How sustainability leadership is redefining individual liberty: a new context for executive coaching by Geoffrey Ahern

Championing both individual liberty − as we do in coaching − and the sustainability vision are in conflict in the world today. There are signs that they could move ahead together, but that this would require a radical redefinition of what it means to be free!


Individual liberty, the signature of the Western way of life, is presupposed when we

  • make the coaching contract,
  • promise confidentiality,
  • follow the individual client’s agenda and
  • promise a safe space within which to engage fully.

The employee is coached within the particular company’s right to conduct business as it chooses.

In contrast, sustainability’s frame of reference is that of whole entities, not the freedom of individuals. The whole planet is in consideration when it comes to climate change, biodiversity loss, phosphorus and nitrogen flows, deforestation and other human breaches of environmental boundaries. Whole populations are considered: e.g. giraffes as a whole, not this or that one. Many ecologists apply this thinking to humans also.

Sustainability’s whole entity approach coincides with the totalitarian thinking, often neo-Confucian, of much of economically emerging Asia. Enabled digitally, sustainability within totalitarianism – in which there is no independent justice − is creating influential new ways of being: e.g. renewable energy education for Chinese young people. A global sustainability epoch, essential though it is for our planetary future, could enforce an authoritarian social vision which goes too far through curbing individual liberty unnecessarily.

Meanwhile the liberty of the individual is being fundamentally rethought, both in ceding and adding to freedoms, so that it becomes compatible with sustainability. Skilfully handled, this situation seems to me to be an opportunity for coaching, or for some near-relation, in new market conditions.

This article/blog examines the context of these developments. It suggests that what is happening now is a dance between three critical factors (the main headings to follow):

  • Business-as-usual, supported by the liberty of the individual, pragmatically resisting sustainability
  • The whole entity sustainability leadership vision becoming more energised
  • Redefinitions of liberty outlining ways it and the whole entity sustainability leadership vision can move ahead together

My own view is that the future will not be worth living in unless it’s both sustainable at the planetary level and supportive of individual liberty as redefined.

I write this after many years of being professionally engaged with sustainability and executive coaching. Having An ‘Anthropocene’ Mindset: Fits Between Coaching And Planet, People & Prosperity (Sustainability) This is the concluding (sixth) article/blog and draws together the previous ones.

Business-as-usual, supported by the liberty of the individual, is pragmatically resisting sustainability

We do much as coaches to free clients from self-sabotage; but at the level of the contract with the company, to what extent does our intervention have the outcome of unwinding the resistance to sustainability, as contrasted with enabling companies to make profits without regard to sustainability (‘business-as-usual’)? Like everyone else, we can place our contribution somewhere on the spectrum between the two extremes of single-minded sustainability leadership and unrelenting resistance to it.

Resistance is embedded in the commercial juggernaut of short-term profits with institutional pressures for immediate dividends and executive pay packages to match. Thus there are:

Professions of alignment. It’s a public relations necessity to appear to be on the side of bequeathing a better planet to the baby in the pram:

  • In 2015 the delivery of the international Paris climate agreement and the new 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was transformational
  • Last year 225 global institutional investors controlling assets worth $26.3tn started pressurising 100 of the world’s more carbon intensive companies to do more about climate change [1]

Jargon-ridden ambiguities and compromises. Companies – and we coaches who are paid by them – face finding a way between foolhardiness and cowardice when it comes to the ethics of sustainability. The prudent middle ground usually doesn’t go far enough but it’s still worth having. It manifests in the ambiguities of sustainability compromise jargon. The jargon functions as an unofficial strategic ambiguity which allows both pro sustainability forces and the resistance to be presented as fully aligned.

The resistance is often obvious:

  • Nestlé uses the sustainability formula of ‘creating shared value’ but has been attacked for unethical promotion of its baby milk
  • Fake sustainability also combines with genuineness within other widely used formulas or systems like ‘CSR’ or corporate social responsibility and ‘GRI’ (the Global Reporting Initiative), which experts say is largely window-dressing
  • ‘Stakeholders’ is a useful concept but they are not owed a high duty of care
  • ‘Resilience’ and the word ‘sustainability’ itself are frequently used to support short-term, unsustainable profits

Dark and grey areas. The resistance involves denial, disavowal, coordinated untruthfulness, the dark side. Unique Ladders Of Sustainability – Coaching Company Leaders In The Anthropocene There’s denial in institutionalised consumerism and ideologically committed think-tanks. It may be ‘disavowal’,[2] i.e. entrenched denial. Or it may be deliberately disingenuous:

  • Some of the same ‘scientists’ who persisted in implying that tobacco isn’t harmful (the campaign basis was ‘doubt is our product’) went on to spread doubt about the very different subject of global warming. Oil producer ExxonMobil has been accused of spending USD2.9m on misinformation about climate change[3]

There’s also a dark – or grey – side to multi-corporate collaboration: e.g. in not paying a living wage (this could be achieved by companies agreeing together to make a living wage pre-competitive).

The whole entity sustainability leadership vision is becoming more energised

As the resistance of business-as-usual builds up, sustainability’s contrasting whole entity leadership vision is more likely to become more energised. I aim in this section to identify major aspects of its energising.

Sustainability’s concern with the planet as a whole. Superficially, sustainability can come across as touchy-feely only, a sentimental legitimacy of the moment spurred on by particular concerns like the plastics contaminating the ocean food chain (recently displayed by David Attenborough in Blue Planet II).

But sustainability is much more systemic and inter-connected than this. A click or so brings onto the screen an overwhelming scientific consensus that, as specified in the introduction, there are several grave and urgent threats to the Earth: e.g. the visual Nine Planetary Boundaries model; the IPCC report summary Moving on from the science the highly influential Oxfam eradication of poverty model focuses on whole entity social solutions.

It is characteristic of the planetary system that the sustainability task is about risk management not certainties. It’s a holistic picture with climate change ‘tipping points’, emergence and inevitable unpredictability.

From China to Europe, and maybe also in the Americas, environmental and social market failures are making the case for recasting profit-making so that it is underpinned by whole planet purposes. This resonates especially with younger consumers and employees and links back to last century’s history of ecology as a social movement. It has had more affinity with whole entity visions than with liberty at the level of the individual.  

History also teaches us to be wary of ‘us’ and ‘them’ polarising within whole entity visions. The elitist eugenics thinking of a century ago illustrates how ecology can be applied to prioritise some populations at the expense of others. Thankfully, since the genocide of the 1930s and 1940s, ‘ecology’ in the West (so far and with many exceptions) has tended to be much more insistently associated than before with the values of non-discriminatory universalism. “How We Can Balance Individual Freedom with ‘Ecology’ and Planetary Sustainability in Coaching

A further caveat: practising holistic sustainability vision measurably doesn’t necessarily mean that individuals become more ethical, thus rip offs can still be rife, rather like having spiritual sin alongside monastic rituals.

So far we have looked at the commercial resistance to sustainability and I have started describing the whole entity sustainability vision. These two, as I shall suggest later, are in a dance with redefinitions of individual liberty.

Humans shaping Earth (the ‘Anthropocene’). Moving on from sustainability’s concern with the planet as a whole, its energising deepens through the recent recognition that post-industrial humans have been unwittingly shaping the Earth. Geologists have accordingly given our epoch a new name, the ‘Anthropocene’: i.e. the new human-caused epoch. This scientific discovery is shocking: in Antiquity it would have been sacrilegious to suggest that Gaia the Earth Goddess could be affected by mere human behaviour.

A few path-finding multinationals have chosen to take their share of responsibility for the Anthropocene by deliberately breaking through the inherited mental taboo about perceiving Gaia’s fragility. For example:

  • Marks and Spencers has its sustainability Plan A: ‘there’s no Plan B’
  • Unilever motivates consumers through making sustainability easy, desirable, rewarding, a habit and ‘my world’ (e.g. giving the children a better future).

A ‘good’ (as it is called) Anthropocene will coordinate commercial success, human betterment and planetary health through low pollution technology in a circular economy which is inspired by nature (i.e.‘biomimicry’). A bad Anthropocene will see business-as-usual avoiding climate change until, too late, geo-engineering projects (lucrative for contractors) redistribute the problem: e.g. producing unwanted droughts in undeveloped countries.

Making the Anthropocene sustainable requires a collective approach: thinking globally while acting locally and, as portrayed in deep ecology (e.g. Arne Naess), protecting all the life-forms of the planet. Some (e.g. Thomas Berry) go on to propose biocracy.

Individual liberty may struggle.

The more business-as-usual resists, the more urgent and energised sustainability is likely to become, with the individual potentially squeezed out.

Explicitness, dynamism and the precautionary principle. The explicitness and dynamism of the precautionary principle energises the whole entity sustainability leadership vision further still.

The precautionary principle (that is, the version chosen here) asks if a proposed innovation would be better, or less bad, than not having it. It is supported by ethicists’ revival of regard for principle-based motivation and behaviour. [Integrating Coaching Ethics for the Anthropocene: ‘Gutfeel’ and 'On Principle' Coaching Approaches to Sustainability]

The precautionary principle above is dynamic because it does not aim to restore some arbitrarily imagined golden or past age, but instead attempts to pass on equivalent value. An example is the inability of organic farming to feed Africa (there’s not enough land), and the resulting need for innovation in food productivity.

The enchantment of the sustainability leadership vision. Enchantment can add a thrilling extra dimension to the already energised whole entity sustainability leadership vision.

Nature, the planet and the galaxy are displayed on screen as awe-inspiring. It takes daring-do to get close enough to convey their fascination, wonder and dread, whether this is actual as in hero(ine)s swimming with sharks, or through virtual or special effects as in sci-fi (e.g. Doctor Who).

In contemporary folklore, how we construct our planetary future is widely felt to be enchanted in:

  • Environmental dooms and utopias with short time-scales which have piggy-backed onto the traditional thought-forms of heaven, hell, physical resurrection and final judgment (heaven or hell), i.e. the myth of apocalypse: these have been energised by three and more millennia of Western − including Marxist and pre-Christian − history
  • Urban back-to-nature yearnings rooted in the newly sublime landscape visions created by the Romantics in response to smoke-stacks, factories and industrialisation
  • Development of consciousness progress myths which culminate in a planetary or ecological stage: these have antecedents in spiritual religion and gnosis

Narratives without enchantment about our future on the planet can come across as pointless narcissism. They include geological fatalism −  ‘humanity is done for but I’m alright’ − and the technological fix −  ‘science-led innovation alone will get us off the hook’. [Building Companies’ Sustainability Stories: A Role for Coaching]

Conceiving the sustainability leadership vision (or task) in itself[4] as enchanted[5] acknowledges that its energies emerge from within all world cultures. An alternative possible descriptor, ‘charismatic’, is strongly associated with a single culture (Christianity); also it has recently been much applied to ego-led business-as-usual leadership.[6] Both ‘enchantment’ and ‘charisma’ bring in the qualities of fascination, dread, wonder and awe[7] and thus add thrill to purpose.[8] 

Redefinitions of liberty outline ways it and the whole entity sustainability leadership vision can move ahead together

The longer companies resist sustainability, the stronger the coming planetary crisis, the more energised the whole entity sustainability leadership vision, and the more brutal its likely mass replacement appeal. The past tells us that utopias become dictatorships.

As I started at the beginning of this piece, coaching has a special interest because its process assumes the liberty of the individual. I believe that the ultimate sanction of independently applied law underpins the safety we guarantee clients as executive coaches. Even so I’ve had pressure put on me to disclose confidential client information. That I wasn’t dismissed, despite my refusal to comply with this pressure (put on me for commercial purposes) by the most powerful person in the consultancy involved, I put down to how the attempted confidentiality breach would have played out in a lawcourt.

How in the future can we avoid having myriads of situations like this, but with the liberty of the individual breached? Assuming that the health of populations as a whole is the supreme law, liberty should not be in conflict with sustainability. Losing some current liberties which contradict sustainability could legitimate not getting sucked into totalitarian control. Meanwhile new liberties could be gained. How We Can Balance Individual Freedom with ‘Ecology’ and Planetary Sustainability in Coaching

Possible sustainability-related closures of liberty include:

  • A recasting towards sustainability duties and a crime of ecocide
  • Convergence towards global non-discriminatory universalism to avoid the population proposed for ecological advantage being unduly nationally, racially, religiously or geographically defined or otherwise exclusive (this opens up liberty for the disadvantaged through reducing it for others)
  • Sufficient surveillance with safeguards to counter terrorism given the increasingly asymmetrical lone wolf capability afforded by technological development

Alignment with sustainability may mean radical change towards a more principle-based, less consumerist and more personally open (less shockable and blackmailable) society.

