How writing about my Practice, with ‘the good coach’ is a valuable approach to Practitioner Research by Sue Young

1. Why “Practitioner Research?”

I’m definitely not an Academic, rather I’m a Practitioner, so how can I hold a practitioner researcher stance? I’m drawn to that as conveying greater objectivity, rigour, and independence in thinking.

My last piece was about sharpened articulation and confidence around what I stand for in my coaching practice that I’ve taken from writing with the good coach. My writing has progressively helped me pull together the various strands of experience, knowledge, values and beliefs that underpin my coaching into a more felt sense of coherence about what I bring as a coach; what I do and what I don’t do.

When I started this writing I deliberately kept it open, rather than being overly planful, and have been led by my natural emerging attention and energy. I have enjoyed this process of writing as a way of getting in touch even more effectively with my own experience, and exploring my underlying assumptions and thinking – which is what I get from approaching it as research.

However I recognise that, satisfying, as this is, my writing, has had other unanticipated outcomes and benefits:

  • In my coaching I notice I am becoming more confident, responsive and flexible in adjusting my approach moment by moment.  I do this in response to my own more close observations of the client at a more subtle level, with a light touch monitoring and adjustment approach throughout the session. Where I feel uncomfortable, or picked up discomfort from the client I have taken this as a signal and sought to be more open immediately with the client about my observations, yet it feels more relaxed and natural. 
  • I’m more actively open to the information coming from the client and, although I come with information from previous meetings and have contingency options in mind, I focus on being open to what the client brings – I make no assumptions. 
  • Since writing I also find myself more actively reflecting after coaching sessions. I feel I am becoming more reflective and conscious in the way I operate. My self-supervision reflections, note taking and subsequent supervision conversations with colleagues are richer.

Having heard the term bandied around, is this what ‘Practitioner Research’ means?


2. A bigger context for my interest in Practitioner Research beyond my personal practice

I have now been involved in writing for ‘the good coach’ over a period of about 20 months. In this time I have introduced new bloggers, and learning to help them find their true expression of their selves and what they stand for in their coaching practice in their unique context. 

I have also worked with the ‘blogitorial’ team, both getting support as an author, and in developing tgc’s collective experience and articulated approach, in supporting and guiding our contributing authors, as much or as little required.

I am involved and contribute to tgc operational team’s continuing dialogue and thinking about the vision and continuing development of tgc and its various publishing and research ventures.

As I have engaged in conversation with more coaches in their different contexts I have become more and more enthused about the potential innovation in the field of coaching that tgc brings. In particular the expression of people’s coaching approach, core values and beliefs, resulting in more active review of their coaching practice, both personal and in its bigger context.

There is growing confidence being shown by more tgc authors to share the moment by moment dilemmas, judgement calls and reflections on their experiences and what they might have done differently. Sometimes it’s more of an exploration of an underpinning theme in the context they work in, that they wish to explore; for example this blog/article I am writing now, a personal inquiry into the theme of Practitioner Research, and how that relates to my practice – past, present, and into the future.


3. A need for writing about Coaching that more reflects the realities of practice

It’s really difficult, as an experienced coach, to find any books or writings on coaching that explore the realities of the coaching experience. As a colleague recently said to me “In coaching books there’s currently a lot of theory written about for its own sake – it’s a bit sterile. Most of the writing about coaching is bland and too detached from the day to day realities of coaching in organisations.

Having attended several University coaching conferences recently with the theme of ‘practitioner research’ I was initially excited at the prospect to touch base with the ‘thought leadership’ in the coaching world on the subject of research in coaching and what that means. I’d already become tired with the dominance of the one-way presentation format of most of the professional conferences in our field. I still like to keep abreast of developments and themes emerging in the market so I do ‘check in’ periodically.

I discovered that I had misunderstood the purpose of these more academic conferences. The purpose was obviously to showcase students Masters and Doctorate dissertation research. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. The format was primarily one of presentations with space for questions. I sensed it was the academic constraints... a method led focus and a formal one-way presentation format. It forced an over generalised approach that did not allow for sharing or exploring of the more detailed and complex realities that research of real day to day practice would have explored.  

