Appreciating how Diagnosis in Coaching is best as a collaborative exercise by Jeremy Ridge

I want to explore how diagnosis is a central part in coaching, and consider how it operates in my coaching practice. Diagnosis, as a concept, helps to emphasise the need for a careful approach to ensure that large amounts of information is carefully considered. This important information can also best come from multiple sources – hence a collaborative approach – and this is applicable not just between coach and coachee, but even in a wider ‘peer’ process.

I am aware of the considerable focus on coaching ‘tools and techniques’ but it is useful to review which of these work for me, including the how and the why. From my perspective coaching tools and techniques still appear to put the emphasis on how the coach should set about seeing things, and hence organising agendas.

But, given that the coachee owns and sets the agenda, and arguably holds most of the data about their readiness and capabilities with regard to their agenda, their role in any coaching process or diagnosis is critical.

The inclusion of the term ‘diagnosis’ is attractive to me due to the care, and rigour, that can well be taken in when arriving at a process and outcome in a coaching process.

I also consider that the best approach to collaborative diagnosis between coach and coachee is still the perspectives initiated by Malcolm Knowles’ principles of andragogy. Knowles’ approach to andragogy or ‘adult learning’ places the clearest emphasis on the need to focus on the other person’s insights about themselves.

1. Why diagnosis – some of the important themes in the idea

Defining diagnosis as a term:         

The word diagnosis increasingly carries important meaning. It is typically at the centre of established professions, not just the ‘people’ professions, where the application of knowledge to a particular set of circumstances may need some investigation of:

  • What is happening
  • What is causing the situation
  • What action to take

This suggests an important focus for coaching dialogue.

The origins of the term refer to this idea of knowledge and understanding. The word has come some distance from its original meanings in its origins in the English language. Authorities describe it as a combination of ‘Gnosis’ and ‘dia’.

Gnosis refers to

  • Gnostic: supposedly revealed knowledge of various spiritual truths, especially that said to have been possessed by ancient Gnostics [ultimately from Greek: knowledge, from gignōskein to know]

  • Dia: meaning separating or apart  [1]

So the modern meaning is … The identification of the nature and cause of something. This often refers to collecting and sifting through a range of information for its relevance, according to available understanding, as related to what action may be relevant. Coaching may start with the interest in some particular desired outcome (itself often expressed in general terms).

Diagnosis can also be used as either a verb or a noun – both a process for getting to an end point; or the end point itself.  My interest is particularly towards the process of diagnosis involved in coaching and its need to be collaborative.

2. Typical Diagnostic information used in executive coaching

The information that is available for diagnosis in coaching can be huge – either in broader life matters, or the particular focus in ‘executive coaching’ – i.e. where a person is making a particular contribution (e.g. in a ‘role’) in a wider collective effort.

My practice often works with people in some form of organisational context. (This can be wider than ‘business’ organisations; e.g. public or voluntary sector.) An organisational context may make information more available (e.g. a ‘role’ is typically a description of behaviour).  However, broader life matters for a coachee are always a factor as well.

Some typical sources of information:

  1. The Boss has spoken! Many times, such as in executive coaching, the diagnosis is provided by ‘the Boss’.  There are a number of typical ethical dilemmas for coaches in these circumstances.
  2. Wider ‘organisational’ data performance appraisal/HR policies about current priority development themes.
  3. 360 degree feedback: either using a structured questionnaire, or using and including qualitative data from stakeholders, in their own terms (which I prefer).         
  4. Other structured data/questionnaires e.g. ‘psychometrics’ (see Lynne Hindmarch in ‘the good coach’ March and May 2016.) Again, the terminology, let alone interpretation carry risks.
  5. The first formal session: The initial contract may be based on a ‘symptom’/ output in general terms required. The coaching conversation itself is then a long process of gathering data relevant to understanding.
  6. Working with someone as they perform/behave, through direct observation. Indeed this is more the original basis for coaching – e.g. in sports coaching.

I typically find coaching can involve a mix of each of the above – often depending on the coachee, and their organisation’s practices, effective readiness, and appreciation of how such sources of data may add value.