There are also opportunities for significant liberty gains:

Possible sustainability-related extensions to individual liberty include:

  • Relative freedom from the yoke of corruption (said to be the biggest obstacle to sustainability) through increased transparency
  • The reduction of excessive dependency and modern slavery through more representative participation in supply chains and within multi-national companies

Even more radical are proposals to protect both animals and future robots on the grounds that they are (or will be) sentient and individual, and maybe self-aware:

  • In cases of cruelty to animals, environmental ethicists criticise the fixing of ethics so that institutionalised industrial abuse cannot lose
  • Many in Silicon Valley think that future robots will be self-aware and autonomous and lawyers already discuss their rights

Many also say, myself included, that it would be liberating if businesses renounced the one-sided Frankenstein cult of technological dynamism for its own sake only, and instead integrated it into a whole-life precautionary dynamism.

The proposals to recast liberty outlined in this final section could provide a new context for us all.  The further and faster companies implement sustainability, the less likely they are to energise totalitarian sustainability leadership to the detriment of appropriately redefined individual liberty.

To connect with Geoffrey Ahern


[1] John Plender (2017), ‘Investors are demanding corporate action on climate change’, Financial Times, 16 December/17 December, p.11.
[2] Weintrobe, S. (2013), ‘Introduction’ in (S. Weintrobe ed.) Engaging with Climate Change. Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives, London: Routledge; Jacques, P., Dunlap, R. & Freeman, M. (2015), ‘The organisation of denial: conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism’, Environmental Politics 17(3): 349-385.
[3] Abrams, M. (2009), ‘The Discover interview Robert Proctor’, Discover, 30(1):1; Bedford, D. (2010), ‘Agnotology as a teaching tool: learning climate change by studying misinformation’, Journal of Geography, 109:160; Hansen, J (2009), Storms of my grandchildren. The truth about the coming catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity, London: Bloomsbury:15; Ward, B. (2006), Email to Esso UK Ltd, Policy Communication, The Royal Society, London.
[4] Applying a suggestion in Jermier, J. (1993), ‘Introduction – Charismatic leadership: Neo-Weberian perspectives’, Leadership Quarterly 4(3/4): 217-233.
[5] Roszac, T. (1973), Where the Wasteland Ends, New York: Doubleday.
[6] Other leadership theories − distributed, situational and so on – can be applied in addition if they also fit (adaptive theory seems particularly appropriate for sustainability but has shot itself in the foot through its commitment in practice to business-as-usual: see for example, the assumptions in Heifetz, R., Grashow A., Linsky M., (2009),The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World,  Boston: Harvard Business Press).
[7] I.e. the ‘numinous’: see Otto, R. (1950), The Idea of the Holy, trans. John Harvey, London: OUP.
[8] Kempster, S., Jackson, M. Conroy, M. (2011), ‘Leadership as purpose: Exploring the role of purpose on leadership practice’, Leadership 7(3): 317-334.

What is this rhythm thing and what does it have to do with coaching? By Simon Darnton

In my first piece about rhythm being an untapped dimension in coaching and one that, for me, was born out of a domain full of speed and risk, it follows that what I do in coaching has to do with rhythm. I help my clients to find better rhythms, of course, but what about me? And:

 Photo by David Henrichs on  Unsplash

Photo by David Henrichs on Unsplash

  • What does this mean?
  • What is my relationship to these rhythms? And;
  • Where does the knowledge come from to make use of it in coaching?

I wanted to explore how rhythm as a fundamental quality of human nature emerges in the coaching context.

So it feels like I need to explore what rhythm is, starting from a place where I know it so well.

What is this rhythm thing?

Previously I described how I work with some clients who are entirely open to hurting themselves, sometimes quite seriously, in their professional pursuits (and personal ones too) - this includes motorcycle and mountain bike racing but also other high risk sports. For many of them, their profession is also their heart of desire; or as close to as you can probably get.

One of the first questions that seems to come to mind for those not familiar with this world is: “How can someone have a heartfelt desire to do something that might actually kill them if they make even the slightest mistake?”

I don't try to answer that one anymore as I have a blind spot; I can't enlighten you any more than they can as to why this is. That's because I've done these things too and although I've backed off a bit now (not entirely by choice but due to an illness with lasting effects), I still do some dangerous things from time to time, too.

I need to.

I must.

I simply have to.

Otherwise I just don't feel complete.

A recent experience where I crashed my mountain bike was a poignant focussing moment for writing this piece. While I was mid-descent, about to complete a jump with my bike, my rhythm said: “WRONG.” To cut a long story short, I wasn’t listening. It hurt. And even after 4 months now, I have trouble using one of my thumbs properly, and it still hurts every day (this is relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things, mind you).

So what would drive someone to, in the misconceived world of health psychology, do something that is so abnormal; to knowledgeably do something one could call self-harming? Are these people, me included, just a load of loons?

A drawing tide

Well, there is a quality of experience in all this that is, for want of a better word, spiritual. It whisks you away into another dimension. A paraplegic rider I worked with told me it's the only place in his world where his disability dissolves and he finds himself whole again.

In this experience, there is something like a kernel or core that centers you. It keeps you driven, gives you direction. But not in a blustering way. This is what I describe as ‘a central stability of sorts’.

But if only it was as simple as that.

There's a curious sense of direction and purpose, taking you with the tide. It's a tide that allows you to ride the rough, and to deal with the unexpected.

In this place, things come to you, that perhaps you never would have thought of, to do something, in response to something that presents itself and you're navigating a situation with waves of a knowledge you probably didn't know you had. It feels right and it leads you through the maze.

These things come to you even when it gets hairy, you slide the bike way too much, or come round a corner to find a bike lying there in your trajectory and the flags haven't come out yet. In motorcycle racing we'd call this a 'moment.'

And we'd somehow made it through that one.

Rescued it.

No way would you do that if you'd thought about it.

When I work with world-class competitors and I talk of rhythm, they know immediately what I'm talking about. You can see it in their eyes, but more immediately in their bodies.

When these racers compete they say they find a good rhythm, yet they also know that this rhythm is not fixed. They can't afford to settle into it. For example, in motocross (MX) or downhill mountain biking (DH) the course can change minute by minute. In MX, parts of the track can be destroyed in the space of a lap under some conditions. In DH, the natural courses will be completely different on Sunday's final race run compared to the previous Thursday's track walk. This is not to mention the randomness of 30 other riders fighting for the same space in MX or more than 100 riders doing several runs of the course in DH! These racers know that the rhythm isn't like just riding the peak or sinking into the trough, but something that connects them to an ever changing environment.

Even on a tarmac race circuit it changes on a continuous basis as the race progresses. The racers feel and respond to this input.

You might assume that I'm only talking about something relevant to athletes, but I’m curious that I don’t find entrepreneurs all that different either. They have their ups and downs. It's brutal. It's painful and potentially damaging, at least emotionally and psychologically. Perhaps they're also loons?

Yet, in very much the same way, if they're asked why they do what they do, in spite of the pain and the turmoil, there's a something they just have to do, to follow. They're drawn by some kind of force within them.

As with the racers and athletes, they have a central stability of sorts that guides them. A tide or current draws them along, if you like.

And as Chris Robson says:

You have to keep experimenting because you haven’t found your natural rhythm yet.’ (Confessions of an Entrepreneur, p115)

So in my words, their companies need to hum in a way that provides direction and still be flexible, agile, and adaptable. They never know where the business is actually going to end up, regardless of plans or dreams. To succeed, their rhythm must somehow be in sync with the market.

All the entrepreneurs I’ve met (and worked with) have a certain vibe about them.

A rhythm just like any other rhythm then...!

Context is king

The truth of the matter is that their contexts are completely different.

Lets face it, the entrepreneur faces less real risk. By that I mean they’re not going to hit a tree or tumble through the air at over 100mph after their bike spat them off. They’re not facing the same traumatic impact. The nature of the experience is less condensed. It burns less fiercely, shall we say, than a weekend culminating in a 45 minute race, or a 4.5 minute final run down the side of a mountain. But it still burns...incessantly. And I think those entrepreneurs who do burn out have lost their connection with natural cycles of ups and downs and they try to stoke the fire to burn constantly bright.

The risks born by the entrepreneur are, however, wider, more varied and diverse.  They play a bigger, more complex and ambiguous field. I’d venture to say the ego takes a more significant beating.

But unfortunately, in the contexts of coaching, psychology and business, it’s too easy to focus on the individual and their traits; they’re so much more than that which is so often overlooked.

Context changes the rhythm.

The rhythm I experienced racing a motorcycle is different to mountain biking, which is different to that of my Tai Chi practise and its meditations. It's also different to that of coaching.

My ability to find a good rhythm in those context varies too! When racing a motorcycle it was inconsistent. My ability to find rhythm within Tai Chi is almost consistent now (even if the rhythm changes every time I practise) but then I've been searching for rhythm there for nearly 15 years.

I can't explain why my rhythm is so different between contexts, and I wondered whether anyone else could.

There were a small number of top motorcycle racers that I found who said to me that you had to approach each race as something 'completely new,' 'different,' 'not the same.' You never knew what was going to unfold.

Each race circuit is a different context and each time you race the same circuit, the rhythm is also different.

One motorcycle racer I coached had a moment in our coaching when this made total sense for him. His realisation that racing is a world of unknown allowed him to start each race as a blank sheet, a new horizon. This was the catalyst he needed to achieve his first ever race win, followed by winning several championships.

Something clears the mind to invite the influence of context.

This opens the door to rhythm but there was more. More that wasn't normally connected to the rhythm.

Unlocking the secrets

In most extreme sports, the athletes spend a vast amount of time getting to know their environment. This is one of the strategies they use to mitigate risks. They know, of course, that getting to know the environment where they need to perform is going to help their performance.

One of the world's greatest motorcycle racers, Valentino Rossi, described track walks as a process of unlocking the secrets of the circuit.

Knowing the circuit helps to find rhythm.

Riders who are developing themselves to move up the ranks have often asked me why some racers do well at some circuits while they perform poorly at others. This is about how they relate to the circuit and whether they've managed to unlock the secrets they need to figure that circuit out. Sometimes they never do. Even the best in the world.

So rhythm does not sit somewhere inside the mind, it's also out there. In the world.

Now all the theories and conceptualisations I've come across that are of Western origin gloss over the context and miss the out-there-ness too.

Rhythm isn't just a line of numbers drawing out a graph, it's alive, it's kicking, it's full of life. It's stable, it has a significance about it that is at once substantial, even tangible. It is also fluid, infinitely malleable, adaptable according to context as well as our intentions. There's a resonance between internal and external, blending together to produce smooth, fluid, and beautiful action, thinking and feeling.

The whole person in relation to their environment.

Rhythm is ecological.

At once accepting, analytical and critical

It is not so surprising, perhaps, that the top players in their field are incredibly analytical - even while they're involved in their pursuit.

They're not just constantly solving problems because they have to, they’re more like searching for opportunities for action.

They're critical of what they're doing, how they did. A search for perfection never quite reached, nor will it ever be. It's a critique that helps them to achieve. To refine what they're doing and to improve. This is a constant and unobtrusive stream. It's part of the game. It's part of the draw. It's part of finding a good rhythm.

It's a form of pure, natural, unadulterated, active inquiry.

They're also completely accepting. Especially of where they're at and the situation. In dangerous circumstances that's all you can do. That's where you are, there's no changing that. But there is always a path, or multiple potential pathways and these need to be considered in some light. In the moment. Decisions made. Critical decisions.

Seeing things, and being in them, for what they are gives them a certain perspective. They see things differently, which sets them apart. They have the freedom to try things, to play; acting apart.

Rhythm is missing in the coaching research

Rhythm can be found everywhere. I’d even go as far as to suggest that rhythm imbues all parts of human function -individual and social alike. In ancient Chinese philosophy, for example, this is one of the central pillars of the cosmos: Yin/Yang, the waxing and waning of the moon.

In Chinese 5-phase Theory, rhythm is an explicit characteristic in how we bring ourselves to the world, how we achieve what we achieve. How we connect with others and our environment. It represents what is valuable to us and creates that stability of sorts - a tide that draws us along.

In this philosophy, our rhythm is a mutual exchange between us and our world, which is, in and of itself a rhythm. Breathing is the simplest example.

