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Psychological perspectives on reflective coaching, learning and change

I want to share some psychological perspectives developed during my career so that I can link them to my newer, and ever-developing perspectives - and also to show how they link to reflective coaching, learning and change.

In the 1970s I joined a team working in a specialist cognitive and behavioural therapy (CBT) unit at the Middlesex Hospital in London. Until this time, I had given very little thought to the topic of learning in its own right. Learning was something that I did at school and university. I soon learnt that learning, and in particular conditioned learning, was considered to be at the heart of much psychological distress. I learnt, for example, how conditioned learning experiences could play a significant role in the acquisition, maintenance and resolution of phobias, obsessions and other stress related problems.

As a team we became adept at generating case formulations to guide our therapeutic interventions. We recognized the power of combining cognitive and behavioural approaches for understanding and changing behaviour. Among other things we had heated debates about the impact of the client/carer relationship and also upon tire relative weights of behavioural and cognitive change on therapy outcomes.

At a personal level I held, and still hold, a great respect for the power of conditioned learning, but close relationships with patients and colleagues taught me additionally about the power of relationships, personal insights, self-determination, and self-belief. My introduction at this time to the works of George Kelly (1955), Martin Seligman (1975), Seligman et al. (1979), and Albert Bandura (1977) reinforced for me the importance of the lenses through which we see and interpret the world. It was heartening to be reminded that there were psychologists who believed that we could alter the course of our learning and our lives and these three people have had a major impact on my own learning from living and the direction and quality of my own personal and professional life. Their insights, coupled with those of adult education writers and researchers (in particular Jarvis and Mezirow) have inspired me to look more closely at the power of a personal, reflective type of learning. Newer work in psychology is enabling closer connections between my experience of these diverse worlds of theory' and practice, especially in terms of how they link to learning thr ough and for living and how this may be applied within coaching.

To illustrate the psychological dimension, I turn firstly to the more recent work of Albert Bandura. For instance, in his article Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective (2001), he says ‘The capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s life is tire essence of humanness’. This capacity he characterizes as “human agency” (Bandura 2001, p. 1), which he says operates through ‘intentionality and forethought, self regulation by self-reactive influence, and self-reflective-ness about one’s capabilities, quality of functioning, and the meaning and purpose of one’s life pursuits’. Bandura recognizes the power of social systems but sees people as both producers as well as products of these systems.

The ideas elaborated by Bandura fit very comfortably with those earlier elaborated within adult education. For example, the notion of self-reflectiveness is totally compatible with the work of Mezirow and others referred to earlier. What Bandura’s work does is to lend the weight and insights of psychological theory' and research to earlier work. Skill in engaging in personal and shared reflective activity, as elaborated earlier by Mezirow and Associates (1990), and in the style of questioning illustrated by Kovacs and Corrie (2017), can legitimately be considered a core psychological skill for both coach and client.

The second area of psychological contribution I draw attention to is that driven by Seligman (2018). Together with colleagues he has had the courage, stamina, creative insight, scientific rigour and art of communicating, to constructively challenge the external validity of much traditional experimental psychology. In turn he has introduced us to an exciting new ‘positive psychology’ with its focus on well-being, flourishing, and empowerment of the person and institutions. Positive psychology has a very natural affinity with coaching (Gr een & Palmer 2019) In particular, I draw attention here to the work of Seligman and colleagues (2013, 2016), which explores research-based arguments linked to the question of whether we navigate our way into the future, or we are driven by the past. Seligman et al. suggest that

viewing behavior as driven by the past was a powerful framework that helped create scientific psychology, but accumulating evidence in a wide range of research areas suggests a shift in framework, in which navigation into the future is seen as a core organizing principle of animal and human behavior.

They propose building a new framework for psychology that explicitly acknowledges the ways in which we draw on experience to select action in pursuit of needs and goals, saying ‘this is not remotely a novel idea. It is a feature of common sense’ (2013, p. 1).

Psychology has traditionally paid little attention to people as active meaning makers, creatively taking a hand in prospecting and crafting their own futures. This new ‘common sense’ framework for psychology takes account of values and goals, and the mental simulation of events that have an impact on future prospection and navigation. It sees people as active meaning makers who through their mental simulations and ‘if then’ prospections, play a significant role in determining key elements of then own futures.

The notion of behaviour being goal-driven is not new, especially within coaching. What is new is the very strong argument for a new dominant framework for psychology. One that is based on the explicit premise that our behaviour is predominantly driven by our needs and desire to prospect and manage our future, rather than being driven by past events.

