Getting Trust is the essential outcome that makes Coaching possible – and different

Why does trust matter?

I want to explore how trust is especially relevant to coaching – making it possible in the first place, and also different from many traditional ways of thinking.

It seems to me that trust is what makes living possible – in every sense. We don’t set foot outside unless we trust that the path we tread on is not some form of holographic image hiding a bottomless crevasse. So it is with all of living.

In my coaching practice trust is the most important result, or outcome, to establish first, because coaching involves important uncertainties for the Coachee. For example, Coaching is about:

  • Enabling someone to find the confidence, and curiosity, to take on further learning – open up to what they don’t know
  • Speaking to opportunities people have, rather than problems.
  • Enabling someone to take risks – disclosing to themselves, let alone another person – matters that they have not found the right space to consider elsewhere.

Coaching also is starting to challenge many fundamental structures we have in society. Quite rightly we aim to form structures that recognise and give authority to people who have the best information and ability to make sense of it to know what is best to do.

However in Coaching, the customer is king. Because they have the best knowledge about what matters to them. We are not dealing with remedial issues, e.g. where someone has patterns of behaviour categorised by society as dysfunctional. There are many treatments that are appropriate for these other still important, and even urgent, matters.

Coaching is different.

We are approaching people as functional, i.e. able to live normally, and successfully, already, and who are interested in becoming more functional in what they already successfully achieve in life and/or work.

The work of coaching starts with having to build the trust that the coach has something to bring to the Coachee’s world. And the Coachee alone is the authority who will decide this.

This raises some important questions about the sort of process which is appropriate to this. It seems to me there is something in the idea of trust that is central to this process.

Exploring what trust means

Simple definition: The word is reported as first deriving from old Norse and used in the sense of being strong.  Today, a more common definition is simply – Firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something [1].

Moving on to more studied definitions: Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson suggested that the development of basic trust is the first state of psychosocial development occurring, or failing, during the first two years of life. It is an essential foundation for life.   However, Erikson also stressed his work was a tool to think with rather than a factual analysis. Its purpose then is to provide a framework within which development can be considered further, rather than accurate and complete understanding [2]. 

Psychology sets out to achieve this rigour of complete understanding, however there is the inclination to see trust as more of the nature of an emotion – not necessarily a rational process. It is a state of perception – expectation - which can bring positive feelings.  How it is achieved and why it is sought is still difficult to study/research.

Trust or lack of it isn’t produced through rational thought processes but are processed according to a mental script we may not even know we follow unless we have been in therapy or have come to a real understanding of how our childhood experiences have affected us. Even so, in the moment, we may not recognize the patterns. [3]

This suggests that trust is still somewhat difficult to measure by traditional methods – such as those used by formal Psychology. However, the need, and demand, for understanding people has seen much other work elsewhere. They can also inform more about understanding trust.

Other approaches that might inform how to give attention to what is involved in creating trust appropriate to Coaching.

There are many, many, different schools, or approaches, to understanding people in the broader context of their lives.

A useful overview and short summary, of how this idea of functional attention to another person has developed, particularly in counselling, which has some important similarities to coaching, is offered as:

  • Psychodynamic, refers to the invisible and changeable nature of living. Sometimes we make choices (of feelings); sometimes feelings escalate to become emotions and are dominant, described as:

     … unconscious (hidden/not admitted or disclosed) – where (early) hidden trauma can lurk thro life. And hence reference to these hidden drivers of behaviour, such as id ego and superego. As with most things it is easier/ more urgent to start with – crisis’[4].
  • Humanistic starts from the uniqueness of a person’s entity due to their unique perception and experience; whilst also taking a positive view - starting with the opportunity compared with other concerns of starting with the problem.

    Humanistic starts from looking for opportunities rather than the problems a person faces. [hence coaching’s big big difference]. Humanistic starts with the search for the interest and capability to learn – when the circumstances fit the equation[5].
  • Behavioural is born out of what (little) can be subjected to schematic research and evidence. This results nevertheless in some important expert lead approaches to important issues.

    Diagnostic (according to best known to date) frameworks leads to a directive approach – where the expert knows best what is missing or present in achieving (current views about what is) normal standards of behaviour and directs attention from this external framework – ignoring internal frameworks on the assumption that people have very limited internal learning awareness and need direction[6].

Each of these perspectives are often seen as three different ‘schools’ – or separate lenses - by which to help people.

Psychoanalytic and Behavioural schools often create more of a framework of conventional authority for the practitioner to work to, and they are also more involved where there is a form of accepted dysfunction that enables more authoritative control and direction of the interpersonal process to be exercised.

There may be real value in trusting an external authority.  For much of medicine, we have such trust. However, there are also limitations to how all knowing medicine can be. As well as a need for strict rules – that can be trusted - about straying from what is known. Some approaches may make the issue of trusting the experience another person, as an expert, wants to bring to be quite different from the traditional models of how expertise is based. How to deal with a patient who is the best expert in themselves is such a challenge.

Coaching deals with people who exercise choice about what is serving their needs. The contracting process becomes quite different, as the expertise needed can be quite different, which is where establishing trust becomes essential.

Towards a Framework that Integrates

The framework that has most informed me about how I understand the importance of developing trust, in practice, is best summarised by R Carkhuff[7].  Carkhuff’s framework, summarised below, was a work aiming to bring together the various approaches, mentioned earlier, into a more integrative approach. This can also inform the issue of creating trust more appropriate to the circumstances of Coaching

The framework is still lacking reference to explicit behaviour, which still defies our comprehensive understanding. It is laid out as a progressive pattern. Albeit a simplification of principles, that can be different in detail of events, but which are still a stable pattern in the process overall.