In other areas of psychology, particularly that researching extreme sports participation, the focus is largely on aspects like fear, motivation and other abstract phenomena of the experience, but rarely the nature of rhythm even if it is mentioned a lot by participants (except perhaps Brymer & Gray who refer to it as dancing with nature). Unfortunately the research often glosses over context. However, jumping off a cliff to do a BASE jump is different from navigating a path up a rock face to complete a challenging climb. There is rhythm to each, but it's different, as is the nature of the experience. Climbing a challenging cliff is a more complex activity than jumping off one, even if both require high levels of skill. The same criticism largely goes for the psychology of 'Flow' as conceptualised by Csikszentmihályi, colleagues and the positive psychology movement. I am not a proponent of the ‘Flow’ concept.

In neuroscience I find Co-ordination Dynamics to be a fascinating space for exploring rhythm. Recent advances in neuroscience resonate well with the experience of rhythm and how it enhances function. For example, in Dynamic Coordination in the Brain: From Neurons to Mind (2010):

'The universe is lawful but unpredictable. Regularities make life possible, but unpredictability requires it to be flexible, so, biological systems must combine reliability with flexibility. Neural activity must reliably convey sensory information, cognitive contents, and motor commands, but it must do so flexibly and creatively if it is to generate novel but useful percepts, thoughts, and actions in novel circumstances. Neural activity, however, is widely distributed, which suggests that activity is dynamically coordinated so as to produce coherent patterns of macroscopic activity that are adapted to the current context, without corrupting the information that is transmitted by the local signals.'

In the same book, Engel et al., go on to state:

'A key concept for understanding dynamic coordination in complex systems is self-organization. Self-organization refers to the spontaneous formation of patterns and pattern change in systems that are open to exchanges of information with the environment and whose elements adapt to the very patterns of behavior they create. Inevitably, when interacting elements form a coupled system with the environment, coordinated patterns of behavior arise.'

Lovely but still somewhat abstract…so I would like to get a bit more grounded with this.

In my next piece, I'm going to explore, through a single, focussed experience, how rhythm ties these things together:

  • the temporal: going beyond just being in the moment to creating a meaningful adhesion of past, present and future;
  • how the analytical plays beyond reason;
  • how it informs an emergent learning and grow, both in the present and through post experience reflection.

To connect with Simon Darnton

Brymer & Gray (2009) Dancing with nature: Rhythm and harmony in extreme sport participation. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 9(2). pp. 135-149.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008) Flow : The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial Classics.
von der Malsburg C., Phillips W. A.,  Singer W. (2010) Dynamic Coordination in the Brain From Neurons to Mind. MIT Press.
Robson, C (2013) Confessions of an Entrepreneur: The Highs and Lows of Starting-Up. Pearson Business (Epub).

Making sense of how the detail of behaviour works in Coaching – and forming greater awareness of this most important frontier for progress in Coaching by Jeremy Ridge

Part 1: Introduction


I still find important gaps between my awareness of what actual Coaching practice involves, and what standards, or level of understanding, I believe is needed, that I can use to keep my awareness high about what matters in my practice.  

I will refer, here, to some direction towards the sort of standards that work best for me. The important focus I look for is one that helps to appreciate the ‘explosion’ of detail about behaviour data available in any living second in any Coaching Dialogue.

  • This behaviour may be at the level of both verbal and non verbal; and each behaviour may have ambiguities to be interpreted, and understood.  
  • And then, as well, each behaviour moves at a massive pace … second by second.

Continuing exercise of awareness, about my own behaviours, as well as the important interpretation of others’ behaviours are really key to my continuing best practice.

I may readily believe in how I practice, but it would also be useful to know where I stand in relation to what others do. Standards are one of the concepts that is often used to find such common perspectives.

1.1. I believe that behaviour is the fundamental focus, and evidence, to work with

As I see it, there are some fundamentals to Coaching, or what coaching may yet evolve into, that will last for ever,

  1. It is about behaviour, and
  2. Its interpretation by either of the two people involved.

What causes the behaviours that take place is central. But, until Coaches take their brain scanning machines into the session with them, and as long as people are not exercising choice, the only way to understand the sequences of causes, and effects, is through interpreting behaviours, and how they interact with each other, that is readily available as data.

This task of ‘code breaking’ of the meaning displayed by the immediate behaviours will always be there. And, the outcome of Coaching is eventually also about the behaviour of the Coachee – outside of the Coaching dialogue.

1.2. Continuing limitations in research and understanding of behaviour

The sophistication of human behaviour still stifles research into it. This is more to do with the limitations of traditional research, than the fundamental impossibility of doing it.

For example, there is still use of this term ‘chemistry meetings’ in Coaching, which reflects the poverty of consensus on what is going on in these initial coaching meetings. We have no agreed Coaching terms, or standards, for what is acknowledged as a central feature of practice in coaching. And so, it’s simpler to use a technically defined term as a metaphor from another field of knowledge as a way to get across how this complexity is inherent but still too challenging to define!

1.3. The challenges of using Behaviour as information

At any one moment, even in a single second of events, between two people there are a mass of variables all interacting.

  • Coaching is an interaction between just two people. It is more than words, given the physical proximity, and the display of all manner of other forms of nonverbal information.
  • It is also even more complex, because perception may be formed as much by prior information than current behaviours in that immediate moment. For example, another person’s previous experience in relation to the term coaching! What I think about how I behave is irrelevant. It is what is perceived by the other person that will matter.

1.4. Where is ‘best practice’ in making sense of the detail of behaviour up to? 

There is a huge list of all manner of frameworks and models [see the plethora shared in academia and consulting].  As summed up in a Wikipedia article [1] on psychotherapy alone.

“There are hundreds of psychotherapy approaches or schools of thought. By 1980 there were more than 250; by 1996 more than 450; and at the start of the 21st century there were over a thousand different named psychotherapies.”

Psychotherapy has had some opportunities to be a more studied field of practice, than Coaching, as it does deal with problems, due to repetitive, ( i.e. stable, ) albeit dysfunctional, forms of behaviours which make them easier to study.

Taking some opportunity to review the various, and immense, fields of learning relevant to coaching, helps to form a view about the understanding of this sophistication that makes most sense for me.

For example, my period of Doctoral study [2] was an important opportunity for enabling a thorough review on an interdisciplinary basis, rather than being locked in to one field in particular that reduces it to what can be simply measured. This then enabled me to carry out research that demonstrates the possibilities for achieving a basis for mapping out this understanding of the real complexities involved.

My post doctoral work continued as further investigation of setting up practice in the professional sense. The good coach has become that context that gives me, and other practitioners, the opportunity to work towards the rigour of reporting on this.

Part 2: Two cases to illustrate the nature, and importance of why this detail of behaviour matter

I hold two recent case examples that illustrate the issue in practical terms.

2.1. Case 1: Understanding the detail of behaviour is not (yet) an area Coaches lead in.

A private conversation was held recently with some leaders of a major (executive) coaching initiative in a Division of a major organisation. This was a combined initiative between internal as well as external executive coaches, and was being lead and co-ordinated by an internal Senior team of executive coaches

The Coaches involved in the initiative were talking about how to deal with a real surprise that they had come across.  Towards the conclusion of the initial cycle of the executive coaching programme that the coaches had initiated and resourced, they were faced with how to report on progress achieved. They had had real difficulty with knowing how to report on this, especially in a manner that would convince senior management of the added value of the initiative.

After a while, they took the courage to actually raise their difficulty with the Head of the Division, directly. They were then quite surprised to hear from the Director concerned that the Director had already carried out the evaluation for themselves; and they were very impressed by the progress they had found.

The question was raised – how did you find this? And the Director answered that they regularly work with, talk to, and observe people in the Division concerned, as a natural way of working. The Director had noticed many small, but significant, changes in patterns of behaviour amongst individuals receiving coaching. Of course, these changes were nearly always very small, even almost invisible, adjustments to on-going behaviours of the people concerned, but the Director was confident that this sort of progress, they themselves had noticed, was highly significant and very important to making an important contribution to overall results in many important ways. (more detail about this was offered – but, apparently, it was not requested by the Coaches involved!)

The Director was even able to give clear and specific evidence of a large number of quite small behavioural events that they considered very significant, from a wide range of people. The Director had not asked the people concerned for this evidence. They had taken it from observation during normal working.

I was able to pick up with the Director about the sort of detailed behaviours involved, and their context, more easily than trying to talk at this level with the other coaches who showed some lack of confidence about engaging in such detail about behaviours.

2.2 Case 2: Limitations around the leading edge in the field

Recently a colleague shared a personal experience with me. They had a very well established Practice in executive coaching. This person had recently been failed in an application for ‘accreditation/credentialing’ with one of the current coaching bodies. The cause of the failure stemmed from what was called a “real play” exercise (where a real person brings a real problem for a short opportunity for a coach to demonstrate their coaching.)

The reasons given for the result were to do with the coach having failed to give the observers the evidence they were looking for.

Outside the session, independently, and unknown to the observers, the real play volunteer came up to the coach / applicant, and thanked them for the session, saying “that was the most effective and useful 15 minutes coaching they have had on the issue from anyone, ever.”

Yet they had been failed by the ‘system’ – specifically for this exercise. Yet this coach was also able to well evidence a very successful, and long established Practice.

The executive coach concerned went on to explain to me …. “I know what I did was probably invisible to the observers. They just didn't notice the way I smiled, kept sincere eye contact and nodded as the coachee told their story. I used their words back to them. I didn't need to use coaching words as I could see that my attention to their words convinced them of my sincerity, and depth of appreciation in my understanding of them. It’s about the timing of nods and smiles; and the calibration of them in line with the coachee’s own caution and readiness, I got this right, and their reflection just took them further, without my overt and obvious direction.”

The coach went on to say “Thank goodness there are clients who appreciate the sophistication of what is involved ...that starts from evidence of outputs, rather than idealistic but superficial frameworks of inputs without reference to the major variable of how to interpret where the coachee is starting from, and how the coach can most effectively support progress. Thank you for enabling me to even tell this story. No one else has, They are all telling me what I should do, but which I have difficulty in getting to work.”

The levels of effectiveness achieved by the behaviours involved in this real play were so high, they had been apparently completely invisible to the nominated experts / observers.

2.3. Other examples where appreciation of the detail of behaviour can be shared

I do find that there can seem to be greater appreciation of the detail of behaviour among many people who are not necessarily experts.

  • Peer group conversation among experienced people – NB who may not be calling themselves coaches
  • Sharing observations with colleagues, ( and others who may be directly involved ) when the experience is shared. Eg working as a team in team coaching – yes, where the coaches are working as a team, with a client team, and so have common access to the detail.
  • Appreciating that depth of detail at the level of behaviours:
  • that integrates both the non-verbal and verbal communications into meaningful words
  • that captures the complexities of each moment alongside the broader context and 
  • is that higher level of awareness of practice that I’m looking to maintain.

Evidence from experience based on outcomes from the real end users of coaching, has informed me that this is what is required to be both effective and efficient.

Evidence, to me, continues to fall short, however, in much of current academic, and other coaching literature, about what are really meaningful examples of best practice for how behaviour works in Coaching.  However there is one line of work that I have found to hold important prospects of starting a basis for the research and understanding required.

Part 3. The research outline that I find explains most of the behaviours that matter in Coaching

3.1. The importance of a research approach in forming shared knowledge

An important benefit of scientific approaches to research are being able to stand on the shoulders of other people’s learning, without having always to start from scratch. It is what makes our human society so rich.

The research approach, that has helped me the most has been extensively compiled by Robert Carkhuff [3].  This is a deliberate attempt to be integrative in a field that has still some considerable scope for being more integrative, than inventive. In particular, it provides some important technical language, ( and definition, ) for the detail that matters most about the behaviours that matter in Coaching.

I will summarise Carkuff’s research schema, and reach some examples of how I consider it was intended to continue the work as a basis for more extensive appreciation of this elusive detail of events taking place between people in this sort of coaching context. The research involved is not the final solution. But it is an important step along the road.

3.2. Where this research sits in the overall schema of our understanding, to date - The humanistic ‘school!’

I am still curious how the term humanistic is seen as a school, implying it is something of a limited approach only considered as important by some people – and not by others.

