The Purpose of Coaching

In undertaking a programme on coaching recently for a client, I was caught reflecting on what the real purpose of coaching is.  I am aware that coaching has become very popular and I suspect this is part of a shift generally towards self-development.  We are starting to redefine the concept of work in terms of work on ourselves or to raise our consciousness.  It is not that self-development is a new concept, it is deeply embedded in most religious and spiritual thought.  However as part of secular thought, it has replaced the notion of character formation as Stephen Covey describes in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  It seems to be part of a move away from a collective religious approach to a more individualistic one and reflects the more humanistic approach to development.  In quite a rapid space of time, coaching has become integrated into almost all facets of life; you can be coached on almost any activity these days.

What struck me though, is that there are myriad views on what coaching actually entails and I was struck, as I am whenever training on this, how much people struggle to coach others effectively.  This prompted me to wonder what the blockage or misunderstanding is.  What occurred to me (in the middle of the night as my unconscious mind had obviously been processing this) was that the issue is to do with the purpose of coaching.  The strongly held belief seems to be that coaching is about finding solutions to problems and taking action.  The unfailing reflex among people coaching is to provide solutions for people.  Most people (and coaches) conclude that the key to coaching is to avoid the instinct to look for solutions or to impose them and this is partly right.  Yet, I realised that this misses the point, in the same way that teaching people to ask open rather than closed questions misses the point.  To consider questions for a moment, teaching people to ask open rather than closed questions is not the issue.  It is actually to do with what prompts open and closed questions, what sits behind them.  What I have observed is that when people are sure they have the answer for an individual they are coaching they asked closed questions – because they are not interested in the answer, they are interested in confirming their solution.  Thus, making people aware of what causes them to ask open or closed questions allows them to be more skilful in their use of questions.  This is not to say that closed questions are wrong or that questioning is the end of coaching in itself.  No, the issue behind both is to do with the purpose of coaching.  As far as I understand it, the purpose of coaching is to facilitate learning, not action.  Most solution providing is not helpful because it focuses on action rather than learning, ie. here’s what you should do.  The proposed solution can happen by chance to provide learning, but that is not its intention – it’s intention is about what to do not learning.

So if the purpose of coaching is learning, what is learning?  For me, learning is connected to seeing a situation differently.  We describe this as insight.  Without new awareness or insight (literally inward sight), there is no learning.  So the purpose of coaching is to generate insight.  If there is no new insight, then any action taken will not change the individual’s position.  If there is new insight, then the actions taken by necessity will not be the same.  People seek coaching where they have a challenge.  If they have the insight to deal with the challenge they do not need coaching.  If they do not have the insight then the purpose of coaching is to facilitate it.

Much of the difficulty in coaching is that it focuses on the outputs (action) without an awareness of the inputs (insight).  What often happens in practice is that the coach accepts the situation as related by the individual (their picture of their situation and others in it) and seeks actions or solutions based on this picture (in Karpman Drama Triangle parlance, they accept the coachee’s position as victim of their situation and others).  For the coach, they often find themselves identifying with the issues that the individual faces and taking on the emotions so they propose actions to relieve these emotions – “go and tell them”, “talk to HR”, “sack them” etc. etc.  The object is seen as taking action to deal with the issue.  Once the individual has agreed to an action, the coach feels they have done their job.  Even the individual may feel satisfied but the result is likely to be that nothing changes despite these actions they are now going to take because there is no change in how the individual sees the situation.

So how do you help individuals generate insight or learn?  As I have coached people and taught coaching, I have reflected on this and realised that the role of the coach is to focus on the person being coached, not on all the individuals they present as the issues to be solved (since they are not present and cannot learn or change).  Instead the focus of the coach is on how the individual is seeing the situation and critically what they might be learning in the situation.  Coaching is then the art of helping them play with their awareness to shift it and generate new insight.  In order to do this, I notice the key components are to do with changing the nature of the individual’s picture or perception of the situation.  I have come across five broad ways of changing the way that people perceive their situation – deepening, broadening, increasing detail, changing the viewpoint and disentangling.

Deepening is to do with looking at why the individual finds themself in the position they are in; what is purpose behind the situation and what are they learning from the situation?  If someone is frustrating or annoying them, what might that person be a provocative agent for the individual learning? what is it triggering in the individual?  Deepening is about seeing the situation as having meaning and learning and it invites the individual to explore the situation from this perspective without seeking to change the situation or the people within it.

Broadening seeks to change the parameters of the picture.  For instance, time is one valuable parameter to shift.  Have you been in this type of situation before or faced an individual like this before? If you look around you at others who have faced this situation or dealt with this person, how long has it taken to change the situation or build a relationship?

Increasing detail challenges the generalisations that we often make in our pictures, eg. When you say that they always react this way, has there ever been a time when they didn’t?  What do you mean when you say they are hopeless?  In what way? What are you expecting exactly from them?

Changing the viewpoint, shifts the standpoint through which the individual sees the situation – “how would they describe the situation/you?”. There might also be creative ways to do this: “what does the wisest part of you say?”.  It may also entail taking time to explore another person’s point of view and emotional reality.

Disentangling, seeks to separate out the threads in a situation so that they do not obscure each other, e.g. What do you control here and what don’t you control? Who is really generating the issue here?

When we are about to be attacked by a life-threatening creature (like a lion) our defensive mechanisms are set up to protect us.  To do this, they narrow our focus so that it is not distracted by irrelevant awareness, they also shorten our focus so that we are not distracted by long term considerations that are hypothetical should we not survive this situation.  They also reduce our options to as few as possible so that we do not have to waste precious time sifting possible courses of action.

When an individual does not feel able to act or is wrestling with something it is usually because the mind is in survival mode responding to fears or a challenge to our picture of the world (and hence our assumptions and beliefs).  If the individual has been wrestling with it, it is not that they have not considered obvious courses of action but rather there is a reason why the obvious courses of action have not been taken.  Many when coaching feel it is simply a case of bolstering the resolve of the individual to act but if the individual is not aware what is blocking them from acting this will not be successful.

Reflecting on my own process of learning and the role that my teacher Chrissy has played in my own learning and development, I was struck by the fact, as she recently mentioned, that she rarely, if ever, tells people what to do.  I realised that I had unconsciously picked up on this and in my own coaching, I rarely, if ever, tell people what to do, or seek to push them towards what to do.  Instead my focus is entirely on learning not action.  If my focus is on action (as it is with most coaching) then, however subtly, I am taking responsibility for the motivation and choice of the individual rather than developing their ability to take responsibility.

So what is the purpose of coaching?  The purpose from my perspective is generating learning or insight and in this respect, anything goes.  Telling, stories, sharing your own experience, summarising, challenging, questions.  The technique is irrelevant; the only consideration is whether the individual is learning and whether they have new insights.


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