Coaching is growing up: how a pluralistic perspective might help
This chapter acknowledges the diverse body of theory, experience and practice that can be collectively considered coaching (and those who might consider themselves coaches, in whatever capacity). While celebrating the strength of this ‘broad chinch’, it identifies some of the key challenges this diversity presents to coaches, would-be coaches, coaching supervisors and, not least, the market for coaching, our clients! Finally, I want to suggest how a pluralistic approach might offer an organising framework in which to conceptualise and deliver coaching practice.
Another way of thinking about this is to consider the times that you might have felt ‘stuck’ in your coaching practice, as I certainly have as a coach and therapist! This might be due to a whole raft of different challenges. A few that spring to mind for me are:
Pluralism isn’t a ‘holy grail’ here but invites us to think more broadly about ourselves, our clients and the way in which we work, and might offer a way to become ‘unstuck’ in our coaching process.
Pluralism, as a concept and philosophy, has a long history, which involves embracing diversity, tolerance of different ideas and perspectives alongside a deep sense of ‘valuing the other’ in relationships. It asserts that multiple competing perspectives can all be valuable in addressing the same objective, and that no single ‘truth’ is likely to exist.
As I’ll explore further in this chapter, a pluralistic perspective might also helpfully be applied to many issues we face in our modem world, notably in addressing the increasing polarity in political debate but also in considering increasing diversity in social and consumer identities. But, how specifically can pluralism be helpful to coaching practice?
As coaches, we are constantly grappling with the questions and challenges our client work, not to mention our own professional and personal worlds, bring us. Endless efforts searching for the ‘right answer’ may, in many situations, not be the most helpfill approach to our work, especially if we might not even be looking in the right place for that answer!
I recall one of my psychology lecturers in research methods recounting an anecdote about someone walking down a street at night and encountering a person on their hands and knees on the pavement under a streetlight. When asked ‘what are you doing?’ the other person replied, ‘searching for my keys’. ‘Ah’ said the first person, ‘is this where you saw them last?’. ‘No’, came the reply, ‘I last saw them over there’, pointing to the other side of the street. ‘Then, why are you searching here?’ The answer: ‘because the light is better here!’ My take on this is that it is human nature to look for answers in places we are familiar with or are easier to access. It’s efficient to adopt an approach and, through experience, become increasingly adept at applying it. Is that always the most effective way of helping clients, especially those who don’t seem to be ‘getting it’? This is something to consider as I make my case for pluralism.
A pluralistic approach to coaching offers a framework which opens up possibilities, as well as encouraging genuinely collaborative work. It helps to ‘shine a light’ on other options and ways of engaging with our coaching clients.
Mick Cooper and John McLeod (2011, p. 6.) succinctly state that pluralistic practice should be based on two key principles:
It would, of course, be important to consider more fully the nature of this ‘conversation’. A pluralistic approach would place increased emphasis on the importance of the coachee’s views and perspective, both in terms of what they want to achieve from the coaching process but also how they would want to work. This is unlikely to be a one-off decision made at the start of the coaching engagement but would form part of an iterative process drawing from both coach and coachee feedback.
Challenge to expertise?
There is also something inherent in this pluralistic way of thinking that poses a significant challenge to the idea of ‘expertise’ in coaching and where such expertise sits in the process. For many of us, being an ‘expert’ is something that we have aspired to, bolstered by notions of excellence, nowhere better exemplified than by 1982’s In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, a staple for many MBA students of the 1980s and 1990s, of which I was one. Given the broad nature of our clients’ backgrounds, experiences and challenges, however, how helpful is it to aspire to be, let alone present ourselves as, an ‘expert’ who has access to ‘the answers’? Although the idea of challenging our own expertise might seem threatening to our sense of professional identity I would argue that doing so helps open up the options to us as coaches, especially where ‘stuck-ness’ is the issue.
Carl Rogers (e.g., 1961) challenged the notion of expertise in psychotherapy (I’ll use this term to refer to all forms of ‘talking therapy’), cautioning therapists to hold their expertise ‘lightly’ when working with clients. Failure to do this would inhibit the client’s potential for growth, and therefore his or her ability to achieve ‘self-actualisation’ in humanistic/person-centred therapy terms. In more recent years we have experienced more emphasis on the active role of clients in therapy, with the emergence of terms such as ‘experts by experience’.