A useful summary of schools – in contemporary Psychology is highlighted in [4]. This is a useful summary of how the wider field of Psychology, as the study of behaviour, and its causes, shows how research methodology constraints may still determine what a school is based on, rather than the practical scale of the issues involved. What gets studied is limited by what can be measured; and the methodologies of measurement can become more important than the relevance to practical opportunities to appreciate how behaviour works in something as living and dynamic as what Coaching aims to address.

Research into the humanistic approach followed the writings of Carl Rogers, in particular [4]. This approach is often referred to more as a form of philosophy because it lacks methodology. However, it is the recognition of the vision, rather than the proof, that appears to still catch the mood in Coaching.

For example, the Director in Case 1 was able to be fully articulate about their learning – in their own language - but you need to understand their language to research it. People tend to have their own definitions of words they use.

3.3. Robert Carkhuff’s lead towards an integrative approach

Carkhuff’s work was a compilation of research, and it went as far as it could go at that time. Even so, it resulted in identification of a range of key factors that appealed to me for my own experience, as well as my more formal research in this area.

The approach lead to a detailed framework of the major, priority, behaviours, and their interaction. (N.B. The general term ‘helping ‘ was still in use at the time of the research. The adaptation of the term Coaching was still to emerge)

This framework opens up access to the detail of the hidden gateways about how another person can open the gates in their interaction with another person, towards what Coaching aims to achieve, and how to leverage that elusive ‘transformational’ dialogue with detailed appreciation and understanding of what behaviours are involved.

Most importantly, this framework helped me start to put all the data about my practice, and even formal research, into a form that started to explain what was otherwise done intuitively.

It has also left a number of questions requiring further attention.

3.4. The Carkhuff research framework

The Carkhuff research framework is about the appreciation of the eight major areas of behaviour involved [5] that are each distinct types of behaviour that are all needed for the interaction to grow which is fundamental in coaching. Out of the eight behaviours only one focusses on the Coachee; and the other seven for the Coach.

It was acknowleged that each type of behaviour is still more of a category, than explicit description. But there are some behaviours that matter more than others, and it is important to appreciate this. Each type of behaviour is also described very simply using a scale format – meaning to have more of and less of it.

The complexity of behaviour, and its measurement in this context is made even more complex because behaviour is measured more by how it is perceived, than its intention. Hence whether a behaviour had an effect can only be measured by the reaction of the other person.

3.4.1    The Coachee Behaviour

The primary driver is the behaviour of the Coachee that matters, which is termed SELF EXPLORATION. In effect this is a term that refers to the Coachee’s tendency to value having effective support for their continued learning.

3.4.2    The Coach behaviours

This is relevant to the support of the process are categorised into two sets. The behaviours that matter at first are described as facilitative. When the foundations have been created, the later behaviours move to an emphasis on action oriented.



            Action Oriented:


These terms are open to very different forms of usage. For example, confrontation is about behaviours that enable the coachee to confront themselves (for example, suddenly realising the assumptions they may have been making about a matter, that were worth checking) not for the coach to be confronting.

The first four facilitative behaviours are part of a critical initial process. This is an important foundation, and psychological contract building process – like building trust – that is required before the Coachee builds their confidence in disclosing their intimate details relevant to the use of more action oriented dimensions involved in specificity, confrontation and action orientation

The work provides detailed examination of how these processes often work in relation to each other. However, despite the considerable detail in the way the material is written up in (1) and (2), there are still quite a lot of opportunities to consider developing the framework further and in more detail that aligns with Carkhuff’s original intention for doing this research.

The reality of practice brings these details into awareness on a regular basis; and in turn informs and adds extra insights into the how the detail works, or not.

Part Four: How Practice needs this framework to make sense of events, and how Practice can generate further stages of understanding of how the framework operates.

If we take the structure of the Carkhuff findings there are a number of important focus points that need to be continued both in research, as well as helping to stimulate and guide my attention to reviewing Practice.

First:  The challenge is greatest when trying to understand the most appropriate way of behaving with Coaching’s prime target audience – Individuals who are healthy and effective already.

Dealing with healthy people is a real dilemma for research. This is still almost a forgotten major issue. It is still too complex for available methodologies. We can achieve some statistical groupings around some sort of stimulus. But it is still a challenge to deal with the one, rather than large sample groups.

Second:   The importance that coaching starts with the behaviour of the other person, and then lead from this. It is about what is perceived, and how it was received, not just what was intended.

Third: The term self-exploration was used as a generic term for a complexity we are still exploring with many other terms. For example, learning has been a major area of study for Psychology. Yet it is scarcely referred to in Coaching.

Fourth:   the overall process: facilitative to action oriented. Why is facilitation so important? What invisible factors are so important here?

Fifth:  The complexity of ‘re-visiting’ by the coachee .

The whole process is not a simple linear one. People always introduce behaviours throughout that can aim to go back, to check, or build even further, on some of the facilitative behaviours they are looking for from the Coach

It could be called trust building – one of those concepts that everyone agrees is key – but again – so difficult to research.

Sixth:  At any one moment of behaviour, the Coach has to also keep the context of the whole relationship in mind.

For example, people often revisit different phases of the dialogue – as they build their own concentration around it.

Seventh:  How do the different components of behaviour involved function separately

For example, self-disclosure is a particularly intriguing form of behaviour to explain in greater detail.

Eighth:  How to go beyond a simple scale – where next? - particularly in terms of significance of the outcomes.  A scale simplifies the idea, but there is a great deal more that can be possible in the identification, and measurement of significance. How do different sequences of behaviour matter, in relation to the whole?

Ninth: How to integrate the factor of ‘perceived scale’ by the coachee, rather than ‘intended’ function of the behaviour used by the Coach.  How to interpret the Coachee’s framework for making their perceptions of behaviours by the Coach? For example, a smile may intend good will, but it may be perceived so very differently.

And this is only a short list of the further opportunities for building more insight into this whole area! As well as making sense of the detail of my practice.   I look forward to the chance to move beyond being able to have such further dialogues with peers, colleagues and - even ordinary friends

Part 5. Conclusions and Next Steps

It has been very valuable to find expression for making sense of the areas that are of such importance in keeping my own practice sharp. I can feel like one of those athletes who have to keep on training, even when previous performance suggests they are already performing well.

The potential value of an Integrative framework for all the differences in approaches in the Coaching Field remains important.

The difficulty with a framework such as mentioned here is that it it is still likely to be too complex for the levels of interest many people would have for the subject. After all it is easier just to get on with doing it – intuitively – rather than painting the abstract picture of how and why it was all happening in the way it happened …

The next steps, involved, for myself, is to celebrate the space created by the good coach for others to paint their picture of how it makes sense to them.

To connect with Jeremy Ridge

References and Foot notes
2 Ridge, J. (1975) The Development and Operation of the Effective Interpersonal Relationship Skills relevant to Career Development Problems from Staff Assessment at an Industrial Research Laboratory, PhD, The University of Aston (Available to download)
3 Helping and Human Relations: A Primer for Lay and Professional Helpers, Vol. 1: Selection and Training (v. 1) Robert R. Carkhuff ISBN 10: 0030812143 / ISBN13:  9780030812149  Published by Thomson Learning, 1969; Helping and Human Relations: v. 2 (Helping & Human Relations) Robert R. Carkhuff ISBN 10: 0030812151 / ISBN 13: 9780030812156 Published by Thomson Learning, 1969
5 Full detail can be accessed through original works reported by Robert Carkhuff, (1) and (2) , (or, access to my Doctoral thesis (3))

Pursuing Professionalism and Rigor in Coaching; The usefulness of peer coaching for personal and professional development by Yvonne Thackray and Larissa Conte

Coaching as we understand it today is part of an evolutionary process in elevating human potential. As societies continue to realize that each individual has greater potential to live beyond their limitations, coaching has tapped into that growing awareness while filling a gap left by the decline of lifelong structured developmental experiences like guilds, formal mentoring, and initiations.


At the same time, rapid commercialization of coaching has resulted in a proliferation of practitioners without clear standards of practice—reminiscent of the Wild West. This poses challenges to coaches and clients alike. This has also led to a continual reinvention of terms for coaching without actually making sense of what coaching is and how it can make a difference alongside all other approaches that support a similar agenda. Self-appointed professional bodies and related institutions started with good intentions, yet seem to be disconnected from actual market needs. Without clear guidelines of what is a legally defined ‘professional’ coach, it leaves clients exposed and demands coaches self-direct their own learning whilst checking and comparing how their approach is developing with respected peers.

Working independently as practitioners, the challenges and opportunities coaches face are often quite a lonely affair. There is no set organisational system we need to follow, and so we usually author our own growth paths to the best of our ability. We often want to improve our coaching skills and behaviours (e.g. rigor of practice, clarity of approach, what we aim to deliver, etc.), as well as our business skills (the type of clients we want to attract, pricing, agreements, etc.).  Quickly scanning the broader field of coaching, the majority of the available ‘trainings’ and ‘supervision’ seem to focus either more on business development or personal development, less so on both ‘personal AND professional’ (PP) development.The obvious challenges of designing and engaging in one’s own PP learning curricula were the main impetus for us—Yvonne and Larissa—to develop a collaborative relationship of reflection and writing as peers in the coaching space.

What we mean by peer coaching

  1. Amongst peers, we share coaching conversations to further articulate our triangulated thoughts about the practice of coaching
  2. More broadly, we belong to many different peer coaching relationships/groups

In our peer coaching relationship with each other, we’ve decided to report on our learnings. Some of these learnings are sourced from other peer coaching relationships or groups we also participate in.

How our collaborative process emerged

Larissa was introduced via a mutual acquaintance in London to Yvonne, who’s the founder and one of Leadership Team members at the good coach. We quickly fell into a routine of meeting over Zoom for 90 minutes every 3-4 weeks (often with a 12-hour time difference) inspired by our mutual interests, shared curiosities, and reciprocal coaching that satisfied each of our PP agendas and the good coach’s agenda.  We decided that we could benefit from each other’s individual learnings and explore the finer points of coaching together. This resulted in our agreement to appropriately share and discuss, through periodically reporting on the good coach, our experiences of coaching in how we practice - how enriching that might be!

This naturally led us to disclose more about ourselves to really begin to get to know each other, including our foibles. Managing what we would then disclose from our conversations, we’ve contractually agreed with each other to share what we deemed to be relevant and pertinent to each article.

With the current information and understanding we each have of our practice to date, we share what we consider to have been important shifts in how we practice. It means our sharings can be considered to be still quite broad and high-level (macro level) as we’re still in the early stages of recounting events[1]. Yet, it’s still a useful starting point that provides us with relevant evidence to systematically build toward a more common understanding and draws on our respective, diverse experiences as practitioners. We appreciate that while we are able to consider similarities, there are inherent risks in declaring patterns because they can minimize the complexities and personal differences we’ve each overcome to get to where we are now. We’re still learning from each other about our collaboration, and we’re beginning to map our surface features representing distinct edges or common typologies of our coaching in the hopes it may help serve others on their unique paths.

Our expectations are that each of our articles deepens our PP knowledge bank and add value to the field overall. We both do not feel that what we’re offering is the ‘final solution’, but rather a ‘snapshot’ of what’s been most relevant to date from our ongoing experiential learning and what’s been of most value in our practices.

Key insights

This article is primarily about how we’ve used the insights gained from peer coaching conversations to shape our practices. For our first co-written piece we:

  • Offer some signposts and hard-earned knowledge to those just starting out as independent coaches
  • Give more perspectives (data) for established coaches to consider when mentoring or supervising rising coaches

Commonalities in our coaching paths

After sifting through our abbreviated autobiographical journey into coaching we became aware that the sum of each of our experiences to date had resulted in quite similar perspectives that, in turn, shaped our approach to practice. We were both struck by how driven we are by our personal motivations to make coaching part of our professional services, and wanted to learn how we can continuously improve our coaching skills as part of our continuing PP development. Here are some common patterns we found:

  • Our learning paths have primarily been intuitively led, rather than explicitly structured.  Despite all the coaching models and coaching psychological theories that exist that focuses on growth and development, it’s very hard to map that directly onto each person’s growth as a coach. Instead, it’s very specific to each individual. Our learning and development as coaches has had to move beyond over-reliant or evangelical adherence to any given model. Even acknowledging the partial nature of every model can be challenging. Rather, we engage with our practices as part of our PP with a great amount of critical thinking and inquiry from a wide range of disciplines.
  • We both created, and continually shape our careers, by listening to our passions and following our innate curiosities. This is a riskier choice compared to some of our peers whereby organisations have typically invested in their career pathways for their professional technical role (i.e. graduate training programs offered by organisations through to leadership training for managers). Without a specific framework that manages progression, we each had to develop our own continuing PP framework that more accurately reflected our different challenges in pursuing what we wanted to achieve. This demanded a greater learning curve of understanding our role, developing the self, and creating our own entrepreneurial role in an open market.
  • We’ve partnered with others to close our gap of understanding and develop our strengths.The greatest and most direct professional feedback we’ve received about who we are and what we’re doing is through intimate relationships. Learning from each of our many experiences, it’s a combination of both personal reflections and peer conversations (you might even call it coaching), particularly with those peers who are invested in us, and invested in building a relationship on a shared agenda.
  • Putting ourselves in different organizational contexts informs our ongoing PP development. We’ve both followed a path that’s taken us through diverse professional settings as employees and consultants, which has afforded us exposure to a wide variety of organizational cultural patterns. Recognizing pattern similarities (e.g. reading and deciphering contexts, personalities, systems, and cultures) gave us the opportunity to present alternative perspectives and appropriate interventions with a more coaching approach regardless of the role we held. It’s important to note that our learnings here resulted as much from our successes as from our mistakes. The mistakes helped us hone our understanding of where we could grow and recognise our limitations as coaches.

