One would think that any and all kind of coaching activity would encourage creativity in those embarking on it. But I am not so sure about that. I suspect most coaches intend to encourage creative thinking in their coachees, but there are a number of reasons why this may be harder to achieve than is commonly believed. In fact, many coaches could indeed be dampening any creative sparks because of these common factors that tend to be part and parcel of many coaching assignments:

1) Focus on results

Coaching is all about defining outcomes then helping people to make progress towards them. This kind of steering is very useful to nail down specific and tangible aims and then actions to achieve them, but creativity requires divergent thinking that widens possibilities rather than just convergent thinking which narrows them down.

2) ‘False starts’ are rarely reviewed

A key barrier to creative problem solving happens before we even consciously start working on finding a solution. The mind uses prior experience to filter what kind of problem it sees. We then retrieve information (unconsciously) from our long term memory, again filtering for whatever seems most useful to the problem at hand. Psychologists call this the ‘problem space’, to describe the mental construction of a network of possibilities, necessarily constrained to provide an area of focus and direction to aim for. We put what we know into a kind of mental box, with a lid firmly holding it all together and stopping anything else getting in.

Within the framework of this model, it is relatively commonplace for people to make a ‘false start’ and begin with certain assumptions about a problem which may not be useful or even true.

Once they are off down the outcome-defining rabbit hole, people seldom re-examine what they know about the problem, situation or context within which they are setting outcomes. Coaches also tend to keep driving forwards rather than taking steps backward to re-define the problem.

3) Time restrictions

Having a fixed end time can thwart the creative process, and coaching generally takes place within very structured and relatively short time pockets of an hour or so. Once the coach and coachee have contracted, shared updates and set intentions for the current session, there may be a very small window for exploration before the required action planning phase at the end of the session. Just knowing the clock is ticking towards a finish time can put pressure on both the coachee and the coach to ‘get somewhere’ rather than meander around emerging ideas and themes – nurturing the seeds of a creative insight.

4) Seeking a single ‘correct’ answer

Our education and experience teaches us to come up with the right answer and we are embarrassed if we get it wrong. Fear of making a mistake means that many people will say only what they feel will be an acceptable answer rather than allowing their unspoken ‘off the wall’ and ‘half-baked’ replies to be exposed.

5) Avoiding risk

Similar to the point above, many people will seek to conform to what they believe is the expected response. This is another well-documented, much researched psychological phenomenon about people and their behaviour. For example, people will disregard what they can see with their own eyes if the majority of people round them agree they see something different (eg Asch, 1951).

To step outside ‘the way we do things here’ can appear risky and moreover, many organisations instil the fear that taking risks leads to dangerous consequences. It is also fair to say that this same conformity urge will affect what the coach feels is appropriate to do or say within a coaching session.

6) Biased questions

As I cover in depth within my book ‘Clean Coaching: The Insider Guide to Making Change Happen’ (Dunbar, 2017) it is all too easy for coaches to push the coachee in a certain direction of thought due to subtle ‘hints’ within their questions. Bias is often unconscious and like it or not, the coach’s personal beliefs, preferences and opinions tend to leak out within the language they use. Even a so called ‘open’ question can be embedded with assumptions that dictate a particular context and introduce a narrow field of options. For example:

“So given what we have spoken about today, how might you move forward on this and remove the barriers?”

Forwards may not be the direction to move in! Sometimes sideways works best or even taking a step back. Barriers may not be able to be removed but could be climbed, avoided, transformed or dismantled. The language within the question is subtle but all the more persuasive as a result. No-one notices the influence they have on the coachee’s scope of thought. If you doubt the power of biased questions, see the research into eye witness interviewing carried out by Elizabeth Loftus and colleagues in the 1970s, and repeated many times over the years (Loftus et al, 1972). In short, this research demonstrated how changing just one single word within a question altered the interviewee’s opinion of what they had witnessed.

7) Being too structured OR too unstructured

Coaching is more than just a meandering conversation. It needs structure, such as a beginning, middle and end, with a sense of completeness in the form of action points and/or learnings to take away. However, the coach’s control over the shape and direction can constrain creative possibility as the coachee tends to only run down the paths available within the session. On the other hand, keeping things too loose means that the coachee is put off from creativity due to fear and lack of support. What is needed is a certain structure that creates a safe space for exploration and a context within which to explore. But, still encourages mental freedom within those parameters.

Angela Dunbar is a highly experienced Coach Supervisor, AC accredited, a former AC council member, and now a lifetime fellow. Trained to Master NLP Practitioner level, Angela’s passion is Clean Language, a powerful non-directive facilitation process that engages the coachee’s non-conscious resources through the metaphors they use to describe their experience.

Angela also teaches ‘Clean’ techniques for coaches worldwide, her latest workshop is a Crash Course in Creativity starting on 11th March, supported by her e-book Creativity in Coaching.