‘To venture involves risks, but with the potential for great gain.’ (Fook & Askeland)
A critical success factor in coaching and Action Learning is a willingness for participants to disclose opportunities or challenges they are facing, in order that they may learn through critical reflection and increase their sense of agency. At times, this may involve surfacing subconscious personal and cultural assumptions to enable self- and peer-examination. In doing so, we may draw on fields of learning and practice including Chris Argyris and Donald Schön’s double and triple-loop learning.
The originator of Action Learning, Reg Revans, urged, ‘Swap your difficulties, not your cleverness’. Yet, although this can sound simple in principle, in some contexts it may run against norms and conventions of behaviour. In some cultures, for instance, to disclose a difficulty – especially in a group – could feel politically risky or even shameful. If a person were to share openly in that context, peers from the same cultural group could also feel anxious for that person and desire to protect them.
This safeguarding instinct may be amplified in health and social sector contexts where participants may be used to working with vulnerable people and groups and-or have lived experience of trauma. If their professional training has evolved from or been influenced by counselling or therapy, they may find posing high-challenge questions uncomfortable or threatening; especially if they associate asking searching questions with, for instance, investigations or judgements re. access to services.
In some cultures, to disclose personal rather than strictly situational challenges can be regarded as inappropriate and unprofessional.
In some cultures, rationality and objectivity may be regarded as having higher value than intuition, subjectivity or emotion. Participants may find themselves preoccupied with problem analysis and formulating definitive answers and solutions, rather than enabling a person to sit with ambiguity, uncertainty and tension. A vital role for a coach or facilitator is to build trust, curiosity and critical reflexivity; drawing on any filters, biases and experiences that emerge as tools for transformation.
‘If the blade is not kept sharp and bright, the law of rust will assert its claim.’ (Orison Swett Marden)
‘Clients value moments when a (coach) listens in a way that allows them to know that they are being heard, shares a relevant reflection, or asks a question that makes it possible to see an issue from a different perspective. By contrast, the hope that (coaching) might make a positive difference may be terminally undermined by selective or inattentive listening, awkward or self-serving personal disclosures or interrogative lines of questioning.’ (Julia & John McLeod, The Significance of Being Skilful, Therapy Today, BACP, November 2022).
Writing in the context of counselling and therapeutic practice (which I have taken the liberty of re-applying to coaching here), McLeod and McLeod comment that practitioners often associate skills practice with training at the start of their career, rather than with an on-going development journey throughout their career. Many of the skills themselves are common to ordinary human relationships. ‘(Coaching) skills can be understood as comprising the application of generic interpersonal and communication skills for a specific purpose.’
It's as if an effective coach takes normal skills, hones them to a very high standard, then applies them intentionally and in a focused way to enable change with-for a client. A challenge lays in how to do this well, with wisdom and discernment, given that there are so many dynamically-complex factors in a client relationship and context that can fundamentally influence what the client will experience as beneficial. ‘The implementation of a skill in a real-life situation requires a capacity to improvise in response to what is happening in the moment.’
This is where on-going critical reflection and development is so important, perhaps with a supervisor or mentor or in an action learning set. ‘By creating opportunities for revisiting deeply ingrained ways of relating to others, the process of developing (coaching) skills can be both emotionally challenging and life-enhancing…(including) a capacity to maintain skilful and responsive contact with clients in situations of emotional pressure, such as the client becoming demanding, angry with the (coach) or withdrawn.’ I agree. So – how do you stay sharp?
‘A skilful, patient process of walking people to their own conclusions.’ (David Brooks)
I liked Claire Pedrick’s definition of coaching from David Brooks (above). It resonates well with Henrick Adams’ citation from Alexandra Trenfor on teaching: ‘The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see.’ That, in turn, reminds me of Tony Jeffs and Mark Smiths’ quotation from Bill Rosseter on the goal of education: ‘It’s about moving on in some way from point A, not necessarily to point B or C, but to some position beyond A.’ Madge and Tom Batten, community development pioneers, coined the phrase ‘the non-directive approach’.
Some years ago, I had the privilege of learning non-directive group facilitation alongside Catherine Widdicombe, author of Meetings that Work, co-leader of AVEC (‘with’) and a keen disciple of the Battens in this area. I use the word alongside deliberately because Catherine insisted on working-with, enabling and facilitating as the optimal route to developing my – and others’ – confidence, insights and skills. Her expertise lay in drawing out, encouraging experimentation and eliciting discovery rather than simply imparting her own acquired knowledge to passive recipients.
In later years, I trained in non-directive supervision and coaching, both of which reflect a process of working with an individual or team developmentally, often enabling and enhancing critical reflexivity and critical reflective practice. Subsequently, I trained in action learning, a form of peer-coaching in groups that draws on the same fundamental ethos and principles: an opportunity to pose and receive Socratic-type questions that enable a person to move on – with greater depth or breadth – in her or his thinking and practice. It’s as much about growing in wisdom as reaching solutions.
I often see Jesus using this approach in the gospels of the New Testament: evoking, provoking, revealing and releasing. I also see sports coaches, inspired by Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game, using it to great effect. When have you used a non-directive approach? How did you do it in practice? What impact did it have?
