The Essence of Coaching

Friday 6 January, 2012

I received an email last month asking me to shed light on the subject of coaching for someone who had little experience of the process. I replied, explaining the general framework of the coaching relationship and outlining some of the basic requirements. In this post I talk about the more experiential characteristics of the coaching process; what happens and what the coaching client can expect.

The coaching relationship is different for each client. Every one of us is in a different place in our lives; every one of us has a different history and a different future. The coaching process handles this by using an approach which applies to all of us, regardless of our situation, goals or issues: self-awareness.

The more I work with people the more aware they become of their own behaviour, their patterns and their potential. As a consequence they see the same in others. It’s simple. But it’s not necessarily easy. There are habits to change, new patterns to lay down. Patience is required. But with commitment, progress is inevitable. And awareness is the key to it all.

I work with clients on whatever it is they want to work, and if they are not sure about their goals, well, we work on those first. There may be areas of their personal life which they want to improve or conquer; there may be specific career goals to be achieved; a desire to make more of their opportunities; or to understand why people behave the way they do. They may want to develop specific aspects of themselves or just be seeking greater contentment in life.

The list is endless. The possibilities are endless. And the potential is (almost) limitless.

The relationship begins with the initial session, the purpose of which is to discuss the client’s requirements, goals, current situation, relevant issues, answer any questions they may have and agree on the best way forward. But more than that, it is an opportunity for both the coach and the client to meet and get to know each other. At this point there is no commitment to work together. Only when both parties are in agreement does the coaching relationship continue. It is vitally important for the client to find a coach with whom s/he feels comfortable. Otherwise the coaching will be ineffective.

Assuming both agree to work together, what happens thereafter is reliant mainly on the client; on how much they invest in the work; how much time, how much effort and how much of themselves they put into it. As a coach it is my job to hold clients to their commitments, empower them, guide them where necessary, provide support, encouragement, feedback, and to challenge them when required.

I recommend people write things down. When we think, our mind races at the speed of firing neurons, and we end up missing out on so much because it doesn’t get the chance to surface. In addition, we may have been through the thought process so many times before that we just skip to the known and familiar conclusions. When we talk things through with someone, the process is slowed to the speed at which we can talk and listen. And when we write our thoughts down, the process is slowed even further, to the speed we can write (or type). This allows thoughts, feelings, questions and answers to surface more readily, such that we can often find ourselves, after 20 or 30 minutes, writing something we have never thought of and which leaves us wondering, ‘Where on earth has that come from?

Writing has the added advantage of enabling a more accurate evaluation of the whole process. Furthermore, your commitment to recording your observations in written form automatically makes you more aware. If you know you are going to be making notes, you will pay closer attention.

The coaching process is the same as any endeavour to improve a skill, develop a talent or progress as a human being. By setting our sights on the goals we have formulated, we become more aware of our current position. That awareness carries through to our daily lives as we put into practice the points discussed in the coaching sessions. We observe more keenly what is going on and we begin to make progress. We experience realisations and insights into how particular situations occur, why our interactions with others develop as they do, and how we can influence them more positively.

It’s possible we will have breakthroughs like the one I describe here, but they should not be the subject of our focus or desire. Gradual improvement through a disciplined approach and increased awareness will bring its own rewards. All of which is made more achievable by working with a coach. There will be setbacks – that’s part of the journey – but there will be more successes and they will bring increased motivation as we begin to achieve our goals and/or change our old habits and patterns.

Whilst writing this post, four words came to mind: communication, feedback, relationship, accountability. There are more words here, which are all part of the coaching process but for the purposes of this post, let us concentrate on the first four:

  • Communication – clear and open communication is the most effective way to work. Anything other than that is half-hearted and insufficient.
  • Feedback – direct and meaningful feedback is essential. Without it the entire process is a waste of time. Moreover, when it comes to the blind spots we all have about our own behaviour, we are reliant on another person to highlight them to us.
  • Relationship – it’s important to build a relationship of trust and acceptance. This recent journal post from 11 years ago is testimony to the need for relationships.
  • Accountability – the relationship, the work and the client’s intentions and commitment all create accountability. Without it there can be no real progress. Agreements made within the coaching relationship make it more likely that the work is done and deadlines are met.

Development, growth and the attainment of goals is about making use of whatever happens in order to move forward. This post came about because of an enquiry into the nature of coaching. It is an example of the organic quality of the work; it came to life because someone asked a question. Every day there are numerous opportunities to create a new future for ourselves. Working with a coach brings that process into sharper focus.

I end with two comments sent to me by one of my clients:

‘It has been a long day. Probably the most challenging of the days so far, but I’m doing well. Thanks so much for your support. It has made all the difference.’

That feedback related to a particular goal we had worked on. When our focus shifted to another goal, the same client wrote the following (which also appears on my testimonials page):

‘You have already changed and impacted my life in ways I could not have imagined. Just knowing that we’re going to be working on this together brings a sense of calmness to me already. I know that working with you, I will have success.’

Related post: What is Coaching?

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