Can Coaching Produce Sustainable Behavior Change? By Dr. Sunny Stout Rostron, Part 1 of 3

Coaching is a relatively new profession, so this topic has yet to be exhaustively studied. Until we have reliable research from a wide variety of organizations, no one can guarantee that behavior change is truly sustainable as a result of coaching. However, based on research currently available, there are certainly guidelines for coaching that can help ensure that behavior change is indeed sustainable.

To address this question, I have spent the last four years researching how the coaching conversation helps the client to make breakthrough shifts in thinking, feeling and behavior that significantly impact their performance at work. An equally important question is: how can we actually measure the effectiveness of the coaching intervention—is it just through sustained behavioral change and improved performance? Influencing factors are our cultural worldview and the individual assumptions that drive our behavior.

Cultural Worldview
Our understanding and relationship with the world takes place within our own cultural framework. Because our relation to things is determined by our own individual experiences, intentions and assumptions, our worldview does not necessarily align with those of our peers. This is one of the primary motivations for coaching.

Coaching practitioners either work with an existing coaching model, or develop their own individual model to look at the individual client's concerns in a structural way. A 'coaching model' is a metaphor or analogy for both the coaching conversation, and for the overall coaching intervention—whether across a 20-hour, six-month or a one-year period. Instead of seeing everything as the client's personal, emotional or internal issue, problems can be seen as part of an overall situation or worldview. It is important that coaches adopt a structural approach that is flexible and suitable to the client and the context.

Assumptions and Existential Issues
Because coaching is a relationship-based process, the coach must be as aware of their own potential assumptions as well as those of the client. Ideally coaches divest themselves of their own limiting paradigms, so that they can more effectively question and probe the client's articulated reality and assumptions.

In existential philosophy, all human beings must create meaning for their own lives. Existentialism stresses freedom of choice and taking responsibility for one's actions. Existential issues that arise in the coaching conversation, such as 'freedom,' 'meaning and purpose' and 'choice,' are aligned to anxiety. From an existential standpoint, clients can find themselves in a crisis when decisions have to be made that may fundamentally impact their lives. This requires the coach to be conscious of her own fallibility as she probes the client's articulated reality or interpretation of his experience. Empowering and disempowering assumptions underlie what people say and do, and the coach's fallibility is part of that process.

An existential goal is that of a whole life lived: this is to approach the client as a whole, professionally and personally, working with emotional, rational and spiritual intelligence to understand how they impact self-awareness, self-management, cultural competence and social awareness.1

Working with the client in the coaching conversation, from this point of view, is about coming to a new way of understanding ourselves and our interaction with the world and all systems of which we are a part.

The GCC (Global Coaching Convention)
You may wish to check out www.coachingconvention.org to take part in a global dialogue on the development of the coaching profession. The GCC is a virtual platform for nine global working groups and consultative bodies who are researching the practice and training of coaches worldwide. The GCC is an international forum to create a collaborative framework that represents every stakeholder group (consumers, practitioners, educators, professionals and industry bodies). The nine areas to be explored are:

  1. Mapping the field
  2. Current research agenda
  3. Knowledge base for coaching
  4. Training guidelines for programs
  5. Evaluation of coaching interventions
  6. Core competencies
  7. Code of ethics
  8. Selection of coaches and management of coaching engagement
  9. Professional status of coaching

Guidelines for Sustainable Behavioral Change
Based on my doctoral research, here is a brief description of ten key coaching guidelines for achieving sustainable behavioral change which impact performance. In my next columns I will explore these ten guidelines further:

  1. Build the Relationship
    A relationship develops as a result of the 'coaching conversation,' with client issues and concerns teased out by the skill of the coach's interventions.
  2. Learn from Experience
    Working with our own individual experience is a key to learning. In actively reflecting on experience, coach and client draw meaning from experience, literally entering into a dialogue with 'experience,' turning it into useable knowledge.2
  3. Understand the Role of Others
    Coach and client need to be aware of the powerful role of others in the work they do together. A danger of not understanding the 'system' in which the client operates is that the coach risks becoming another part of that system.
  4. Develop EQ
    The development of emotional intelligence cannot be underestimated in the business coaching environment.
  5. Be Flexible
    Spontaneity is important, so beware of using a formulaic approach in your coaching.
  6. Make Your Ethical Code Explicit
    Part of a coach's code of ethics is to honor confidentiality in the coaching conversation; the client entrusts the coach with confidences, and must feel safe to do so.
  7. Be Coached Yourself
    Create a plan for your own development, no matter how qualified you are.
  8. Measure Coaching Results
    Take measures of the outcomes of coaching from different perspectives.
  9. Create a Development Plan with Goals
    The coach is responsible for ensuring that goal-setting conversations get the best results.
  10. Debrief and Survey
    Identify for each individual client and the client organization overall what has shifted during the coaching intervention, and determine what new behaviors are visible and how performance has improved.

1 Dana Zohar, author of Spiritual Intelligence, defines spiritual intelligence (SQ) as the intelligence we use to imagine how things could be better. SQ is what we use to transform situations, to look for meaning in our lives, to find a sense of purpose. [Stout Rostron, S. 2002. Accelerating Performance, Powerful New Techniques to Develop People, London: Kogan Page.]
2 Boud, D., and N. Miller, eds. 1996. Working with Experience, Animating Learning. London: Routledge.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (October 2008, Volume 4, Issue 1). Copyright © 2011 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.
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