Learning and development has played a central role in both our personal and professional lives. At this point in our careers, it’s now more about continually developing the right balance of matching our experiences with understanding how we practice in order to have longevity, credibility, and respect in each of our respective markets. Making the right choices in our self-directed career development can be a circuitous route, as it requires conscious effort to know what the real learning is from each experience that matches reality, rather than our own personal worldview. Integrating those learned experiences deepens our development of understanding who we are and how we can more efficiently and effectively coach the needs of our clients in their context.

Mapping 6 key shifts that similarly influenced our individual practices

The following elements are what we consider, so far, to have been the key shifts that made a positive difference in how we each practice.

  1. Confidence
  2. Target client/Ideal audience/Knowing our market
  3. Valuing and selling our services
  4. Legitimacy and validation
  5. Exploring ethical boundaries and professionalism
  6. Partnering

While this list is neither exclusive, nor comprehensive, we offer these insights surfaced from our discussion of our growth as coaches.

1. Confidence

Working Description/Definition(s): A feeling of self-assurance arising from understanding how one’s coaching skills and behaviours are repeatedly having the desired, beneficial effects with each client.

Having confidence in delivering coaching and being able to talk with confidence about how we coach has been an important area of growth and development as practitioners. We feel this comes from experience, and also from realising that we were doing a lot of informal coaching before we formalised our practices, rather than believing a lot of the rhetoric[2]. One professional aspect of coaching is being able to talk more concisely about what it is we do and how we do it in a way that’s consistent with each of our clients. This not only translates into confidence in our ability to communicate about our practice, but also our ability to communicate with people in many different life stages and contexts, to enable both of us to mutually assess fit in the coaching relationship. When we’re with the client, this translates into how well we understand the client’s context and their desire engage us to achieve their agenda because they have decided to trust us.

LC: “Thinking back on my lifecycle as a coach, I was first paid 5 years ago. Prior to that point, I’d constantly been coaching people since 2005, but not paid for it. As I looked at different coaching bodies and their accreditation, what I needed to do was the math. I looked at the many hours in my life spent coaching, which added up to over 10,000 hours of coaching - and that was the first main way in which I gained confidence in my experience and abilities.

There have been many iterations and evolutions on my coaching path, and for me, the first main step in building my confidence was about bridging the gap between coaching as a passion and coaching as a craft/career. What’s currently available in terms of roadmaps for creating a coaching practice don’t seem very helpful. Something that’s missing for me, and what helps motivate our work together, is to first get to know oneself and the consciousness inside your own body. How do I listen? How do I learn and create alignment in my own life? What are my gifts in the process of being in continual learning and growth? What have I learned and embodied that I can use to uniquely contribute to others on their path? By learning how to be coached and coach oneself on the developmental journey, that’s a big part of where I found my positioning and niche in coaching. To know that I had experience, gave others value, and could locate myself in the field of coaching was all crucial for me.”

YT: “In a similar fashion looking back at my coaching career, I was first paid 7 years ago. I’d literally came off an overseas coach training program, and when I returned to Hong Kong someone recommended me to coach the CEO of a multinational luxury goods conglomerate. This was my first paid coaching client. It was also the first time I had to engage with business development, sales, and delivering on the coaching agenda. I closed after our first meeting, and my rate was what we’d call average for mature coaches. I was hired with no questions asked and was paid in full for the whole coaching package upfront. I started building up my portfolio of clients, checking out different rates, and the immediate questions that kept popping up for me were, 

  • How many sessions does a client really need? and
  • What is it that I’m doing that keeps bringing people back to me as a coach? For example, one client had to travel almost 3 hrs round trip for a ~90 minute conversation.

I realised in a short period of time I couldn’t follow a framework that was conflated with the norm by approved training schools and bodies because it simply didn’t work for my practice. It was useful to trial and test out their framework, and I also quickly realised that you can’t force people to follow a set template. And so my motto, since then, has always been to allow the client to self-direct their own learning and to follow that rather than having a tight structure at the start. This is really a negotiating process between myself and the client. The client wants to know what technical expertise I’ll be bringing to the conversation, and once they have the evidence they need that I’m working with them from a seemingly robust knowledge base, there is a shift in the growing relationship where they can confidently continue to take the lead supported with my style of coaching. Recognising early on that that this is a consistent pattern of how I practice, this has helped me appreciate who I work better with - confident and humble, mature and independent, autonomous lifelong learners - with confidence. Saying that, there are times when it is useful to introduce a light structure!

2. Target client/Ideal audience/Knowing our market

Working Description/Definition(s): A specific description of the clients (individual and groups) that each coaching practitioner’s approach works optimally alongside with and shares a mutual agenda.

 Economic situations can dictate who we work with as clients, and sometimes coaches, need to work with clients out of economic necessity rather than deep alignment—especially when they are first starting out. However, at different stages of our coaching career, we start to filter out and identify those clients who we are most suited to work with rather than working with anyone and everyone. Typically, those who we are better at working with help us in deepening our learning and understanding of what’s working, and more importantly why it’s working. It’s both motivating and validates more often than not why we are working hard in this field.

LC: “This is one of the hardest questions to answer in coaching. I think the reason for this is that people want to get paid, particularly when starting out. This tension can result in a Jack-of-all-trades pitch as a coach—willing and claiming to be able to do virtually anything the client needs, even though you may not be the best option for all the work. This challenge came up for me as someone with a great variety and depth of tools in my toolkit. An early, hard learning I had on this front was about the coaching/therapy line when a client with clinical depression came to me via a referral. I shared my reservations and caveats about my abilities and she chose to engage, despite the known limitations.Though we worked together for a while, it became clear that I was unable to adequately serve her. This was a powerful lesson and a case of learning about my boundaries by crossing them.

As I’ve defined and redefined my target audience over the years, I first asked myself ‘What can I do really well and offer as a point of value to my clients?’ Since then, as I’ve gained more experience, it’s not just a question of what I can do, but what I most want to be doing. So really assessing my capacity not only in terms of ability, but passion for the work. Now I seek clients who’ve cultivated a sense of self-awareness and want help shedding unhelpful patterns to embody a more authentic expression of who they are in their lives and work. Today I position myself as a rites of passage coach. I seek clients with big hearts, bright minds, passion for serving the greater good, desire to transform, and the courage to do the inner work.”

YT: “Rigor has, in its various forms and ways, played an important role in my journey. For me, demonstrating rigor suggests a level of competence that has been accumulated from their experiences and from a variety of resources. There is a sense of clarity, honesty and wisdom that emerges from that space of working through the various challenges of producing rigorous work.

And so, embarking on my own practice whilst (unconsciously) applying this principle to myself and others, I quickly realised that I didn’t have the capacity nor passion to be a coach that fits everyone and everything. I became weary and through my sampling I began taking a more cautious approach that then allowed me to quickly become aware of those individuals who I work best with. I quickly recognised that I have a tendency to work with individuals who’ve started their self-awareness journey with certain abilities/curiosities, rather than those on the cusp of embarking, and quite independent individuals who know their own mind and quite happy to share what they think. They know what they want. They often lead our conversations.

It also became clear that my expertise was operating in a specific context - the field of coaching -  and this led to the good coach project (See Making sense of what I do, how my coaching practice is taking shape).What becomes challenging when I do engage in conversations with many peers about their target market is that it typically spirals down to a comparison of clients that focuses on rates and marketing opportunities, rather than how they add value with clients in their specific contexts, and situations when it’s most appropriate to pass clients onto other coaches who better fit their client’s changing needs.

3. Valuing and selling our services

Working Description/Definition(s): Exchanging currencies for services provided that mutually meets and satisfies their market.

Selling our services has probably been the most pressing issue when working as an independent coach. The reality is that coaching (in the purist sense) accounts for 20-30%[3] of our overall business but our coaching approach informs 100% of our practice. It’s okay to take a blended approach - whether that’s coaching and training, coaching and facilitation, coaching and consulting, or some multiple combination. If money and rates are constantly the key focus in building and maintaining a practice, then burnout is likely and precipitated with a swift decision that an independent practice isn’t the right pathway. In coaching, this is where being ‘agile’ and having a ‘plan’ to consistently test our approach is of most value.

For us, it’s understanding these commercial pressures and distilling that question down to how to brand and sell our services with integrity.  From a slightly different lens, Yvonne began to inquire about this through her Masters in Anthropology and came across people studying about ‘commoditizing oneself’. People are very uncomfortable with selling coaching because it seems as if there’s nothing being tangibly exchanged. The reality is coaches, in general, haven’t yet developed the language set, or have that level of confidence to talk about the value at that level in their context. As coaches we are quite unpracticed talking about our practice, i.e. what we’re really doing when we’re coaching, and this ultimately led to the beginnings of the good coach.

Without following a conventional career pathway, Larissa and Yvonne had to learn very quickly the nature of the value proposition that we bring across all of our coaching clients. Similarities of approaches include,

  1. Understanding client context is critical; counter to the commonly-held myth in coaching that you don’t need to know the client’s context. It’s in understanding the specifics that we can best leverage our general experiences in a way that’s relevant to each unique client. To do this we need to excel at assessing and tracking our client’s realities.
  2. Listening intently to what they do and don’t say to reflect on their behavioral patterns and empathize with their experiences. This helps clients feel acknowledged and trust that you get them.
  3. Asking the right questions and offering informed opinions that open up new perspectives. Mature clients want to work coaches who can help them access another way of seeing their situation. Someone who can share insights based on experience and equip them to make better decisions.
  4. Creating space for reflection and learning. When the clients believe that we’re here to work on their agenda, an emergent learning space is created that needs to be continually maintained. This allows the client to work through their challenges to make cognizant sense of how they can better deal with the unknown. 
  5. Reminding them to celebrate their successes. High-achievers commonly go from one challenge to the next without taking time to acknowledge and celebrate their accomplishments. We create a space for pause and recognition not only for what they’ve done in each phase of their journey, but who they’ve become in the process.

In addition to the above, we each hold a deeper awareness and curiosity of how more subtle and nuanced behaviours add to the value of what we provide:

  • Tone and body language: Different styles of tone and embodiment continually occur across contexts and clients. In order to appropriately convey understanding and connection, we listen and respond to what tone best matches each moment. Speaking with a softer tone and using informal gestures might be called for, whilst in other circumstances, a more assertive, strategic tone is needed. How it’ll be received depends on the intention and the level of readiness of the client to want to engage in their own learning. In one example, Yvonne became more aware of how her tones shift whilst doing a test run with a coaching partner who mirrored that Yvonne was talking in a therapeutic voice that might have been inappropriate for the corporation context but perhaps not for the individual. If we’re doing our work well as a coach we’re typically following the language pattern, structure, meaning and tone of our clients.

