Giving a Shape to Coaching Practice – my identity and my ‘Home’ for work! by Jeremy Ridge

People often refer to having a ‘coaching practice’, but my curiosity is frequently aroused by what this practice may mean at a practical, and meaningful, level. 

I think Bill Green has put together a useful perspective on this term, Practice, and writes: “it is a term that circulates incessantly, and seems constantly and sometimes even compulsively in use, without always meaning much at all. Rather, it seems to float across the surface of our conversations and our debates, never really thematised and indeed basically unproblematised, a “stop-word” par excellence. [1]

So – what is practice for me? 

My Practice seems quite like a reflection of me. It is something like an identity. As well as being something like how I choose to live – as evidenced by the ‘ home ‘ I live in.  And the detail and shape of how we set up our domestic home is always unique – just like the detail of each Coach’s practice.

Practice seems to be an idea that has emerged from the evolution of speciality services also often linked to being professional. However, the term professional can be used very differently. Some people refer to being professional because they earn their living by providing these services. Others refer to professional because they go further, and are a member of a professional community which identifies the shape and substance (types of relevant knowledge) and their boundaries, of practice, as well as accountability.

SHAPE, for me, is like a map which identifies substance and boundaries between different elements - such as land and sea. There is still a considerable diversity in views about the substance of Coaching. However, when someone talks about a coaching practice this suggests that there is some form of shape or recognisable shape. 

There are indeed established shapes in other professional practices; for example, in the medical profession.  One easy form of shape, for me, arises in the stages of evolution of my Coaching Practice. This also builds further on previous blog/articles for the good coach ( )

PART 1. Preparing the ground for shaping Coaching Practice

Even starting with simple ideas such as shape still raises some other questions, for example, about the sort of substance, and boundaries, involved in approaching creating a meaningful picture of Practice. Five themes come to mind from my experience of how we are making more sense of Coaching.

1.1 The Sources of Knowledge required

Knowledge is traditionally assumed to be understanding that is reasonably stable and reliable. Definition is agreed and meaningful.

Conventional science leads the way in this. Albeit limited to whatever methods are available, which can then limit the knowledge however. Statistical significance is still a form of value judgement, as with probability estimates, for example. Another example, the current approach to much research in coaching may not best be the simple extension of many current practices in fields like psychology, economics or other social sciences because of the changed boundary conditions and the nature of the knowledge involved.

It seems to me that the greatest knowledge about how coaching works lives in the heads of practitioners. This experience form of research is a form of knowledge with evidence of achieving results, for the practitioner, (and others they are working with,) compared to traditional approaches to evidence in academic journals, (or books.)

In Coaching, Practitioners seem to operate from a book (of knowledge) they have learned personally, of their own that becomes the Home they operate from. This still doesn’t yet get well researched or reported. 

In effect as Yvonne Thackray [2] concluded from her formal research of Constructing [Coach’s] identity:

“ A coach’s identity is sutured (as in the medical use of the term) from a plurality of identities and periods in their life history, becomes more closely aligned with the self".

1.2 The nature of identity

Many forms of identity still seem to be adopted from social contexts; (e.g. I am told I am English!). These can be expectations for living up to the identity I am expected to conform to.  Increasingly however, people are making choices that may still link to context, but become more personally derived, and unique to them, choices in the formation of their identity; and more internally than just externally derived.

This choice of more personally derived identity can then become an important basis for Practice. It is the reality of how a particular person creates patterns/shapes in their living. In Coaching, one unique person meets another unique person, and a unique exchange happens between them. Events, when described at a general level, might have similarities between different people. But the approach to dealing them will be unique…. And that’s the real essence and importance of coaching…creating the conditions for those involved to get to them.

This makes using conventional scientific approaches very difficult to apply to what is always unique as events, rather than reliably common!

1.3 Experience is the research that can matter most

Application of knowledge to a practical context; (e.g. the term technology – in the sense of inventing useful things or to solve practical problems) ideally requires perfect knowledge of the context! However, the context can also frequently be too complex to reduce to a simple framework. 

The continuous learning through trial and error, through experience, is the reality – even with mature professional practice models. For example, Kahn even goes so far as to suggest that real mastery in mature professions, such as Medicine, are also based on intuition, not just knowledge, due to the complexity of contexts, in practice. And that intuition is still something mainly learned through experience.