‘You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.' (Simon Sinek)
Richard looked for spirit, talent and potential. Perhaps surprisingly, this wasn’t first and foremost about knowledge, skills and experience. It was about attitude, character and engagement. Get the right people on board, the right team in place, and almost anything becomes possible. This made interviews intriguing. One person would try hard to impress based on what they had done and achieved. Another would convey humility and courage: ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to succeed.’ If the spirit was genuine, the sentiment was real, the latter person could leave with a good job offer.
It made performance conversations interesting too. Rather than ‘I’ve done this, or that’, it focused on spirit and contribution. ‘This is what I’ve made possible, including for others. This is what I’ve learned, including from others. This is how I aim to develop, and to enable others. These are the steps I’ll take, alongside others.’ People took ownership of their own performance, recognised their interdependence with and impact on others and proactively sought authentic feedback: ‘What do I do well? What would most improve my contribution in future? How can I do this better next time?’
This Richard took a chance on me too and invited me into his leadership team at a global Christian non-governmental organisation (NGO). He gave me a gift – Stephen Covey’s ‘The Speed of Trust’ – to signal his trust in me. That small gesture inspired me deeply and challenged me to reflect critically on my own spirit and practice. I created a simple grid with ‘can do/can’t do’ on one axis and ‘willing to do/not willing to do’ on the other, as a tool for honest conversations with myself, God and others. It reminds me to fan the flame of the Spirit within and not to become jaded, fearful or complacent.
What part does ‘spirit’ play in your life and work? How to you spot, nurture and help sustain it in others?
If at first you don't succeed? 'Try to hide your astonishment.' (Harry Banks); 'Hide all the evidence that you ever tried!' (Billy Collins)
There are things we can do, and there are things we are willing to do; and there is a great deal of difference between the two. I could be, for instance, capable of doing a particular job well but have absolutely no commitment to do so. I could, conversely, throw myself wholeheartedly into a job that I’m hopelessly incompetent at. If we like grids, we can draw two axes with can do/can’t do as one polarity, and willing to do/not-willing to do as the other. It makes a great, simple tool to use in e.g. recruitment and selection; performance management and development; talent and career planning.
I worked with an organisation that used ‘ready, willing and able’ as a core talent management tool; a variation of a standard performance vs potential matrix. Ready meant ‘can do’ (as above) and able meant ‘wider life and work circumstances-permitting’. It opened up some valuable and creative conversations when leaders and team members met to compare and contrast insights, aspirations and ideas on possible ways forward. The ‘able’ dimension also drew broader cultural, contextual and systemic factors into the frame: influences that lay beyond individual can-do and will-do alone.
In my experience, the ‘will-do’ dimension, which incorporates e.g. motivation, determination and perseverance, often proves vital. It taps into beliefs, values and character and sifts out, ‘I would love to do this, in principle’, from, ‘I am willing to do whatever it takes (within legal-ethical boundaries) to succeed.’ It’s also the aspect that many leadership, recruitment, coaching and training conversations pay least attention to; assuming that e.g. goals, experience, qualifications, knowledge and skills are enough. How do you ensure traction? How do you test, nurture and help sustain the critical ‘will’?
‘It’s about moving on in some way from point A, not necessarily to point B or C, but to some position beyond A.’ (Bill Rosseter)
I love Rosseter’s open definition of the fundamental goals of learning, development and education. We could argue this principle lays at the heart of leadership, coaching, training and facilitation too. After all, an axiom of Western thought is the unquestioned value of personal autonomy and agency. Applied more broadly in organisation development (OD), we can attach the same idea to teams, groups and organisations. It points towards an underlying and oft-implicit intention, trajectory and destination: from dependence towards ever-increasing independence: to stand on one’s own two feet.
And it’s not just theoretical. If, like me, you were born into a Western culture; perhaps especially into a UK proud-of-its-island-mentality culture, notice the connotations and feelings we associate with the words themselves: dependence vs independence. Dependence can sound and feel (negatively) weak, vulnerable and needy. Independence, by contrast, can sound and feel (positively) strong, resilient and resourceful. We see this language played out increasingly on the global-geopolitical stage too; with independence often being associated (desirably) with power, control and self-determination.
So, what could this look like in leadership, coaching, training and facilitation? Reg and Madge Batten, development pioneers against a backdrop of colonialism in Africa, proposed three distinctive forms of intervention that, when used well, can support a useful journey of empowerment. In paraphrase, there are things we can: (a) do for others; (b) enable others to do for themselves; and (c) leave others to do without us. Some critical questions this spectrum begs are: what is most facilitative (that is, enabling) for this person (or team, group, organisation) in this situation, at this time - and who decides?
There are further considerations too. The Battens (above) coined an important qualifying phrase, qualitative autonomy, stating: ‘We are interested not only in the fact of independence but also in its quality.’ Independence is not a values-neutral end in itself and, therefore, needs to be balanced with broader ethics and values in order to ensure holistic change. It is possible, for instance, to imagine a form of independence that is self-centric and limiting, undermining or exploitative of others; lacking any sense of altruism, mutuality-synergy or healthy interdependence; and, ultimately, self-defeating.
So, how do you work with people, teams or organisations to learn, develop and grow?
How far do you take your, and their, cultural backgrounds, beliefs and values into account?
How do you help ensure that wider people, relationships and systems are kept in view?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
Like what you read? Simply enter your email address below to receive regular blog updates!