It is this balance of external versus internal drivers of behaviour that coaches and their clients find they are so often juggling with, the major question being how to reduce the external power and increase internal power. One might argue that it is exactly this activity that coaches seek to enhance with then clients. Intuitively it is an implicit and often explicit underpinning belief of many coaches that prospection can be useful for clients, and anyone else who wishes to engage in purposeful, self-directed action. Being more explicit in respect of these ideas is important for the further development of effective coaching practice.

Coaches taking this approach must ask the all-important question ‘how can each of us, individually and collaboratively, become good prospectors, effectively navigating our way into the future’? To become a good prospector, we need to draw on our experience, and also our memories and constructs relating to that experience. We also need to draw upon our reflections and our capacity for challenging and re-visioning our reflections and understandings. An approach to reflecting upon experience such as that elaborated by Mezirow is likely to be as relevant today in coaching, as it was when it was first introduced in adult education. What I have shown here is the strong psychological voice advocating the transformational power of reflective learning and the associated activities of prediction and prospection. What we don’t have yet is an equally strong body of knowledge, experience and research elaborating its use within coaching.

Summary of key points emerging so far in this chapter:

  • • Expectations, predictions and rationale for action may be implicit.
  • • Reflection may help to surface what is implicit, including our thoughts, beliefs and values.
  • • Certain types of self-questioning may be a prompt for ‘critical’ reflection which plays a part in fostering learning and change.
  • • Learning and change may be initiated through the recognition of tension, paradox and incongruity in our lives.
  • • Through imagining and simulating images of possible futures we may navigate and prospect our way into the future rather than being driven by the past.
  • • The capacity for exercising an element of personal choice and control over oui’ lives is at the heart of ‘humanness’.

These points suggest that one way to managing our personal future is to surface implicit assumptions via skilled reflection, in order to open the door to creative simulation and prospection of future possibilities. An interesting question that follows relates to the place of explicit reason and decision-making in reflection and the achievement of goals (Kahneman 2011), and in contrast to this the increasing importance being attributed to the role of intuition (Mercier & Sperber 2017; Railton 2016). New work in this area suggests exciting new conversations and applications for coaching, which I turn to next.

Looking forward

It is generally recognized that coaches have a role in helping people navigate life at times when it is stormy or they wish to chart a new route through it. One could argue, however, that there is a very large somewhat untapped role for coaches, which involves working with a much wider population than at present. This would include working with both adults and children, helping them become better navigators, become more creative in terms of identifying potential routes and destinations, and even more importantly, helping their clients think about and refine their own processes of learning and change - enabling them to become their own coach. For after all, even if we have an excellent coach for a period of time, most of the time we rely on our own decision-making and actions. As Bandura observed, even in these situations there are ways that we can have greater personal agency and become more empowered. We can for example collaborate with others, become more aware of where sharing of learning can assist us, create situations where proxy agency may operate, and also engage in collective forms of learning and change (Bandura 2001).

In respect of each of these areas of activity there is scope for a coach to support individual and group learning. This may occur in all walks of life and in respect of all roles that we may engage with including, for example, work life, politics, business, parenting, the performing arts, in maintaining health, and also in living with chronic ill health.

In whatever area we may be coaching to support learning from and for living there is scope for looking first at our own personal approach to doing this.

My own reflections frequently reveal incongruities and tensions, often too many to deal with in detail. Some I may jot down to return to later. Often I discuss them with a colleague or supervisor. At times I need to make a rapid workable decision. It makes sense to me that much of my decision-making is based on intuition and I search to bring ‘the tip of the iceberg of my intuition’ within my conscious awareness (Mercier & Sperber 2017).

Much of my behaviour appears to be a mixture of habit and guesswork (Railton 2016). When examined, my reasoning may appear to be flawed (Kahneman 2011), but I like to draw upon the thesis of Mercier and Sperber who argue that The main role of logic in reasoning .. . may well be a rhetorical one: logic helps simplify and schematize intuitive arguments, highlighting and often exaggerating their force’ (p 7). I realize that there is more of my thinking that could helpfully become explicit - but not all I think, or I would grind to a halt. I rely on my intuitions! But I also value the ability to reflect on my thinking and actions, allowing this to help me navigate my future. I may do this alone but frequently I engage in this activity with others as part of a shared learning endeavour.

Whether honing our skills as a reflective coach or helping a client to develop then- own reflective learning skills, there is a place for skills to be learned and practiced. The application of core coaching skills is central to successful engagement with all types of reflective learning. They are as important to our client when they are self-coaching as they are to us when we coach a client or engage in our own self-coaching. I use the mnemonic LEARN as a reminder of these essential skills for coaching, whether working with an individual, an organization, or in self-coaching and supervision (Watts 2017).