3.1  Key principle

The most important part of the framework is the focus on working from the behaviour of the other person – i.e. not the coach.

  • Carkhuff’s work uses the term Self Exploration which is defined as the extent of willingness by the Coachee to engage in sharing personally relevant awareness in the context of the relationship.
  • In effect this is an identification of the process of trust developing. As the person concerned builds their confidence in the space, and conditions, being created for them.

3.2  Key behaviours, by the Coach, that have most influence on this trust factor

It’s also about the effect of coach behaviours, NOT the intention. Observed effects - the verbal and behavioural expressions, by the coach ….

  • Empathy: attend to and add to the verbal expressions of the other; as evidenced by the reaction that accepts and builds further their appreciation of where they are.
  • Respect: effective at getting across valuing, caring and interest in the other person.
  • Genuineness: effective at getting across being fully themselves, with consistency and spontaneity (not rehearsed.)
  • Self-disclosure: effective at getting across similar levels of intimate sharing appropriate to the increasing levels of disclosure by the other person – compared with the politenesses of casual exchanges.
  • Specificity: effective at getting across the value of the other person by increasingly identifying what matters in practical terms.
  • Confrontation: effective at getting the other person to want to engage effectively with possible discrepancies that arise in the picture presented by the other person.
  • Immediacy: effective at getting attention and focus to the immediate and or wider picture of interaction between both parties.

3.3  The need to match the behaviours provided by Self exploration

The important skill, here, is for the Coach to choose behaviours that respond to, and match the level of self-exploration offered.

The order of these behaviours normally goes through stages where important psychological contracting/trust building behaviours (facilitative) come before more direct problem solving / learning type behaviours (action oriented).

Empathy, respect and genuineness are considered to be the key facilitative behaviours. These three facilitative behaviours are central to the stage of building trust between the Coach and Coachee.

In my terms, I often practice this as a form of sincere interest and listening – repeatedly – to what the other person is saying. Once I show I understand and accept what is often initial testing of me, in the initial stages, the coachee then moves on to deeper levels of self exploration and expression that starts more explicit exploration of the agenda that interests them.

I am often surprised by the way the agenda opens up more and more according to the trust that I can establish through these behaviours.

Comparing an integrated framework with these three contrasting approaches:

Much of Psychodynamics, and the behavioural approach, rely a lot on the direction of creating the conditions for action.  For experts working in these professions, the equivalent of facilitative is ‘diagnosis’ that then moves into prescribing expert with derived solutions as the next ‘action phase’.

I can certainly appreciate the challenge of dealing with the invisible drivers that the psychodynamic approach attempts to work with. However, there is still too much emphasis on ‘negative’ drivers in much of the approach.

Elements of the Psychoanalytical approach, such as appreciating drivers that are less visible, and the Behavioural approach, focussing on real change in behaviour as an outcome are also relevant to Coaching.

Other practical outcomes, than just creating Trust, are also essential. However, Trust is an essential part of generating concentration, and orientation by the coachee, which are essential to the more action oriented, or problem solving approach.

Some demonstrable, and effective learning has to result – either in the form of sudden insight, or in the form of an action plan for continuing to progressively learn about something.

The learning involved is often measured by needing to be a visible outcome to others.

However, unless trust is established first, it is unlikely the dialogue will progress to this learning by just carrying out a simple problem solving type of conversation.

The trust building process is the feature that I consider the humanistic school emphasises.  This emphasis, however, can result in this approach being seen as less concerned with a focus on that end result.

How does this work for me in practice

I have found the use of more facilitative behaviours, central to the trust building process, important in practice to a wide range of opportunities.

The context of Organisations

I have found, in practice, the most important, and valued, opportunities for bringing these important conditions for creating trust are best evident in organisations.

Organisations are a classic form of collaborative enterprise. However, the way collaboration is – organised – does sometimes result in a simplification of the challenges involved.

Providing the standard of facilitative conditions necessary to establish connections that people trust can still be a challenge for those involved. Simpler methods of direction are preferred – even with the risks, and costs, they can bring.

Increasingly, the greatest challenge for leaders,  and leadership, is more about getting people to make a free choice to follow them, rather than rely on knowing the answer they want and exercising various threats to enforce following, and obedience.

Likewise, many other classic methods of bringing learning into organisational behaviour can benefit from a facilitative, also combined with the action oriented approach.

A coaching approach to training

Ramamurthy Krishna’s blog on a coaching approach to training is a theme that I find myself using in practice.

The learning that training is after, often requires enabling each person to find their own path to the learning involved. One path fits all is not necessarily the best approach to learning.

Team Coaching

Team Coaching is an important example of how the use of a coaching approach can achieve significant results.

This can also result in the extension of the facilitative/coaching approach to what is in effect a form of mediation. 

A coaching approach, with a group or team can enable the individuals involved to better understand themselves, and how they may be perceived by others. This can then significantly raise the level of live feedback from all involved.  Similar perspectives from different people can then be important validation of feedback; and a practical opportunity to practice adjustment.

Peer group facilitation

A growing form of team coaching where the typical structure of authority (as present with teams in organisations) is deliberately neutralised.

The 360 approach

At the individual level, use of a 360 approach can also bring important clarity through the use of a more coaching approach – e.g. using a more qualitative approach to generating and interpreting data than a statistically based model.  Facilitating the expression, and interpretation of feedback is important.

