TOP COACHES MOTIVATE AND INSPIRE PEOPLE
The scope of coaching is to create opportunity for development in a safe space.
We ask unbiased questions that will push the client to think beyond their usual ideas, challenge their beliefs and reconsider attitudes and thus, create opportunity for growth.
We do that in a supportive and safe way so that they can feel safe and take responsibility for their life, their progress and their achievements.
During the programme we check their engagement in the coaching process because the outcome is their responsibility and unless they act, there will not be any change.
The stage belongs to the client. It is their time to open up, to share ideas, emotions, thoughts and look themselves in the mirror. We act like holding a mirror for them to look at from different angles. The role of the coach is not to shine or stand out.
We are there to support the process by setting the context and making sure that it is safe for the client; in my approach, our role in the coaching relationship is not to be the role model that inspires or motivates the client.
Can a mirror motivate or inspire?
The insights the clients get from the process may be motivating for them to persevere and their goals may inspire them to put in the effort required. We just stand there setting the context for learning and creating a safe space for them to shine.
YVONNE THACKRAY: HOW THEN DO COACHES MOTIVATE AND KEEP THEMSELVES IN OPTIMAL CONDITION
Supervisory coaching is an intermediary space between coaching and coaching supervision. It’s helpful to clarify how supervisory coaching builds upon my working definition of coaching. As a coach, I define coaching as the quality of attention I use to enable my clients to optimally learn and develop (potentials) humbly. Supervisory coaching builds upon my definition of coaching. This is now a focused space for coaches to ground their coaching knowledge and practice to understand better how they enable their client’s potential through their patterns of attention quality. The session draws upon my breadth of knowledge, depth of experience, and understanding of the diversity of coaching practices that exist to enable them to clarify how their interests intersect and integrates with coaching. Hence the strength of the supervisory coach is in how they have mapped out the field of coaching to enable the client, aka coachee, to find their pathway in the best way that works for them. Because, at the end of the day, there are many ways to become a coach.
In supervisory coaching, the focus is more on recognising your pattern of strengths as a coach and recognising which aspects of yourself you bring into coaching that makes the difference in the quality of the coaching engagement. Otherwise, all coaches will be seen as the same, possibly no different from an AI coach. This often means having to go beyond your vision and aspiration of ‘wanting to help’ people because, at the end of the day, there are many ways in which a professional can help a person. The question for coaches is, why do you want to help people through coaching. Digging deeper into this question, for sure, can open other areas of your life that may require further exploration and further deepen your understanding of why you want to help people. This can be a lengthy journey as it’s both an exploration of what you want to achieve driven by your internal experiences or simply what you see as possible in the external world. To know what it is you mean by wanting to help thus requires routinely reflecting, thinking, experiencing, resourcing and then amending, reflecting, thinking, experiencing, resourcing – a processual habit that enables us to retain and sustain our interest and dedication to persevere in this field. At the end of the day, our capabilities are inhibited at the stage and level of interest we pursue as individuals and coaches.
Approaching supervisory coaching from this stance puts the client as the driving force of their tailored framework of developing their personalised coaching curriculum supported by the framework of the supervisory coach’s map of coaching and specialism. Similar to coaching, its better that the coach themselves have a board of supervisors from whom they can leverage because they each will have different specialisms (like any other professions) that they can develop their potentials through, e.g. a coaching supervisor will focus on your psychological needs as a coach from a therapeutic, gestalt, trauma or teams lens. Furthermore, supervisors’ specialisms can overlap because of their integrative experiences and growing knowledge. Therefore, our coach must recognise what is most beneficial to succeed and retain their fitness to practice.
Hence, recognising and acknowledging your unique coaching practice will better enable you to understand what pieces of the puzzle will help you fill in your coaching mystery of why you choose to work as a coach. It’s finding suitable supervisors who will best challenge and expand your current thoughts, like a diamond with multiple cleaves, to keep you in optimal condition to deliver coaching. From a distance, it looks smooth, but with every magnification, you can see the cleaves in greater observable numbers, shapes, quality, refraction, hardness etc. All coaches are diamonds in the rough. Only through careful inspection and reflection, you’ll be able to answer why you’re worth the value of a diamond than a lab-grown synthetic diamond, and in turn, be respected and desired for the work you provide as a coach.
Our questions to you?
- What other myths should we consider that needs demystifying?
- What biases do you notice that needs further exploration?
Yvonne Thackray is an experienced professional Coach, Writer, Founder of The Good Coach and a valuable friend for me since 2018 when I first started writing. You may find more about her amazing work with coaches from around the world here: https://the-goodcoach.com/
A very long article that basically promotes the need of coaching supervision, some passages written in a non necessary difficult verbal expressions and long sentences.
Thanks for your comments! myself and Yvonne are describing our experience and knowledge that may be useful to other colleagues.
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