Helping Conversations: The White Knight of Coaching by Jon Dunsmore


Human beings are social animals.

As such, we crave feeling supported, valued and connected to a solid support system.

Research shows that maintaining social relationships is ‘robustly related to subjective well-being and an overall enhancement in quality of life’ (Froh et al, 2007).

In the West, however, we live in a golden age of “Me, Me, Me” where individual rights, independence and personal sovereignty are highly valued.

This is a convenient fiction.

The truth is:

  • We need other people.

  • We need connection.

  • We need conversation.

Eric De Haan expertly describes “helping conversations” in his book Relational Coaching: Journeys Towards Mastering One to One Learning (2008, p.7):

“Helping conversations are, happily, still an everyday occurrence, taking place around the kitchen table, in the workplace or on the train.”

“If you look at conversations closely, many turn out to be helping conversations, if only because ‘learning’ is a recurring objective when people enter into conversations.”

“Interlocutors try to steer each other towards different ideas or attempt to help each other deal with decisions or tasks that are facing them.”

“These are activities that they learn from in one way or another, and they help each other in the process”.

Points to explore:

  •  What are “helping conversations”?

  •  Why are they important?

  •  What are the active ingredients of helping conversations and can we foster them?

  •  A personal example of ‘being helped’

  •  Conclusion: how do ‘helping conversations’ show up in my own one-to-one cline practice?

 What are “helping conversations”?

 In a general coaching context – I would define ‘helping' as any one-to-one conversation which:

  • Supports, enables and facilitates the well-being of the client,

  •  Increases the client's awareness through active listening,

  •  Builds rapport,

  •  Explores the client’s need to be understood and valued,

  •  Creates opportunities to reflect,

  •  Challenges, asks for commitments and provides motivation

  •   Attempts to leave the client in a “better place”

 Why are they important?

Helping others is closely aligned with my own purpose, meaning and overall happiness.

My late father used to say:

 “Try to help people, Jon.”

 “If you can’t help them, at least don’t hinder them”

The way I spend my time, make decisions and take actions day by day echoes these words.

To attempt to bring security, joy and confidence to others is both a privilege and a responsibility – for:

 “It is in giving that we receive” (St Francis of Assisi)

Isn’t this perhaps what gives us greatest meaning and purpose?

Fortunately, as a coach, “helping conversations” are a common day by day occurrence and act as an appropriate vehicle.

What are the active ingredients of helping conversations and can we foster them?

 There are vast streams of skills, methods and training associated with the ways and means of helping.

 There are 3 areas which have impacted my own practice.

 1) ‘EDSO’ Neurochemicals

  • Endorphins – the chemical released during exercise giving a feeling of euphoria

  •  Dopamine – the reward chemical and the reason we are driven to hunt, gather and achieve

  •  Serotonin – the “Leadership Chemical”, which gives us feeling of pride, confidence and safety.

  •  Oxytocin - the chemical associated with connection, friendship, love and trust.

 Simon Sinek explains the neuroscience behind how we connect with others.

 He describes the Oxytocin brilliantly in his book, Leaders Eat Last (2014, p60)

 Without oxytocin, we wouldn't want to perform acts of generosity.

Without oxytocin there would be no empathy.

Without oxytocin, we wouldn't be able to develop strong bonds of trust and friendship.

And without that, we wouldn't have anyone we could rely on to watch our backs.

Without oxytocin, we would have no partner to raise out children; in fact, we wouldn't even love our children.

It is because of oxytocin that we trust others to help us build on our businesses, do difficult things or help us out when we're in a bind.

It is because of oxytocin that we feel human connections and like being social in the company of people we like.

Oxytocin makes us social.

Unlike dopamine, which is about instant gratification, oxytocin is long-lasting.

The more time we spend with someone, the more we are willing to make ourselves vulnerable around them and earn their trust in return, the more oxytocin flows.

 2) Grace

I believe grace to be one of the primary sources of helping behaviour - made possible by those people who move by the grace in the human spirit.

It’s presence and expression are entirely independent of professional training.

It can inform and be enhanced by the latter, but can also be obscured, suppressed and distorted by it.

Ideologically and professionally speaking ‘grace’ has 5 active ingredients:

  1. Warm concern for an acceptance of the other;

  2.  Openness to the other's reality;

  3.  An understanding of what the other needs to flourish;

  4.  The ability to facilitate this with discernment ethical conduct;

  5.  An authentic presence.

 3) Emotional Intelligence

Helping conversations require a healthy dose of emotional intelligence - which I’d define as:

The capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships in a balanced manner.

 There are also elements of self-motivation (personal), an awareness of empathy (inter-personal) and an understanding of how the helper’s own past traumas may distort their attempt to help.

A personal example of a helping conversation

It was 6 pm on a wet and windy day in Edinburgh.