To illustrate how it can be helpful to challenge our own sense of expertise, and be willing to engage in pluralistic thinking and practice, I was personally involved in an innovative research study in the NHS in 2016 where the concept of ‘making sense of voices’ was adopted to work with clients who had experienced (in many case) years and even decades of active psychosis which had not responded to medication or ‘conventional therapy’. The approach had been pioneered by Dr. Marius Romme, a Dutch psychiatrist, who had appeared on Dutch television in 1987 with a patient of his, Patsy Hague. The purpose of this appearance was to reach out to ‘voice-hearers’ (i.e., those experiencing active psychosis) that were not engaged with mental health services in order to understand how they had coped with their experience. Dr. Romme was very open in admitting how little mainstream psychiatry understood about psychosis, and therefore how best to support patients. The psychiatric profession, in other words, was stuck on this issue.
The training that I (alongside a small group of fellow NHS psychologists) received was led by two professionals alongside voice hearers who had made sense of their experience, and who were able to discuss the process that had helped them do so. At the beginning of the training there was considerable scepticism expressed by the trainers about whether or not our ‘psychology mindset’ would prevent us from engaging with clients’ subjective experiences.
Along with my colleagues I felt a sense of huge discomfort (and some indignation!) at the outset but, as the process evolved, came to realise that this process or ‘model of therapy’ could never have been generated from within the psychiatry/ psychology ‘establishment’ in which we had trained. I would suggest that pluralistic thinking had led to this innovative approach, allowing clients (and many mental health professionals) to become ‘unstuck’ from an idea that their voice hearing was due to a biological problem with their brains or some form of ‘madness’. For those wishing to read further, a good start would be Romme’s book Making Sense of Voices, published in 2004, but in essence the approach requires helpers (who might be mental health professionals but could equally be peer support workers) to work in a more ‘journalistic’ way with clients, building up a detailed contextual history of the client’s life and in particular the context in which they first began to experience ‘voices’. The underlying premise behind this being that voice-hearing (psychosis) is an understandable response to life events rather than a biological problem with the brain. If the voice-hearer can make sense of their experience they can develop a different relationship with their voices (typically, voice-hearers will experience 5-7 different voices, each with a different meaning or message).
I hope you will agree that this is somewhat fascinating in itself, but I include it to prompt the question ‘who might the equivalent of voice-hearers in your client group be?’ Which individuals or groups of individuals don’t seem to respond to your typical approach, and with whom the coaching process might benefit from a more open conversation?
Another example of trying to understand what clients find important in therapy is a study earned out by Bedi and Duff (2014) which found that the two most important factors were feeling that their therapist validated their experience and being asked about their life beyond their presenting issues. The implications of this seem to be that ‘problem solving’ may not be central to many clients’ needs in therapy, and similar research is important in coaching to explore what factors our clients consider most important. I include some nascent examples of this later-in the chapter.
Cooper and Norcross (2016) have taken this idea further forward in developing an 18-item measure to use with (psychotherapy) clients to help ‘operationalise’ their preferences. The measure is based on four key scales:
It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to imagine this research being adapted to identify relevant scales in the coaching process.
Why does contemporary coaching invite pluralism?
Any definition of coaching should allow for a diverse range of coaching practitioners, models of coaching and coaching clients, in itself suggesting that the activity invites a pluralistic approach
Coaches enter the coaching profession from a multitude of backgrounds and training routes. There is little overall consensus in what makes an ‘accredited coach’ (Bachkirova et al., 2017b) and a huge range of coaching training/qualification routes exist, from relatively short, skills-focused programmes through to more comprehensive programmes which perhaps focus more on research and critical thinking.
As the coaching world grows and matures, greater emphasis is perhaps required on thinking about an organising and/or over-arching framework to conceptualise how any coach interacts with any ‘coachee’ (coaching client). This can help inform all coaches, from those who are well-established to those just beginning their coaching practice. Bono et al. (2009) reported that the average age of coaches was a little over 48 years, and with an average of almost 10 years of coaching experience. Bachkirova and colleagues (2017a) acknowledge the benefits that this maturity can bring but also raise some concerns that this demographic profile may also tend to be more entrenched in its views on human behaviour in the world (and, by implication, the workplace).
It seems three ‘streams’ of models have emerged with, and catalysed the growth of, coaching.
