Coaching as an Experiential Learning Conversation
One of the core areas where coaches work with clients is that of learning. However, the conversation with your client centers on what is meaningful to them. If significance and relevance are to emerge from the coaching conversation, it doesn't matter what is relevant to you; it matters what is relevant to them. It is therefore important to be aware of your own assumptions about what the client needs.
If you are guiding, directing, and giving your clients all the information they need, it will be difficult for them to ever be free of you. It is helpful if the client embodies new learning personally and physiologically; you can't do their learning for them. What you do as a coach is to help them reconstruct their own thinking and feeling to gain perspective and become self-directed learners. At the end of each coaching session with my clients, we integrate their learning1 with the goals they have set, confirming what action, if any, they are committed to:
Vision-Refine their vision: where is the client going?
Strategy-Outline the strategy: how is the client going to achieve their vision?
Outcomes-What are the specific outcomes that need to be accomplished in the next few weeks in order to work toward achieving the vision, putting the strategy into action?
- Learning-Help the client summarize what was gained from the session in order to help underline self-reflection, continuing to help the client understand that they are responsible for their own thinking, their own doing, and their own being.
Although models create a system within which coach and client learn, it is essential that models are not experienced as either prescriptive or rigid. If the model is inflexible, it means it is fulfilling the coach's agenda, rather than attempting to understand the client's issues.
This nested-levels model was developed by New Ventures West (Weiss, 2004), and introduces the concept of horizontal and vertical levels in coaching models. The nested model works first at the horizontal level of "doing," eventually moving into deeper "learning" one level down; reflecting about self, others, and experience at a third "ontological" level where new knowledge emerges about oneself and the world (Figure1).
In her article, Pam Weiss talks about the two different camps of coaches. In jest, I call them the New York versus the Los Angeles camp. The New York camp says, "I'm the expert, let me fix you," while the L.A. camp says, "You are perfect and whole and have all of your own answers." Joking aside, each of these camps comes up short, even though coaches often fall into one or the other. The role of coaching is actually about developing human beings. It is not really about "I have the expertise" versus "you already have all your own answers."
The Expert Approach
Contrary to what experts might think, clients are not broken and are not in need of fixing. Clients may be anxious, stressed, nervous, overworked, and even narcissistic—but they don't need fixing. They are mostly healthy human beings going about their jobs and lives, experiencing their own human difficulties. Your job as coach is to help the clients learn for themselves, so that when you are no longer walking alongside them, they have become "self-directed" learners (Harri-Augstein and Thomas, 1991) and do not need you anymore. The second view about "expertise" also has limitations. The role of expertise is that, as coach, you are an expert; but coaching is not about the coach giving all the answers; that tends to be the role of the consultant, i.e., to find solutions for the client.
The "You-Have-All-the-Answers" Approach
The "you have all the answers" assumption is partially true, but there are several limitations. The first one is that we all have blind spots, and it is your job as coach to help the client to identify their blind spots. Secondly, it's perhaps a bit of "mythical" thinking that the client has all of the answers already; the flip side of that argument is that, if it does not work out, the client assumes blame and fault. In other words, "If I have all the answers, I should be able to do it myself without help." If that is not the case, they could feel, "Oh dear, if I am not able to do it myself, then perhaps I'm a failure."
Both of these approaches are "horizontal," i.e., they skim the surface of the work you can do with the client. Both help people to maintain the lives they currently have. The expert "New York" approach helps the client to do it better, faster, and more efficiently, and the "Los Angeles" approach may withhold key insights and observations from the coach that could help build the client's awareness of their blind spots. What is important, rather than "fixing" the client, is the skill of "observation" on the part of the coach. There is no problem in helping the client to do it better, faster, or more efficiently—that is often what the organization hopes for in terms of performance improvement. However, it is important for the client to gain the learning they need to address blind spots and to build their own internal capacity and competence.
If you continue to help people accomplish tasks, achieve goals, and keep on "doing," they risk falling into the trap of being "busy" and possibly overwhelmed. They may not, however, necessarily get the "learning" they need to develop self-awareness and self-management. I know all too well about this trap of being excessively busy. If we keep "doing" without reflection, we eventually burn out. To keep individual executives performing better and better, they need to work at one level lower-at the level of learning. They need to learn how to "do the doing" better. As soon as an executive begins to work with a coach, they begin the possibility of working at one or two levels deeper.
