The river, as it ebbs and flows, is a strong metaphor for coaching.
As individuals grow as coaches they develop their own unique style; their coaching signature. This is about how they ‘show up’ and the presence that they exude. Understanding what you bring to your coaching relationships and practice is vital to ensuring that you embrace all the elements that you believe need to be in place for successful coaching.
One aspect of realising this is to elucidate some fundamental principles that underpin your approach and guide your coaching interactions. These values will depend upon the type of coaching that you engage in; a solutions-based approach will focus strongly on goals and outcomes whilst a psychological methodology will point more towards increasing self-awareness.
I want to discuss four underlying principles that are embodied in the river metaphor and, I consider to be, the key to developing a strong coaching practice. These are:
I will examine each of these four principles in turn:
Part 1: Unwritten covers why coaches should relax in their sessions and be authentic and true to themselves.
Part 2: “Shall we dance?” discusses the importance of focusing on the relationship between coach and coachee.
Part 3: “I’m a safety girl” describes some of the aspects that create a safe and supportive environment.
Part 4: “The logical song” presents arguments about why self-awareness is important for change to be sustained.
As you read about each one I invite you to reflect on your own practice and see how well these principles resonate with you or cause dissonance.
“To thine own self be true.”
“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
This first part looks at the foundational principle that the coach brings their whole self to the coaching relationship. As a coach we often have an internal censor who tells us how to behave, or more importantly what NOT to do or say e.g. ‘I must not show that I am angry or shocked.’ ‘I need to show that I am in control/am the expert.’Etc. On top of that, coaches often wonder about what tool or approach they are going to use to help the client deal with the issue they have brought to the table and that takes our attention away from what is happening in the moment. Our internal focus means that we can miss vital clues in tone, body language, gestures, silences etc. as to areas of deep significance to the client.
When we feel confident enough in our coaching abilities to relax and just be in the situation we can access our full range of senses – are we feeling engaged or bored? What visceral responses do we have to the client in the moment? How does the client sound? Is he getting quieter as he talks? What happens to his body posture? What images are evoked for us?– and use these to help the client to explore the question he has. For example, sharing with a client that you notice that he laughs when he talks about his desires for recognition allows him to examine the deep-seated thoughts, beliefs and emotions that he may be unconscious of. We help them uncover new insights about themselves.
It is important to offer these in a way that the client feels we are being genuine i.e. what we are thinking and feeling is congruent with what we are saying and doing. Carl Rogers (2004, p. 61-62) identified congruence as one of the conditions needed for a person to make progress in therapy. A significant learning for Rogers (2004, p. 16) was, “In my relationships with persons I have found that it does not help, in the long run, to act as though I were something that I am not.” I believe this is also true of the coaching relationship.
Wonforcaptured it beautifully,“The primary outcome of presence is a coach becomes a high performing coach, being in tune with their client and able to facilitate the client’s learning to maximum effect. This has been found to have a fundamental shift on the outcome, making the coaching transformational and providing sustainable development for the client.”
Before your next coaching session tune into yourself, what is your inner voice saying? How are you feeling? Practise techniques that enable you to get in the right frame of mind to be able to relax and trust yourself that the right interventions will come to you if you just be … present.
“Trust is the most important part of a relationship, closely followed by communication. I think that if you have those two things, everything else falls into place – your affection, your emotional connection.”
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
When there is a strong connection between the two people in the coaching relationship the coachee feels a deep level of trust that the coach is there to support them on their development journey. This allows the coach to take risks in sharing observations, asking questions, suggesting experiments etc. to further the coachee’s learning. Wonfor (2017) states, “Trust means the client engages in the coaching process and opens themselves fully to self discovery.” In their book on co-active coaching, Whitworth, Kimsey-House and Sandahl (1998, p. 16) argue, “Trust is enormously empowering for clients.” They believe that “unqualified trust is a powerful force for change.”
Building a strong relationship requires effort by both parties. It begins with the first interaction between the coach and client where they explore whether the chemistry between them feels right. It is tempting when we are in front of a potential coachee to work to secure the contract regardless – ‘I’m a coach, I can help anyone!’ Right? No! As coaches we need to be clear and deliberate about the type of clients we agree to work with and the nature of the coaching engagement. De Haan (2008, p. 10)offers a thought experiment to help in consciously building the relationship. This looks at 7 areas:
Try asking yourself these questions after an initial meeting with a potential coaching client to determine whether there is a good fit between you.
Coaches need to continue to work on the relationship as the coaching progresses. Carl Rogers (1995, pp. 114-116)described three characteristics required (of therapists) in his person-centred approach to create a facilitative relationship and climate for change:
I’m sure you can imagine how these conditions could lead to the formation of a strong bond between the coach and client. They are important in creating an environment in which clients can truly be themselves and do the work that brought you together in the first place.