Table 1. Attributes of levels of performance in the context of healthcare – modified from professional standards for conservation, Institute of Conservation (London) 2003, web source (accessed March 2012). (3)

Table 1. Attributes of levels of performance in the context of healthcare – modified from professional standards for conservation, Institute of Conservation (London) 2003, web source (accessed March 2012). (3)

1.4 Coaching Knowledge (the how) and Coaching Operations (the what)

There is an important relationship between Coaching Knowledge, and Coaching Operations. I am always conscious of marketing what I do in an operational way,

  • that makes sense to what the user/buyer is looking for through the lenses of the words they use; and

  • for what is often involved as ‘the what’ as an ‘output’/ results focus, e.g. improving leadership development.

How to get to operational output has to be derived from the Knowledge about how to stimulate the coachee, as a person, in the Coaching situation, and is often separate and distinct from the knowledge of the market.

The knowledge that drive a coaching conversation are not always present in the conversation itself. For example, empathy is an important function in coaching, but the term is rarely used in the coaching dialogue itself. You do it, not talk about it!  The knowledge involved is often still poorly reported, and may be invisible in its real form even to the Coach involved. 

A meaningful picture of Coaching Practice has to cover this Knowledge Base – not just the Operational, or Business Model.

1.5 Patterns in Coaching Practice always continue to develop

There is some assumption that knowledge is stable. However, even in medicine, as knowledge grows, so a practice also has to continuously evolve – hence the requirement for formal continued professional development of many professional bodies.

This reality is even more the case with Coaching. Each new person I work with adds immensely to my appreciation, and knowledge about how others live. 

Overall, It still seems there are few conventions for reporting on the full detail of practice. However I want to make a start, and the most immediate way for this seems to me to start with more of an overview of important features of my Practice and how it has developed – through what can seem to me to be stages.

PART 2. Stages in my Coaching Practice

The choice for my level of description, here, hinges on more of a macro (and longitudinal study of self), than a micro view (of individual events). Within each pattern of each stage there are many other stages and patterns!

The stages I have identified are:

2.1    Building Knowledge during the Early learning focus
2.2    Making contemporary sense of the early learning Knowledge base
2.3    Researching the context - Organisations, and opportunities
2.4    Realisation of the Practice in particular operational terms - commercial
2.5    Scaling Practice to other operational  areas – coaching communities  

2.1 Building Knowledge during the Early learning focus

Main influence on Practice:  Collecting raw data on multiple similarities and differences between myself and other people.

My start was very formative. To be honest, I can remember, still, a lot about childhood, and the experiences of gradually building, through noticing similarities and differences with other people; as well as ways one builds in patterns of my own behaviours, and the consequences. This was the personal knowledge base I was starting to build. Choice happens, even in childhood.

The learning that emerged has been central to forming my approach to coaching that emerged. 

Summary of outcomes:

  1. Detached curiosity. For me, curiosity is a major ‘emotional’ type driver. In the sense of a strong internal driving force that influences much of my life. It involves the study of my reactions, compared to how others react to the same circumstances – even how circumstances are perceived differently!

  2. Follow the system: society has set up a range of opportunities / channels for those who want to enquire in the early stages of life –one universal structure everyone was expected to pass through is the education system. This became my fascination. Friends settled down. My curiosity took me on, and on, through its various stages.

  3. Not finding a place in the system. I passed exam after exam. But was still searching for how my identity fitted the social context. This stage was completed with a first academic degree in economics. This syllabus still did not enable me to settle on a clear direction, however.

2.2 Making contemporary sense of the early learning Knowledge Base

Main influence on Practice:  Enabled me to establish a clearer foundation and focus for what I could bring to (coaching) practice from other established bases

I had a lot of data, but I was still searching to make sense of it in the wider social context. I was still looking for a direction. It was time to start to appreciate how people choose a direction more formally!

I was fortunate (or made a choice without realising it!) to have ended up at a university that was interested more in practical knowledge, as well as academic knowledge. I was invited to combine disciplines, to extend my interests by combining Economics and Psychology, because Economics was seen to be part of a wider whole of the social sciences. In particular, reference to Psychology enabled an appreciation of the major field of Individual Differences, in organisational settings. This added important perspectives on the basics of knowledge available in the wider field.