One stream is that developed from the application of theories from the world of education, notably those related to reflective and experiential learning. Whereas reflective dialogue might be considered a coaching tool or technique, Colin Beard and John Wilson, writing in ‘Experiential Learning: A Handbook for Education, Training and Coaching’, position experiential learning as an “underpinning philosophy that acts as a thread joining many of the learning theories together in a more unified whole” (2013, p. 17). ‘Learning by experience’ is perhaps one of the most enduring and accessible forms of personal and professional development any of us can engage in.
Beard and Wilson also make some interesting connections between experiential learning and the notion of ‘the experience economy’. The idea is that, as our basic commodity needs continue to be more than met (in most modem economies at least) we, as consumers, increasingly seek out and place value on experiences rather than ‘material things.’ Two examples that I worked with in my own business career are music and video, which can now of course be streamed 24/7 from a multitude of devices with no physical earner. This has not only transformed the traditional supply chain/value chain but has also required ‘providers’ to reimagine how consumers interact with their ‘product’. Those who have failed to grasp this imperative have fallen by the wayside. Another fascinating example in this context is the cunent enormous popularity in the UK of the ‘Secret Cinema’ concept (www.secretcinema.org), in which the ‘cinema-goer’ becomes immersed in the experience and, having been allocated a character to play, comes dressed for the part. The boundary' between performers and arrdience members is deliberately blurred to allow for a more rewarding experience and a real sense of ‘co-creation’.
The relevance of all this to coaching might be in striving to adopt a much broader perspective of our coachee’s experience, which itself is a pluralistic idea.
As coaches we may be very focused on our experience, qualifications and the models that we work with, but what else constitutes our coachee’s experience? That might begin when they engage with our marketing material (website, brochure etc), or perhaps from the first email or telephone exchange we have with them. What physical (or virtual) coaching environment do we offer? Is coaching something we ‘do to them’ or are they immersed in the experience through preparatory exercises or giving us regular feedback, for example?
A second stream of coaching models seems to be clearly identifiable as ‘coaching models inspired by/derived from traditional models of psychotherapy’. Examples include coaching from psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioural, solution-focused, person-centred, existential and Gestalt perspectives. Additionally, I have been very interested and active in the increasing application of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) to coaching over the past few years (increasingly referred to as ACC or Acceptance and Commitment Coaching). ACT is an excellent example of applied pluralistic thinking; it builds on concepts derived from behaviourism and the broader behavioural sciences, a theory of language development as an alternative to cognitive therapy, Buddhist practices, and also draws from existential philosophy in its emphasis on identifying ‘personal values’ as a way of guiding behaviour and providing motivation to do the ‘difficult things’ that are important in living a meaningful life. It’s beyond the scope of this chapter to describe ACT in detail, but for those wishing to read further, I’d suggest Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (2nd ed.) by Hayes et al. (2012) as a starting point.
The third stream of models in coaching I’d like to discuss are those which are ‘acronym/mnemonic’ based such as GROW (as developed by Sir John Whitmore and colleagues in the late 1980s). Other models using this style of approach include (but are not limited to); PRACTICE (e.g.. Palmer, 2008), SPACE (Edgerton & Palmer, 2005), ENABLE (Adams, 2015), CLEAR (Hawkins & Smith, 2013), LEAD. LEARN & GROW (Watts & Corrie, 2013) and LEARN (Watts, 2017). This third stream of approaches attempts to provide coaches with a simplified structure in which to develop their practice: a sequence of ‘steps’ to follow and apply, often sequentially, in order to ‘know what to do’ with clients from session to session. Although the benefits seem clear, the seemingly inevitable downside to this array of acronym-based approaches is that it makes coaching ‘seem simple’ to some of those wishing to coach or be coached. In the same way, many self-help books tell us to follow these ‘n’ steps, or to develop these ‘n’ habits, promising that some form of success will surely follow. There is a danger that the process of coaching will be reduced to simply ‘doing’ the four steps of GROW, for example. If we see coaching as ‘goal setting’, ‘reality checking’, ‘option generating’ and ‘will-finding/motivating’ then is there a danger that we reduce it to something akin to a ‘brainstorm’ session, or simply ‘problem-solving’ in a narrow sense. Also, much as the mantra of SMART goal-setting (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) has been successfully applied to projects (whether in business or personal contexts), are these simplified ways of approaching problems appropriate to the increasingly complex, diverse world we find ourselves inhabiting? Does GROW in itself lead to sustainable growth, or is it a somewhat reductive notion?