In summary, there’s little evidence of any real widespread sharing of practitioner experiences out there, which should be the foundation of practitioner research. What is the link between Practice and Research and how is that relevant for our work as Coaches working with organisations? What is the definition of Practitioner Research anyway?


4. What do the writings in the field have to say about Practitioner Research approaches?

Defining the territory….

Rather than throwing that label around glibly, I thought it worth surveying the field of theory and writings around the themes of ‘Practitioner’ and ‘Research’, by starting to outline my understanding of the map.

The simplest of these seemed to be the term ‘Practitioner’. According to ‘dictionary.com’ but very similar elsewhere, the definition was given as follows:

  1. A person engaged in the practice of a profession, occupation, etc. e.g. a medical practitioner.
  2. A person who practices something specified.
  3. Christian Science. A person authorized to practice healing

Translating this into our context, a practitioner is essentially someone whose main occupation can be specified. Out of interest, in the writings around it is associated most often with the established professions (legal, medical, teaching) or the public services.

Moving to examine the meaning of the word ‘Research’ it becomes more diversified. The meaning of the word derives from the medieval French word ‘recercher’ or to go about seeking. In the Oxford English Dictionary it provides the following definition: 

“A careful study of a subject, especially in order to discover new facts or information about it”.

Beyond this very generalised definition there are several different approaches / philosophies to research that can be broadly divided in two main overall categories – Quantitative and Qualitative Research. The first of these aims to quantify research outcomes to make them directly measureable so tends to be more ‘fact’ focused. The Qualitative Research approach is more concerned to understand participants’ subjective perspectives and perceptions.

While helping to “bound” the territory this still doesn’t help me come up with a more meaningful definition of ‘Practitioner Research ‘ in the coaching, or professional context.

Delving a bit deeper…learning as an experienced practitioner

It’s about rigor

Donald Schön, who, as an author and researcher was particularly, interested in how professions operate, in particular the link between thinking and action.  He made a valuable contribution through his introduction of the concepts of ‘reflection-in-action’ and ‘reflection-on-action’

The former is sometimes described as ‘thinking on our feet’. It involves looking to our experiences, connecting with our feelings, and attending to our theories in use. It entails building new understandings to inform our actions in the situation that is unfolding.

The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation, which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings, which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment, which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation. 

... The act of reflecting-on-action enables us to spend time exploring why we acted as we did, what was happening in a group and so on. In so doing we develop sets of questions and ideas about our activities and practice .” 

Schön also raised the professional practitioner’s “dilemma of rigor versus relevance”. 

I like this idea of research as it introduces the idea of rigor – a form of checking oneself out. It’s a form of self supervision. Many experienced and capable coaches operate intuitively and learning and adjustment takes place moment by moment implicitly. I believe it's only by reflecting back more consciously can that learning be fully integrated and applied going forward.

It’s being a change agent

I recalled my Masters (University of Surrey, MSc Change Agent Skills and Strategies – CASS) where research was a core strand. The terms ‘Action Inquiry’, ‘Action Research’, ‘Participatory Research’, ‘Practitioner Inquiry’, ‘Co-operative Inquiry’, along with ‘Self-reflective Inquiry’ were terms we explored. 

As ‘change agents’ working with organisations these forms of modern research approaches seemed to more accurately recognise the more participative context and the more complex and interrelated factors involved. Learning personally and collectively is also an inherent part of these kinds of research approach.

While there are differences in emphasis, depending on their roots, there seem to be some key principles they have in common:

  • The research focus is ‘with’ rather than ‘to’; it is inclusive and participatory. 
  • The research is action orientated. Lewin believed that the motivation to change was strongly related to action: If people are active in decisions affecting them, they are more likely to adopt new ways.
  • It can include 1st, 2nd and 3rd  person research , that is research on my own action, aimed at primarily personal change; research on my group / team, aimed primarily at improving the group and 3rd person, primarily at theoretical generalisation or large scale change

I see some links to coaching in these principles. 3rd person comes through in that in my coaching I will usually be trying to help my clients think about larger organisational / external realities that may need to be taken into account in the issues they are seeking to address.

