The Art of Coaching

One could go through the motions or requirements of a coaching model do everything correctly and in the end fail at coaching.

What will make the difference to be effective as a coach?
My view: when you are successful to understand and practice the art of coaching.
What does the art of coaching mean?
The art of coaching is that element of the coaching experience that is really invisible to you as the coach and to the client. It is the power or force that makes the coaching experience an unforgettable, transformational, unique, inspirational experience for your client. At the same time it is also a learning experience for the coach. The art of coaching has to do with entertaining two opposite views, suspending any judgments and opinions to find the truth for the moment in all of this. We often deal with paradoxes in an either/or-mode instead of a both/and-mode. The art is to hold both sides of the polarity until something new emerges. It requires a high level of maturity and understanding and a pragmatic view of what is possible and what your client will be comfortable with. It is therefore very important to monitor and calibrate the experiences of your client during the coaching process and be absolutely clear that the feedback that you think you get is the feedback that is meant by your client.

It is also called the dialectical method. This method requires focus on both opposites at the same time. It looks for a transcendence of the opposites entailing a leap of the imagination to a higher level, which:

  1. provides justification for rejecting both alternatives as false and/or
  2. helps elucidate a real but previously veiled integral relationship between apparent opposites that have been kept apart and regarded as distinct.

Can the art of coaching be learned?

I think that the art of coaching comes mainly through experience. It is almost like a sixth sense. Some people say that a sixth sense develops when all your other five senses are well developed and functioning at an optimum level. Experience in coaching brings a quality to coaching that makes you relax as the coach and focus much more on the client than the process. So I guess the art of coaching can be learned through experience but it will take time to become fully comfortable and apply whatever you have learned and integrated as your own, to whatever the situation is.

What are the critical things to pay attention to in developing the art of coaching?

I have identified eight components/elements that will make the learning of the art of coaching easier:

  1. Be serious about the outcome of the coaching process with your client
  2. Be totally present in the coaching moment when doing coaching
  3. Be absorbed by the client’s need(s) and intentions and stay objective
  4. Be very conscious of the value that you add and remain humble
  5. Be a receptor of cues from your client
  6. Be ethical and maintain healthy boundaries
  7. Be authentic
  8. Be a thought initiator

Be serious about the outcome of the coaching process with your client. This sounds almost like a “no-brainer” but it really has to do with “attitude”. As a coach it is very easy to go through the “drill” with your client like creating the outcome they want and then proceed with the rest of the coaching process without being sincerely invested in, or serious about the experience. Establishing an outcome with your client means that you have to almost see it as clear as the client sees it. You need to feel the excitement of the client when they do the discovery of what can be and the reality that he/she can actually achieve it!! Creating this future memory with your client is probably the single most important part of the coaching process. This represents the pulling power that energises the client to achieve, and if you as the coach are not serious about this, the coaching experience will not be effective. Your client may say that it was a very good coaching experience, but nothing will happen and the client will most probably revert to their previous comfort zone.

Be present in the coaching moment. Your presence will set the tone for the coaching session. What do I mean by “presence”? Presence to me is about your own consciousness as the coach, firstly about yourself, your own thoughts and feelings, how you present yourself, how confident you are, how approachable you appear to your client, how welcoming and open you are, and secondly, the effect that all this have on your client. How welcome and comfortable he/she feels being with you will go a long way to create rapport and develop trust which is vitally important for a successful coaching experience.

Be absorbed by the client’s needs and intentions. Instead of being absorbed with yourself on what a fantastic coach you are, rather get absorbed by the needs and real intentions of your client. It is easy for the coach to think and feel that you are doing a good job as a coach and then lose focus on who it is really about – the client and nobody else. Important to note, you are not “doing the work” for the client, your job is to pay attention, listen, ask questions, empower, understand, show respect and stimulate creativity and let the client do the work. The “work” the client has to do is first of all “to think” and to do it on a different level. Secondly, they have to transfer the thoughts into real experiences that will pave the path to achieve what they have set their mind to.