The Development Centre rather than the Assessment Centre approach

The same is true of how a development centre for individuals can be also powerful when using this approach, and the data is for their personal use. Those involved may then disclose the data to the organisation with more assurance than just the external objectivity of the assessment centre.

Internal Coaching

The growth – albeit cautiously – of Internal Coaching’ is another example of how support of the use of a coaching/facilitative/trust building approach can bring significant benefits.  The voluntary nature of much Internal Coaching demonstrates an important resource in how people want to contribute in ways that are typically still outside the narrow job description.

Conclusions and next steps

  1. Trust is an important lens for appreciating how Coaching really can work: Exploring, and expressing, the way that trust is an important lens for understanding Coaching – through the facilitative approach - has been very helpful, for myself.

    It is important to build awareness of the factors that the ambitions for coaching, held by many people, are more soundly based on.
  2. It is important to appreciate what is involved in getting trust to work: As with many things, what can be complex can be seen as taking too much time and trouble, for some, especially when there are pressures on observable results.  Likewise, when you have the skill to do something right, it can take no time at all, by comparison.
  3. The evidence I can also observe in fellow practitioners is powerful: I am always impressed by the levels of – albeit – still intuitive skills that many highly successful fellow practitioners bring to their use of these facilitative, and trust building, practices and skills.  The real results that are then achieved when the ‘trust contract’ is well established are also really appreciated by those involved.
  4. More detailed learning about what is involved in building how trust can add value is still needed: There is also obviously a lot more to be done to identify the sorts of behaviours that operate across the dynamic of any dialogue; for example, non-verbal signals are often much more potent and meaningful than verbal signals. Much communication is also often in the form of ‘code’ more than explicit.
  5. Towards a more integrative approach that appreciates the place of, and importance of building trust: There is much of value in each and all of the various schools or systems of thought, about what might be involved in Coaching. However it is important to work more towards the appreciation of how this all works within a bigger, more integrative picture, rather than to promote one particular school as the answer.

My question to you:

  • Do you take notice of how trust is developing in dialogue you are having?
  • How would you describe what factors you are using to track it?

[5]  ditto
[6]  ditto
[7]  Carkhuff R.R. (1969), Helping and Human Relations (Vols 1 & 2). New York, NY: Holt, Rhinehart, & Winston.

Our relationship with uncertainty and how it can facilitate active learning processes and personal inquiry: Good coaching still has a lot to learn about learning by Simon Darnton (Guest Blogger)

Chaos is probably an appropriate word to describe what has been unfolding since the Brexit vote of the 23rd June. The world, and especially the United Kingdom, has found itself dealing with considerably more uncertainty.

Both chaos and uncertainty are thus terms which are being bandied around a lot at the moment, not only in the media, but also with my clients in business and organisational contexts. I have noticed that there can be a tendency to use them interchangeably.

My Definitions

Chaos as I refer to it here is that of complete disorder and confusion.

Uncertainty is where:

 a) there is a lack of (or missing) information and/or knowledge;
 b) the consequences or outcomes of events, actions and/or decision are unpredictable.

In differentiating these meanings, I intend to focus on the uncertainty we face in a complex and dynamic world.

For the sake of false certainty

One could surmise following recent media coverage that uncertainty is a bad thing and that the logical resolution lies in (re)creating perceived certainty. This response is, of course, one of the natural reactions people have to uncertainty so it isn’t entirely surprising.

Uncertainty is generally considered to be an aversive state in psychology due to its association with uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions, most notably that of anxiety. As a result we tend seek ways of avoiding or reducing the associated discomfort.

To me the question lies in how we might do this, or not.

Uncertainty and how we function in relation to it is a real fascination for me, mostly because of the profiles of clients that I work with who live, work and compete in contexts that are steeped in both uncertainty and danger. In this world, uncertainty is a fact of life where rather than being avoided, it is embraced. It is part of the allure. This is what motivated me to write this piece; to provide some balance around uncertainty.

How we relate to uncertainty is in my experience critical to effective learning, development and growth, as well as performance improvement. In this post, I wanted to begin exploring how we might approach intentionally developing our relationship with it. Most importantly, I’ll be viewing it in a more positive light; one which not only enables learning and performance enhancement, but also how it can act as a powerful ally in psychological adventure and deep personal growth.

An Introduction to my approach and how it relates to uncertainty

Whilst I have significant organisational experience, my approach to coaching as it is today has been heavily influenced by years of dedicated coaching research into the psychology of elite motorcycle racers and athletes in other extreme sports, for example, downhill mountain biking. Alongside my business and organisation services, I run a specialist performance coaching practice where I work with world-class athletes in this context.

My interest in this area stems from my own experience riding and racing motorcycles. When I sought to understand psychological difficulties I was experiencing during competition, I found the available body of psychology woefully inadequate for me. It didn’t match my experiences so I found myself drawn to conduct my own phenomenological[1] inquiry with elite motorcycle racers.

One of the common themes that I found unfolded out of my research[2] and which continues to consistently feature in the racers’ descriptions of their experiences when competing at their best revolves around an acceptance of stepping into the unknown and of the uncertainty inherent in racing. This uncertainty is not just about the outcome of the race, for example, but extends all the way to riders entering corners at such speeds that they don’t know if they’re going to make it through the corner, or whether they’ll crash. Within this theme, it appeared to me that the most successful ones were those that dealt best with this uncertainty. Those that didn’t quite make it, or found themselves struggling to improve their performance would instead hold more onto a notion of certainty.