I started with a Master’s degree, in Applied Psychology This enabled a first work at adding the Knowledge to a practical context [3] and then ventured to a cross disciplinary Doctoral study [4].

Summary of outcomes:

  1. Links to current Knowledge: This enabled me to get at the current frontiers of where knowledge about the wider social sciences was up to.

  2. Rigorous Study and progressive testing of the use of my Knowledge both formal as well as learned, (in a Doctorate) in a practical, operational, context

  3. Forming an articulate (to me anyway) basis for the knowledge – both personal as well as formal - to form a basis for my Practice.

2.3 Researching the context - organisations, and opportunities

Main influence on Practice:  This entailed a focus on a particular context – the knowledge for how to approach the structures and language often involved in organisations on a wider basis (moving beyond the start provided from my Doctoral research) to both test and refine my strengths in practice.

The ultimate achievement involved in practice is the positive reaction created by circumstances I can create.  The complexity of the context often involves important learning about the context, as you become involved ( a form of careful research.) This also hinges on the positive readiness of the other people who might be involved to be able to be attracted to opportunities rather than being unable to progress with where they had got to with the opportunities they saw – hence why Coaching is attractive, rather than the more clinical, problem oriented approaches.

Summary of outcomes:

  1. Finding how others in the field go about similar activities in application: in effect trying out various routes to contracting to add value (e.g. through commercial approaches). Employment in a role following my initial research/ expanding to different organisations (management consultancy)/work at established business schools.

  2. Test and build methods for my preferred way to go about it: I found that my learning about the foundations of practice added to what was being done by others. As well as learning where other approaches worked best compared to my own emerging preferred approaches

  3. Researching how practice partnerships were important in providing more powerful approaches: E.g. Working as a Practice Team, in team coaching, where my persona and knowledge could work well with some people, while other colleagues’ personas were also more appropriate to others. It enabled an effective team approach.

2.4 Realisation of the practice in particular operational terms - commercial

Main influence on Practice:  Once the learning about the context is tested and proved, my approach can be put to use – completing a cycle/cycles of combining Knowledge and Context knowledge from experience, to different operational contexts that met market demands.

This lead to the implementation of a more market oriented programme. I may present the product in a way that the client wants to hear. However, to me, I am still doing what I do no matter how it is called!

Summary of outcomes:

  1. Identifying, setting up and marketing set products based on Coaching. For example, a particular approach to a Development Centre (compared to traditional Assessment Centres ), which is similar to coaching, is enabling participants to lead and appreciate their own perspectives in/amongst a mix of colleagues/peers as well as adding, where relevant, structures from other sources – e.g. on individual differences to increase awareness. Forming a coaching relationship with each participant separately and then integratively with others involved ( eg in team-working ).

  2. Forming and scaling up teams to enable delivery of formally structured products based on Coaching. E.g. Running programmes of Development Centres across large sections of organisations

  3. Scaling of organisational interventions: Seeing how formal structure for interventions created many other less formal opportunities for making contributions requiring essential Coaching skills. (How Coaching can contribute significantly to Mediation by Jeremy Ridge)

2.5 Scaling Practice to other operational areas – coaching communities 

Main influence on Practice:  My curiosity, and experience of working with what others also bring,  then took me on to another Knowledge, and operational, context - connecting to others involved in similar operations of establishing this general practice of coaching for members of communities.

This involved getting further appreciation of how others worked in the field; and how the idea of community was evolving. There are still a wide range of forms of communities with Coaching in their title and focus. Likewise, the real challenge is the appreciation of the realities of practice that individual Practitioners really use – in practice. It is still a challenge to fit this all together.

Summary of outcomes:

  1. Researching a sample of various relevant communities. I had joined as a member a range of bodies – even establishing myself as a ‘Chartered Psychologist’. I took on a series of roles across different bodies as they clearly had different positions in the field which provided some mapping of the issues involved in getting greater connectedness between them.