Daniel Kahneman (2015) highlighted the tendency for humans to use heuristics (‘cognitive short cuts’) in order to effectively ‘automate’ our thinking processes when we are faced with ‘similar problems’. This efficiency is often helpful (for example when we are driving - not needing to analyse every' action; or perhaps when avoiding the proverbial ‘dark alley’ late at night, not needing to spend ten minutes analysing risk versus taking a longer route home). It can also, of course, lead to unpleasant biases and prejudices, of which I’m sure you can easily' thiiik of without examples. More pertinently perhaps, in a coaching context, might this ‘efficiency process’ result in us working in the same tried and trusted way without stopping to reflect on the uniqueness of each encounter, and how we might vary our approach accordingly.
The process of wanting/being inclined to think fast was also harnessed by Steve Peters in his excellent book The Chimp Paradox (2013), where the ‘computer in our head’ represents the fact that many of our thorrght processes are automatic (though based on algorithms that can be programmed by high-speed, emotionally driven ‘chimp thinking’ or more measured, rational ‘human thinking’).
The coaching environment
Having considered some of the options in terms of how to ‘supply’ coaching, I’d now like to consider some of the key changes in the ‘demand side’ or the environment in which coaching is now being delivered, and how a pluralistic perspective might help us adapt to this and thrive as coaches. It is unarguable that business and society' have changed rapidly in recent years. One of the key drivers for this change has been the emergence of the internet, and digital technology more generally. While much of this has been highly enabling, and has delivered many' efficiencies and positive change, it can also be argued that these rapid changes have also brorrght with them much uncertainty to our ways of doing business and of life in general. It has also informed a theoretical underpinning for a new relationship between consumers and suppliers of services and products, one which I was able to explore through my own career in music and media retail and also as a visiting lecturer in digital marketing and strategy throughout a key transformational phase in digital media technology from the late 1990s until the end of the following decade.
In this account digital technology could effectively reduce consumerism to the ‘market of one’. Each consumer would no longer be defined by a large corporation’s idea of the ‘market segment’ they represented. Perfect information would mean that consumers would simply ‘consume what they wanted/liked’. Emphasis needed to shift towards a more meaningful relationship with each consumer, not based on the old ways of ‘push marketing’ but to enable consumers to access the products and services they' wanted, in the way they wanted. This would mean a different way of engaging consumers - a ‘new dialogue’. Of course, social media and internet-based marketing would help, but only if the consumer felt ‘heard’ and the relationship seemed authentic and genuine
This also led into an important discussion about the blurring of traditional boundaries between producer and consumer. If consumers had increasing input into products (via more direct feedback or the ability to ‘customise’ their product or experience) were they therefore becoming part of the production process itself (‘prosumers’ - an inelegant word but you get the drift)? Are our coaching clients, with increasing access to information alongside changes in business practice such as 360-degree feedback processes, becoming our ‘prosumers’?
Societal changes also affect wider aspects of our lives: how we work and communicate; valuing diversity; how we express identity. Much is made of generational trends in society, with so-called millennials now reaching ages where they will be occupying increasingly senior positions in business, and therefore increasingly likely to seek coaching input. There is also a huge increase in the awareness of mental health issues. Whilst I am unequivocally in support of this trend, it does bring with it a sense for many that there is ‘something wrong’ with them, which may not always be helpfill.
For the coach, it is important to have an understanding of how the environment for coaching is changing, and how to position our coaching offer to best cater for this new (and evolving) environment.
In my practice, I work with a significant number of clients who engage me for ‘coaching’ rather than ‘therapy.’ Many of these do so because I have a background which spans both the business/organisational world and the ‘mental health’ world. Of course, I realise that some of these clients suspect that they have broader mental health challenges but feel more comfortable engaging with a therapist/coach who has experience of ‘both worlds. I think this group of clients would be unlikely to engage with a ‘pure mental health specialist’ because of the implications (for them) of doing so - why would any ‘sane person’ see a shrink?! As a consequence much of my client work involves blending coaching and more therapeutic work, and I firmly believe my pluralistic approach enables me to work effectively with each client. This involves careful listening and sensitive questioning at the assess-ment/planning stage of our work to ensure that I understand my client’s needs and objectives clearly.
