Making sense of how the detail of behaviour works in Coaching – and forming greater awareness of this most important frontier for progress in Coaching by Jeremy Ridge


Part 1: Introduction

I still find important gaps between my awareness of what actual Coaching practice involves, and what standards, or level of understanding, I believe is needed, that I can use to keep my awareness high about what matters in my practice.  

I will refer, here, to some direction towards the sort of standards that work best for me. The important focus I look for is one that helps to appreciate the ‘explosion’ of detail about behaviour data available in any living second in any Coaching Dialogue.

  • This behaviour may be at the level of both verbal and non verbal; and each behaviour may have ambiguities to be interpreted, and understood.

  • And then, as well, each behaviour moves at a massive pace … second by second.

Continuing exercise of awareness, about my own behaviours, as well as the important interpretation of others’ behaviours are really key to my continuing best practice.

I may readily believe in how I practice, but it would also be useful to know where I stand in relation to what others do. Standards are one of the concepts that is often used to find such common perspectives.

1.1. I believe that behaviour is the fundamental focus, and evidence, to work with

As I see it, there are some fundamentals to Coaching, or what coaching may yet evolve into, that will last for ever,

  1. It is about behaviour, and

  2. Its interpretation by either of the two people involved.

What causes the behaviours that take place is central. But, until Coaches take their brain scanning machines into the session with them, and as long as people are not exercising choice, the only way to understand the sequences of causes, and effects, is through interpreting behaviours, and how they interact with each other, that is readily available as data.

This task of ‘code breaking’ of the meaning displayed by the immediate behaviours will always be there. And, the outcome of Coaching is eventually also about the behaviour of the Coachee – outside of the Coaching dialogue.

1.2. Continuing limitations in research and understanding of behaviour

The sophistication of human behaviour still stifles research into it. This is more to do with the limitations of traditional research, than the fundamental impossibility of doing it.

For example, there is still use of this term ‘chemistry meetings’ in Coaching, which reflects the poverty of consensus on what is going on in these initial coaching meetings. We have no agreed Coaching terms, or standards, for what is acknowledged as a central feature of practice in coaching. And so, it’s simpler to use a technically defined term as a metaphor from another field of knowledge as a way to get across how this complexity is inherent but still too challenging to define!

1.3. The challenges of using Behaviour as information

At any one moment, even in a single second of events, between two people there are a mass of variables all interacting.

  • Coaching is an interaction between just two people. It is more than words, given the physical proximity, and the display of all manner of other forms of nonverbal information.

  • It is also even more complex, because perception may be formed as much by prior information than current behaviours in that immediate moment. For example, another person’s previous experience in relation to the term coaching! What I think about how I behave is irrelevant. It is what is perceived by the other person that will matter.

1.4. Where is ‘best practice’ in making sense of the detail of behaviour up to? 

There is a huge list of all manner of frameworks and models [see the plethora shared in academia and consulting].  As summed up in a Wikipedia article [1] on psychotherapy alone.

“There are hundreds of psychotherapy approaches or schools of thought. By 1980 there were more than 250; by 1996 more than 450; and at the start of the 21st century there were over a thousand different named psychotherapies.”

Psychotherapy has had some opportunities to be a more studied field of practice, than Coaching, as it does deal with problems, due to repetitive, ( i.e. stable, ) albeit dysfunctional, forms of behaviours which make them easier to study.

Taking some opportunity to review the various, and immense, fields of learning relevant to coaching, helps to form a view about the understanding of this sophistication that makes most sense for me.

For example, my period of Doctoral study [2] was an important opportunity for enabling a thorough review on an interdisciplinary basis, rather than being locked in to one field in particular that reduces it to what can be simply measured. This then enabled me to carry out research that demonstrates the possibilities for achieving a basis for mapping out this understanding of the real complexities involved.

My post doctoral work continued as further investigation of setting up practice in the professional sense. The good coach has become that context that gives me, and other practitioners, the opportunity to work towards the rigour of reporting on this.

Part 2: Two cases to illustrate the nature, and importance of why this detail of behaviour matter

I hold two recent case examples that illustrate the issue in practical terms.

