Coaching is now one of ‘those’ words. It even features in popular television where once counsellors and psychotherapists were the butt of humour. Everyone who is anyone now has a coach. Anyone who might fancy a change of career thinks about being a coach. Why not? It is a wonderfully satisfying and potentially lucrative profession to join. Coaching, like most good things, can be a very simple and highly effective process. It can be a joy to behold when results are stunning.
Traditionally, coaching had been used in a business context as a remedial process – now usually referred to as Performance Coaching. However, as the corporate sector has come to realise the impact of fully utilising and developing its ‘human capital resource’, the benefits of on-going professional development through coaching have become more apparent and desirable. This type of coaching could be termed coaching for excellence as it assumes that the individual is already fully functioning and successful in what he or she does. In a rapidly changing corporate environment the “star” performer benefits from the opportunity to reflect upon what works well for them, how to sustain excellence and how to be creative and embrace change in a positive and innovative manner.
As the demand for coaching has mushroomed, so has the range of approaches and standards available. There is a continuum from the well meaning, unstructured and relatively ineffectual through to the downright dangerous, with some really effective coaching in between. As risks of litigation rise, there has been a rush to establish recognised processes for accreditation before the profession is called into disrepute.
Coaches come from very different backgrounds, with different motivation and very different theoretical underpinnings to the process and content of their coaching. It would be intellectual snobbery to imply that all coaches should have psychology qualifications but it certainly could help. Coaching is a psychological process. It works better if you have a fundamental understanding of what makes people tick. Years of methodologically sound scientific study have given psychologists an advantage here – or should have. Somehow sports coaches often seem to get more respect for their contribution to this field than decades of hard working psychologists.
As a clinical psychologist of the cognitive behavioural variety, I dug my tunnel out of the NHS in the early 1980s as my interest lay in preventing problems more than in waiting for people to fall off their perches so I could use my expertise on them. Working with individuals and groups in the corporate world to achieve the best, I cannot trace the moment at which what I was doing started to be referred to as coaching. I have used every psychological technique at my disposal without ever invoking the ‘therapy’ word but I did often have to conceal the psychologist tag – usually because of the negative association of psychology with weakness and problems. However, I would much rather proudly proclaim myself to be a psychologist than randomly assign myself to the mixed bag of ‘coaches’.
The psychological profession has in general become much more media friendly than it was 20 years ago. Reports come hot off the press from the BPS conference. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a psychologist on almost every reality television programme. Yet the popular image is still often an erroneous one of rooting out dark secrets and underlying issues rather than celebrating our ability to have a powerful impact on here and now emotions, behaviour, well-being and success.
In coaching many psychological principles are fundamental. Psychologists take these for granted. Coaches may also take them for granted without realising how much more powerful their impact could be if they systematically applied more of the theory behind the concepts.
The coaching process involves
- development of rapport, relationship building
- gathering information through assessment, observation and interview
- negotiation of carefully defined goals
- implementing of problem solving approaches, skill development
The purpose of coaching may be
- Transition from one role or state to another
- Dealing with change
- Resolution of issues
- Skill development
All psychological disciplines have something to contribute to these processes. Here is a personal selection of the more obviously useful concepts.
As I was trained in hard line behaviourist approaches, perhaps that is the best place to start. Pavlov and his dog have passed into popular culture while Watson, Skinner and Bandura may be less than household names. Of most importance is the fact that behavioural approaches are always experimental. Observations and base line assessments are made. Goals are established. Techniques are employed to alter the outcomes. Results are measured and adjustments are made to approximate closer to the achievement of goals. Coaching works best when it is based on this process. The rigorous measurement of contingencies and reinforcement are extremely important in assessing performance in modern organisations. Without attention to these, change will decay quickly and individuals and cultures revert to type. Reward is generally recognised as having major importance in achieving and maintaining changes in behaviour. However, lack of understanding of the complexities of reinforcement often prevents its most effective use.
