Time for a paradigm shift in coaching – my call for a turn towards autoethnography by Margaret Chapman-Clarke (Guest Author)


It is 7.15 pm. on a Monday evening. I am sitting overlooking Scarborough’s North Bay. There are four mature gentlemen in evening dress, complete with bow ties posing for a photograph with the castle ruins and the sea as the background. I don’t see that often in this part of town. Most people dress in shorts, t-shirts and flip flops, with children carrying buckets and spades. It is sunny. The sea is calm. I have been reflecting on what I might write to succinctly capture the peaks and troughs of coaching (past, present and emerging future).

So I start with my story, looking back at my key contributions to the field and the journey that led to my ‘discovering’ autoethnography.

I am living between two ‘centres’. This one, Scarborough, is what I call ‘centre two.’ It is where I am at my most creative. Centre one, is York. This is where I get embroiled in ‘the stuff of everyday life’ and my professional work as a psychologist. Both centres allow me to do what is most important to me and my practice – I research, write, speak, design and lead mindfulness and compassion seminars and coach. 

Scarborough is also the place for storing my papers and back copies of journals, and where, it seems my story is located. Here I have books and files from those early days of coaching and its rise as a phenomenon. 

I have a quick look through my papers and I am surprised at how extensive it is.  2004 stands out as a particularly significant year, so that’s where I will begin

My key highlights from 2004

  1. It is the year that I and fifteen psychologist peers proposed the establishment of the Special Group in Coaching Psychology within the British Psychological Society.

  2. It is the year in which I designed the UK’s first Psychology of Coaching programme for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

  3. It is the year the CIPD drew together a number of experts in the field, who helped publish the first Buyer’s Guide to Coaching and Coaching Services. The desire of these early ‘movers and shakers’ was to produce response to challenge what was perceived as the ‘wild west of coaching’.

  4. The newly emerging coaching bodies were forming and making tentative steps towards collaboration, also with the intention of wanting to do something about the ‘cowboys.’

  5. The CIPD launched a new professional magazine Coaching at Work and I joined the editorial board.

  6. Meanwhile, a number of key players who had been proponents of mentoring for two decades were asking what was new about coaching, and therapists described coaching as the ‘new kid on the block’.

  7. I was calling for an evidence-informed approach in a BPS journal, the Selection and Development Review.

  8. I spoke in Sydney Australia, as the only British speaker at the first international conference on evidence-based coaching sharing my work in emotional intelligence and team coaching.

The coach is dead: long live, the accredited coach!

As I look at these key highlights from 2004, I wonder what really is new!

I am reminded of a key text by the American psychologist Tim Hall, who wrote in 1996, that the ‘career is dead, long live the career.’ He was commenting on the media hype that was heralding the death of the traditional, hierarchical career; which, from my research at the time, if it is dead now, it was very much alive and well in the minds of the Building Society managers I interviewed. However, a critical aspect of that study, I recall now, and which still remains the driving force behind my work are the managers who said respectively that ‘all development needs support’ and ‘everyone needs someone to help them to develop at work’.

Back then, my recommendation was, to quote the title of a book by, one of those early movers and shakers, the late Eric Parsloe “everyone needs a mentor”.  Now it is as if ‘everyone needs a coach’ provided it is an ‘accredited coach.’ There was no need for the Berkeley Consulting Group to worry; coaching has not been assigned to the executive fad graveyard!

Coaching has been saved from the ‘executive fad graveyard’ [1]

It’s 2017. We have come a long way since Stratford Sherman and Alyssa Freas wrote their piece for Harvard Business Review entitled the “Wild West of Coaching”[2] ! Professional bodies are now global and set their own standards for membership. They collaborate. The Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) are at the forefront of accrediting, what Tony Grant calls the third generation of workplace coaches, managers who coach.  