2.1. Case 1: Understanding the detail of behaviour is not (yet) an area Coaches lead in.

A private conversation was held recently with some leaders of a major (executive) coaching initiative in a Division of a major organisation. This was a combined initiative between internal as well as external executive coaches, and was being lead and co-ordinated by an internal Senior team of executive coaches

The Coaches involved in the initiative were talking about how to deal with a real surprise that they had come across.  Towards the conclusion of the initial cycle of the executive coaching programme that the coaches had initiated and resourced, they were faced with how to report on progress achieved. They had had real difficulty with knowing how to report on this, especially in a manner that would convince senior management of the added value of the initiative.

After a while, they took the courage to actually raise their difficulty with the Head of the Division, directly. They were then quite surprised to hear from the Director concerned that the Director had already carried out the evaluation for themselves; and they were very impressed by the progress they had found.

The question was raised – how did you find this? And the Director answered that they regularly work with, talk to, and observe people in the Division concerned, as a natural way of working. The Director had noticed many small, but significant, changes in patterns of behaviour amongst individuals receiving coaching. Of course, these changes were nearly always very small, even almost invisible, adjustments to on-going behaviours of the people concerned, but the Director was confident that this sort of progress, they themselves had noticed, was highly significant and very important to making an important contribution to overall results in many important ways. (more detail about this was offered – but, apparently, it was not requested by the Coaches involved!)

The Director was even able to give clear and specific evidence of a large number of quite small behavioural events that they considered very significant, from a wide range of people. The Director had not asked the people concerned for this evidence. They had taken it from observation during normal working.

I was able to pick up with the Director about the sort of detailed behaviours involved, and their context, more easily than trying to talk at this level with the other coaches who showed some lack of confidence about engaging in such detail about behaviours.

2.2 Case 2: Limitations around the leading edge in the field

Recently a colleague shared a personal experience with me. They had a very well established Practice in executive coaching. This person had recently been failed in an application for ‘accreditation/credentialing’ with one of the current coaching bodies. The cause of the failure stemmed from what was called a “real play” exercise (where a real person brings a real problem for a short opportunity for a coach to demonstrate their coaching.)

The reasons given for the result were to do with the coach having failed to give the observers the evidence they were looking for.

Outside the session, independently, and unknown to the observers, the real play volunteer came up to the coach / applicant, and thanked them for the session, saying “that was the most effective and useful 15 minutes coaching they have had on the issue from anyone, ever.”

Yet they had been failed by the ‘system’ – specifically for this exercise. Yet this coach was also able to well evidence a very successful, and long established Practice.

The executive coach concerned went on to explain to me …. “I know what I did was probably invisible to the observers. They just didn't notice the way I smiled, kept sincere eye contact and nodded as the coachee told their story. I used their words back to them. I didn't need to use coaching words as I could see that my attention to their words convinced them of my sincerity, and depth of appreciation in my understanding of them. It’s about the timing of nods and smiles; and the calibration of them in line with the coachee’s own caution and readiness, I got this right, and their reflection just took them further, without my overt and obvious direction.”

The coach went on to say “Thank goodness there are clients who appreciate the sophistication of what is involved ...that starts from evidence of outputs, rather than idealistic but superficial frameworks of inputs without reference to the major variable of how to interpret where the coachee is starting from, and how the coach can most effectively support progress. Thank you for enabling me to even tell this story. No one else has, They are all telling me what I should do, but which I have difficulty in getting to work.”

The levels of effectiveness achieved by the behaviours involved in this real play were so high, they had been apparently completely invisible to the nominated experts / observers.

2.3. Other examples where appreciation of the detail of behaviour can be shared

I do find that there can seem to be greater appreciation of the detail of behaviour among many people who are not necessarily experts.

  • Peer group conversation among experienced people – NB who may not be calling themselves coaches

  • Sharing observations with colleagues, ( and others who may be directly involved ) when the experience is shared. Eg working as a team in team coaching – yes, where the coaches are working as a team, with a client team, and so have common access to the detail.

  • Appreciating that depth of detail at the level of behaviours:

  • that integrates both the non-verbal and verbal communications into meaningful words

  • that captures the complexities of each moment alongside the broader context and

  • is that higher level of awareness of practice that I’m looking to maintain.

Evidence from experience based on outcomes from the real end users of coaching, has informed me that this is what is required to be both effective and efficient.

Evidence, to me, continues to fall short, however, in much of current academic, and other coaching literature, about what are really meaningful examples of best practice for how behaviour works in Coaching.  However there is one line of work that I have found to hold important prospects of starting a basis for the research and understanding required.