There is importance in the insight around how a collaborative, iterative process and the emergent group consensus can achieve more, particularly in more complex contexts, rather than a necessarily strong, over simple, initial goal orientation.

Orme and Shemmins (2010) believe that various practitioner research approaches and models “demonstrate that “research mindedness” goes beyond a critical, practice-led reflection and understanding of existing research. and moves into the ability to use research skills within practice - to become "reflective practitioner researchers.

It can be seen that precise definition ‘Practitioner Research’ is very dependent on the particular professional and organisational context with its explicit (and implicit) cultural values, purpose and beliefs. Whatever the detailed research approach the essence is that of observing, capturing experiences and feelings as valid data. 

For me it requires an advanced level of capabilities in terms of being able to step outside and take a more objective stance that seeks to be open and receptive to seeing multiple perspectives.

It’s about continuous learning

Practitioner research would appear to be a continuous learning process. Learning theories linked to the idea of Practitioner Research that resonated with me when I first came across it a few years ago, was the concept of single-loop, double-loop and triple loop learning originally developed by Argyris and Schön in the 1960’s . 

  • In Single-Loop learning organisational members establish rigid strategies, policies and procedures and then spend their time detecting and correcting deviations from the “rules.” Little or no time is spent on investigating the reasons for the divergence.
  • In double-loop learning members of the organization are able to reflect on whether the “rules” themselves should be changed, not only on whether deviations have occurred and how to correct them. This kind of learning involves more “thinking outside the box,” creativity and critical thinking.
  • Finally in triple-loop learning, participants would reflect on the “rules” themselves – do these rules still serve us or has our environment and situation so changed we need to be reviewing our ways of working and how we learn, both individually and collectively, more fundamentally. 

It strikes me that this is at the heart of the territory I work with – coaching leaders at all levels in organisations. Helping my clients step back and see for themselves these multiple perspectives as the only path to sustainable learning and change. 

They also brought out as a key dynamic in people interactions the distinction between “espoused theory” and “theory in action”; the difference between what people say and what they do. This theory puts forwards that by understanding more explicitly their intuitively held “map of the world” helps individuals raise their levels of self awareness and be more capable of making conscious choices, firstly in their thinking and subsequently in their actions.

So, both Schön and Argyris appear to me to be taking more into account the nature of the natural learning process of practitioners working in an organisational context. 

For me, this draws out the real potential value to the practitioner of adopting more of a “practitioner research” mind set. This involves cultivating higher levels of objective Self awareness, awareness of the Client, and the bigger context.

In summary, I started to search for where Practitioner Research is explicitly taking place. It is still a relatively young concept (the past 25 years or so) so it is not widespread. Interestingly the sectors where “Practitioner Research” or Inquiry approaches are more explicitly used include Social Services, Education, Community initiatives and professions, where a ‘helping relationship’ can be core to their work.


5. So what is my interpretation and use of ‘Practitioner Research principles in my practice

  • The process of writing about my coaching practice is an on-going practitioner research process that I’ve incrementally developed and built on. It’s an awareness and ‘mindset’ you hold. For example going into a recent coach ”chemistry” session – what data am I picking up about the client – both individual and their context... what would build rapport with this style of individual with their expressed interests? What assumptions am I at risk of making? Am I the right person for them? Being open to the possibility I may not be. Noticing their behaviour, body language, expression and the direction and level of their energy and attention in the conversation and being sure to follow that and where (selectively) may I want to intervene, and with what intent?

    As part of raising my awareness, over the past several months I have redoubled my interest in capturing reflective, and research minded notes immediately after my sessions. I find this process of capture helps me more critically examine and retain key points I want to take forwards. Writing, and then reviewing, the words that give meaning to my experience provides a sharper opportunity to consider, and research, than other forms of reflection can bring.
     
