Making sense of what I do, how my coaching practice is taking shape by Yvonne Thackray

My coaching practice has evolved over time to focus on working directly with coaching practitioners: 

  1. Who are engaged in continually building and developing their own personal knowledge base that’s integral to their business practice by understanding what it is they’re delivering to their clients (with a level of certainty), and

  2. Who are interested in contributing their personal knowledge to a growing body of practitioner knowledge in the field of coaching for their communities, and society, more generally.

My assumptions and outline of an approach

To make sense of what I do and how it’s evolved, I have developed my understanding by inverting the best practices used to report on research (commonly used across all disciplines) which can be described as follows,

  • Making sense of the outcomes from my practice (the impact), which

  • Draws upon my own experiences as a practitioner (the results/data), and

  • Checking out my experiences, and influences, with others (literature &/peer review), that leads to

  • Understanding how I’ve gone about doing what I do (the methodology), to then

  • Make adjustments/refinements within my practice and see whether the outcomes are aligned with those changes, and then the cycle begins again.

I’m still in the early stages of this process because there are insufficient, as well as inadequate, frameworks readily available in our field (compared to other established disciplines and professions). Any information that is currently available rests on very narrowly defined boundaries and conditions, which has been extrapolated beyond its useful limits as a form of explanation that could then work across a multitude of contexts and scenarios. In my opinion, there is still so much to learn, experience and understand. And as a field, we’re still developing a language, let alone an agreed one with definitions, that gets to a level of understanding and detail of what’s really happening that consistently delivers robust results. 

Importantly, it’s the practitioner who has continuously found ways to deliver their approach to coaching to their market (which even academics/researchers have difficulties accessing), and have a business that’s ultimately being validated by the market by its longevity. They are the real researchers, and my practice revolves around understanding how they realize their practice by helping them share their experiences, their patterns of behaviours, and their approaches in their natural language. The impact of my approach can be seen by both the quantity, and quality (see criteria), of blog-articles published on the good coach (a repository) that respects individual differences (diversity) in such an inclusive field. 

For me, this is what practitioner research is, and should represent. Eventually these reports (blog-articles shared from practitioner experiences) can then help inform and build consensus towards best-practice (standards), even principles (ethics), which has been proven to work across a multitude of situations and contexts (profession) and better supports practitioners professionally. This is the desired future … meanwhile, let me share how I want to contribute to this.

Making sense of how I have been shaping my practice

Without a familiar and recognisable structure, it can be challenging to see what my practice is, especially when it is generally interpreted to mean how I practice my business rather than how I practice coaching. Both are important because they are strongly linked; they represent the necessary cycles of understanding between the market opportunities for the service provided (the impact) and the robustness of the service delivered (the how) that can then lead to further market opportunities. 

How I shape my practice, the way I’m using it here, can currently be described as working at two levels. At one level (external), it’s more around how observers see what it is I am doing which has some recognisable outlines that forms a shape that makes sense to them. The other level (internal) is more personal because it is how I access data, process it, and then make decisions i.e. cognitive patterns which shape my actions. And what I have learnt so far is how my coaching is being shaped through the decisions I made as part of my business practice (that included many peer conversations) which is beginning to be recognised by others.

What I share next are my top three drivers that have consistently been shaping my practice,  

  1. A conscious choice was made early on in my practice to choose to work with clients with whom I could deliver my best services to and not to be a one-size fits all type of practitioner. I realised quickly on, at the beginning of my practice which I call the testing phase, that I work better with independent, mature healthy individuals who are already mapping out their journey to live a more successful and fulfilling life, however they choose to define and measure it. I also understood my limitations, and wouldn’t be able to work with everyone on anything because it wouldn’t be fulfilling or making the best use of my strengths.

  2. I have a personal preference to continue my learning whilst working with clients, which helps me to continuously engage in my research enquiry around the field for coaching. And my clients have also decided for themselves how my coaching approach will help them to support them in the myriad ways they go about creating their future. This may never be fully articulated, more an implicit awareness and understanding, yet quality partnerships are being developed in which all parties involved are receiving value from realising this potential in different ways with growing confidence and clarity.