Part 3. The research outline that I find explains most of the behaviours that matter in Coaching

3.1. The importance of a research approach in forming shared knowledge

An important benefit of scientific approaches to research are being able to stand on the shoulders of other people’s learning, without having always to start from scratch. It is what makes our human society so rich.

The research approach, that has helped me the most has been extensively compiled by Robert Carkhuff [3].  This is a deliberate attempt to be integrative in a field that has still some considerable scope for being more integrative, than inventive. In particular, it provides some important technical language, ( and definition, ) for the detail that matters most about the behaviours that matter in Coaching.

I will summarise Carkuff’s research schema, and reach some examples of how I consider it was intended to continue the work as a basis for more extensive appreciation of this elusive detail of events taking place between people in this sort of coaching context. The research involved is not the final solution. But it is an important step along the road.

3.2. Where this research sits in the overall schema of our understanding, to date - The humanistic ‘school!’

I am still curious how the term humanistic is seen as a school, implying it is something of a limited approach only considered as important by some people – and not by others.

A useful summary of schools – in contemporary Psychology is highlighted in [4]. This is a useful summary of how the wider field of Psychology, as the study of behaviour, and its causes, shows how research methodology constraints may still determine what a school is based on, rather than the practical scale of the issues involved. What gets studied is limited by what can be measured; and the methodologies of measurement can become more important than the relevance to practical opportunities to appreciate how behaviour works in something as living and dynamic as what Coaching aims to address.

Research into the humanistic approach followed the writings of Carl Rogers, in particular [4]. This approach is often referred to more as a form of philosophy because it lacks methodology. However, it is the recognition of the vision, rather than the proof, that appears to still catch the mood in Coaching.

For example, the Director in Case 1 was able to be fully articulate about their learning – in their own language - but you need to understand their language to research it. People tend to have their own definitions of words they use.

3.3. Robert Carkhuff’s lead towards an integrative approach

Carkhuff’s work was a compilation of research, and it went as far as it could go at that time. Even so, it resulted in identification of a range of key factors that appealed to me for my own experience, as well as my more formal research in this area.

The approach lead to a detailed framework of the major, priority, behaviours, and their interaction. (N.B. The general term ‘helping ‘ was still in use at the time of the research. The adaptation of the term Coaching was still to emerge)

This framework opens up access to the detail of the hidden gateways about how another person can open the gates in their interaction with another person, towards what Coaching aims to achieve, and how to leverage that elusive ‘transformational’ dialogue with detailed appreciation and understanding of what behaviours are involved.

Most importantly, this framework helped me start to put all the data about my practice, and even formal research, into a form that started to explain what was otherwise done intuitively.

It has also left a number of questions requiring further attention.

3.4. The Carkhuff research framework

The Carkhuff research framework is about the appreciation of the eight major areas of behaviour involved [5] that are each distinct types of behaviour that are all needed for the interaction to grow which is fundamental in coaching. Out of the eight behaviours only one focusses on the Coachee; and the other seven for the Coach.

It was acknowleged that each type of behaviour is still more of a category, than explicit description. But there are some behaviours that matter more than others, and it is important to appreciate this. Each type of behaviour is also described very simply using a scale format – meaning to have more of and less of it.

The complexity of behaviour, and its measurement in this context is made even more complex because behaviour is measured more by how it is perceived, than its intention. Hence whether a behaviour had an effect can only be measured by the reaction of the other person.

3.4.1    The Coachee Behaviour

The primary driver is the behaviour of the Coachee that matters, which is termed SELF EXPLORATION. In effect this is a term that refers to the Coachee’s tendency to value having effective support for their continued learning.

3.4.2    The Coach behaviours

This is relevant to the support of the process are categorised into two sets. The behaviours that matter at first are described as facilitative. When the foundations have been created, the later behaviours move to an emphasis on action oriented.



            Action Oriented:


These terms are open to very different forms of usage. For example, confrontation is about behaviours that enable the coachee to confront themselves (for example, suddenly realising the assumptions they may have been making about a matter, that were worth checking) not for the coach to be confronting.