    In addition, we also need to be aware of our own personal styles of communicating and how others might react to it. When Yvonne first met Larissa, she felt Larissa spoke with confidence and gravitas whilst using a deeper tone that naturally commands attention and authority along with a hint of playfulness to connect and make space for reciprocation. Larissa experienced Yvonne as having a precision of mind that is deeply intellectually curious and committed to intellectual rigor while also having significant emotional intelligence and lightheartedness.
  • Boundaries: Coaching can often be experienced and presented as simply having a conversation with someone who’s a good listener, and typically likened to a compassionate friend. This is just one of many boundaries to be managed. But it’s important to understand and share how these honed skills are not something that should be freely given away in today’s capitalist economy. For example, Larissa shared that part of her early journey was constantly having coaching conversations in social settings. “I needed to stop doing this because I realized I was giving my skills away, and why would people pay for it if they could reliably get it for free? It’d be like if a doctor was freely treating everyone they encountered in social gatherings. I needed to get clear on how I show up in my various friendships—who I reciprocally receive love and coaching support from—and how I show up in my more extended community relationships where I have clearer coaching boundaries. This took the shape of general agreements with myself and clear, active listening to what I do or don’t want to give in each situation

4. Legitimacy and Validation

Working Description/Definition(s): Receiving external and independent feedback that one’s practice meets expectations of what’s considered to be both professional and ethical within and across organisations

Legitimacy is always an interesting question in coaching because anyone can call themselves a coach. Are you legitimate through certifications, tenure, clientele, reviews, affiliations, trainings, personal experience in your area of coaching, notable accomplishments, content creation and social media following etc? There are so many ways people render legitimacy in our field and coaching credentials are often meaningless on their own.

The only current way of showing legitimacy and validation for our coaching is through the people who are willing to engage our services. Prior titles, short term marketing, and access to one or many accreditations can get a coach in the door, but they don’t guarantee delivering an appropriate standard of coaching that would be consistent across the field, and specifically, to the needs and contexts of that client.

Because of the murky nature of legitimacy in the coaching industry, we’ve each found our own way to validate our work in our respective markets.

LC:  “In 2012, I started my first coaching business, Lionhearted. By this time, I’d already spent 10,000 hours coaching people—Malcolm Gladwell’s cited number for achieving mastery in a field—and had very strong reviews. But I was having a hard time selling myself in a traditional business context as I switched to working with corporations from non-profits. I kept receiving the feedback that I had the skills, but needed brand recognition to legitimize myself in the business community.

At the surface level, people wanted to see what companies my clients hailed from as a signal that I was at a certain caliber and had reliable experience. But the conversation about brand helped me understand the wider implications of creating my own brand—telling the story of my full background and skills not only as someone who could provide impactful, relevant coaching services, but as someone who could also run a business and create an enjoyable customer experience.”

YT: “My biggest concern early on was responsibility. Not responsible for the other person, but a sense of responsibility of delivering something of value that can be construed as being professional. This line of questioning personally and professionally had a knock-on effect on my confidence and legitimacy to practice. To manage this, I began investigating, researching, and comparing how different training schools and professional bodies worked on validation (legitimacy) whether through mentoring or accreditation. Spending a few years of elapsed time sorting through this it’s not an easy question to answer. For example, even the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (primarily European based self-certification professional body) (19th June 2017) is having challenges publishing a Wikipedia page because of the “lack of independent sources”.

Working through the evolutions of my own practice (Making Sense Of What I Do, How My Coaching Practice Is Taking Shape) and re-orientating the good coach into a collaborative project has helped me to understand how my approach is legitimized by my clients (coaching practitioners), and in turn how my clients are being validated by their clients, and how we each fit into the field of coaching. Another way of saying this, to understand how to both legitimize and validate my practice it's helped me to develop more overtly and explicitly what my niche is in coaching, and importantly continue to align with my motivations and passions.

5. Exploring ethical boundaries and professionalism

Working Description/Definition(s): This is an opportunity for practitioners to clarify their code of conduct (coaching approach), including personal and organizational behaviours, values, and their guiding principles of coaching.

We’ve each found alternative ways to independently validate our practices, and knowing how we’re doing amongst peers and colleagues in the coaching space is one way of more formally assessing the relative position of our practice. We’ve each crossed a number of thresholds where we recognised that we hadn’t made any massive mistakes nor did we do any active harm. And we’ve checked this out from the feedback we received which often required us to see beyond our personal emotions to acknowledge and realise how our behaviours impacted our clients.

One area we explored was coaching situations that resulted in limiting client engagement.

  • Coaching impact in complex systems: There’s a large area of coaching focused on tactical or technical training supported by clear rules to meet a specific organisational need. This approach contrasts with coaching people in modes of thinking and practicing dynamic decision-making based on principles. This latter approach is more fitting for supporting people in complex systems, since simple rules often don’t equip people to make situationally-appropriate decisions. From Larissa’s experiences and observations, “Being invited to participate in these systems as an outside party can position the ‘objective/non-biased’ practitioner as an ‘expert’. For some coaches, this can be his/her own mini-pulpit, and if they present their perspectives as truths—rather than disclosing their own bias and take responsibility for it—that’s one way coaches can abuse their power. Ultimately this posture inhibits dialogue and ignores the deep well of personal and institutional wisdom located in each individual.  Given this, it’s important to recognize and honor the level of power and responsibility you hold as a coach, respectfully and with humility.
  • Coaching impact at the individual level: It’s often very easy for coaches to suggest that the coaching didn’t have the intended outcome because the client wasn’t engaged or ready. There are situations where this is true but asking coaches to explain the reasons for this outcome can be very challenging, particularly when they’ve missed the behavioural cues. Yvonne share’s a particular experience where this became the case, “I remember working as an associate and meeting with a client, a Chinese woman who held a senior management position in a multinational tech organisation. I was there to give some feedback after they took a leadership assessment. In that first meeting, as soon as she looked at me she both directly and indirectly questioned why why I was there. I didn’t represent her ideal. Furthermore she hadn’t had an opportunity to choose. Thrown into the situation to have to prove why you’re the right person rather than sharing how my technical skills would be of benefit to her was something I was inexperienced at doing. It was simpler and much easier to rationalise and suggest that the person wasn’t ready for coaching, but the reality was I wasn’t ready. And passing ‘the ball back’ to the recipient to ask what they think of their results sometimes isn’t the answer to building that rapport!”. Again this is an ethical inquiry into professionalism that’s about honouring the client’s agenda rather than the coach’s.

6. Partnering

Working Description/Definition(s): Working with other individuals where shared interests are openly discussed and mutual benefits can be achieved through a shared agenda that leverages each other’s complementary strengths. This can behaviourally be seen by the high degree of trust, support, humour[4], laughter, and teasing[5] that represent the quality of the partnership.

It’s been interesting to learn through our individual pathways that we’ve always been looking for partners to work with interdependently. Starting a private practice is, for a want of a better word, awful! It’s good from the aspect of having control over what we do, however, we also lose that value of working in groups and teams where we can brainstorm, test ideas, and create a more powerful outcome through the creativity of group process. Finding the right partner(s) to work with is a bit like dating and has required each of us to go through a number of evolutions of asking what we’re looking for that lets our shared agenda live prosperously.

LC: “In my first coaching business, I hardly pursued partnership at all. I assumed I had to do it all alone and didn’t know how to structure my business or working patterns to effectively leverage partnership. By comparison, I’ve designed Wayfinding to include a guild-style partnership model where I work on experiments across different facets of my offerings with colleagues, while also keeping some work solo. I think this approach emerged because I didn’t want to co-found a venture with anyone (that felt like a marriage that I’m not ready for at this point) but I love getting to work and be in creative, supportive relationship with others.

After 10+ years of partnering with people, I’ve gotten quite clear on what I look for, and what I avoid, in professional partnerships. For me, it always starts with the person—would I want to spend a lot of time with this person? Do we have a shared sense of values and purpose? Can we laugh together? Are we committed to each other’s learning journeys and growing our relationship through this collaboration and do we each recognize that doing so is as much the work as whatever we make together? If I can’t say an enthusiastic YES to all of these, then I don’t even consider the partnership.

Then I consider our skill sets—do we have comparable levels of professional excellence and aspiration, while also bringing diverse enough expertise to the table that we can each learn from the other? Are we both oriented to a dynamic/responsive way of working that relies strongly on balancing real-time listening, planning, and execution?

Then we explore the space for collaboration—what is a discrete experiment we want to commit to exploring with each other? And what’s the clear sense of value that each of us would contribute and gain from the partnership and experiment? The experimental frame is critical for me in partnership because it allows us to date as partners—to focus on a specific project and time to get to know each other and then evaluate afterwards if we’d like to try another experiment. I have no assumptions that anything's going to go on forever. I think it's important to keep listening and to design checkpoints in the partnership. In all my partnerships, I want to keep exploring and growing together—just loving each other as human beings, really—as long as it’s mutually beneficial.”

YT:  Developing partnerships at tgc has always been core, but my understanding of how partnerships needed to be structured to support the vision changed over time. I knew I was searching for independent and experienced individuals who had an opinion about their practice and coaching, interested in the bigger picture, and was invested in making a difference that would eventually benefit everyone than a few through a much fairer and transparent process. In different rounds of finding these partners, I realized that it was not that simple to find someone who was interested in all of these aspects. They do exist! It just takes time and finding the opportunity to make something happen. Individuals who are similarly passionate about the vision and chose to engage and commit their energies, and strengths, to this inquiry and platform is how our core team and community emerged that serves the good coach.

Our collective learnings

Coaching is one of the potential professions where your personal identity is as important as your professional role. Coaching is demanding because, not only do you have to understand yourself, you also need to know how what you’re delivering impacts your client and your credibility. It’s also a challenging profession because of the distributed, undefined nature of the field.

For us, the biggest value we’ve both received as we went through this the process was the opportunity to articulate what we’ve learned through our coaching career so far. Identifying some common patterns and finding common everyday words that closely represented our work constantly gave us deeper insights and clarity of how others might perceive how we practice.

This is what we think is missing for practitioners in their PP learning—a personalised, structured approach that continuously helps them to understand their learning styles, their clients, and how their coaching approach can be measured through delivery with rigor and professionalism. Hopefully, by sharing our 6 key shifts that made a positive difference in how we each practice, this will motivate others to begin mapping out their own self-directed learning curriculum, independently or with another peer.

Question: How are you pursuing professionalism and rigor in your coaching practice?

To connect with Yvonne Thackray and/or Larissa Conte

[1] Examples of micro level events - talking at the behaviour level of individual differences (see for example posts by K.C. Char, Sue Young, Jeremy Ridge, Larissa Conte, Alan Robertson).
[2] Example would be how the ICF has changed its requirements (and other bodies ensuing) that coaching doesn't count until you've completed a certified coach training course. .e.g., and
[3] This finding is similar to the survey findings carried out in Building towards an Anthropology of Coaching: Constructing Identity, Yvonne Thackray (2014)
[4] Smiling and Laughter really matter in coaching by Jeremy Ridge
[5] Teasing out the deeper understanding of how Coaching works at its best – how Teasing, itself, can be productive by Jeremy Ridge

Why should anyone be coached by me? By Alan Robertson


The good coach invited me to think more broadly and explicitly about how I coach and where that approach comes from. That's what this blog is about. It's a bit longer, but I have some debts to acknowledge and that takes a bit of space and explanation.

New acquaintances can be disturbing. There was a time when I’d have kept them at arm’s length for that reason, but these days –somewhat to my own surprise, but probably because I’m conscious that time is running out – I find that’s part of their attraction. I’ve become more of a networker. People who work in the same domain can be particularly unsettling, not so much when they introduce you to a new idea or author or approach, but when they say something that suddenly jolts your own thinking.

The editors (blogitors) of the good coach did it recently. They were reviewing my last blog. They liked it, I’m pleased to say, and they published it, but they all had a similar comment about it. ‘I could infer how you managed to shift the conditions from one of resistance to opportunity. Perhaps in another blog you might share in more detail how you did that.’ [1] A similar suggestion, I now noticed, had been made about my earlier blogs.

More details about how I did it? Hmm… Even supposing that I could articulate an answer to that question, and perhaps I could, if I turned my mind to it, I wondered if it would be an honest answer. At the time, in that particular coaching session that I had been describing, I wasn’t using a piece of conscious technique. I was improvising. I was reacting to what was happening in the interaction in the moment.

I don’t want to retro-fit explanations, when I reflect on past coaching assignments. I’m not sure how much help that would be, either to me or to anyone else finding themselves in the fleeting moment of a similar situation in the future. But I’m also unsure whether that is a brutally honest response to the blogitors’ invitation or simply an evasive one, so in this blog I’m going to endeavour to answer their question. How do I do it? What is my approach to coaching and where does it come from?

I have no formal qualification in coaching. That’s quite a risky admission these days, when clients seem to be increasingly keen to screen prospective coaches on the basis of their formal qualifications. But I don’t have one, and with 40 years’ experience of working with people, I don’t feel inclined to spend any of such time as I might have left in acquiring one. I’ll take my chance on personal referrals continuing to provide opportunities to coach.