Be conscious of the value that you add as a coach. Be aware of your talents and strengths as a coach. Not all the coaches are the same or have the same strengths. If you are aware of your particular strength as a coach, know that you add specific value to the coaching experience for your client by using your talents and strength(s). Speak from your passion and be in touch with your gift. The question is probably: “How do I know that it is my talent or strength?” Colleagues, friends, family and the people around you will tell you, but most importantly, your client will tell you. If they do not tell you, then ask. Feedback is the lifeline for any coach. You need to understand how the client is experiencing the coaching process and what is working or not working for them. A formal feedback document is always helpful, but the real feedback is the feedback that you receive during and after the coaching session. Make a mental note of it. Congratulate yourself and reward yourself on the aspects of the coaching that went well and make an effort to improve on the things that did not go so well.

Be a receptor of cues This has obviously a lot to do with the way that you listen and pay attention to your client. I think it is important to mention it separately because you need to program yourself to pick up cues from your client that may indicate thought patterns. During this period it is vital to be able to make “mental notes” to be followed up later. Thought patterns are of great consequence because that is the beginning of the exploration for the client and a good indication in which direction the client is heading. Cues can be anything – silent moments, tonality of voice, the use of the eyes, the body posture, facial expressions, and the content of what is said. It is crucial not to make assumptions about the cues that you pick up but to check them out at the appropriate time. The appropriate time is significant because you may be interrupting the flow of processing in your client’s mind, so choose your timing carefully.

Be humble I certainly do not want to be coached by an arrogant self obsessed person. By humility I do not mean that you need to be so accommodating and pliable that the client does not have respect for you. In this instance I mean that you show and treat your client in a respectful way, the way that you would have expected someone to have treated you in a similar situation. When you use storytelling as a method, do not tell your own stories; it takes the focus of attention off your client. Thomas Merton said: “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real”

Be ethical and maintain boundaries As a coach you will be paying attention to, and be interested in people in a way that they may not be used to. This will create a particular kind of relationship with the client that will have to be managed carefully and within acceptable boundaries for both. It is probably more applicable and sensitive where you have across-gender coaching e.g. where a male coaches a female or vice versa. Discomfort from the client’s or the coach’s side may be an indication of a compromised boundary. The art in coaching is to make it explicit, to discuss it and if the discomfort with the coaching process is of such a nature that it will compromise the integrity of the coach and/or the client both parties have to agree to terminate the contract.

Be authentic Nothing is more valuable and refreshing than to deal with a “real” person. Do not pretend to be anyone else than yourself. To be authentic has a close relationship with humility and it creates rapport in a short space of time. I think that William Bridges describes authentication so well when he said: “ Authentication is the inner face of growth where the result is not only appropriate, but is also some way of being that is truer to who we really are, rather than to a persona or a role.

Be a “thought-initiator”.  Thinking is that internal exploration that we do when we are given a cue. The cue may originate from an external or internal source. Many people do not think for themselves anymore and are dictated to by organisation structures and authorities and other significant people in positions of power. The role of the coach is to provide the cues to the client by means of masterful questioning. The question needs to make the client think and the thoughts need to be supported by exploring all the possibilities with the client. While the possibilities are illuminated, the thought process does not stop. In fact, the frequency and intensity often increase and may develop into a wonderful creative experience where the impossible becomes insignificant and the possible very real.

Last thoughts (or may ‘be not) on the Art of Coaching: The “Art of Coaching” is not something that you can put in a container, label it and sell it. You can not work out a formula and apply it to the coaching process or experience; it is much more abstract, mysterious, fascinating, and surprising and evolves with each coaching interaction. Each session is like an artist who starts to paint a specific piece; laying a foundation, building the images/concepts, refining the detail, changing some of the construction and never really finishes it totally; there will always be something that may be adjusted, reshaped to get to the “final product”. I suppose the art of coaching can be “learned” and at the core of the “learning” are things like, how we pay attention to the client, to ourselves, the content, the process and how everything comes together in the end as one integrated whole experience; an experience that facilitates sustainable transformation, re-invention and a growth to a totally new level of consciousness and awareness determined and discovered by the client. My attempt with this article was to describe something that is so difficult to describe because the description or definition of the “art of coaching” limits it immediately to something that can be contained and controlled. When this is happens one loses the dynamic and creative character and then the “freedom” of the “artist” disappears in the process.

Willem van der Merwe

Professional Life and Business Coach

Future Partners (Pty) Ltd. Human Relations Consultants 2013-01-21 06.03.42_V2



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