A simple example of holding onto a notion of certainty is something most of us do on a daily basis: repetition of movements, and especially learning new movements. The commonly held, yet false, belief is that we learn by repeating the same movement over and over again, whereas we are really learning because every repeated movement is different (and infinitely so). So we learn mastery through the experience of difference and variation[3].

The concept of uncertainty and how we relate to it therefore forms a central part of my approach in almost all the work that I do. It also helps to inform my approach to learning in the coaching relationship where I consistently find it important in breaking performance barriers with my clients.

Let me share an example from motorcycle racing:
I was approached by a motorcycle racer who had been knocking on the door to a podium finish for some time. He had discussed this glass ceiling at length with fellow racers and had already undergone training to develop his riding technique. Another racer I had previously worked with recommended that he talk to me because there weren’t any apparent technical or capability limitations to his performances.

The contract we agreed mutually was to enable him to break through and finish on the podium. Once this had been achieved, we would explore how to develop consistency in his performance. We agreed an initial block of 6 hour long sessions.

Within three sessions he achieved his first race win following which he fed back to me that his most important realisation during the process was accepting that he was always in unknown territory and that everything in racing was uncertain. This, he felt, opened the door to winning. He has since gone on to win multiple championships and continues to dominate his class.

This client was also a successful businessman and entrepreneur. At the end of our engagement he fed back that he had been approaching his business decisions in a similar way and had found more freedom and consistency as a result of being uncertain in the way he operated. He had found himself better able to explore and get a better feel for his operating environment which was becoming much more competitive.

How is this achieved? Flipping the psychological side

The most successful elite racers I studied all described a quality of reaching out of themselves as essential to their performance. This way of working developed from an important, notable theme which also emerged out of my research. For example, finding the grip or traction, finding good lines, and finding good rhythm. All these qualities came from a process of letting the circuit come to them, which depended on their connection with it. Combined with this, elite racers in my research tended to concur with each other that they did not believe they would ever know their environment. This is a frame of mind which keeps them exploring. 

It was notable in my research that this tendency to keep exploring related to how those performing at the pinnacle of their context literally saw the world differently, which enabled them to perform in remarkable ways within those contexts.

The themes relating to:

a) embracing uncertainty, and;
b) reaching outside themselves;

are inextricably linked and in order to explore them effectively in my work, it meant finding a different psychological approach.

Applying a more practical and relevant psychological approach

I do not view learning and development, or subsequent performance enhancement for that matter, as processes which arise out of the development or refinement of a client’s mental processes (which is generally the dominant approach in psychology today particularly that derived from cognitive approaches).

Instead I engage with clients in a mutual and co-operative journey to explore their perspectives and relationship with the world. This is done by employing a process of seeking further information and developing deeper knowledge about the characteristics of the environment within which my clients operate. (Another important related quality which I won't go into detail about here is that at the both the executive/entrepreneur and elite athlete levels, my clients are already sophisticated and aware thinkers within their context, so this is rarely the issue in my experience).

This aspect of my approach is grounded in the branch of Ecological Psychology derived from the work of J.J. Gibson and others[4]. I have used the principles (and a generous sprinkle of the underlying philosophical foundations) of Ecological Psychology to inform my work. One of the key aspects of my work and how employ Ecological Psychology is in working with what Gibson introduced as 'affordances.' The complete meaning of affordance is still under debate but I view them as qualities of the environment and how these qualities afford context based actions in relation to the perceiver[5].

For example, take an elite skier and put her at the top of a world cup ski run and the nature of that environment will afford her a certain relationship with it followed by appropriate and highly skilled actions. Put me at the top of the same slope and the outcome will be entirely different, probably quite disastrous. I would not have much idea how to tackle that particular environment as a skier.

This view of psychology, learning and development, applies just as well to any context because it applies to understanding the underlying principles of how we function as active participants in our world and specific contexts.

 In my work, I employ this psychological approach as continuous and active cycles of exploring the characteristics of our environment in relation to ourselves as if they are and always will be new, novel, and unknown and this I think requires a special appreciation of things.

We don't know and we never will...

The paradox of uncertainty here is that my clients - business and extreme sports ones - tend to report that when they begin to embrace uncertainty but do it from a perspective of continuously developing and refining their relationship with the world/environment, they can more readily accept it.

For example:

  • There seems to be a qualitative shift in how they act which encompasses an acceptance of the unknown realities of a complex world.
  • They also feel more connected to themselves as a whole and as a result, less uncertain in themselves.
  • The process changes their relationship with fear and anxiety about the outcome of their actions which also yields a much better, purer and natural engagement with it.

My clients tell me that our work helps them to get out of their heads more. In finding themselves out there more – connecting more directly with their environment - they become more inquisitive, more searching of the qualities of both what is going on around them and how they are doing themselves, with their feelings, emotions, thinking, and the relationships between these characteristics of their experiences.

The outcome measures

Due to the nature of my client engagements, both my clients and I assign most value in the outcome of my clients' experiences and the changes in their experiences that emerge from the process.

In business contexts, it is harder to provide consistent and specific concrete measures to back up self-reporting (because of the inherent complexity, ambiguity and difficulties in determining reliable causality in such contexts). In the elite sports context however, things are measured to the nth degree and there tends to be a greater emphasis on environmental controls where formal competition is involved (e.g. a race course associated with highly specific rules and regulations). Therefore, results from this approach have been measured by my clients through lap times and race and championship results.

Conclusions and where next

As you may have noticed, this is an area of passion and fascination for me and it’s a journey I feel I’m only beginning.  Writing this article has been a really valuable process of re-engaging with some of the underlying principles of my work and attempting to explicate these in what I hope is a meaningful and helpful way for others.