One ‘crossover’ that I do see with increasing regularity is the (often highly) successful professional who really struggles with both personal and professional relationships. Their professional expertise has invariably helped them to achieve success at work, but they are now experiencing some form of discomfort. This might be some kind of ‘exit’ from their employment, or perhaps an appraisal process which has identified a problem with interpersonal skills that is a barrier to future development. I will always seek to understand how this ‘plays out’ for my client in their personal lives, and often the pattern will be repeated there, though manifesting in a different way. This might lead me, for example, to focus on the relationship between my client and I and how that plays out in the ‘here and now’ of our interactions.
Something else I experience on a regular basis is the client struggling with ‘workplace burnout’ of some description. Sometimes these clients find me directly but often they are referred by their employer or outsourced occupational health provider. Pluralistic thinking helps me move beyond typical ‘stress management’ techniques with clients experiencing this kind of problem. Many of these individuals are highly conscientious and find it difficult to manage work-life balance. Working with ‘values’ is one way that I have found highly beneficial in helping these individuals ‘unhook’ from the rules that they perhaps may have learned in not thinking about their own needs, or understanding the long-term impact of neglecting their personal lives and health. I also find working with professional values helpful in identifying changes that clients want to make at work, even if that might ultimately mean a change of employer or work environment.
Towards a pluralistic framework
It seems clear that coaches have an increasingly broad range of models and approaches to select from, both when choosing a training route and when practicing as a coach. This would seem to make sense in an increasingly complex coaching environment. However, just as our clients might be looking for a way to simplify their objectives and deal with issues that might get in the way, so it might be appealing to a coach to decide on an approach which might either reflect their own experience/training or one they have become aligned with for other reasons.
Psychotherapy: how its approach might illuminate coaching
The field of psychotherapy provides warnings for the dangers of adopting a singular approach and the benefits of pluralism in coaching. It was estimated in 2005 (Norcross & Goldfried, 2005) that over 400 different approaches existed. Despite this, less than 25 percent of therapists registered with the BACP (British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy) report having been trained in ‘integrative approaches’: working with a single model in a focused way still seems to prevail. This, of course, has advantages. Therapists can become extremely proficient in an approach; they can perhaps feel comfortable in assessing the progress made by their client in therapy, and there is an ability to conduct research in a consistent way. The IAPT service in the UK’s National Health Service, for example, has been grounded in carefully developed, structured, targeted, manualised therapies.
However, there are also potential pitfalls to ‘single-model’ approaches, which the coaching profession might be wise to heed. Cooper and McLeod (2011) use the phrase ‘schoolism’ to describe the tribalism and binary thinking that leads to much energy being spent on championing and/or defending one’s favoured model: if one is right, then the other must be wrong! This might all too easily create a barrier for coaches which prevents them from learning from and about other approaches, as well as a focus on building ever greater efficiency in our approach over perhaps the effectiveness of a broader perspective. Equally, it can create a ‘blinkered’ approach to coaching which renders it inflexible to our clients’ needs and perspectives. As Abraham Maslow wrote when outlining his ‘law of the instrument’, ‘I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail’ (1966, p. 15).
Research such as that by Asay and Lambert (1999) indicates that models and tecliniques only contributed 15 percent of improvement in therapy clients. Client variables and extra-therapeutic events (40 percent), the therapeutic relationship (30 percent) and expectancy/placebo effect (15 percent) complete the picture they paint of key factors.
In psychotherapy this debate has been pitched as ‘specific’ versus ‘common’ factors: whether a specific model of psychotherapy is ‘king’, or to focus on the 85 percent of change (in the Asay and Lambert study) that is the result of nonspecific (or common) factors.
If we are edging towards an argument that there is no one right way to ‘do therapy’ it seems logical to apply this argument to coaching, which bears many similarities. Common factors research has indeed been applied to coaching. An exploratory study by Erik de Hann and colleagues (2012), identified the following factors as being highly significant to positive coaching outcomes:
As coaching outcome research is also beginning to indicate that specific models may not be the most important determinant of outcome, can we therefore apply a framework which has been helpful to many working in psychotherapy/counsel-ling settings, that of pluralism? Mick Cooper and John McLeod (mentioned in my introduction) have developed a framework for pluralistic psychotherapy and counselling (2011) and discuss with colleagues (Zsofia Anna Utry and Stephen Palmer) in a 2015 paper published in The Coaching Psychologist how this might be applied to coaching. The paper references Diana L. Eck, head of The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, selecting the following pertinent temrs describing pluralism:
Pluralistic practice can therefore draw on a broad array of approaches, but places ‘constructive dialogue’ at the heart of the process, rather than a practitioner’s specific range of skills and experience, or any integrative or eclectic approach they might work with. This does not mean that the ‘customer is always right’ either; the process of dialogue should be two-way in arriving at the most helpful approach. The 2015 paper goes on to introduce the concept of ‘metatherapeutic communication’, in other words a dialogue about the process of therapy as it progresses. This not only serves the function of feedback and collaboration, but also assists the client to develop skills in becoming more reflective and ‘active’ in therapy. If you will allow me to re-visit ACT (in a pluralistic way) this also speaks to the idea of ‘perspective taking’ and contacting the ‘observing self’ (an idea itself borrowed from Buddhist practice). Awareness, in this context, is the vital precursor to choices of either change or acceptance.