As coach, you will be asking questions to help clients reflect, review, and gain useable knowledge from their experience. In the nested-levels model, the higher levels don't include the lower ones, but the lower levels include the higher ones. So we need to help clients address their purpose one level down, at the level of learning. At this level you may ask questions such as, "How are you doing? What are you doing? What are you feeling? How are your peers/colleagues experiencing you/this? What is and what isn't working? What is useful learning for you here? What needs to change and how?"
Ontological Levels-Being and Becoming
The third and fourth levels of the coaching intervention using this model are that of who the client is and who the client wishes to become in terms of thinking, feeling, and being. Your questions move from "what do they need to do" and "how do they need to do it" (doing), to "how does their style of learning impact on how they do what they do; what do they need to learn in order to improve thinking/behavior/feeling/performance/leadership" (learning); to questions about "what do they need to understand and acknowledge about themselves, who are they, how do they be who they are, and what needs to change (being and becoming)?"
So what assists people in getting things done? Above all, it is about clarifying goals, creating action steps, taking responsibility, and being accountable. In order to perform more effectively, we need to help clients shift down a gear to learn how to work with competence (a set of skills) rather than just learning a specific new skill.
Your job as coach is to help the client be open to possibilities of learning something new, and to help them relate to themselves and others at a deeper level. To use the nested-levels model, you could ask questions such as:
What is it that your client(s) want to do? What is their aim or purpose in working with you?
What do they need to learn in order to make the change? What in their thinking, feeling, and behavior needs to change in order to do the doing better? How can they use their own experience to learn what is needed?
- How do, and how will, their thoughts, feelings, and behavior impact on how they "be who they are" and "who is it that they want to become"? In this way, we work at horizontal and vertical levels. At the end of the day, the client's new attitudes, behaviors, motivations, and assumptions begin to impact positively on their own performance and their relationships with others.
Our aim with this model is to shift any limiting sense of who the client is so that they can interact and engage with the world in new ways. As clients begin to shift, it has an impact on others with whom they interact in the workplace. It also means addressing issues systemically, from a holistic perspective, whether those issues revolve around health, stress, anxiety, performance, or relationships with others. Our task as coaches is to widen the circle, enlarge the perspective of the client, and help them learn from their own experience how to reach their potential.
A great way to start any coaching intervention is to ask your clients to tell their life story. The coach begins to understand some of the current issues and presenting challenges, and begins to observe patterns of thinking, feeling, and behavior. Because we work with Kolb's theory of "understanding experience in order to transform it into useable knowledge," this model helps us to determine the context in which the client operates, where individual and systemic problems may be occurring, and how organizational values and culture impact on individuals and teams. It is at this level that the coach's ability to observe, challenge, and ask appropriate questions can be most transformational.
Coaching models help us understand the coaching intervention from a systems perspective, analyzing the "structure" of the interaction between coach and client. This series of articles takes a practical look at how coaching models are constructed, and how they can help you to flexibly structure the overall coaching journey as well as the individual coaching conversation with your business client. In my next article, we will explore the use of the U-process model, sometimes known as the "process of transition," typically represented in Scharmer's U-process.
This article is adapted from Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: Unlocking the Secrets of Business Coaching (2009, Johannesburg: Knowledge Resources). Business Coaching International will be published mid 2009 by Karnac, London.
Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Stout Rostron, S. (2009). Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: Unlocking the Secrets of Business Coaching. Johannesburg: Knowledge Resources.
Stout Rostron, S. (2006). Interventions in the Coaching Conversation: Thinking, Feeling and Behaviour. Unpublished DProf dissertation. London: Middlesex University.
Weiss, P. (2004). "The Three Levels of Coaching." Available at: http://www.newventureswest.com/three_levels.pdf.
1 "Learning conversations" refers to research into learning conversations and self-organized learning, developed by S. Harri-Augstein and L.F. Thomas (1991:24).