As the next step, my mind is wondering towards something which is more akin to exploring and describing some of the phenomenological qualities of my clients experiences of developing their relationships with uncertainty.

Footnotes and References:

[1] A phenomenological study is one where the researcher seeks to understand the conscious experience of participants and how they construct their meaning of the experience without trying to provide causal explanation or attempting toobjectify the experience. 
[3] Bernstein, N. A. (1996), Latash, M. L. (Ed), Turvey, M. T. (Ed), Dexterity and its Development (Resources for Ecological Psychology). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. 
[4] See for example: Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Heft, H. (2001). Ecological psychology in context: James Gibson, Roger Barker, and the legacy of William James’s radical empiricism. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.  Reed, E. S. (1996). Encountering the world. New York: Oxford University Press. 
[5] See, Chimero, A. (2003) An Outline of a Theory of Affordances, Ecological Psychology 15(2) 181-195.

Bernstein, N. A. (1996), Latash, M. L. (Ed), Turvey, M. T. (Ed), Dexterity and its Development (Resources for Ecological Psychology). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Chimero, A. (2003) An Outline of a Theory of Affordances, Ecological Psychology 15(2) 181-195
Darnton, S (2001-2016) Inside the Minds of Motorcycle Racers, self-published
Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Heft, H. (2001). Ecological psychology in context: James Gibson, Roger Barker, and the legacy of William James’s radical empiricism. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Reed, E. S. (1996). Encountering the world. New York: Oxford University Press.

To connect with Simon:

Simon Darnton provides clients with high quality thinking space which he combines with facilitation, consultation and dialogue to enable new learning, development and growth. This process provides the means for clients to effectively explore important questions, solve problems, remove limitations and improve their performance.

He holds a Master’s Degree in Psychological Coaching from the Metanoia Institute. He has a consultancy background where he has delivered work for organisations including Microsoft and Deloitte. He works with executives and entrepreneurs in business, elite and world-class athletes in extreme sports. He is an Associate Member of APECS.
+44 (0)7970 022 627

Appreciating how Diagnosis in Coaching is best as a collaborative exercise by Jeremy Ridge

I want to explore how diagnosis is a central part in coaching, and consider how it operates in my coaching practice. Diagnosis, as a concept, helps to emphasise the need for a careful approach to ensure that large amounts of information is carefully considered. This important information can also best come from multiple sources – hence a collaborative approach – and this is applicable not just between coach and coachee, but even in a wider ‘peer’ process.

I am aware of the considerable focus on coaching ‘tools and techniques’ but it is useful to review which of these work for me, including the how and the why. From my perspective coaching tools and techniques still appear to put the emphasis on how the coach should set about seeing things, and hence organising agendas.

But, given that the coachee owns and sets the agenda, and arguably holds most of the data about their readiness and capabilities with regard to their agenda, their role in any coaching process or diagnosis is critical.

The inclusion of the term ‘diagnosis’ is attractive to me due to the care, and rigour, that can well be taken in when arriving at a process and outcome in a coaching process.

I also consider that the best approach to collaborative diagnosis between coach and coachee is still the perspectives initiated by Malcolm Knowles’ principles of andragogy. Knowles’ approach to andragogy or ‘adult learning’ places the clearest emphasis on the need to focus on the other person’s insights about themselves.

1. Why diagnosis – some of the important themes in the idea

Defining diagnosis as a term:         

The word diagnosis increasingly carries important meaning. It is typically at the centre of established professions, not just the ‘people’ professions, where the application of knowledge to a particular set of circumstances may need some investigation of:

  • What is happening
  • What is causing the situation
  • What action to take

This suggests an important focus for coaching dialogue.

The origins of the term refer to this idea of knowledge and understanding. The word has come some distance from its original meanings in its origins in the English language. Authorities describe it as a combination of ‘Gnosis’ and ‘dia’.

Gnosis refers to

  • Gnostic: supposedly revealed knowledge of various spiritual truths, especially that said to have been possessed by ancient Gnostics [ultimately from Greek: knowledge, from gignōskein to know]

  • Dia: meaning separating or apart  [1]

So the modern meaning is … The identification of the nature and cause of something. This often refers to collecting and sifting through a range of information for its relevance, according to available understanding, as related to what action may be relevant. Coaching may start with the interest in some particular desired outcome (itself often expressed in general terms).

Diagnosis can also be used as either a verb or a noun – both a process for getting to an end point; or the end point itself.  My interest is particularly towards the process of diagnosis involved in coaching and its need to be collaborative.

2. Typical Diagnostic information used in executive coaching

The information that is available for diagnosis in coaching can be huge – either in broader life matters, or the particular focus in ‘executive coaching’ – i.e. where a person is making a particular contribution (e.g. in a ‘role’) in a wider collective effort.

My practice often works with people in some form of organisational context. (This can be wider than ‘business’ organisations; e.g. public or voluntary sector.) An organisational context may make information more available (e.g. a ‘role’ is typically a description of behaviour).  However, broader life matters for a coachee are always a factor as well.

Some typical sources of information:

  1. The Boss has spoken! Many times, such as in executive coaching, the diagnosis is provided by ‘the Boss’.  There are a number of typical ethical dilemmas for coaches in these circumstances.
  2. Wider ‘organisational’ data performance appraisal/HR policies about current priority development themes.
  3. 360 degree feedback: either using a structured questionnaire, or using and including qualitative data from stakeholders, in their own terms (which I prefer).         
  4. Other structured data/questionnaires e.g. ‘psychometrics’ (see Lynne Hindmarch in ‘the good coach’ March and May 2016.) Again, the terminology, let alone interpretation carry risks.
  5. The first formal session: The initial contract may be based on a ‘symptom’/ output in general terms required. The coaching conversation itself is then a long process of gathering data relevant to understanding.
  6. Working with someone as they perform/behave, through direct observation. Indeed this is more the original basis for coaching – e.g. in sports coaching.