  3. My practice has also been driven around my curiosity for understanding how the standards purported in coaching haven’t evolved or developed since the inception of self-appointed bodies and their related training schools. There is a real gap between what I understood to be a professional used in other functional disciplines like engineering, law, medicine, compared to how it’s currently being used in coaching.
    • Being a professional invokes degrees of trustworthiness that any ‘registered practitioner’ will deliver best practices to their clients packaged in the wor¬¬ks contracted for ethically. They should regularly demonstrate, evidence and self-report to agreed standards and criteria in their accumulated working experience, periodic training and relevant academic education in order to maintain their recognised standing in society for the profession they represent.
    • These standards and criteria have been extracted from the current body of knowledge from which other professions rely on and confidently refers to because it has been rigorously tested and proven in various scenarios and contexts to reliably provide consistent results.

In coaching it seems that ‘being a professional’ refers more to the business models used to meet populist market trends because we lack a coherent and robust body of knowledge from which any practitioner’s practice can both build upon and contribute to that meets a fundamentally growing societal need in the market place. 

Assessing the wider coaching market as part of my practice

My interest in the field and market, and how I choose to practice, has stemmed from one simple yet open-ended question, ‘What is coaching?’ It seemed natural that the first port of call to find answers to my questions was by attending institutions that were deemed to be reputable in delivering the requisite programmes, with the added bonus that after completing their program work would be available (once you have worked out your niche). 

I attended a handful of institutions in different parts of the world in the hope of finding the answer; it was quite an initial investment that I thankfully recouped through alternative means. Over and over in my investigations, each of the coaching organisations (training schools, academic institutions, and conference providers) provided a general description of coaching that fitted the skills training model they were delivering. That model is fundamental to all the different stages of individual development in how to use it, and furthermore it can easily be adapted to various market opportunities because it operates at a level of generality.

A useful (and seemingly expensive) starting point to understand where the market is reported to being, is that coaching is the sum of your experiences of using proprietary coaching models!   
More recently, in some of the latest publications for e.g. ‘The Sage Handbook of Coaching’ – the proposed ‘go-to academic resource’ - the editors shared some of their opinions in their Introduction of where they see the field heading,

“… the demand for coaching services may continue to be strong for a very long time to come, albeit perhaps with more individualistic, industrialised societies where traditional social structures are less evident. Whatever the case, the ability of practitioners to deliver valued services will rest upon the existence of a rich and texted knowledge base that can provide good and relevant guidance for practitioners.” (pg 4)

“... it should be noted that this book is nor primarily focused on advancing the professionalization of coaching. Rather its primary aim is to stimulate the development of the knowledge base for coaching, thereby making a contribution to further establishing coaching as an applied discipline. As such, this Handbook requires no unified definition of coaching, irrespective of how desirable that might be in principle [it provides readers (usually practitioners) with an early indication of the author’s view on the fundamental question: What is coaching?]” (pg 5)

“…the intention of this Handbook is to provide graduate students, scholars, and researchers with a premier point of contact with the current theoretical and empirical knowledge base [through the use of rigorous scientific methods] along with many of the established and emerging debates in the scholarly literature.” (pg 1)

“Despite the explicit academic orientation of this book (concerned with mapping the field and critiquing the knowledge base), many authors seemed to be naturally orientated towards addressing the needs of practitioners, through recommendations for practice, rather than stimulating the creation of knowledge through thoughtful analysis of the literature and recommendations for future research.” (pg 18)

 “Until a reasonable way of conceptualising coaching is proposed, the onus will continue to fall to researchers to provide clear descriptions of the coaching intervention they study, in order for their findings to be comparable to others.” (pg 7)

The conclusions shared so far didn’t satisfy my curiosity; however they do provide a map of, a vision even, of where these experts see the field moving towards. Also, my list of questions kept growing and seemed to be outpacing the information that was being shared. The questions I’m currently holding is more focussed on how coaching is really being addressed in the market, for example, 

  • I realised that I am better working with certain individuals at different stages of their learning and development than with everyone. Why isn’t this addressed in any of the training or published media? How does andragogy and stages of development fit in with coaching? How do you know when to pass clients onto other coaches who would be better suited working with them? How do coaches talk more confidently about what it is they are doing? How do you appreciate individual differences and learn to access the client’s world through their use of language to explain what it means in their everyday context?