In the absence of a particular school, course or qualification, I have no ready headline to describe my way of coaching. In any case I have something close to abhorrence to be being technique-driven or to subjecting people to pre-defined procedures. I find it de-humanising whenever I’m ‘processed’ and I try not to do it to others. It’s the coachee as a unique individual who has to be the centre of attention, not whatever might be in the coach’s rattle bag. [2]

I take the view that the coachee is already in motion and it’s my responsibility to catch up with them and their story, with where they’re trying to go and how they’re trying to get there, as they see it. [3] If I can do that, then there’s some prospect that I might become a useful travelling companion for them for a while. I’m Dr Watson to their Sherlock Holmes. I endeavour to be helpful, but the coachee is the central character and the one who ultimately has to figure things out.

My approach to coaching is largely intuitive. Until I started blogging about it (and until those provocative blogitors started encouraging me to think about it even more explicitly), I hadn’t realise just how much I rely on intuition. But what does that mean? I’d like to think that intuition is the mark of a quick, agile and penetrating mind, but we’ve already established that’s Holmes’ department and what we’re trying to nurture in the coachee. I’m not sure you need it to be a good coach, although I’m sure it helps.

What I can’t claim is that my mind feels invariably quick, agile and penetrating when I coach. On the contrary, much like the well-meaning but often slightly bewildered Dr Watson, I spend much of the time gradually uncovering things that might or might not be relevant, discussing them with the coachee, wondering what they might mean, and how they might be pieced together into something that the coachee is willing to take away and try and then prepared to come back and talk about until, between you, you’ve either made some progress with the coachee’s issues or recognised that you can’t.

It’s a puzzling process, literally and metaphorically. It’s not tidy. It’s iterative. 

So I’m an intuitive (Myers Briggs INFJ, if anyone’s interested). And I’ve just done what intuitives do: came up with an imaginative notion and pursued it to see where it might lead. I do that a lot when I coach. It’s a way of opening up possibilities for the coachee to explore, a way of enabling them to step outside their existing pattern of thinking (often a source of stuckness) and consider their issues in a new light. However they are sensing and experiencing their reality, I’m confident that I can generate some alternative ways of looking at it. I don’t expect these perspectives to provide or to be the answers, but rather to unlock and stimulate the coachee’s way of thinking about and tackling their challenges.

I aim to generate fresh sense of possibilities for thought and action.

But I can hear the blogitors in my mind’s ear. ‘All right, Alan, but how do you actually do that?’ 
By talking. So let me squeeze one more insight out of Holmes and Watson and why I like them so much as an analogy for the coaching relationship. The two of them do a lot of talking. That’s how they figure stuff out. And beyond the talking there’s a world of action where the drama plays out to its conclusion. That’s true for coaching too. But the talking is pivotal.

And the point is that the sense of possibilities is not generated by me personally but by the conversation. The possibilities emerge spontaneously from the conversation that I’m having with the coachee, in the moment, as we’re talking.

I have a particular fascination with talk. This might seem strange for an MBTI introvert and may deserve a blog of its own, but the more immediate point to explore here is the question of where I learned to use talk in the way that I do. Because there’s no doubt in my mind that the way I talk is central to the way I coach.

I’m also inclined to believe that much of what we call intuition is actually past experience which has been very thoroughly assimilated into general principles about how to think and how to behave, that have become automatic and function below the level of conscious awareness. So here, I think, I’m probing back in time to see how my way of talking was born from experience.

It started round the Robertson dining table when I was young. We talked a lot at meal times. My wife tells me it astonished her when she first came for a meal. In her family people ate at mealtimes. In mine we ate and talked. It’s a miracle that we didn’t all choke to death and my grown-up children still worry that I might. At my Father’s table we reported on our day, we told stories and jokes, we quizzed each other and teased each other. We laughed a lot. It was a formative experience. It gave me the habit of listening to other people and enjoying what they have to say, of expecting and respecting differences of view and opinion. It taught me how to relate. It also showed me a way of getting over taking myself too seriously – an important lesson, because I’ve always been prone to that – and fortunately a lesson in which my own family continue to give me remedial classes.

My next lessons in how to hold productive conversations came at Oxford. I had the good fortune to be there as a history undergraduate and the even greater good fortune to be taught by two outstanding tutors, Harry Pitt and James Campbell. Sadly they’re both dead now, but their teaching lives on in the way I coach.

At its best an Oxford tutorial is extraordinarily like a coaching session. Two, or sometimes in specialist subjects only one student has a dedicated hour once a week with their don, the subject matter expert. The student brings the essay, his or her attempt to make sense of a question, reads it to the tutor and then engages in a deeper discussion of the topic, the student’s efforts to get to grips with it, and whatever other questions and issues arise.

One of the things you very quickly learn from studying history is that, as the saying goes, ‘there is no such thing as history; there are only historians.’ There is no single, objective truth, only perspectives and interpretations, any of which can be maintained with great passion and commitment by its holder. It’s a valuable lesson to take into working with people and life more generally.

Tutorials with Harry Pitt were lively affairs. Sixteen years before he started tutoring me he’d been fighting in the Battle of Normandy and he retained a young tank commander’s relish for swivelling his aim towards the weakest part of your argument. It could have been learning by humiliation, but Harry ensured that it never felt like that. He engaged with you with great gusto, good humour and respect for your opinion, however strongly he held his own. ‘Yes, but what do you make of this…’ ‘I don’t personally agree with you on that and here’s why…’

Harry treated you like an intelligent equal even when you clearly weren’t and it was massively encouraging. You worked hard for Harry because you wanted to deserve the good opinion that he already seemed to have of you.

Tutorials with James Campbell were altogether more daunting. You worked hard for him because you didn’t want to sound or feel idiotic, as you presented your thinking and waited for his response.

James’ capacity to listen and absorb what you were saying was phenomenal. Sometimes he would sit still while you were talking, but more commonly he was busy. Stoking, lighting and re-lighting his pipe, going over to his bookshelves to look something up, or fussing over his cats, all of which were named after Anglo-Saxon kings and queens. (I once had six kittens clambering over me while I was trying to read an essay). But when you finished he’d say, ‘Let me see if I’ve understood.’ ‘What you seem to be saying is…’ He would then provide a detailed and lucid summary that was usually more articulate and finessed than the original. Then, because he generally started on a positive note, he’d say, ‘Yes. That’s quite good. ’ There would be a pause.  ‘But…’ And he would then proceed to suggest various ways in which your analysis and conclusions might be questioned, re-examined and improved. The breadth and depth of his own scholarship was awe-inspiring, but he never used it to dominate his pupils. His intention always was to provoke you to push your own thinking harder and further. That’s the development that he was looking to nurture and encourage from one week to the next.

I try to emulate my own tutors when I coach. Outside the formalities of tutorials both Harry and James were very personable, approachable, witty and entertaining. I used to lunch with James once a year during the last decade of his life and he never stopped being intensely interested in what you were doing and how you were thinking about what you were doing. He and Harry were wonderful role models for how to conduct conversations to enable others to think for themselves. 

Trade union shop stewards were the next test and development for the talking skills that I use today. I became the Industrial Relations Manager in a heavily-unionised factory in a major international industry, at that time, the unusually young age of 27. For nearly two years I’d witnessed my predecessor battling with the shop stewards. The relationships were terrible. The discussions, not only between management and unions but also among the different unions, were combative, distrustful, painfully protracted and too often unproductive. 

I came into the job with a clear sense that my priority was to create more trust in the relationships and that the only way to do that was through a different way of talking. I remember announcing, in my first meeting in the chair, ‘Industrial Relations in this factory are now under new management. There will be no more empty promises. And there will be no empty threats. I will do what I say I will do.’ Seeing it in print nearly 40 years later, it all sounds rather muscular and over-dramatic, and of course the shop stewards thought it was just another piece of empty managerial rhetoric. But time and experience showed them that I was prepared to stand by what I had said. They could trust that. 

What I was calling for was plain speaking on both sides. I was also making the point that we don’t just talk for the sake of talking; as far as I was (and still am) concerned the purpose of talking is to surface and resolve problems, to move things forward. The trade unions came to appreciate the immediacy, authenticity and value of that. Over a period of years the posturing and rhetorical displays gradually disappeared. Negotiations which had previously taken months came to be resolved first in weeks and then in days. We still had grievances, disputes, disagreements and occasional strikes. But we sorted them out.  

The other lesson that industrial relations taught me was that what I had to say was only ever part of the process. Moving things forward is a collaborative activity. What the other party says and how they say it, the quality of how you listen to those things, how you choose to respond, and the nature of the dialogue that emerges from the interaction of all these different variables: these are all parts of what makes talk productive.

So I’d like to acknowledge the people who taught me how to listen when I was a young man, and an industrial relations manager, and initially at least over-endowed with self-assurance. Some of these people were my managers and some were people who worked for me; others were people I had to interview, some were people I hired and some were people I had to fire. But I learned most from the shop stewards with whom I worked over a period of years, co-creating a new way of working together that contributed to us winning major industry awards on a regular basis and an enviable reputation for the quality of our industrial relations.

Thank you: 
Joe, doggedly diligent as the convenor, probably the hardest job in industrial relations; 
Angus, who’d stepped down but never ceased to counsel all sides to think clearly and act with moderation;
Jimmy, the radical who both charmed and was charmed by Margaret Thatcher when she visited the factory; 
wee Geordie, who always folded his cap and sat on it to keep it warm when he came to meetings and earned respect by giving it; 
big Hughie with the piratical grin and the missing teeth who always got straight to the point; 
Jimmy who felt he hadn’t done his job if he didn’t start by making a demand that he knew you’d reject because you both understood that it was unreasonable; 
Pearl who pushed her colleagues at least as hard as she pushed management and always towards making agreements; 
Bobbie, the most open-minded, rational and productive of negotiators; 
Tom, who understood the value of maintaining room to manoeuvre; 
Jack and Tommy, the double-act whose anger over injustice was a force which served us all well.

I can still see your faces. I can still hear your voices. I can hear the different ways you spoke and spoke for others.  I can still remember specifics from many of the high stakes conversations that we had. It wasn’t your job to teach me. You set out to represent your people. What I learned from you was not just how to listen, but more importantly to appreciate how very different individuals can be, even when they are all ostensibly of a type or in the same role. You taught me how it takes time and patience, and the open-minded exchange of questions and views, to hear each other’s uniqueness and individuality.

Auld Acquaintance is not forgot.

But I’m going to close this piece as I started it, with reference to another relatively new acquaintance. The day before yesterday she too disturbed my equilibrium through something she said.[4] She was telling me how she uses that phrase ‘Why should anyone be led by you?’ to encourage leaders that she is coaching to think deep and hard about what they bring to being a leader.[5] It prompted me to think that as a coach I have a similar responsibility to be able to answer the corresponding question, ‘Why should you be coached by me?’

And that, it seems to me, is perhaps the question that the good coach is inviting us all to address, and the question that I have been endeavouring to answer in this blog.

Of course, it is for the coachee to decide whether the answer feels satisfactory, but speaking for myself – and I can’t claim to do any more than that – it has felt useful to set out a more clearly articulated answer for myself and for my prospective coachees to consider.

To connect with Alan Robertson

[1]  Sue Young, The Good Coach,  personal email correspondence
[2] The Rattle Bag is the title of an anthology of personally inspiring poems compiled by the two great poets, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney
[3] I got the image of the coach having to catch up with the journey that the coachee is already on from James Flaherty’s book, ‘Coaching: evoking excellence in others’,  Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999
[4] Credit and thanks for this unexpected provocation go to Gwen Stirling of Seeds of Transformation.
[5] The reference is to the paper, ‘Why should anyone be led by you?’ by Robert Goffee & Gareth Jones in the September-October 2000 issue of Harvard Business review. 

I am curious about what most underpins effective coaching – such as the curiosity of the coach by Jeremy Ridge

I am curious about why curiosity gets my attention as something that is fundamental to effective coaching.


I am interested in the importance of the personal curiosity of the coach. After all, they are a central part of the whole process. The curiosity of the coachee, about their own learning process, is more easily appreciated as critical. However, traditional approaches to coaching, of course, tend to place the coach as the expert with all the answers, rather than someone also searching for answers, about exactly how best to behave as the coach. However where coaching seems up to, such as in being non directive, or in such as the principles of adult learning, appear to suggest a very different approach to expertise is appropriate. 

