Coaching sometimes seems like Keats’s rainbow—the more we try to define it, dissect it, classify it, and demystify it, the more we diminish it and lose its essence. Often coaching literature represents attempts to confine coaching within the partisan wrappings of a particular school, philosophy, or approach. Often the motivation seems to be less about holistic understanding than about staking out territory, laying claim to the high ground in order to compete with or dislodge competing ideas. Such narrow and sometimes self-serving perspectives seem to us to be completely at odds with the essential ethos of coaching—to be enquiring, open, inclusive, subtle, and multi-perspective. Ingredients in a definition of quality of coaching might be posited to include:
• The delivery of intended and positive unintended outcomes. Simply delivering against the initial, presented goal is not necessarily an indicator of quality, for a number of reasons:
• The goal may be the wrong one for the client or the organization (or both).
• Achieving goal clarity may be the end point, not the beginning of the coaching assignment; many clients need coaching to establish what they want and why, but are self-sufficient in thinking through how they are going to achieve it.
• Even coaching at a relatively low level of competence can achieve change in the client. Simply being there and allowing the client to talk things through can be remarkably effective, where the client needs only to structure his or her own thinking. The primary skills required in such cases are attentive listening and knowing when to shut up!
• Depth of rapport, which may in turn relate to attentiveness, awareness of one’s own values, and authenticity.
• Energy. Observation of coaches in assessment center “real plays” suggests that the most effective coaches create simultaneously an intense stillness and an intense energy field. The space between them and the client almost crackles! By contrast, the least effective coaches seem to suck energy from the room, dissipating energy as they flail about seeking to “plug in” to the client and his or her issues.
• A systemic approach to the coaching dynamic. The coaching context extends beyond the individual client to the human and organizational systems in which he or she operates.
Coach maturity definitions, interpretations and observations vary. One way of considering coach maturity is to benchmark coaches against consistent criteria, which reflects on characteristics and thinking patterns exhibited by coaches of different levels of demonstrated competence. Here, maturity and competence are not the same construct, although they are closely related.
From observations and reflections, four coaching mind-sets have emerged, representing progress for many, if not all coaches. The four levels are models based, process based, philosophy or discipline based, and systemic eclectic.
Models-based coaches are often very new to the field and seek the reassurance of a closely defined approach that they can take into any situation they might meet. Most often, the model they choose is GROW, or one of its derivatives. This type of coaching is characterized by mechanistic conversations in which following the model is more important than exploring the client’s world. It is about doing rather than being; it tends to be about coaching to the client rather than coaching with the client and about the coaching intervention rather than the coaching relationship. The driving need to find a solution often rests with the coach rather than the client. The dangerous myth that a good coach can coach anyone in any situation appears to stem from this very narrow perception of coaching.
Process-based approaches allow for more flexibility. They can be considered as a structured linking of related techniques and models. The coach has a number of specific tools to use in helping the client’s thinking, but the toolkit is still relatively limited.
Philosophy or discipline-based
Philosophy or discipline-based mind-sets tend to offer a still wider portfolio of responses to client needs, because they operate within a broad set of assumptions about helping and human development. They can still be applied mechanistically, however. What prevents them being so is the coach’s ability to reflect on his or her practice, both while coaching and after each coaching session. This level of reflexivity is inherent in, say, Gestalt, where self-awareness in the coach is core to helping clients understand themselves and their situation.
The most liberating mind-set is the systemic eclectic. Coaches with this mind-set have a very wide array of ways of working and a toolkit amassed from many sources, both within coaching and from very different worlds. They have integrated this into a self-aware, personalized way of being with the client. They exhibit an intelligent, sensitive ability to select a broad approach, and within that approach, appropriate tools and techniques that meet the particular needs of a particular client at a particular time. This relates to what Webb (2008) calls coaching for wisdom.
Observation of and discussion with a sample of systemic eclectic coaches suggests that:
• They have immense calm, because they have confidence in their ability to find the right tool if they need it.
• They hardly ever use tools. When they do, the tools are subtly and almost seamlessly integrated into the conversation. Indeed, these coaches allow the conversation to happen, holding the client in the development of insight and steering with only the lightest, almost imperceptible touches.
• They place great importance on understanding a technique, model, or process in terms of its origins within a philosophy.
• They use experimentation and reflexive learning to identify where and how a new technique, model, or process fits into their philosophy and framework of helping.
• They judge new techniques, models, and processes on the criterion of Will this enrich and improve the effectiveness of my potential responses to client needs?
• They use peers and supervisors to challenge their coaching philosophy and as partners in experimenting with new approaches.
• They take a systemic and holistic view of the client, the client’s environment, and the coaching relationship; this makes them more sensitive to nuances of the situation and hence to what approaches they can employ.
© David Clutterbuck, 2014