  • Accepting my services is one of the many contributions that is part of the clients’ schema. Is there a bias/overconfidence in how significant the coach’s contribution has been to the client in reaching their solution? When is it appropriate to be using ROI? How are those contributions really being measured? How do coaches more accurately talk about their contributions? How much do coaches understand regarding their clients’ real intentions for coaching? How often are coaches recontracting? Does age matter? How do coaches talk about the quality of coaching they deliver as the sum total of all of their learnt experiences to date?

  • It’s my responsibility to create and sustain the conditions for building the trust and rapport at the level of the readiness of the client, the real contracting. How is this really being measured? How aware is the coach of their behaviours and reactions to what’s been shared and impacts on how the client responds? How do we assess the level of readiness of the client to participate in coaching? How reliable are chemistry meetings? How much should be disclosed as part of creating the conditions for engagement? How much working knowledge of the client’s context is important in getting access to them? What’s the real ‘power’ dynamics in any coaching conversation? How do you decipher and select the right phrases and words to unlock further meaning behind the client’s context? How do you make those connections that are most meaningful in their context that lets the client know that you’re listening?

The real knowledge, a term itself that needs to be debated in our field, should contribute to, and be, a two-way street to learning and development that inspires dialogue, critical thinking and meaningful action that impacts and influences an individual’s confidence, maturity and independence to practice coaching. Nevertheless, there are different developmental stages to learning and hence each of these organisations do fulfill a service for different segments of society. 

Overall, it would seem that the key contributors have reached a plateau in terms of their real contributions to the field, and carving out where authority, or guidance, should lie in ensuring practitioners deliver good practice. For example, I have had to look elsewhere for answers and I completed a Masters in Social Anthropology to investigate coaching identity.

How my coaching practice is taking shape

I’ve developed and grown my specialism (or niche if you prefer) in, and around, coaching. The real knowledge lies with the real experts, the practitioners, 

  • who are doing it day in day out (regardless of whether they call it coaching or not),

  • in their chosen practice to supports others, and themselves,

  • to be better at what it is they want to continue achieving even more confidently whether in their professional and/or personal lives.

It’s quite radical, and still a long way to go for it to be acknowledged as the norm, for individuals to request professional help that focuses on improving the quality of life - living to our potential both personally and professionally. In addition, having access to considered written material that is readily available to those who are interested or curious about what is coaching, is limited with the current politicking in our field. 

My role as a coach is to help access those experiences (whether through conversations, writing or in combination) and help make them more readily available. Hence the nature and the shape of my practice, where my target audience (as the lingo goes) is mature practitioners of coaching, who can recognise the benefits of honestly reporting on their experiences and sharing their learning for both themselves and with other stakeholders including but not limited to other practitioners, peers, communities, the coaching field, curious individuals, and society itself. 

Mutual benefits are being shared through this contract, and what I have learnt so far coaching coaches, or applying my coaching approach working with practitioners, include:

1. Understanding further the contexts and cognitive patterns of each practitioner. 

Each of the practitioners I work with have their own unique styles and ways of operating in their practice, and it is important that I do not make assumptions of what it is they are saying, that may or may not match their actions or behaviour, without any clear reference points or facts. Otherwise, this results in inferring what’s being said rather than understanding what is actually being shared in their context. 

That is why when I participate in any conversation, verbally or as part of the writing process, I feel fortunate to be a part of their learning process because they are sharing their cognitive patterns of how they make sense of what it is they are doing within their practice. My approach to coaching, in both cases, begins with,

  • Appreciating their level of readiness, and

  • Where they want to take the conversation/theme that supports them in their practice.