It then seems to be a short hop to think in terms of what ‘metacoaching communication’ might mean. The paper cites research (Ely et al., 2010) which found that executive coaches typically ask for feedback in an ad hoc manner rather than as part of a ‘built-in’ process. How might you, as coach, build in regular feedback to your practice?
Pluralistic coaching practice
Again, the 2015 paper seeks to apply the core ‘steps’ of pluralistic psychotherapy to coaching.
These steps are to think fir stly about tire client’s goals for coaching (of course, mirroring to some extent the ‘G’ of GROW). Secondly, the tasks that need to be undertaken (these ar e conceptualised as tire macro-level areas of change to focus on), and thirdly the methods that will deliver this change (referring to the micro-level activities that will deliver on tire tasks identified. This is demonstrated in Figure 13.1.
Understand own preferences and values, make a decision, make a career plan
Figure 13.1 Application of core ‘steps’ of pluralistic psychotherapy to coaching Source: Utry et al. 2015
Research into pluralistic coaching
I am only aware of one research study looking at a pluralistic approach in coaching, that conducted by Andy Pendle, and published in the International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring (2015). This was a qualitative study involving semi-structured qualitative interviews with five practicing coaches, exploring their attitudes towards a pluralistic framework for coaching. The broad findings were that the participants seemed comfortable with incorporating different approaches into their coaching practice and were strongly in favour of a collaborative approach. There seems to have been some issues in how they were able to make sense of the philosophical position of pluralism, and also in effecting close collaboration and dialogue about the coaching process throughout their client work.
hr general terms, and learning again perhaps from the psychotherapy world, research is a significant issue in terms of how pluralism can and should be understood. Cooper and McLeod (2011) discuss the increasing trend towaids both an ‘evidence-based’ research culture, and specifically the prioritising of ‘empirically supported’ therapies. They argue that that UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) draws almost exclusively from empirical research in making recommendations for practice. There are clearly strong efficiency and limited-resource arguments for why this should be die case, but the counter-argument is that the outcome of such research is gauged on a narrow range of ‘measures’ and research methods. Such methods rarely, argue the authors, include factors such as the client’s preferences, the role of supervision, and the therapist’s own reflections and personal experiences. The reader is pointed to research that reviews how these and other more ‘pluralistic characteristics’ of psychotherapy are associated with beneficial outcomes.
How might you, the reader, apply this framework to your coaching practice?
Let me use my own coaching experience to try and illustrate.
I often arrange a phone conversation before arranging a first face-to-face session, and this will usually set the tone for ongoing work. There are sometimes specific references to issues that might call on the clinical aspects of my training (e.g., ‘I would like to understand if I am on the autistic spectrum, or bipolar’), but more often the focus is on difficulties that are playing out for the client in the workplace. These clients will want to know more about my business background, and how I draw from that experience to relate to workplace challenges. Beyond that, there is often a sense of the potential coachee wanting some reassurance that I will be able to deal with more personal and sensitive issues should they arise as part of our work - a ‘safe pair of hands’ if you like.
It’s quite common for these clients to have already experienced coaching provided by their cunent or previous employers, and many will be familiar with their Myers-Briggs typology (or comparable psychometric profile). One of the most common things I hear about prior coaching is that it was very focused on workplace problem solving but, for the coachee, had failed to draw from or explore their wider experiences in life and, as such, the coachee didn't believe that they had learned broader life-skills that could be applied not just to the workplace but to all the ‘other stuff’ in their life. Many tell me that as soon as they attempted to move a coaching conversation beyond a very specific workplace problem they felt closed down.