Such is the foothold of coaching today, that in a blog entry for People Management on 25th July 2017, Jane Simms presents this skill as a given:

Jonny Gifford, the senior adviser for organizational behaviour at the CIPD, asserts that: “…we need to see a similar shift in attitude towards conflict resolution as we did to coaching a decade ago. “Mediation-type skills need to be a core part of what it takes to be a good line manager, just as coaching skills now are.” [3]

A maturing field, at what cost?

So how did we get here and what have been the costs and benefits? 

In the March 2017 issue of Coaching at Work, I was asked what I had observed since those heady days of the ‘wild west’ and the time when everyone called themselves a coach (usually after a weekend course!).  I noted how the field had matured, and it was now at a stage, where like so many emerging professions, it was looking to gain credibility; seeking standardisation and a need for potential members to demonstrate evidence against competences. 

Yet in this drive for standardization and these calls for mastery we are at the risk of being reductionist. We are at risk of closing down innovation and creativity. 

I noted a word of caution.

These competency frameworks are fast taking on a life of their own and in our desire to be seen as a legitimate profession, rather than an area of practice, we risk losing something really quite precious if we do not get back to recognising what is the essence of coaching. Which is, providing a special, dedicated space where two people engage in a dialogue.

This is often, certainly in my work, an existential meeting where these individuals connect, each bringing their own story, one helping another to create a new story with which to navigate their world.

Autoethnography: An antidote in a post-truth age

A decade on from when I started sharing my story, I continued with my practitioner-based research, looking for that elusive evidence-informed approach that captures the essence of coaching. I discovered autoethnography.

In 2015, I called for peers to turn towards autoethnography[4]. This is an approach which calls for an inclusion of the self and our experiences in practicing and writing about coaching. This means making explicit what underpins your, my and our worldviews as coaches and making transparent the how of what we do, not hiding behind techniques or calls for mastery. It is to know ourselves first, or as Jackee Holder put it in her keynote at this year’s Coaching at Work conference; “to know our story”.  

Autoethnography speaks to the current zeitgeist in which members of the good coach community are at the forefront; this is the move towards narrative and creative approaches in coaching. It is illustrative of a broader trend, which is about healing the split between our cognitive and embodied ways of knowing and being, a split which Richard Strozzi-Heckler suggests has for too long plagued coaching. [5]

Critical Reflexivity, Humanising Practice

Writing that speaks to an ‘autoethnographic turn’ in coaching requires that we make explicit what informs our practitioner and authorial voice; our story. This means being critically self-reflexive, what in autoethnographic work is descried as ‘being vulnerable with a purpose’ [6]. In an age of post-truth, relative truth and even ‘downright mad opinion’ we need to get back to what it means to be engaged in a conversation with another human being, who is struggling, as we too struggle.

The narratives such as those that appear in this book; the two previous texts and those that appear regularly on the good coach blog ‘tell it like it is.’ They are autoethnographies, stories that are lived and are told with integrity, passion and a genuine desire to reveal experiences of what it is to be a coach, and to be coached. To quote one of my clients it is “a magical space” and what another speaks, metaphorically, of a place to “tune her violin”.

No two autoethnographies are the same. In the same way that each of our client’s stories are not the same. My ‘take’ on autoethnography, is shaped by my research exploring coaches’ experiences of mindfulness training through poetry. It is an ‘integrative, mindful and transpersonal’ approach that puts the human back into our scholarship and practice in coaching. 

Why I call for ‘autoethnographic writing’ 

At a recent conference, Emeritus Professor of Coaching and Mentoring Bob Garvey asserted that it was still psychology that dominated the field. Psychology sadly all too often seeks to reduce human experience to variables that can be manipulated and measured, and however approximate, statistical significance assures us that we can hold a degree of certainty at what we are looking at provides us with ‘proof’ that it works. It is however approximate. Again, I urge a note of caution, as the sociologist Nikolas Rose reminds us, “psychologists are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind ”[7] – so let’s hold these psychological theories, models and tools with a light touch!

