I took my mountain bike for repairs last week after pretty much wrecking it off road. In the same week, I was invited to lead a session on ‘use of self’ in coaching. I was struck by the contrast in what makes a cycle mechanic effective and what makes the difference in coaching. The bike technician brings knowledge and skill and mechanical tools. When I act as coach I bring knowledge and skills too - but the principal tool is my self.
Who and how I am can have a profound impact on the client. This is because the relationship between the coach and client is a dynamically complex system. My values, mood, intuition, how I behave in the moment…can all influence the relationship and the other person. It works the other way too. I meet the client as a fellow human being and we affect each other. Noticing and working with with these effects and dynamics can be revealing and developmental.
One way of thinking about a coaching relationship is as a process with four phases: encounter, awareness, hypothesis and intervention. These phases aren’t completely separate in practice and don’t necessarily take place in linear order. However, it can provide a simple and useful conceptual model to work from. I’ll explain each of the four phases below, along with key questions they aim to address, and offer some sample phrases.
At the encounter phase, the coach and client meet and the key question is, ‘What is the quality of contact between us?’
The coach will focus on being mentally and emotionally present to the client…really being there. He or she will pay particular attention to empathy and rapport, listening and hearing the client and, possibly, mirroring the client’s posture, gestures and language. The coach will also engage in contracting, e.g. ‘What would you like us to focus on?’, ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like for you?’, ‘How would you like us to do this?’
(If you saw the BBC Horizon documentary on placebos last week, the notion of how a coach’s behaviour can impact on the client’s development or well-being will feel familiar. In the TV programme, a doctor prescribed the same ‘medication’ to two groups of patients experiencing the same physical condition. The group he behaved towards with warmth and kindness had a higher recovery rate than the group he treated with clinical detachment).
At the awareness phase, the coach pays attention to observing what he or she is experiencing whilst encountering the client. The key question is, ‘What am I noticing?’
The coach will pay special attention to e.g. what he or she sees or hears, what he or she is thinking, what pictures come to mind, what he or she is feeling. The coach may then reflect it back as a simple observation, e.g. ‘I noticed the smile on your face and how animated you looked as you described it.’ ‘As you were speaking, I had an image of carrying a heavy weight…is that how it feels for you?’ ‘I can’t feel anything...do you (or others) know how you are feeling?’
(Some schools, e.g. Gestalt or person-centred, view this type of reflecting or mirroring as one of the most important coaching interventions. It can raise awareness in the client and precipitate action or change without the coach or client needing to engage in analysis or sense-making. There are resonances in solutions-focused coaching too where practitioners comment that a person doesn’t need to understand the cause of a problem to resolve it).
At the hypothesis stage, the coach seeks to understand or make sense of what is happening. The key question is, ‘What could it mean?’
The coach will reflect on his or her own experience, the client’s experience and the dynamic between them. The coach will try to discern and distinguish between his or her own ‘stuff’ and that of the client, or what may be emerging as insight into the client’s wider system (e.g. family, team or organisation). The coach may pose tentative reflections, e.g. ‘I wonder if…’, ‘This pattern could indicate…’, ‘I am feeling confused because the situation itself is confusing.’
(Some schools, e.g. psychodynamic or transactional analysis, view this type of analysis or sense-making as one of the most important coaching interventions. According to these approaches, the coach brings expert value to the relationship by offering an explanation or interpretation of what’s going on in such a way that enables the client to better understand his or he own self or situation and, thereby, ways to deal with it).
At the intervention phase, the coach will decide how to act in order to help the client move forward. Although the other three phases represent interventions in their own right, this phase is about taking deliberate actions that aim to make a significant shift in e.g. the client’s insight, perspective, motivation, decisions or behaviour. The interventions could take a number of forms, e.g. silence, reflecting back, summarising, role playing or experimentation.
Throughout this four-phase process, the coach may use ‘self’ in a number of different ways. In the first phase, the coach tunes empathetically into the client’s hopes and concerns, establishing relationship. In the second, the coach observes the client and notices how interacting with the client impacts on him or herself. The coach may reflect this back to the client as an intervention, or hold it as a basis for his or her own hypothesising and sense-making.
In the third, the client uses learned knowledge and expertise to create understanding. In the fourth, the coach presents silence, questions or comments that precipitate movement. In schools such as Gestalt, the coach may use him or herself physically, e.g. by mirroring the client’s physical posture or movement or acting out scenarios with the client to see what emerges. In all areas of coaching practice, the self is a gift to be used well and developed continually.
How do you feel? What are you feeling? Why do you feel it? Whose emotion are you experiencing? The answers to these questions may be more complex than we at first imagine. I’ll try to explain some of the reasons why. Firstly, I could respond to the first and second questions above with something like, ‘I feel happy’ or ‘I feel sad’. These are labels we use to express certain types or categories of experience.
I say categories because, on the face of it, happy or sad are only general descriptions. For instance, how happy is happy? What does being happy feel like? How is happy different to, say, joyful or content? We may use other words to express nuance or increase accuracy. For example, ‘I feel very happy’ expresses a level of intensity. ‘I feel generally happy’ says something about continuity of experience.
We notice immediately how we are constrained by language, by limited words to express subtle shades of emotional experience. In principle, the wider range of words we have available to us, the better we should be able to articulate what we feel. In this sense, we are using language descriptively, to distinguish between emotional states. It’s as if the emotion simply is, and we try to find the best word to label it.
It's nevertheless tricky using words to describe and differentiate emotions in this way. After all, an emotion isn't an object with fixed shape, depth or form. It's a phenomenon, not a thing. It's a feeling, a felt experience, a sense of something that we experience deeply, psychologically and physically. It's often a shifting state, hard to pin down, hard to grasp hold of and yet nevertheless powerfully present and impacting.
Social constructionists suggest that language not only expresses how we feel, but shapes it too. In other words, how I distinguish between different emotional experiences is governed by language. Since language is culturally constructed (that is, it is inherited, used and evolves in human environments) how I feel is to some degree culturally determined. Culture shapes how I experience personal emotion.
From an early age, we observe how others respond to experience. We copy their reactions and find ourselves culturally expected to respond, or inhibited from responding, in certain ways. So to some extent, how I react to an experience is a learned, conditioned response. It feels instinctive, ‘simply how I feel’, but it could be described as a personal and social experience. It’s about me, but not just about me.
Which leads to the final question. Whose emotion am I feeling? We tune into others’ emotional states, often subconsciously. We may pick up unexpressed feelings from another and experience them as if our own. We may pick up a feeling from a group, a community, and carry it as if it’s our own. In this sense, the boundary between what I’m feeling and what others are feeling is permeable and blurred.
So what am I feeling? It depends on the language available to me, the categories I have learned to assign to emotional experiences, the ways I have learned to feel and respond. Why am I feeling it? It's a partly personal and partly social response to psychological, physiological, social or environmental stimuli. Whose emotion am I feeling? It's my own, but sometimes it's not only my own. Complicated? Hmm. How are you feeling?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.