The topic of coaching: mental health boundaries is discussed elsewhere in this book, but I believe it’s important to understand that moving beyond a strict workplace agenda does not necessarily mean venturing into specialised mental health work; it might simply mean making more links between what is happening for the coachee in the workplace and what is happening (or has happened) elsewhere in their life. The ‘entry point’ may often be workplace-focused but as some of the examples I discuss in the following demonstrate, the coaching conversation can often involve much broader considerations.
Typical issues for me in my coaching role have included:
Let’s take a couple of these and consider how I might apply a pluralistic framework:
Table 13.1 Problematic relationships at work
Table 13.2 Loss of motivation at work
I have, of course, kept these examples relatively uncomplicated, to demonstrate the framework. The reality is that significant issues/challenges might emerge at any point in the coaching encounter, as they do in therapy. The clients I am working with are all individuals and bring with them a vast range of backgrounds and experiences, which will inform their personal straggles and goals for coaching.
Any one of these ‘straightforward’ problems are likely to bring with them a huge range of underlying challenges, including those related to mental health, neurodiversity, personal relationships, addiction in its many forms, health/dis-ability, ‘existential crises’ of various kinds, loss/bereavement, sexuality/gender identity, culture or ethnicity. In my experience, clients increasingly want to debate political and societal issues - are these ‘outside our agenda’ or a vital part of how our clients are trying to understand their identity and values, and how they make sense of their own experiences.
For anyone engaging in the ‘professionalised conversation’, it seems hugely important that we consider all the possibilities that might present themselves as part of this endeavour. Pluralism is not a technique, or even a set of techniques. It is a position that we take with regard to our clients. It is not the same as being pragmatic, or expedient. Equally it doesn’t require that we are trained in every possible approach. Whatever our core training it’s likely and highly sensible that we will use that as at least a building block, as well as a key reference point in engaging with our clients. I am happy to acknowledge that I still view behavioural psychology as an ‘approach’ which is most likely to inform the way I conceptualise (or ‘formulate) my work with clients. However, I remain open to dialogue with them throughout the process of coaching or therapy about the directions we take. This may involve incorporating elements of other recognised therapies or perhaps working with clients to help them make sense of religious or spiritual beliefs in the context of their challenges. These are often outside my range of training or direct experience but by engaging in active discussion we are usually able to identify a way of integrating these critical elements into our overall work.
Clients communicate in many different ways, and non-verbal communication can often be a window into then inner worlds. One client I recall very vividly, asked at our first session if he could read aloud a poem he had written about his life and struggles. Even though I felt very unsure and somewhat uncomfortable I said yes. The poem took maybe ten minutes to read but was more powerful and informative than many longer assessment sessions I have had (not to mention more moving). Yes, it was verbal, but very different from a ‘usual’ conversation. I have also had clients share art and music with me on numerous occasions, and there has always been meaning beyond the art itself in terms of what the client is communicating.
Cooper and McLeod (2011) make the distinction between a pluralistic perspective and pluralistic practice. Even those practitioners working with a single approach can endeavour to make this more flexible to individual needs, to engage in regular dialogue about the process of, and the client’s experience of, coaching. Recognising, perhaps, when they are not best placed to help a particular client and making appropriate onwards referrals, or perhaps seeking external input to the coaching process from other professionals (of course, in agreement with the client and discussed in supervision).
Ulis raises questions for those considering beginning a coaching career, or those seeking to develop their own expertise though training/CPD. It also raises questions about supervision - would it be helpfill to consider supervision from an alternative or multi-disciplinary perspective, rather than maybe from a supervisor more skilled and experienced in our own approach(es)?
Returning one more time to my experience of working with change in the digital music and media sector, the phase ‘co-opetition’ also comes to mind. In that context it meant forming alliances and partnerships with those who might otherwise be considered competitors - a recognition that ‘smaller players’ with limited resources might be better off pooling some of these to offer a better overall service to thefr customers.
How might this idea apply to your coaching practice? Could you re-visit your sense of who you might view typically as competitors and consider how some form of collaboration might be helpfill, to you and your clients?
As our clients’ lives, workplaces and world views change and become more diverse and (perhaps) complex, shouldn’t we as coaches be developing a broader view of how we can best support them? Pluralism doesn’t offer a neatly packaged set of tools to draw from, but is a personal stance that we can adopt in order to embrace and work with difference and uncertainty. That, inevitably, will require a willingness to challenge ourselves in many aspects of our practice. Are you ready to accept that challenge?
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