I typically find coaching can involve a mix of each of the above – often depending on the coachee, and their organisation’s practices, effective readiness, and appreciation of how such sources of data may add value.

3. Important themes for diagnosis in coaching

Many definitions of ‘coaching’ exist. However, in broad terms coaching is generally seen as how a coach can form a dialogue that adds to the ability of a coachee to make some changes to their personal and professional circumstances for the coachee’s benefit.

There are some immediate implications for any diagnosis process.

  • How to start: Diagnosis raises the key question of where to start as well as where to get to. The coachee may already themselves have a very wide ranging, and even confusing amount of information relevant. But it may not be straight forward to know where to start.
  • Continuing Diagnosis: There are challenges with coaching in that the coaching diagnosis process is often a very dynamic process. It does not all get done in the first few moments, or even the first session. Factors relevant to the matter may continue to emerge throughout the dialogue.  Factors such as the coachee’s own concentration and comfort in the process may be vital to sourcing important information.
  • Directive or non-directive: There is an important balance to be found here. Coaching in its common social and original practice was someone who knows how things should be done, and can be very directive in dictating the approach. This is not the case in all circumstances however. Some direction in organising data around established key factors may be helpful. For example in sports coaching – the need to diagnose a person’s muscular capabilities, dietary needs, resting patterns, observation of the field and competitors, borrowed skills and techniques from adjacent/diametrically opposite/even unknown fields, developed strong discipline to routinely check everything, working to continually optimise different facets of themselves that has incremental improvements etc.
  • Challenges of Collaborative Diagnosis:  And of course, the big item is that the coachee has control both of the agenda as well as the information that will be the basis for any agenda – as it concerns their world. The coachee makes their own choices.
  • Availability of relevant data is another key item: People are not in the habit of keeping a full portfolio of data on their organisational life and the learning that has gone into it so far. Hence the diagnosis process in coaching can be a continuous exploratory process.

Coaching can thus be about sharing leadership in a joint collaborative manner. There is still the opportunity for confusion in how this may happen. Starting clearly with the sort of principles and processes proposed initially by Knowles, and andragogy, can be of considerable help in clarifying expectations.

4. Taking the approach introduced by andragogy, or adult learning

My practice is based on approaches and data which emphasise the 'learning' processes reported by the person themselves. Andragogy has been a term used to focus on this study of how normal adults learn. The core principles are already summarised in Sue Young and Lucille Maddelena [2] recent publications on ‘the good coach’.

Another excellent summary of this perspective of Andragogy (including Knowles’ work) is provided by Clardy [3].

As a reminder of the core principles:       

  1. Self-concept of autonomy and self-direction.
  2. A higher level of life background and experience.
  3. The need to understand the reasons for learning something.
  4. A learning motivation based upon personal need.
  5. A pragmatic orientation.
  6. An internally driven motivation to learn.

These are important, yet very general principles of how individuals learn. And people are all different. Studying human perception though quickly emphasises how different peoples’ perception can be – such as how witness’s reports of the same event can vary.

Knowles (see Clardy [3]) also lays out a next level of more practical detail. For me this outlines a more practical picture of how I see myself using this as a diagnostic process in the overall way practice works.

Practical processes for achieving these principles:

  1. Learners should be prepared for the learning program.
  2. A climate conducive to learning should be created.
  3. A mutual planning procedure should be used that involves the learner in planning what the learning will cover.
  4. Diagnosing learning needs. First, desired outcomes are identified, and second,  discrepancies between those desired outcomes and the learner's current abilities are noted. The result is a self-assessment of what the learner wants to learn.
  5. Specifying learning objectives: identifying practical stages involved.
  6. Designing the learning program.
  7. Operating the program: Here, the teacher acts more in the capacity of a facilitator,
  8. Resource person and mutual student than as independent expert.
  9. Program evaluation.

There is still a great deal more specification needed than is outlined here. For example, what exactly is meant by ‘climate conducive to learning’? The other missing element is how exactly ‘facilitation’ works.

Nonetheless, this practical process is an outline for a contract. This particular contract captures learner goals and shows how those goals will be pursued and evaluated. This begins to be a description that is similar to the growing practice of formal coaching contracts, where the contract is a formal specification of expectations.

5. Considering my own patterns of practice – and extending the idea of collaboration to peer groups

The pattern of practice that I am particularly interested in sharing is where collaboration is geared up even further than just between a coach and a single coachee.  I have increasingly found that the process of collaboration often works most powerfully when undertaken in a group, with other ‘peers’.

This provides a really essential range of perspectives for all concerned – e.g. when there is both a consensus about matters worth anyone’s attention, and it is not just the coach or even the coachee by themselves just trying to make sense.

The language of peers is also often more relevant because they can more easily recall evidence and examples that can be/are more relevant.

The ‘workshop’ approach

I have found in practice that getting a ‘joint’ diagnosis can be considerably enhanced by applying some key principles:

  1. Including peers in the process directly.
  2. Enabling the peer group to lead the agenda and exploration.
  3. Selecting expert input according to their direction and focus.

Formally, I find this takes place in a workshop, or development centre approach.