There are already plenty of terms and frameworks about coaching in use; but curiosity doesn’t seem to be one of them. And yet there is something that continues to attract my attention in the particular meaning to be found in curiosity. So I am interested in exploring this. It’s a curiosity thing!

1. Starting with being curious about others interest in curiosity

I start with a short summary of the range of views that gives some picture about others interest in curiosity – as I see them as connected to coaching.
In particular I would start with Einstein’s view as suggesting some particularly powerful perspective for what the term is about.

1.1. Einstein on curiosity

A good illustration of why curiosity is important can be summed up in quotes reported from Time magazine’s person of the century, Albert Einstein [1]:  

 “I have no special talent. I am just passionately curious”

For someone such as Albert Einstein to share such a perception as a person with no special talents is astounding. And then he identifies his only talent is a passion for curiosity. 
He also suggests curiosity as the central driver of life, even. [2]

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.”

This perspective suggests the fundamental importance of continuous progress, and building of insight and understanding, as the real meaning of Curiosity. It is continuously building, as awareness, by finding the next frontier of what needs to be understood.  Curiosity is not just a moment to moment experience, shifting in the wind, but something more coherent; it’s about choosing how to live overall. 

Importantly for Einstein, Curiosity is a fundamental drive that starts everything, as well as a way that life can be explored. 

1.2. How curiosity matters to me in Coaching

For myself, I am intensely aware, and thus curious, about how each new person I meet holds a completely unique and different experience of life from my own. Access to this then adds to my own experience of life.

Of course, we can share similar experiences at some levels, especially with features that are the commonplace fabric of social life.

So, there is always a need to prepare for how unique and different that people, the Coachee, can be in Coaching.  It becomes important to move further on from what may be more polite social exchanges about everyday matters – eg the weather! 

I find I can get an intense stimulus because it holds my whole interest from experiencing this difference. And I often find this awareness can be fundamental to creating those elusive conditions for engaging the other person to start to explore, and share, where they are up to in their experience of their life.

But as I still seem to be experiencing use of the idea of curiosity in a way that is different from everyday use by some others; how does this compare with my own understanding and practice of coaching where the level of interest in other people can be important.

2. Other views about curiosity

2.1. Origin of the word:

Words are important to us. As life and society evolves, so the meanings of words can grow, and even change from their original use.

The origin of the word curiosity, and its meaning, in English, is reported [3] as from the sense of the term care. This emphasis given is also about being careful, with a quality of continued attention that is central, and important, in the meaning. 

More recent meanings of curiosity in dictionaries can refer more to it being eager to know or learn something … and something that might be strange. It can be used in a sense that is more for odd, single events or circumstances.

2.2. Other popular meanings:

Curiosity seems to be less studied as a term in the more academic world. However there are others who have picked up on the term.

“Curiosity is not an only child; it is part of a family of terms used by writers, scientists, and everyday people making conversation to capture the essence of recognising, seeking out, and showing a preference for the new.” Todd Kashdan [4]

A good overall summary about curiosity is in an article, “The Power of Curiosity” shared by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in the UK [5]

Curiosity is a multi-dimensional concept with no single definition, and overlaps extensively with related concepts, including creativity, inquisitiveness and openness to experience. In the context of this conceptual ambiguity, we approached curiosity through the following working definition: a focussed or exploratory inquisitiveness that motivates us to connect what we don’t know to what we do know

….. We uncovered three main theories about the nature of curiosity, how it comes about and why we feel it. 

The first, almost biological in nature, is that curiosity is a human drive, much like hunger or thirst, which is satiated by the acquisition of knowledge. The drive theory helps to explain the seemingly paradoxical use of resources (such as time or effort) to gain knowledge or experiences; analogous to the resources used to satiate hunger.

The second theory, more cognitive in nature, is that curiosity is evoked by incongruity between something (an event, object, etc.) and a person’s existing world view. We try to make sense of the world around us, and when an expectation about the way the world works is violated, curiosity is piqued

A third model, building on incongruity theories, but slightly more emotional in nature, frames curiosity as the desire to close an information gap between a given reference point (some desired knowledge) and a person’s existing information set. This model proposed by George Loewenstein “interprets curiosity as a form of cognitively induced deprivation that arises from the perception of a gap in knowledge or understanding.”

This summary, again, represents tensions between whether curiosity is a process, or something more fundamental as a drive. There can also be an over emphasis that Curiosity may only be driven by some negative experience. However, especially in Coaching, Curiosity can be about looking for something more positive, such as in the sense of opportunities for the Coachee which may be more of a pleasant experience. It may even be key to balancing brain activity, how to find a balance between being bored, and overwhelmed, by stimulee. And where capacity for finding this balance may be the result of efficiencies achieved in making sense arising out of the way curiosity progresses and builds over time.

2.3. Other, still emerging, studies contributing to Coaching – ranging from mindfulness to positive psychology

There are increasing numbers of initiatives around which want to find the more positive approach to life, seeking opportunities not problems; whether to look at where we are in our lives as a glass half full, rather than half empty.

Mindfulness can emphasise stimulating awareness arising from the moment in immediate time; for example the Merriam Webster Dictionary defines it as:

the practice of maintaining a non-judgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis;[6]

In a recent newly launched journal about Mindfulness, Cathy Theaker [7] writes

Developing an evidence-based integrative model of coaching and mindfulness would complement mindfulness-based interventions in accordance with the positivist drive for standardisation, however currently many practitioners use mindfulness idiosyncratically. Chapman-Clarke (2016 and this issue) calls for an integrative approach, contextualised for the practitioner’s specific setting. 

Even academic Psychology is also now experimenting, through some curiosity, of what is referred to as Positive Psychology.  Some quite amazing mind maps of emerging approaches to positive psychology appear to embrace a very open minded approach to how to explore what this perspective may be about, [8] but it does not appear to have got to curiosity yet!

2.4. Reflection

I can appreciate, also, that for some people, reflection is an increasingly referred to term that they would interpret as having meaning close to curiosity. In the sense of a process contributing to enhanced internal awareness about matters. My own view of the term is that it is one part of a process of making sense of things; and that it is more part of a process than the sort of fundamental drive that the term curiosity brings.

2.5. Implications arising from others perspectives about Curiosity

There seems to be a lot of energy growing in a direction towards what Curiosity speaks to; albeit sometimes approaching through slightly different lenses.  However there is also quite a range of different uses of the term.

Some attention to the evidence, and understanding of how curiosity works for me, in practice is also worth consideration.

3. Evidence of my own practice patterns where curiosity matters significantly?

Given it is the behaviour of the coach that matters, how to behave curiously in a manner that is appreciated by another person can be important.

For the Coach, it is about removing any assumptions, rather like having a clean and open mind. And then, how to balance this with what could be seen as excessive curiosity is another challenge.

For me, curiosity is a choice about a way of life. It doesn’t start because it’s a subject at school, or a training course. For some reason, I hold a constant fascination with people. I stumbled increasingly into the world of listening and appreciating how different other peoples’ worlds are. What their attention was drawn to and how they were making sense of it across all walks of life is a form of constant research.

I can consider, briefly how my curiosity drive comes to operate in some examples of practice.

3.1. Adding curiosity to the definitive nature of using Psychometrics in Coaching!

If I introduce a psychometric profiling exercise to the coaching process,  I have to work hard to get across the need to be more curious about the unique nature of the person, than to appear as though they are being reduced to their psychometric profile, as an over simple generalisation.

I find psychometrics can help introduce important perspectives, about individual differences, for example, but which often then need to devolve into the Coachees ideas, and words about the perspectives involved. People can strongly prefer to make their own sense of themselves and how they fit into the mix of others.

Quite often Psychometric terms use every day language, but with quite particular meanings. In feeding back a profile, I am careful to be curious to all the signals given by the Coachee for their reactions to the terms used.

I have to be curious enough to pick up examples from the Coachee’s account of their experiences that can then be useful to illustrate and clarify features of any Coachee profile, and preferences.

Psychometrics can give permission to explore areas not encouraged? in every day discussions between people; but it is important to use them as an introduction, a gateway, a way of enabling deeper curiosity to get into the dialogue, rather than an end in themselves.

3.2. Being curious enough to enable links with the wider picture of the Coachee’s life and/or work

Coaching dialogues can open up into a very wide ranging dialogue around matters the Coachee sees as relevant to the opportunity that Coaching can invite.

Coaching has to start somewhere. 

Executive coaching typically starts with the objective/s. These are often set by others for the coaching sessions; e.g. the boss. The objective may be set as a generalisation, or headline, about a feature of the Coachee’s work behaviour, or performance.

Some Coaching approaches then go further into limiting the scope for curiosity by the Coach setting the method by which the coaching process will work. This can ensure they can get some control of the process. It seems, to me, like the Coach may then be setting and controlling the agenda to meet their own limited capacity for really relating to where the other person is coming from.

There are, indeed, times when micro, and contained, examination of the detail of some aspect of the Coachee’s agenda works well within these constraints and structure.

However, there are also times when the objective has to be seen as a symptom of something, rather than a definition of the agenda. And where the exploration needs to go with the Coachee needs to be much wider.

For example, starting with a typical objective such as ‘improve relationships with colleagues’, might be about some particular habits that needs to be explored in detail, or it may well lead to issues more to do with the Coachee having some personal values that are at stake. They may want to work in a completely different sort of job, or organisation culture, altogether. This can lead to even career, as well as life circumstances which are really behind the symptom that started the agenda.

There has to be the alertness and interest, or curiosity, with a real relaxation and comfort about whatever level the other person wants to get to; as well as the process they may want to go through in order to go where they may want. The coachee has to lead, and the Coach follow, in order to get the balance right.

3.3. The importance of curiosity at the start of coaching

One of the most noticeable ways I can sense, and see, my curiosity working is at the very start of coaching dialogue – the first moments of meeting.

I do mean moments, not minutes. A meeting begins when people first see each other – before words even start. Even more, a meeting may have actually started before being in each other’s physical presence; through information either party has had in relation to the other through a wide range of channels – planned or unplanned.

Typically I will have carried out some research about the person beforehand. Likewise the Coachee also has prior information that has started to form views about what to expect. It is important to be curious about this lest it may not be wholly appropriate.

However the start in the sense of physical presence, is where the Coachee is still forming questions about what to expect, as a result of first impressions, and all that can suggest. Being curious about this sort of often unspoken background is critical for how attention is given. 

I also find my curiosity can make an important difference to what appears to surprise Coachees through the important factor of sustaining attention over time, and depth, of the messages emerging, as well as evidencing just immediate attention, to the important messages someone is often offering. Coachees often will test as to whether the coach is really interested in them, or there is some superficiality that starts to emerge.

This is where I can sense that for myself, this is not an effort for me. My curiosity is substantial; and it is more a case of where I have to be careful to rein it in according to the other person’s own interest in sharing their experience of something of their world. I am always aware of all the other questions I would be curious to ask!

4. Conclusions and Next Steps

Considering curiosity in this way has left me with a view that curiosity is something like dark matter, as referred to in the study of the universe’s large scale structure. There is something involved that is still difficult to explain, and is, in that sense, relatively invisible, but very fundamentally important.

Likewise, it raises itself as a way of appreciating some deeper drives, rather than simply as part of a process. For me, also, Curiosity sits as a feature that is even a fundamental drive, and source of emotional stimulus in life. Something that drives everything about life, even. 

I can appreciate there may well still be concepts for understanding people that are yet to be appreciated, beyond such as intelligence, and personality etc. Likewise, the ease of learning about people’s experiences of life may be more easily understood by starting at the end of where there are problems, and focussing on the negative and bad experiences people are raising, which may become the only focus of giving attention to people.

Certainly curiosity is difficult to measure. It is also an unusual form of energy.

This short exploration has certainly registered the idea for me as something deserving further consideration about how to give what is involved better shape, as well as appreciation for its importance in practice, going forwards.

Again, for myself, curiosity is what practice is about. And is fundamental to what I believe Coaching also is about – ways to appreciate diversity of human experience.

I also find the open nature of how the good coach invites consideration of how practice works – for practitioners in this field of coaching to be important. There is a sense of being able to be genuinely independent in the perspective that practice can be considered.

To connect with Jeremy Ridge

2  "Old Man's Advice to Youth: 'Never Lose a Holy Curiosity.'" LIFE Magazine (2 May 1955) p 64
4    Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious? New York: Harper Collins Publishers.