These are some of my indicators for what I perceive to be of maturity and independence exhibited within a coaching practitioner. They have decided what they want to focus on and carry through onto paper that explains in various detail, and breadth, their practice. And with every iteration of working with each practitioner, there is measured growth and development and this is observed in the number of ways each practitioner then uses their blog-articles as part of their business development. 

2. Delivering my actions with care and consideration to build both respect and trust. 

Once I begin to grasp their language and meaning making that they are sharing through their words and approach to structuring, I begin to hypothesise further their motivations and intention. What it is they are looking to share in their latest piece, and I begin to ask more succinct and hopefully poignant questions (whilst also sharing where I’ve come from to make such a question) that helps them to consider and clarify that what they have said is actually what it is they are wanting to share. 

3. Appreciating different topics of interest, commitments and their motivation to find ways to continue their learning and development.

No one practice is the same because we are each working at different leading edges. Spending the time to talk and write about what is currently most important to them in their practice, and that they then continue to share in those pieces on a more regular basis informs me that this approach to coaching is working for them.

This is really an important part of, the ongoing contracting I have with them. Importantly, they are continuing to find novel ways to challenge themselves in how they want to talk about their experiences and share their learnings from their practice, and that I can continue to add value too. After all, coaching is a two-way street. 

4. Learning from others - mapping out the diversity. 

Having this opportunity to both work and learn from others has allowed me to continue my broader research topic of ‘what is coaching?’ I am just one practitioner amongst many, and I’m certain that I’ll never have the same exact experiences as others, but situations might occur where similarities may emerge and so we can learn from others.

I have also expanded on my own vocabulary.  It also allows for a more collective voice to be shared, as evidenced in various publications, that begins to extend in detail and expand in scope a more inclusive and sophisticated mapping of diverse coaching practices. 

Where next?

As I shared and outlined at the start of my piece, I am still at the beginning of understanding what my coaching practice is really about. I am more comfortable and focussed in exploring, and comparing, in more detail the first three parts (impact, results, literature & peer review) in making sense of how my practice is forming its shape against other known parameters.

I’m continually dipping in and out of building, deepening and, even in many cases acknowledging, those awareness’s and learning how to talk about it more explicitly as part of my practice. Reflecting on where next,

  • I am still developing my explanations of what it is I am doing in my practice, and what I’ve shared here are really the outlines and key themes of my practice which can be expanded on, for sure, more considerably. I have written elsewhere some pieces on these themes as part of my learning and development, and only now starting to integrate those thoughts of how it influences my approach to practice.

  • I’d probably say that what I’ve shared is still quite general i.e. it doesn’t have that specificity that allows others to reproduce what it is that I’m doing in their own way. As I shared earlier, I currently have simple metrics that informs me that what I am doing currently works, and I feel that it is through collaboration with peers that I’ll be able to begin to become more explicit in what I’m doing.

  • I’ll still continue reading, and learning from others how their thoughts and explanations compare to my experiences. This is how I learn and adapt what has worked for others and bring it into my approach because it lends itself to my practice. Working with peers, whether in a team and/or as individuals, will continue to help me better articulate my methodology which in turns help me better serve my clients.

I appreciate that what I’ve shared will make sense to some, more than others, and for sure this is just one of the many ways to talk about the shape of our practice. I’ve covered some core principles and key learnings that mark the foundation of my practice, and how it’s perceived to be recognisable in a normal market place. Furthermore, I continue to enjoy recognising how my identity is intertwined with what I do in coaching, and how important it is to acknowledge those biases as part of my sharing (rather than leaving them out).

I’m curious, “How would you begin describing the shape of your practice?”

To connect with Yvonne Thackray

Bachkirova, T., Spence, G. and Drake, D. (2017) The SAGE Handbook of Coaching. 1 Edition. SAGE Publications Ltd. ( )