    For example: Executive roles in a sample of relevant membership/aspiring professional bodies linked to getting the best out of people through particular attention in relationship behaviour: The ABP (Association of Business Psychologists), BPS SGCP (British Psychological Society Special Group in Coaching Psychology), APECS (Association for Executive Coaching and Supervision). In some cases I was a founder member (ABP and APECS) and even with the BPS SGCP it was still in very early years.

  2. Testing various initiatives within these communities. Executive roles can be primarily administrative, rather than leadership. There were still opportunities for leadership through launching a range of projects, and initiatives within these bodies. For example, with the approach to accreditation used in APECS.

  3. Scaling this understanding into my Practice in what I saw were priority areas - the good coach! the good coach provides a clean opportunity to re-cast the approach to appreciating the realities of Coaching Practice, and create a different form of system for its clarification.

PART 3. Conclusions and next steps

I stated in Part 1, above, that this exercise was a start. And Part 2 lays down some foundations, consistent patterns, about the identity, or shape of the home that is my practice in Coaching.

Practitioner Research:  Practice never stops learning and developing. It is the very nature of human life. In effect this is a form of research. There is also the need to appreciate the context for any learning. It cannot take place in a vacuum. Research into one’s practice, as practitioner research, can cover a wide subject area.

Identity, and my home, as well as my practice is a summation of my experience – reflecting its limitations, as well as its extent. It creates a shape, along with boundaries, that helps me, and others, become more aware of where we each stand, and operate.

Coaching embraces a considerable complexity of what can be involved. I have found the opportunity of the good coach a good opportunity to try some sampling of bits of this complexity, and it has been valuable to have this opportunity to approach a next level of overall perspective. This is by no means final, however!

The intuition referred to in Kahn’s table, above, is also, I believe something that can be researched and understood more explicitly for what it is, and what it involves. This piece has helped give more overt shape. There is still more intuition to explore!

For example:

  1. The bigger picture perspective used here. This is more like the current shape of the continents in the global picture! A lot more detail could be added to the level of shape chosen here.

    However it is also possible to get lost in the detail – not seeing the wood for the trees. This perspective, here, gives me a more connected view than the hectic pace of every day Practice can sometimes demand.

  2. The Evidence base involved in this perspective: What matters in this approach to reporting is the sense making it offers to me. I have plenty of more detailed evidence, in mind. It is another matter altogether to produce this in the still early forms available of formal evidence presentation.

    I’m mindful that the level of evidence presented here lacks some standards required in research elsewhere. However, research, in the more academic sense, can also lack the methodologies for creating practical meaning.

  3. Finding the elusive Patterns of Practice can still be difficult for some. I am aware how difficult it can be for many in the Coaching field to find patterns in their practice. This does not mean they are not there – rather it can be difficult to see that wood from the trees. This exercise has been useful to demonstrate some ways it may be possible.

  4. Knowledge v’s Operational aspects of Practice: The distinction between Knowledge, and Operational aspects of Practice are a critical feature.

    The approach developed during the Doctoral Research, establishing confidence about the nature of the essential [personal] Knowledge Base, was designed well enough to enable a longer term basis for Practice that has worked throughout.

  5. The opportunities for establishing this idea of Community of Practice in Coaching: I have found the good coach a very useful way of getting focus on some of the current dilemmas for establishing Coaching to be as effective as it can be.

    It is more than reporting the wider picture of what others are doing – in practice. It is the way I believe we can extend what we are personally doing – a real approach to researching oneself with a degree of rigour that becomes instinctively more attractive to others when they see the chance to better meet the real person – or the real Coach!

Question to consider: Can you see the value of sharing more of how you practice at a level of detail that speaks to your identity?

To connect with Jeremy Ridge

2    Thackray, Y. (2014) Building towards an Anthropology of Coaching: Constructing Identity, Masters in Social and Cultural Anthropology, University College London (Available to download)
3   Green, B. (ed) (2009) Understanding and researching professional practice, Sense Publishers
4    Conceptual framework for performance assessment: Competency, competence and performance in the context of assessments in healthcare – Deciphering the terminology    Kamran Khan & Sankaranarayanan Ramachandran     Medical Teacher Vol. 34 , Iss. 11,2012
5    Ridge, J. (1970) The Role of Experience in Management Decision Making, MSc in Applied Psychology, The University of Aston (Available to download)
6    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)