Unlike the positivist science that drives psychology, in autoethnographic work ‘our secrets are disclosed and histories made known.’ At the start of this piece I shared with you my experience in the present moment; this gives you a glimpse of my story. And in the spirit of ‘being vulnerable with a purpose’ my hope is that through my words I connect with what is both specific and at the same time universal. This is beautifully captured in one of the ‘vox-participare’ (participant-voiced) poems from my mindfulness-in-coaching research. It is written by Lesley. She is an executive coach aged sixty-eight, who has survived and lives with a particularly virulent form of cancer [8]. 


So much loss of hope for a full, energetic vibrant post-work phase countered by so much generation of hope for nourishing health, joy, humour and laughter. The hope for life never wanes. I am loving every second of every change within every day. There is still only one real dread – that of over forty years, to lose the life of my children, of our children and now them for theirs. All else is face-able, however unwanted.

What will it be like for those I love when my physical presence is no longer? Tears may shed but their lives will go on so well without my presence, my touchability. How will I be recalled to mind? What will trigger that recollection? What further thoughts and feelings will be nourished by that interaction of memory of me? I can never know, cannot control or shape that – their memory and its attachments will be theirs – all theirs and so unique – and I will never know. But I do know I will be loved, am loved now and what more can I hope to live with?

Knowing… can be so fleeting, here one moment so strongly and then fade, be lost, gone. Does it return in a different way on another day? It is my own – where does it come from? I feel no God, see no God and hear no God; I know I am alone within my life and how I make it. What makes me make it the way it is? I have no answers but love the questions. I sit here, holding my pen, eyes half closed listening to my life breathe gently. How can I break these moments of still, peaceful wonderment to share who and how I am? 

When Lesley revisited this poem she talked of how important it is to embrace vulnerability, before our strengths can be regained and nourished. As Art Bochner writes, this is the power of autoethnography writing which is, like coaching, an existential calling.

To connect with Margaret Chapman-Clarke

Whitby 1.png

Margaret Chapman-Clarke, CPsychol, AFBPsS, CSci is a consulting work psychologist, mindfulness facilitator, researcher, writer and gestalt practitioner, whose raison d’être is to call for a turn towards autoethnography. An approach she describes as: ‘‘integrative, mindful and transpersonal that puts the human back into our scholarship and practice in coaching.’  She has been described as a ‘true pioneer’ in coaching and mindfulness in the workplace.  She has worked with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness; spoken nationally and internationally on emotional intelligence, positive psychology, resilience and mindfulness and compassion at work and published the first evidence-based text on mindfulness and wellbeing (Kogan Page, 2016). Margaret has a particular interest in reflexive, creative and expressive writing in coaching and for wellbeing. She divides her time (by accident) between ‘two centres’ York and Scarborough. The latter is where she enjoys a beautiful view of the sea and where, as an ex-member of H.M. Services, she supports the work of a local military veterans’ charity, the First Light Trust. 

Email: mc@eicoaching.co.uk
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/margaret-chapman-clarke

[1]  http://www.berkeleyconsulting.com/Leadership/Saving%20Executive%20Coaching%20from%20the%20Exec%20Graveyard.pdf
[2]  https://hbr.org/2004/11/the-wild-west-of-executive-coaching
[3]  http://www2.cipd.co.uk/pm/peoplemanagement/b/weblog/archive/2017/07/25/there-s-more-than-one-way-to-solve-a-dispute.aspx
[4] Coaching for Compassionate Resilience Through Creative Methods in Hall, L. (2015) Coaching in Times of Crisis and Transformation
[5] The Art of Somatic Coaching: Embodying Skilful Action, Wisdom and Compassion
[6] Rose, N. (1999) Governing the Soul: Shaping of the Private Self
[7] Discovering Autoethnography as a research genre, methodology and method: The Yin and Yang of Life, the Transpersonal Psychology Review, 18 (2),
[8] http://shop.bps.org.uk/publications/transpersonal-psychology-review-vol-18-no-2-autumn-2016.html