Importantly this also includes a 1 to 1 (i.e. ‘currently typical’ coaching) with each participant also on a personal and confidential basis before and after (and until the peers themselves can take this over!)

In my practice experience, coaching works best when it involves multiple sources of data, live and direct - and not just on paper: it’s the combination of one to one coaching, expert perspectives, as well as living realities of perspectives by people with more intimate knowledge of the circumstances.

Working in peer groups, or teams, can be more demanding for the coach. It requires attention to a wider range of dialogue, as well as ensuring that you keep pace with how the dialogue is developing through a number of stages.

A Practical Example/Coaching Approach to Workshops

Initial Contracting: This is started by a person with the wherewithal to call people together. Typically, in organisations this will involve a person in a position of authority to make this happen

Preparation: Any event starts as soon as people hear about it; not when they arrive for the formal session. It is important to ensure the right atmosphere/conditions are set from the start. For example, the person in authority communicates clearly their own readiness to learn as part of the event!

Duration: A workshop may be a two hour session over lunch or last for several days. It may be a set of events separated over time, rather than one single event. However, it does typically involve people being in the same room. Current technology however is also creating more effective options for physical distance not to be a barrier.

The theme: There is usually a theme on the table to be able to start the exploration … such as ‘leadership’ or ‘strategic futures’ and the key is to get the participants to share their thoughts on the theme (A real organisational matter is best rather than an abstract issue.)

Participants views first: Whatever the starting point for the activity – say ‘leadership’ or any other organisational theme, a workshop approach gets the participants to express, share, and discuss where they come from on the starting theme, first.

This may need some coaching/facilitation and structuring. Participants may need confidence building about expressing what they really believe, as well as paying attention to their peers’ views.

Perspectives that add to participants’ views: After the views of the group have been expressed, shared and discussed, it may well serve to bring in something appropriate from the background of wider learning on the theme. E.g. appropriate theories/research to the subject concerned, to add/confirm the sense the group already has formed for itself.

Participants form an agenda: Usually the participants have already expressed a great deal of what is involved – but in their own language and terms. This builds their confidence in further setting the agenda for them as a group in a powerful atmosphere of collective collaboration.

Continue the dialogue/exercises: Which may be designed to enable dialogue about real circumstances.
1. I find this is often a powerful means by which individuals can review their own behaviour – getting perspectives from colleagues – not just ‘experts’ or coaches, and exactly what could make a valuable difference.
2. Participants may also bring in matters arising from the dialogues on a one to one basis. However the language and experience of peers is really important ‘diagnostic’ data for any of the individuals.

Normally, people are then well motivated to search for the actions that are the outcomes from this exploration.

I find there is also a natural tolerance and comfort with this form of process. It sort of makes sense to people on an intuitive basis.

6. Conclusions / Next steps …           

  1. Personally, I have found it useful to consider how the idea of diagnosis can be a useful lens for making sense of what can be a complex process in coaching.
  2. This complexity is especially in evidence when needing to ensure coaching is a collaborative process;
                * between the coach and coachee
                * when the added value of involving others in a more collective and collaborative process as peers.
  3. The reality of how fragile information is and how it can only ever be a ‘perception‘ – and thus always subject to being a partial, rather than total understanding of what is happening, makes this wider testing of collaborative diagnosis especially important.
  4. The short summary here of these perspectives, is for me, a good basis on how to build this insight further into my practice.
  5. It would also be valuable to get similar experience of practice such as that  mentioned here, in order to share, compare, and build our collective understanding.

[1] Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014 © HarperCollins
[3] Clardy:

“Attention!”: what really makes coaching work … or not! By Jeremy Ridge

Attention is what I think really makes the difference. It is the real fuel that drives life into all those engines of theories, models, and skills etc. Without giving the attention to the moment, and all its data, theories are powerless.

Real, healthy, normal people are their own person; they are too sophisticated to reduce to a generality – if you want this coaching thing to really work.

For me, organising my attention is the most powerful way of getting at what my practice in ‘coaching’ is wholly and totally concerned with.  It is also what I find most stimulating about Coaching – testing my attention, and exercising it, and getting it right.

But it is not easy to get attention to this theme of – attention, despite it being such a key element.

For example:

  • Have I got your attention, right now, for the next few mins, here!
  • How long will I have
  •  How did I get it?
  • How do I find this out?

Every living moment is about it ….. So just live it, don’tfuss … just get on with it !

1         So how exactly is attention important?

As I experience it, generally:

  • Coaching at its best provides a quality of attention that enables a person to express and learn about themselves in a way that they don’t find easy to find anywhere else.
  • …  getting people to fully engage with their own self, and to make as much as they want, and are able to make of it, in the circumstances
  • Coaching needs a quality of attention given to the Coachee that is moment by moment; and every moment – for quite a long period especially when you measure it as events every second. If you really are paying high attention …

I know the typical ways I give attention, in coaching – for example I work hard at learning the language, and even single words, the person I am with is using – the particular meanings, and experiences behind another persons expression that generate  meanings.

I am constantly exploring and playing back with people their meanings – appreciating how different their experiences and meaning making is from my own.

Especially as the only measure of giving attention is by the receiver’s response – not the theory and good intentions of the sender. @@You can’t say I am giving you attention, if it doesn’t work for you!@@

2         What is attention about, exactly … What are other ways it is given?

I have long since looked around elsewhere for what attention the term gets elsewhere – but it still seems limited.