Consider how well you embody these traits in your coaching work and determine what changes, if any, you want to make to strengthen your coaching relationships.
The coaching space in one in which the client makes themself vulnerable by revealing aspects of themselves that they may not have admitted to anyone before including themselves. Clients need to feel able to express their innermost thoughts, even if this may portray them in an unfavourable light. They also require a place where they are free to let their emotions flow without feeling embarrassed.
Much powerful learning comes from clients exploring how they feel in the moment and unpick where that comes from. For example they may have learned in their childhood that to be noticed in a large family they need to rebel against family norms. These rebellious behaviours may still play out in their adult relationships with friends and colleagues and may not be serving them well. Simon (2012)declares “that people grow and develop to the extent that they are open to their environment – for new ideas, new awareness, new learning. The intention and ability to be open to new learning require a sense of trust and safety in one’s environment“. He goes on to say that to build trust (and therefore, safety):“Coaching clients must experience the coach as genuinely interested in them.” and “The coach must have the ability to maintain and communicate an optimistic stance.”
I believe that the coach needs to invest time in making good contact with the client and be genuinely curious about what is happening in and around the client’s work life i.e. treat them as a whole person and not just a role in an organisation or a client. Clients really appreciate coaches who remember important details, for example, a child’s birthday, exams, graduation, special events etc. It shows that you care beyond the contracted relationship and, for me, is an integral part of developing a strong contact and creating a safe environment.
Coaches need to accept their clients as they are and without judgement. Siminovitch and Van Eron (2008)assert, “In the presence of the open-minded and open-hearted coach, clients are supported and energized to do self-work they could not have done on their own, or have been unwilling or unable to do on their own…The coach needs to understand how to create enough safety for the client to invite new possibilities that feelrisky to the client because those possibilities may have previously resided outside the client’s repertoire.”
Another facet of creating a safe and supportive environment is for the coach to establish clear boundaries. Things to consider are:
Having an ongoing contracting process with the client throughout the coaching programme rather than view this as something to only engage in at the start can help coaches review and refine these boundaries to ensure that they co-create the most favourable conditions within which to work.
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”
When starting out in coaching it is beneficial to have a simple model to help coaches provide structure to their coaching sessions. TheGROWmodel developed by Sir John Whitmore has been widely adopted by coaches and organisational leaders because it takes the coach (leader) through a systematic, easy-to-grasp process that allows them to help their coaches develop solutions to their problems. The acronym stands for:
Goal – What do you want?
Reality – Where are you now?
Options – What could you do?
Will – What will you do?
In my opinion, this model is focused on achieving clear outcomes e.g. ‘I want my team to have a greater sense of urgency.’ ‘I want to be more impactful in negotiations / giving presentations / making speeches.’ There is less emphasis on understanding what lies behind and beneath the current behaviour and desired change. Research shows that increasing an individual’s self-awareness about who they are is a powerful way of unlocking their potential to sustainable behaviour change. Arnold Beissercoined this “the Paradoxical of Social Change”.
“Change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions.”
A person is more likely to make a change if they first understand who they are and can embrace that, rather than be told by themselves or others that they need to conform to some model of the ideal e.g. a high performing leader as defined by the organisation.
There are many psychological tools and methodologies that coaches can use to help clients uncover deep-seated drivers of behaviour and where they come from. These include; Gestalt Coaching, Transactional Analysis, Cognitive Behavioural Coachingand psychometric diagnostic tools.
Finding the ones that fit with the coach’s style and preference takes time. I recommend that you experiment with different approaches to see which feel comfortable and fit more naturally with your style and coaching practice. This will help you to hone and refine your unique style and develop your coaching signature.
These four coaching principles and the river metaphor provide the depth and breadth required to describe a psychological approach to coaching.
I would love to hear from you about your coaching principles and how you arrived at them.
Dr Joan van den Brink, “your personal chemist”, is a freelance management consultant and owner of Araba Consulting. She works with individuals and organisations to tailor solutions that make them stronger and more capable. Joan has had a rich experience in a wide-ranging career that spans Marketing, Operations, HR, Communications and Management Consulting in global and local public and private sector organisations. She has travelled extensively throughout her life, working in the Americas, Asia, Australasia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
Wonfor, D 2017, ‘What develops your ‘presence’ as a coach?’, Catalyst14, <https://www.catalyst14.co.uk/blog/what-develops-your-presence-as-a-coach>
Siminovitch, D E and Van Eron, A M, ‘The power of presence and intentional use of self: coaching for awareness, choice and change’,International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 2008, 6 (3), 90-111, http://researchportal.coachfederation.org/MediaStream/PartialView?documentId=2951
Beisser, A 1970, ‘The Paradoxical Theory of Change’, Gestalt Therapy Page, http://www.gestalt.org/arnie.htm