Following the coaching rule book: yes or no?

My heart sinks.

Some providers of coaching qualifications are getting snippy about the rules. Now, for your recorded coach-client conversation to get accredited, you have to ask particular questions in a particular way, regardless, it seems of whether this is what the client needs.

I imagine the scene:

The coach is nervous. She is recording the conversation to send to her accrediting body.

The client has just described, without being asked, why their issue is urgent and has also described the particular event which has been the trigger.

Coach: (thinks – I’ve got to get this box ticked!) ‘So what makes this an issue now?’

Client: (thinks: Is she bonkers? I’ve just said it) ‘Err….’

These attempts to codify and analyse what makes for a good coaching conversation are well meant. They have been made necessary by the numbers of people who are leaving earlier careers as managers and hope that coaching is going to provide an easy new living. Some of these people don’t believe that training is necessary. They will tell you that they have ‘always’ done coaching with their staff and that they have had a coach themselves so they know what it’s about and how to do it.

The difficulty is that as with any skill involving high level mastery, a good coach makes it look simple. The questions flow effortlessly, it is seamless.  But this elegance is the result of many hours of training, a rigorous apprenticeship phase, continuing investment in supervision and hundreds of hours of practice  – plus pitiless self-reflection .

Earlier in my career I got involved in competency analysis (nothing to do with coaching as such) because I thought it might be useful for clients as a way of defining what made for an effective leader. I became very disillusioned. I concluded that competencies were reductionist and atomistic. They labelled without in any way helping to say what it was that truly distinguished an outstanding leader from a merely good one. Later I watched from the side lines while many of the worthies in British coaching struggled to do the same for coaching, to my mind wasting hours of their own and other people’s time in wrangling over words, producing page after page of definitions that probably no one would ever read.

The trouble is that the more you try to define it, the more slippery it gets. The essence of good coaching is elusive. It can’t be reduced to formulas.  Clients spot formulas and don’t like them. They see the fear and rigidity that lies beneath them. The coach becomes self-conscious in the worst possible sense, losing the curiosity, the light-footedness, the intense concentration on the other person that you need. When you act to satisfy some kind of tick box process, it reduces coaching to something that you do to a client. Coaching can’t work under these circumstances. Good coaching is about being a coach, not doing coaching. When you watch or listen to a genuine coaching conversation it has a flow, a naturalness and, yes, it will include offering information, challenging, demonstrating, teaching, laughing, as well as listening, all of it two-way.

It’s true that when you’re new to coaching you really do have to work at keeping yourself out of the way, managing the urge to give advice and all those other bad habits that we acquire in our struggle to keep everything under control in a confusing world.  How best to do that is to stick at least roughly to the protocol until you internalise the principles. Then you can do all the other stuff, but in coaching style. To get to that point you just have to work at it until you’ve had some tough supervision, listened to the feedback, experimented, put in the hours and built your confidence. There are no short cuts. The same is true in every profession – the apprenticeship phase is essential and always includes what is, in effect, copying.

When you begin as a coach you have to keep yourself out of the way and banish ego. As you gain confidence you can allow yourself back in but without ego. Easy to say – impossible to reduce to a list of ‘permitted questions’ even at the most early phase.