  • The focus for practitioner research for me always operates at 3 levels – considering factors / influences at different levels; Self as Coach, Other (Client) and the Context (organisational stakeholders and the wider System or social domain.  In my day to day coaching practice these are 3 lenses that I hold, noticing what the client brings in from their bigger context unprompted, and what they don’t. 

    At all levels of management and leadership both individual and organisational learning are inextricably linked. For example an over controlling manager I was coaching recently came to his own personal realisation through the coaching process, that he was actually holding back the potential contribution of team members and how that was having a negative impact on the performance of the team.
     
  • It is an incremental developmental and action orientated learning process. Energy and attention evolve as you evolve and grow as a practitioner. I’ve adopted a ‘go with the flow’ approach, trusting myself at any point of time in terms of themes and whatever issues are drawing my attention at that point in time. It’s a continuous learning and adjustment process.
     
  • Writing blog /articles integrates and embeds current themes coming out in my practice and approach. The writing process stimulates more active reflection, observation, highlights fresh perspectives and helps me make sense and integrate my evolving experience into new thinking and action. Only writing I find personally, helps me make more explicit to myself what I think, drawing on my experiences and reflections to develop new insights. I find, even when I have stimulating and perspective extending conversations with others. Writing, even if only personal notes, helps me integrate and take those insights forward in more tangible form.
     
  • I actively encourage my clients to adopt a more curious approach to observing themselves and others and situations, drawing on their observations and experiences more explicitly. Typical outcomes from my clients are deeper awareness, reflection, clarity and confidence in direction. So, in my coaching with managers and leaders, I see part of my overall goal is to help them become more “research practitioners”, i.e. more naturally seeking multiple perspectives, drawing on different sources of data to inform their choices. 

    For example, I was recently coaching a senior manager who had taken on the lead in coordinating a Change programme following organisational re-structuring. Our conversations helped him step back and see there were some gaps in his knowledge of some key stakeholders agendas and aims. There were a couple of more remote but key players that had not come onto his radar, but he realised they certainly had the power to stop things happening if they were so motivated. Before our conversation he had not identified the need to get more closely alongside them to understand where they were coming from, and what levers he could best be seeking to pull on to influence their thinking.
     
  • Peer exchange, in my experience, under the right conditions, extends and enriches insights. It provide additional insights from listening to others experiences. However the right conditions need to be created in the group. Building trust is fundamental and building rapport around objectives – individual and collective - is really important, including having respect for differences and genuine interest in others’ perspectives. Once trust in the group and the process has been established, self-disclosure and openness of sharing perspectives lead to producing deeper and higher quality data on experiences and perspectives, the real foundations of practitioner research.

6. Conclusions

This piece of writing, and investigation, helps me conclude, that in being a more effective Practitioner Researcher, there are many overlaps with what I already do with my clients – encouraging greater ability to step back and see multiple perspectives, extending their perspectives on the options available to them and think both more creatively and critically. 

The relational context of coaching is all about holding an open inquiry towards one’s Self as an important part of adopting a ‘researcher’ mind-set. All of this is core to learning, again core to what coaching is all about.

It has been important to link the idea of writing to the idea of researching. Both these words can have many meanings, but it helps to clarify what they can mean for me, in my practice.

It has also been valuable to research what others in the wider community have considered, before, that can help me make sense of continuously developing my practice.

I also see it is a “mindset” thing. To be a true practitioner researcher we have to go into our clients with an open mind. If we are too locked into our preconceptions and a planned approach, then we’re at risk of not creating the environment that enables our clients to fully explore and express what they need to as part of their personal learning journey.

Also retaining the objectivity and rigour that a “research” mindset requires will enables us to be better able to examine the data in front of us, including our own observations and feelings – all data that better enables us to see more clearly what is going on with the client. Certainly, writing with tgc about my practice helps me do this.

In conclusion I do see myself as a Practitioner Researcher, albeit a continuously learning one!

Do see yourself as a Coach Practitioner Researcher, and what does that look like for you in your context?