The ICF defines coaching as, ‘a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires the client to maximize their personal and professional potential.’ The ICA defines it as, ‘dialogue between a coach and a client with the aim of helping the client obtain a fulfilling life.’
I’m interested in these definitions because of how they focus primarily on coaching as relationship, process and goal.
The relational dimension is intrinsic since coaching is something that takes place between people, even if the nature, function, value and rules of engagement within the relationship vary between different coaching traditions.
There is a process dimension too, typically an interactive process between a coach and one or more clients where models, skills and techniques are deployed. This is coaching at its most explicit, the dimension that can be observed, learned and practiced.
Most coaching has goals too, whether these be explicit from the outset or implied and emergent. The goals point towards intentionality, focus, boundaries and outcomes that can be at some level monitored and evaluated.
What’s missing for me is the notion of belief. Coaching assumes certain implicit beliefs about the coach, the coachee, the context and what words like ‘personal’, ‘professional’, ‘potential’, ‘helping’, ‘fulfilling’ and 'life' imply.
This is the arena, the open turbulent space, the swirling ground, where questions raised by fields such as spirituality, theology, philosophy, economics, sociology and politics reside and collide to create meaning.
Against this backdrop, coaching itself can be seen as both socially constructed and as a process of social construction. It typically assumes and pursues certain beliefs about identity, value and purpose that are open to challenge.
These assumptions becomes evident when trying to introduce coaching into, for example, a cultural framework where core shared beliefs concerning, say, individuality and autonomy contrast with those of one's own culture.
I have encountered this experience during coaching and action learning sessions in countries where very different beliefs and cultural values around, say, authority, social legitimacy, conversational protocols and saving face apply.
When, therefore, people approach me keen to learning coaching skills and techniques, I try to explore underlying beliefs first. Why is this important to you? Why a coaching approach? What issues could it raise in your coaching environment? What change are you hoping to see?
Coaching that flows from personal awareness, ethical authenticity and clear intention is more likely to result in profound human and contextual transformation than approaches based on tips, skills and techniques alone.
I was discussing social constructionism with a friend recently and, holding up a fork, he commented on how that particular object is immediately identified as a 'fork' in our cultural environment. We recognise it based on previous experiences of similar objects and associate it with the particular function it's used for in this context, in this case for eating food.
However, it's quite easy to imagine how the same object could be identified as something very different in a different cultural context, e.g. as a hair comb or garden implement. It's clear from this example, I think, that the meaning we attribute to an object is socially or culturally constructed rather than something necessarily inherent to the object itself.
I've noticed how, in contrast to me, when doing DIY this same friend is able to look at tools and tasks in fluid rather than fixed ways. e.g. I think of a spanner as a 'spanner', whereas he views the same object simply as something of a certain shape, size and strength that could be used for multiple different purposes. Needless to say, he is far more successful at DIY than I am.
I was reflecting in this same conversation on how fixed perceptions and constructs can apply to non-physical examples too. Our assumptions, presuppositions, preconditioned ideas, associations and the labels we use can prevent us seeing alternative perspectives and possibilities in ourselves, other people, relationships or an opportunity or problem we hope to address.
Take for example a leadership team seeking to redesign an organisation in such a way that enables efficient and effective cross-team working. An exploration of what constructs the leaders already hold in mind (e.g. what their picture of the 'organisation' is, what the perceived 'role' of each team is, which teams 'lead' and which 'support') may reveal assumptions that could be tested and re-formed.
This ability to surface, recognise, challenge and reframe social and psychological constructs has powerful potential in other disciplines too such as coaching, counselling and community work. It has the possibility to release people to discover new ideas and solutions, to create and innovate in fresh and exciting ways and to live a life that feels so much more enching and liberating.
I spent time in Cambodia and Thailand last week and was fascinated by observing and speaking with people engaged in Buddhist practices. The question kept rising with me - what to make of diverse religious beliefs and practices throughout the world?
As time goes by, I'm feeling more and more convinced that 'religion' as worldview and culture is essentially socially constructed, although I feel cautious about saying it because religion is such a complex personal, social, cultural and political phenomenon and social constructionism is complex too.
As far as I can see it, the notion of social construction does not of itself negate the possibility that a specific religious worldview and lifestyle is Divinely inspired, guided and sustained. In fact, I believe the God of the Bible is the principal voice in such construction, at the heart of all genuine spiritual discourse.
However, this perspective cautions me to be careful about attributing too much value to any particular religious dogma, interpretations, cultural manifestations etc. and to stay open and listening to the mysterious Spirit who, in the words of LLS4, 'speaks the (true) language behind language'.
Nick is a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 18,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org