3. Important themes for diagnosis in coaching

Many definitions of ‘coaching’ exist. However, in broad terms coaching is generally seen as how a coach can form a dialogue that adds to the ability of a coachee to make some changes to their personal and professional circumstances for the coachee’s benefit.

There are some immediate implications for any diagnosis process.

  • How to start: Diagnosis raises the key question of where to start as well as where to get to. The coachee may already themselves have a very wide ranging, and even confusing amount of information relevant. But it may not be straight forward to know where to start.
  • Continuing Diagnosis: There are challenges with coaching in that the coaching diagnosis process is often a very dynamic process. It does not all get done in the first few moments, or even the first session. Factors relevant to the matter may continue to emerge throughout the dialogue.  Factors such as the coachee’s own concentration and comfort in the process may be vital to sourcing important information.
  • Directive or non-directive: There is an important balance to be found here. Coaching in its common social and original practice was someone who knows how things should be done, and can be very directive in dictating the approach. This is not the case in all circumstances however. Some direction in organising data around established key factors may be helpful. For example in sports coaching – the need to diagnose a person’s muscular capabilities, dietary needs, resting patterns, observation of the field and competitors, borrowed skills and techniques from adjacent/diametrically opposite/even unknown fields, developed strong discipline to routinely check everything, working to continually optimise different facets of themselves that has incremental improvements etc.
  • Challenges of Collaborative Diagnosis:  And of course, the big item is that the coachee has control both of the agenda as well as the information that will be the basis for any agenda – as it concerns their world. The coachee makes their own choices.
  • Availability of relevant data is another key item: People are not in the habit of keeping a full portfolio of data on their organisational life and the learning that has gone into it so far. Hence the diagnosis process in coaching can be a continuous exploratory process.

Coaching can thus be about sharing leadership in a joint collaborative manner. There is still the opportunity for confusion in how this may happen. Starting clearly with the sort of principles and processes proposed initially by Knowles, and andragogy, can be of considerable help in clarifying expectations.

4. Taking the approach introduced by andragogy, or adult learning

My practice is based on approaches and data which emphasise the 'learning' processes reported by the person themselves. Andragogy has been a term used to focus on this study of how normal adults learn. The core principles are already summarised in Sue Young and Lucille Maddelena [2] recent publications on ‘the good coach’.

Another excellent summary of this perspective of Andragogy (including Knowles’ work) is provided by Clardy [3].

As a reminder of the core principles:       

  1. Self-concept of autonomy and self-direction.
  2. A higher level of life background and experience.
  3. The need to understand the reasons for learning something.
  4. A learning motivation based upon personal need.
  5. A pragmatic orientation.
  6. An internally driven motivation to learn.

These are important, yet very general principles of how individuals learn. And people are all different. Studying human perception though quickly emphasises how different peoples’ perception can be – such as how witness’s reports of the same event can vary.

Knowles (see Clardy [3]) also lays out a next level of more practical detail. For me this outlines a more practical picture of how I see myself using this as a diagnostic process in the overall way practice works.

Practical processes for achieving these principles:

  1. Learners should be prepared for the learning program.
  2. A climate conducive to learning should be created.
  3. A mutual planning procedure should be used that involves the learner in planning what the learning will cover.
  4. Diagnosing learning needs. First, desired outcomes are identified, and second,  discrepancies between those desired outcomes and the learner's current abilities are noted. The result is a self-assessment of what the learner wants to learn.
  5. Specifying learning objectives: identifying practical stages involved.
  6. Designing the learning program.
  7. Operating the program: Here, the teacher acts more in the capacity of a facilitator,
  8. Resource person and mutual student than as independent expert.
  9. Program evaluation.

There is still a great deal more specification needed than is outlined here. For example, what exactly is meant by ‘climate conducive to learning’? The other missing element is how exactly ‘facilitation’ works.

Nonetheless, this practical process is an outline for a contract. This particular contract captures learner goals and shows how those goals will be pursued and evaluated. This begins to be a description that is similar to the growing practice of formal coaching contracts, where the contract is a formal specification of expectations.

5. Considering my own patterns of practice – and extending the idea of collaboration to peer groups

The pattern of practice that I am particularly interested in sharing is where collaboration is geared up even further than just between a coach and a single coachee.  I have increasingly found that the process of collaboration often works most powerfully when undertaken in a group, with other ‘peers’.

