Are structured coaching sessions reducing the potential for real coaching? by Yvonne Thackray

123rf.com (c) Leonid Andronov: Enzyme Catalase, a very important antioxidant in organisms

123rf.com (c) Leonid Andronov: Enzyme Catalase, a very important antioxidant in organisms

Coaching should start where the client is, and for our more mature clients coaching shouldn’t really be considered as a structured  exercise/process. The presumption that a client wants to work within a set number of sessions over a regular period is perhaps one of the greatest fallacy in our field. For sure I can see the benefits right at the start, when the coach and the client are getting to know each other and building rapport and mutual respect with one another, to begin sampling what it would be like when they work with you. Yes, the onus is on the coach to deliver and be the role model and be the creator of a safe and confidential space for the client to want to enter and work within, and repeatedly come away from each sessions moving forward. Not the other way round.  Hence, the focus of those conversations fits into the simple parameters of focusing on a specific task that is SMART and achievable within that time frame.

That is really the contracting period for coaching, not the contract itself.

For any sessions that follow after that initial structuring is where what I’d call real coaching happens. The client to believe that he/she is coming to the sessions on his/her own terms and that they are being treated in a respectful way, and they are the expert of their content and most knowledgeable of their context. The coach is there to build continually the necessary trust and space for the client to be able to talk about the problem they are facing, and simultaneously assessing the readiness of the client ask probing questions (of which there are different shades) that allows them to look at it from various points of views, angles, representatives, impressions, of what it is they are trying to answer. When the client naturally laughs and smiles following a coaching conversation, especially after a hard session, to the coach this is evidence of a good coaching relationship.

Coaching isn’t a miracle drug. Like any other interventions (of which there are many, though less for healthy individuals) it takes time to work through the possibilities of action, reflect and for the client to decide whether the conversation they had previously has been of value in achieving a result. If, and only when, the client sees and believes that the coach is doing that structure goes out of the window. They know that when they are working through a specifically challenging situation the coach is available to work with them, and through the situation, and move forward one step. Other times, they know that it’s in their diary and a time for planned reflection amongst their heavy schedule and the focus is on them, and only them. It’s about them and what he or she needs to revitalise themselves and keep them moving forward. That quality of attention that coaching offers to the individual, provides them with a plethora of positive behaviours and experiences (confidence, assertiveness, awareness, credibility, thoughtfulness) and becomes part of their re-energisation process to keep moving forward in their role and life. For example, one of my clients travelled at least an hour each way for an hour and half session every 6 to 8 weeks for a whole year.

There are other times where coaching works just in one session and those are serendipitous meetings. For example, a business owner had been working through a problem for a long time with his partner in the restaurant business. He was very much in the moment and desperately trying to find out what’s missing, and attended a coach training taster session to see if he could find a way to answer the question. He was invited by someone he knew, and then he was referred to me during the break. One thing led to another, and we had a coaching conversation and as I began jotting down the key points from his conversation onto a piece of paper (we we’re using the wheel of life to break it down into segments), when he looked back at what had been written he realised that he hadn’t put down ‘communication’. He hadn’t spoken to his business partner about the challenges. As soon as he realised that was his next step he thanked me and rushed off to speak to his business partner. In that moment, he got what he was looking for, and he knew what he needed to do next.

Some coaches might think, hey you should have coached him around how he should be communicating with his business partner i.e. what should be said, how it should be said, etc etc. Others might be thinking, can you call that coaching if it hasn’t been properly contracted for. For me, the client knew what it is what he was looking for and I happened to be in the right place at the right time to work with him through the problem, creating the right conditions for him to work though and offered the right amount of attention for him to work through it, and he had decided that I had provided the right behaviours for him to trust me in that moment. And these haven’t been a one-off’s for me as the coach.

Coaching is about working with the clients from where they are, and when they need coaching not the other way round. Perhaps we need to be looking at changing the current market perception of coaching to a more collaborative business model for our clients and reflect the real reality of coaching.

Questions to consider:

  • How do you really work with your clients?
  • What contracts do you work with your coaching clients?
  • What coaching structures work best with different clients?