The first of these skills is Listening. This may be listening to ourselves, listening to others, listening to our instincts, our gut feelings, and very importantly listening to and becoming aware of disjuncture and incongruence as discussed earlier in this chapter. Then follow the skills relating to Engagement. Knowing when and how to engage, recognizing for example, that in self-coaching we can’t give equal engagement time to each of life’s disjunctures and areas of tension; knowing how to actively listen and engage and when and how to go that step further - engaging in further exploration, experimenting with ideas and at some stage evaluating them; knowing that timings are of the essence and at the heart of what we do as coaches, whether engaging in self-coaching or coaching with others. Evaluating too soon, or even attempting to identify the areas to evaluate can close down creative thinking and experimentation.

The skills of listening and engaging are complemented by the skill of being able to consider how one might Apply a whole range of emergent thoughts and ideas. This is a very different stage of activity and skill set to how one chooses Actions and enacts these. There may be an enormous number of potential applications relating to what one is hearing and exploring, but action is more specific, contextual and has real consequences for real people. There may be potential tensions between the vast number of possible applications and actions and those we consider as real options for ourselves in a particular situation. It’s easy to close отії options down too soon, maybe drawing too heavily on negative or limited past experience.

Knowing how to safely revisit these is an important skill, not so that we allow отії future to be driven by our past, but so that we may more effectively prospect and choose our future. This is where the power and skill of Reflection comes in: we allow ourselves to re-engage with something, even if for years we may have

Personal LEARNing Cycle

* Listening with all of your senses (c) Mary Watts, Personal LEARNing Cycle 2014

Figure 2.1

thought we had answered all of the questions and issues to do with that thing. But if we remind ourselves of Kelly’s suggestion, that as life changes, so do the issues and questions relating to it, then we can see that there is a place for re-engaging, re-examining, re-evaluating, re-applying and re-acting, maybe in a new and very different way to previously. Reflection thus becomes core to mu' future, not so that we are driven to it by the past (and are using reflection to understand this and reconcile ourselves to our powerlessness) but exactly the opposite, so that we may take an active role in choosing our future and actively prospect and enact it. The R of LEARN is also a reminder of the power and importance of relationship, the relationship with self, the relationship with others, and in coaching the relationship between the client and the coach (Van Nieuwerburgh & Love 2019).

At the centre of learning and reflecting is the self, or maybe more appropriately put, our many selves. It is I, for example, as mother, wife, coach and researcher who is learning, reflecting, changing. Sometimes there is tension between my different selves as I reflect, listen to my inner voice and my intuitions and consider my options and actions. The final skill linked to my Mnemonic is Nurturing. Nurturing my well-being, my developing skills, my new ways of knowing, and recognizing that my various selves and roles in life may sometimes be in conflict, and engaging with this - which returns me to the Listening skills at the start of

LEARN, but now I’ve moved on, I’m a different person and listening from a different place. I construe LEARN as a moving, open cycle (Watts 2017, p. 421). I never return to the same place. My learning changes me and I listen with new ears; my situation, options and potential have changed, along with my changing self. As I develop my own LEARNing skills it is equally important that I help my clients develop theirs.


There is a potentially significant role for coaches in promoting and supporting the reflective learning skills of their clients and also in applying these to their own learning in ways that enhance their coaching and wider learning from living. This chapter has focused on the power of reflection as a medium for substantial learning and change that may in many cases be transfonnational. It draws in particular on literature originating in adult education, psychology and also emergent work in coaching. In addition to furthering these still emergent conversations, there is scope for conversations on how learning in its broadest sense might be applied to advancing our understanding, practice and research in coaching.

A core theme running through this chapter relates to giving coaching skills away - empowering and enabling people, whomever they may be, to prospect and determine their futures. This requires coaching as a profession, and us as individual coaches, to reflect on the issues involved in this, exploring and researching how best this might happen; being open to new ways of construing our role as coaches and new contexts for practice; reviewing and revising coach training; and above all exploring how we might empower an ever broadening population of clients through the development of mindsets and skills that perhaps we implicitly consider sacred to ourselves as professional coaches. The time is ripe for pursuing these important but still emergent conversations.

Acknowledgements - with many thanks and much appreciation to Robert Bor, Esther Cavett, Sarah Corrie, Ian Florence and Kevin Swindin for reading earlier versions of this chapter and providing me with such insightful and helpful feedback.


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