I consider that the term Attention is a more valuable word than many similar concepts (see the definition, below ) because it carries a meaning of more focus to external signals and particular events, and which are not just what the coach is doing, but about the reactions they are receiving and how they are making sense of them.    he English language is often rich with the nuances of meanings among different words, for the same sort of meaning.  But these definitions don’t really get my attention. They don’t give that clear direction for how to do it!

he English language is often rich with the nuances of meanings among different words, for the same sort of meaning.

But these definitions don’t really get my attention. They don’t give that clear direction for how to do it!


The meaning of language, and words, can be very coded – people are often cautious, and want to say what they think is the 'right' thing to say.  It may not be what they really believe. It is often their contrasting tone, or non verbal behaviour which indicates this. For example, when there is no tone that indicates some level of interest, or even excitement about saying what they really think.

Of course attention to yourself, and how you come across, is another vital component of marshalling how to give it to others. After all, coaches can sometimes appear as having some form of ‘authority' that the coachee has to obey.  It is so  important to work towards the other person and their real self.

Yet we are all experts in attention, in some parts of life – even driving a car is one important every day example for most people! So is it simple? Even driving a car can be quite testing.



3         The formal study of attention is still limited, too.

The earliest research and definition of attention, to attention, is generally recognised as stemming from when understanding people was becoming more of a learned (research based) work – such as the emergence of Psychology.

As early as 1890, William James, in his textbook The Principles of Psychology[1], remarked:

“Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German”

James further differentiated between ‘sensorial’ attention and ‘intellectual’ attention[2]. Sensorial attention is when attention is directed to objects of sense, stimuli that are physically present. Intellectual attention is attention directed to ideal or represented objects; stimuli that are not physically present.

James also distinguished between immediate or derived attention: attention to the present versus to something not physically present. According to James, attention has five major effects. Attention works to make us perceive, conceive, distinguish, remember, and shorten reactions time.

Even with these classic sub-categories, Psychology however, is still a very young – even an adolescent science – and it is forced to reduce its interest to what conventional scientific methods can measure.  So studies are drawn into where attention can best be measured – specifically where there are obvious patterns of behaviour. This makes some forms of behaviour more attractive, such as behaviours that are  fairly stuck, and often dysfunctional.

The complexity of human senses, and the meaning of any expression by another person has produced still limited formal research for every day coaching use – or to guide attention for ‘healthy' and normal people.

For example attention to ‘happiness'  is still more in the hands of marketing surveys, and government indexes, rather than formal Psychology research AND at the level of attention that makes those critical differences in coaching.

Positive Psychology (and many other concepts at a general level) has really only just started as a venture into this difficult realm. However, one thing seems sure… Happiness can vary for different people. And can vary at different times for any person. It is thus still difficult to measure meaningfully.

4         But what about attention to people … in Coaching

The detail involved still inhibits its full understanding. The data in any moment of a meeting is immense and Coaching is often research moment by moment, researching what sort of attention will work for the other person … how to relate …effectively, moment by moment.

Attention, like trust, is very easy to lose.. and can take a lot of effort to get right.

One of the best explanations I have found about what is involved is the various attempts to recognise the stages attention goes through is in such as DREYFUS[3] – an engineer working for the US airforce on developing important features of attention in tasks where particular performance was especially critical.

A summary[4] is presented, below:

  1. Novice: "rigid adherence to taught rules or plans" no exercise of "discretionary judgment"
  2. Advanced beginner: limited "situational perception"all aspects of work treated separately with equal importance
  3. Competent: "coping with crowdedness" (multiple activities, accumulation of information) some perception of actions in relation to goals deliberate planning formulates routines
  4. Proficient: holistic view of situation prioritizes importance of aspects "perceives deviations from the normal pattern"employs maxims for guidance, with meanings that adapt to the situation at hand
  5. Expert: transcends reliance on rules, guidelines, and maxims"intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding" has "vision of what is possible" uses "analytical approaches" in new situations or in case of problems.

This summary is a simplification of the reality of the stages of what Dreyfus reported is involved in building high levels of attention.

The framework was also referring to tasks generally, not necessarily Coaching. But it does seem to be a useful model for what is involved in the various ways attention can be built in coaching, and another discipline from which coaching can learn from.

It shows more clearly what is involved in building quality attention to complex realities. And real people have real, complex, diversity in the worlds they carry with them.

It also indicates how attention is still often seen as an invisible process – ‘tacit’ and ‘intuitive’ are the key terms.

I still hear a lot about Coaching that falls back into these sort of explanations for how things worked, among coaches talking about what exactly happened.

And after all that, intuition, and tacit, awareness are not always right – just because it was intuitive or tacit.

5         So how to exercise the ‘attention’  required for coaching

The most informing times, for me, are often conversations with colleagues – for example in Team Coaching – where the Coaching Team can share and clarify the detailed experiences of the ways they work differently with different people.

Similarly, seeing other Coaches in action often shows the particular ways they go about their ‘attention' to the task at hand. Quite often, I find, people with real skills in giving attention can be unaware, or just lost for being able to explain what they do, still.

Foremost, I want more than just the simple advice to ‘reflect’. There must be more to be given to the process than the word – reflect!

At the end of the day it’s all about ‘practice’ – where you are, yourself,  your best supervisor, mentor and/or coach in the way things work or not, for you.

We still have a long way to go to have the real insights, and conversations, about what we do in coaching!

So …

  • How do you study your ways of giving attention?
  • Do you know what works best for you?
  • Is it the same each time?
  • How it is sometimes different and why?

Eventually this is the sort of conversation I want to have with folks!


[1] James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt.



[4] Dreyfus in