Response contingent positive reinforcement may be easy for us to say but is a closed book to many managers and perhaps some coaches. Coaching a client to recognise and use different types and patterns of reinforcement makes them more effective in their corporate role. These techniques are often cheap and more effective than complex reward systems set up in organisations. Even the basic primary reinforcement of recognition through greetings and ‘thank you’s’ is surprisingly overlooked, yet will often be the first criticism picked up in a culture audit. Gradual approximation to desired goals by breaking down tasks into smaller, achievable and rewarded steps is just as relevant in the coaching relationship as it is in therapy. Behavioural rehearsal and modelling can be effectively used in coaching. The behavioural tradition of quantified goals and measured outcomes is equally attractive to the coaching relationship and to the organisation.
My own delight in my career was enhanced when the rigour of behaviourism admitted some of the richness of cognitive approaches. The research of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck offers so much for the coach to use to enhance the confidence, emotions and resultant performance of their clients. Coaches can help clients become aware of their thought processes (what went through your mind right there?) make explicit any thinking errors or cognitive distortions and demonstrate the impact these negative expectancies have on emotions and behaviour. They can then coach clients to dispute the evidence for and against, recognising the emotion evoked by the thoughts and assess the actual and desired behavioural outcome. Coaches can enable clients to continue to develop good techniques and resultant well being and mental health. The recognition of particular, recurring styles of error points at underlying beliefs. By addressing and assessing these, coaches will often enable the client to release more energy in a positive and purposeful way through new, more optimistic beliefs.
The work by Martin Seligman on learned optimism and defensive pessimism is useful in coaching. By analysing whether thinking is Permanent, Pervasive and Personal for success and failure and reviewing the research evidence on success and well-being in optimists, the coach has good grounds for helping clients change their thinking styles to achieve more constructive success.
Positive psychology, spear headed by Seligman, offers opportunities to measure and enhance happiness and well-being in both personal and professional life. Seligman emphasises the fact that psychologists have a very significant role in the world of the allegedly normal. He argues that psychology, in part, lost its way following World War 2 when, lured by funding, more and more psychologists made their way into abnormal psychology rather than into promoting and building excellence. His mission is to widen the application of work on optimism and happiness to the general population. Many of the approaches are very accessible to the non – psychology population. Especially useful to the coach is the work on signature strengths and the three paths to happiness. By establishing and using the character strengths more effectively in work, life and relationships a more engaged and fulfilling life is possible. By concentrating on boosting positive perceptions of the past, enhancing appreciation of the present and hopefulness for the future measurable changes in happiness can be shown.
The psychodynamic approach should not be overlooked – even by dyed in the wool cognitive behaviourists who clamour for methodologically sound, research-based evidence. Concepts such as defence mechanisms are useful when looking at how clients handle emotion – when they resort to humour, sublimation or repression. The theories on transference and counter transference are invaluable in monitoring the nature of the relationship between coach and client. Without an understanding of these concepts, coaches can be taken unawares by their own feelings or those of their clients and may not make the best use of these opportunities when they occur.
Techniques such as these will enhance the repertoire of the coach but will be of little value if not rooted in an excellent relationship between coach and client. The Person-Centred approach and the work of Carl Rogers have essential lessons for coaching. Coaches, like therapists, are more effective when they demonstrate the fundamental relationship skills of genuineness, positive regard and empathy. For many coaching clients in business there may be few other relationships where these conditions occur. Faades and political games may encourage role – playing, sycophancy and some deception. The respectful coach may be the only person who can hold up a mirror to clients with honesty. This is only effective when combined with positive regard and acceptance. Empathy allows an understanding of their subjective reality – reflecting back a recognition of some of the emotions and thoughts which are not spoken anywhere else. The skills of restatement, paraphrasing, reflection, summarising and giving of feedback are all basic coaching requirements. They are essential for building trust and rapport as most clients, even if they are the instigators of the search for coaching, will experience some ambivalence about the coaching process in the early stages. By demonstrating these aspects of a good relationship, coaches are also modelling for their client ways of becoming more professionally effective when dealing with their staff.
This review simply summarises a personal perspective and many of the points made may seem obvious. These are just some of the techniques that have worked well for me and have given satisfaction and results in the business coaching world. There is such a richness of knowledge and expertise in psychology to offer the world of coaching. Perhaps as psychologists we need to ensure that we continue to make this more accessible.