The first four facilitative behaviours are part of a critical initial process. This is an important foundation, and psychological contract building process – like building trust – that is required before the Coachee builds their confidence in disclosing their intimate details relevant to the use of more action oriented dimensions involved in specificity, confrontation and action orientation

The work provides detailed examination of how these processes often work in relation to each other. However, despite the considerable detail in the way the material is written up in (1) and (2), there are still quite a lot of opportunities to consider developing the framework further and in more detail that aligns with Carkhuff’s original intention for doing this research.

The reality of practice brings these details into awareness on a regular basis; and in turn informs and adds extra insights into the how the detail works, or not.

Part Four: How Practice needs this framework to make sense of events, and how Practice can generate further stages of understanding of how the framework operates.

If we take the structure of the Carkhuff findings there are a number of important focus points that need to be continued both in research, as well as helping to stimulate and guide my attention to reviewing Practice.

First:  The challenge is greatest when trying to understand the most appropriate way of behaving with Coaching’s prime target audience – Individuals who are healthy and effective already.

Dealing with healthy people is a real dilemma for research. This is still almost a forgotten major issue. It is still too complex for available methodologies. We can achieve some statistical groupings around some sort of stimulus. But it is still a challenge to deal with the one, rather than large sample groups.

Second:   The importance that coaching starts with the behaviour of the other person, and then lead from this. It is about what is perceived, and how it was received, not just what was intended.

Third: The term self-exploration was used as a generic term for a complexity we are still exploring with many other terms. For example, learning has been a major area of study for Psychology. Yet it is scarcely referred to in Coaching.

Fourth:   the overall process: facilitative to action oriented. Why is facilitation so important? What invisible factors are so important here?

Fifth:  The complexity of ‘re-visiting’ by the coachee .

The whole process is not a simple linear one. People always introduce behaviours throughout that can aim to go back, to check, or build even further, on some of the facilitative behaviours they are looking for from the Coach

It could be called trust building – one of those concepts that everyone agrees is key – but again – so difficult to research.

Sixth:  At any one moment of behaviour, the Coach has to also keep the context of the whole relationship in mind.

For example, people often revisit different phases of the dialogue – as they build their own concentration around it.

Seventh:  How do the different components of behaviour involved function separately

For example, self-disclosure is a particularly intriguing form of behaviour to explain in greater detail.

Eighth:  How to go beyond a simple scale – where next? - particularly in terms of significance of the outcomes.  A scale simplifies the idea, but there is a great deal more that can be possible in the identification, and measurement of significance. How do different sequences of behaviour matter, in relation to the whole?

Ninth: How to integrate the factor of ‘perceived scale’ by the coachee, rather than ‘intended’ function of the behaviour used by the Coach.  How to interpret the Coachee’s framework for making their perceptions of behaviours by the Coach? For example, a smile may intend good will, but it may be perceived so very differently.

And this is only a short list of the further opportunities for building more insight into this whole area! As well as making sense of the detail of my practice.   I look forward to the chance to move beyond being able to have such further dialogues with peers, colleagues and - even ordinary friends

Part 5. Conclusions and Next Steps

It has been very valuable to find expression for making sense of the areas that are of such importance in keeping my own practice sharp. I can feel like one of those athletes who have to keep on training, even when previous performance suggests they are already performing well.

The potential value of an Integrative framework for all the differences in approaches in the Coaching Field remains important.

The difficulty with a framework such as mentioned here is that it it is still likely to be too complex for the levels of interest many people would have for the subject. After all it is easier just to get on with doing it – intuitively – rather than painting the abstract picture of how and why it was all happening in the way it happened …

The next steps, involved, for myself, is to celebrate the space created by the good coach for others to paint their picture of how it makes sense to them.

To connect with Jeremy Ridge

References and Foot notes
2 Ridge, J. (1975) The Development and Operation of the Effective Interpersonal Relationship Skills relevant to Career Development Problems from Staff Assessment at an Industrial Research Laboratory, PhD, The University of Aston (Available to download)
3 Helping and Human Relations: A Primer for Lay and Professional Helpers, Vol. 1: Selection and Training (v. 1) Robert R. Carkhuff ISBN 10: 0030812143 / ISBN13:  9780030812149  Published by Thomson Learning, 1969; Helping and Human Relations: v. 2 (Helping & Human Relations) Robert R. Carkhuff ISBN 10: 0030812151 / ISBN 13: 9780030812156 Published by Thomson Learning, 1969
5 Full detail can be accessed through original works reported by Robert Carkhuff, (1) and (2) , (or, access to my Doctoral thesis (3))