This provides a really essential range of perspectives for all concerned – e.g. when there is both a consensus about matters worth anyone’s attention, and it is not just the coach or even the coachee by themselves just trying to make sense.

The language of peers is also often more relevant because they can more easily recall evidence and examples that can be/are more relevant.

The ‘workshop’ approach

I have found in practice that getting a ‘joint’ diagnosis can be considerably enhanced by applying some key principles:

  1. Including peers in the process directly.
  2. Enabling the peer group to lead the agenda and exploration.
  3. Selecting expert input according to their direction and focus.

Formally, I find this takes place in a workshop, or development centre approach.

Importantly this also includes a 1 to 1 (i.e. ‘currently typical’ coaching) with each participant also on a personal and confidential basis before and after (and until the peers themselves can take this over!)

In my practice experience, coaching works best when it involves multiple sources of data, live and direct - and not just on paper: it’s the combination of one to one coaching, expert perspectives, as well as living realities of perspectives by people with more intimate knowledge of the circumstances.

Working in peer groups, or teams, can be more demanding for the coach. It requires attention to a wider range of dialogue, as well as ensuring that you keep pace with how the dialogue is developing through a number of stages.

A Practical Example/Coaching Approach to Workshops

Initial Contracting: This is started by a person with the wherewithal to call people together. Typically, in organisations this will involve a person in a position of authority to make this happen

Preparation: Any event starts as soon as people hear about it; not when they arrive for the formal session. It is important to ensure the right atmosphere/conditions are set from the start. For example, the person in authority communicates clearly their own readiness to learn as part of the event!

Duration: A workshop may be a two hour session over lunch or last for several days. It may be a set of events separated over time, rather than one single event. However, it does typically involve people being in the same room. Current technology however is also creating more effective options for physical distance not to be a barrier.

The theme: There is usually a theme on the table to be able to start the exploration … such as ‘leadership’ or ‘strategic futures’ and the key is to get the participants to share their thoughts on the theme (A real organisational matter is best rather than an abstract issue.)

Participants views first: Whatever the starting point for the activity – say ‘leadership’ or any other organisational theme, a workshop approach gets the participants to express, share, and discuss where they come from on the starting theme, first.

This may need some coaching/facilitation and structuring. Participants may need confidence building about expressing what they really believe, as well as paying attention to their peers’ views.

Perspectives that add to participants’ views: After the views of the group have been expressed, shared and discussed, it may well serve to bring in something appropriate from the background of wider learning on the theme. E.g. appropriate theories/research to the subject concerned, to add/confirm the sense the group already has formed for itself.

Participants form an agenda: Usually the participants have already expressed a great deal of what is involved – but in their own language and terms. This builds their confidence in further setting the agenda for them as a group in a powerful atmosphere of collective collaboration.

Continue the dialogue/exercises: Which may be designed to enable dialogue about real circumstances.
1. I find this is often a powerful means by which individuals can review their own behaviour – getting perspectives from colleagues – not just ‘experts’ or coaches, and exactly what could make a valuable difference.
2. Participants may also bring in matters arising from the dialogues on a one to one basis. However the language and experience of peers is really important ‘diagnostic’ data for any of the individuals.

Normally, people are then well motivated to search for the actions that are the outcomes from this exploration.

I find there is also a natural tolerance and comfort with this form of process. It sort of makes sense to people on an intuitive basis.

6. Conclusions / Next steps …           

  1. Personally, I have found it useful to consider how the idea of diagnosis can be a useful lens for making sense of what can be a complex process in coaching.
  2. This complexity is especially in evidence when needing to ensure coaching is a collaborative process;
                * between the coach and coachee
                * when the added value of involving others in a more collective and collaborative process as peers.
  3. The reality of how fragile information is and how it can only ever be a ‘perception‘ – and thus always subject to being a partial, rather than total understanding of what is happening, makes this wider testing of collaborative diagnosis especially important.
  4. The short summary here of these perspectives, is for me, a good basis on how to build this insight further into my practice.
  5. It would also be valuable to get similar experience of practice such as that  mentioned here, in order to share, compare, and build our collective understanding.

[1] Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014 © HarperCollins
[3] Clardy: