Coaching as a Provocative Activity
There are many providers of coaching and many ‘schools’ of coaching. Some of them are exclusively ‘Rogerian’ (Rogers C., 1957), or ‘client centred’, stressing the importance, among other conditions, of listening, empathy and ‘unconditional positive regard’, and it seems to me that a 'client centred' orientation should be foundational to all coaching approaches. Some, like ‘solution focussed’ while focussing on solutions, do so from a mainly appreciative or ‘positive’ orientation. Others follow Nancy Kline’s (Kline, 1999) approach which privileges the client’s thinking, and still others follow Ashridge’s (Critchley, 2012) ‘relational’ approach which puts particular emphasis on the dynamics and quality of the emerging relationship between coach and client as the core factor in bringing about beneficial outcome.
I also know that some clients set particular store by their coach having 'walked in their shoes', of having experienced something similar to what they find themselves facing; so some coaching groups consist almost entirely of coaches who have been Chief Executives, or at least occupied a Director role in a large company. However, whatever school or underpinning theory informs coaches, and I have referred to only a few, I would suggest that most of them would subscribe to the view that their main purpose is to enable their client to find their own solutions to whatever they have come to coaching for, and to feel responsible for whatever ‘outcomes’ emerge from the coaching process.
This strong emphasis on the client’s taking full responsibility for outcome does, on the whole, seem appropriate, but it also, in my view, has the shadow side of allowing coaches off the responsibility hook. There are, after all, two people in the room and it seems reasonable to assume that, however neutral and dispassionate the coach tries to be, the quality of their presence alone is bound to have some influence. Better perhaps to own up to the fact that, like it or not, we, as coaches, will bear some responsibility for outcome, even if it is largely unconscious. But I find that many coaches have introjected a powerful inhibition about being ‘directive’ or giving advice, and I hear coaching practice discussed in terms of where it falls on the continuum of ‘directive – non-directive’, in which non-directive is seen as good, and directive, at best, questionable.
I think this directive-non-directive continuum is an over-simplified and rather reductive construct which limits our ability to explore creatively other forms and modes of coaching. For example, observing and simply drawing attention to a client's body movements or speaking pace, in a way which invites curiosity and potentially raises awareness, cannot be categorised on this continuum. Nor can an exploraton of the 'systemic' context, which I would see as a necessary part of good coaching. And I think the emphasis on being non-directive tends to confirm the role of the coach as a detached and impartial one, without really having a voice. And yet, when clients are asked what they they found most valuable from being coached, they usually say something like, ‘being asked difficult questions’, ‘having my assumptions challenged’, or seeing my situation from a different perspective’. So it seems they like some ‘grit’ in their coaching!
The interesting question is, from where does a coach's provocation come? In my view it can only come from the coach’s experience and perspective; it takes experience to spot an assumption, and to sow the seeds of an alternative perspective requires the coach to have one, and to offer it in the form of “you might like to look at your situation this way”. I see this as an invitation rather than being directive, but it does insert ‘difference’ into the coaching conversation, and one of the principles which informs my coaching comes from complexity theory which asserts that change comes from the ‘interaction of difference’.
Coaching, in my view, needs to both provide a ‘secure base’ (Bowlby, 1988), which is largely achieved through Roger’s (sic) ‘core conditions’, and be provocative, as it surfaces and challenges assumptions or established patterns; the former is not sufficient in my view without the latter, and of course, provocation will only be effective if it is preceded by the establishment of a secure base.
My main purpose in writing this blog is to make the case for the coach ackowledging his or her presence in, and contribution to the relationship in the form of response, perspective and experience, not to direct or impose, but to seed the conversation with necessary difference, and not to disappear oneself in the sacred cause of being ‘non-directive’. I would like to liberate coaches from the non-directive straight-jacket and encourage them to make selective, skilfull and creative use of the full range of their responses, informed by all their experience and intuition, in the coaching relationship.
On a final note I think coaching is also a craft, and like any craft it takes a long time to learn its finer points and subtleties, like use of language, use of body, use of feelings, when to disclose and not to disclose. No theory or model, however useful, can give us this; we have to find it out for ourselves through exploration, through ‘crafting’. Also, we are only at our best when we are thoroughly comfortable in our own skin, no longer needing to impress, please, get a result, get more coaching work and so forth. This kind of profound confidence combined with proper humility takes time to learn, a lot of personal work and continuous practice!
Rogers, C.R. The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change, (1957)
Kline, N. Time to Think, (1999)
Critchley, W. Taking the Coaching High Road, Ch. In Coaching Relationships, Editors, De Haan, E. & Sills, C. (2012)
Bowlby, J. A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory (1988)