I had been busy all day, without much interaction with family and friends since seeing my Wife briefly that morning.

I decided to hit the gym following a pre-workout snack of thick oatmeal, whey protein and black coffee.

I try to cap my workouts at around 50 minutes – plenty of time to reenergise and renew my focus.

From a coaching standpoint I’d intentionally set myself a SMART fitness goal.

S – Specific

M – Measurable

A – Achievable

R – Realistic

T - Time based

Structure of gym session:

“HIIT” (High Intensity Interval Training)

Definition: short and sharp bursts of mixed exercises with minimal rest.

The aim of “HIIT” is to give all-out, 100 % effort through quick, intense bursts of exercise, followed by short recovery periods.

a.       10 minutes warm up - usually running, skipping or cross trainer (gets the heart rate going)

 b.      Weights (3 Exercises, 5 sets)

 Chest Press using 2 x 15kg dumbbells (10 reps)
 30 seconds break

 Bicep curls using the same 15 kg dumbbells (10 reps)
 30 seconds break

 Squats with a 20kg barbell straddling my shoulders (10 reps)
 1-minute break.

 c.       Light Stretches

I powered through the 1st and 2nd set, gulped some water, breathed deeply and focused my awareness on my body.  

On the 3rd set, I lay back on the bench, gripped the 12 kg dumbbells tightly and managed only 3 reps (instead of 10)

 I asked myself,

 "What’s going on?"

 "Why the sudden burn out?"

My energy deficit wasn't normal.

I tried a 30 second burst on the boxing bag to elevate my heart rate.

This didn’t help.

I felt even more fatigued, unfocused and unsure whether to carry on.

I started to meander toward my kit bag for that banana I keep aside.

I ate the banana and slowly got back to the 12 kg dumbbells.

Again, barely 3 reps.

“I’ll try again in the morning”,

I said to myself and headed toward the exit.

Then something (or rather “someone”) caught my eye.

A good friend.

 Let’s call her Alexandra.

 We chatted for 30 seconds, joking, smiling, and so forth:

 “How are you doing, Jon?” She asked

 Rather than sheepishly admitting my fatigue I replied with:

 “I’m Good, thanks, how are you?”

 We talk about our weekend plans, her family in Poland and what her focus was for the gym session.

 A feeling of connection, warmth and trust washed over me (Oxytocin).

 I felt less vulnerable, and admitted how I wasn’t actually feeling too great.

 Her gaze softened,

 She smiled and said,

 “Don’t worry; you’ve got this”,

Her words were simple, without being simplistic, and yet they connected mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

There was a subtle energy and power about the words, “You’ve got this”.

Some people have a natural ability to check in, provide encouragement, to engage and support others enthusiastically without realising it (Gable et al, 2004)

My mother does it.

My wife does it.

Alexandra does it.

I felt re-energised and decided to give my 12 kg dumbbells one last shot.

To my own surprise, I aced 12 reps (instead of my usual 10) and completed my allotted 5 sets.


Writing about helping conversations, or “The White Knight of Coaching” as I’ve titled it, has provided me with an opportunity to pause, reflect and review my own thinking, practices and priorities.

 ‘Try to help, not hinder”, as my father would say, really appears for me in one-to-one coaching with my clients in the following ways:

  • To listen well, ask effective questions and build rapport (Oxytocin)

  •  To show warm acceptance, openness and an authentic presence (Grace)

  •  To be self-aware my own insecurities whilst holding an empathic space for the other (Emotional Intelligence)

  •  To pick up on key words, behaviours and body language

  •  To be alert to moments of insight - the ‘aha’ moments

I’ll close with a relevant Chinese proverb:

“Happiness for an hour: take a nap.
Happiness for a day: go fishing.
Happiness for a year: inherit a fortune.
Happiness for a lifetime: help someone else

Connect with Jon Dunsmore via Linkedin

Jon Dunsmore.PNG

Jon Dunsmore is a practising coach and aspiring coaching writer with a previous parallel career in the corporate IT sector. His interest in the human lived experience follows a career-long fascination with how adults learn and with how our psychology can help or hinder development. Jon is enthusiastic about helping others grow their potential, to become aware of how to deal with life’s inevitable struggles and to make positive choices.


Simon Sinek (2017) Leaders Eat Last. Penguin Random House
David Rock and Linda J. Page (2009) Coaching with the Brain in Mind. John Wiley & Sons      De Haan, E (2008) Relational Coaching: Journeys Towards Mastering One to One Learning. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons Ltd. 
Froh J. J. et al (2007) Interpersonal relationships and irrationality as predictors of life satisfaction, Journal of Positive Psychology, 2, pp 29 – 39
Gable et al (2004) What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of personality and social psychology, 87 (2), 228.