Coaching is a dialogue that is intended to facilitate forward movement in service of the client maximising their potential. Whilst taking next steps and actions after coaching sessions is important, so often a coaching conversation can become limited to a single focus on eliciting actions, which significantly limits the potential of coaching and I think also somewhat misses the point. As a Mentor Coach, when listening to coach recordings, I often notice a hurried, and sometimes even leading energy from the coach towards the end of the session, that seems singularly aimed at capturing a list of actions. When exploring this with coaches, I sometimes hear comments such as: “I was trying to get them to an outcome”. This comment is loaded with all sorts of potential meaning and implications, including who owns the work, client autonomy, a need to add value, what constitutes an outcome, a perception of the role of the coach and several other possibilities. It can also mean that the coach misses opportunities for exploration and insight as they drive towards the outcome.

ICF Core Competency 8 is called: “Cultivating Learning and Growth” it isn’t called: “Capturing a list of actions”. So, what does ‘cultivating learning and growth’ actually mean and what is this competency seeking to describe?

I think about this competency as having two distinct and important elements, which are clearly outlined in its definition: “Partners with the client to transform learning and insight into action. Promotes client autonomy in the coaching process.” So, we have learning and insight and then we have action. By simply focusing on eliciting actions, we are missing a significant aspect of this competency and indeed of the overarching purpose of coaching. Coaching is about learning, growth, and potential. The process of coaching is therefore intended to cultivate that learning so that the person can grow as a result and thereby more readily take actions and steps towards their goals, which in turn enable them to reach and fulfil their potential.

Another way of looking at this is to consider Kolb’s learning cycle:

Kolb's Learning Cycle

According to Kolb’s learning cycle, we have an experience and then we review and reflect upon that experience. This reflection is intended to give rise to some conclusions, insights, and learning as we make meaning of our reflections. We then take that learning away and apply it, through designing, planning, and implementing actions, which we experiment with to give ourselves a new experience, and so on. If, in a coaching conversation, we move from reflection straight to identifying actions, we are missing out the critical element which is what we have learned and how we have grown. By exploring insights, learning and growth we are using the client’s topic and their goals as an example to help them fully leverage their own developmental potential. This in turn helps to move the conversation from one that is solely based on actions for the fulfilment of a goal to one that also fully embraces the person who owns and wants that goal and how its achievement enriches them and their life.

In Chapter 13 of my book Becoming a Coach: the Essential ICF Guide, I talk about the Micro-Macro levels of focus in coaching and how it is important that we explore both.

Micro Macro
Topic Person
Current Future
Topic/Situation Where and What Else?
Behaviour Being
Solving a “Problem” Building Capacity and Maximising Potential

There are many rich opportunities for the coach to invite their client to process the information arising from their reflections and to elicit the meaning the client is making from that reflection. This includes exploring their conclusions, decisions, priorities, learning (about themselves and their topic), how this learning could serve them in the future, in other contexts and to explore what else might now be possible with this new awareness and learning? Chapter 13 of Becoming a Coach also explores more options for how coaches can elicit learning, and, in another blog, I will look at how to notice and work with insights as they emerge in the moment.

As the learning and insights become clearer, we can then invite the client to consider their next steps. Already, those actions are going to be informed and enriched by the clarity of the awareness and learning we have helped uncover. Once again, this is a rich opportunity to go beyond a ‘3-point action list’. Many of us are probably aware of how easy it can be to decide upon steps that we think are a really good idea when we are on a high or feel fired up to take action etc., only to then find that those actions are simply not realistic in our environment or context. When partnering with clients around establishing next steps and post-coaching actions, we really want to set them up for success, not for them to feel demotivated or that they have failed when the actions were, in reality, too ambitious or not entirely relevant and appropriate. Therefore, we are not just interested in what they are going to do, we are also very interested in how they are going to do it.

Part of cultivating growth is to enable meaningful, insight-informed actions that lead to a true sense of success, fulfilment and progress toward something that is important to the client. We are therefore inviting them to consider how they will know that their next steps have been successfully implemented, what support or resource might they need to help them with that implementation? How confident and committed do they really feel about those steps? What else might get in the way of those actions going ahead and what are their thoughts on how to address that? In this way the client leaves with a robust thought-through plan. Setting our clients up for success in this way also enables us to invite them to reflect upon their progress and success between sessions as well as during, so that we can acknowledge and celebrate that with them. They can experience and absorb the positive feedback arising from the discussion and their realisation that they are truly moving forward.

In order to fully explore learning and insights and their ensuing actions, it is important to take time. So often, this competency is one that seems to be “shoe-horned” into the very last couple of minutes of the session, giving precious little time to truly harvest the benefit of the conversation that has been held. In addition, this competency and the exploration of insights and actions is not something that has to wait until the end of the conversation. Insights and ideas for next steps could surface at any point during the coaching process and it is therefore important for us to slow down so that we have a chance to notice and work with them most effectively. This is part of the ‘dance’ of coaching, it is a generative flow, not a sequential checklist.

Reflective opportunity: as you reflect upon this blog, what new awareness and insights do you have and how could you apply and integrate them into your coaching practice? 

Coach Advancement by Tracy Sinclair supports organisations to develop the potential of their people through coachingcoaching skills and coaching culture. Our Coaching with Conscience services specialise in offering coaching and coaching related services in support of positive social impact and social progress.

Tracy Sinclair, MCC

Tracy Sinclair is a Master Certified Coach (MCC) with the International Coaching Federation (ICF). She is also, a trained Coaching Supervisor, Mentor Coach and ICF Assessor. Tracy trains coaches and works with managers and leaders to develop their coaching capability. She works as an international Corporate Executive and Board Level Coach, a leadership development designer and facilitator working with a wide range of organisations. Tracy also specialises in working with organisations to support them develop coaching culture. Tracy has co-authored a book, Becoming a Coach: The Essential ICF Guide, published in 2020 which provides a comprehensive guide to coaching for coaches at all levels of skill and experience, the psychology that underpins coaching and the updated ICF Core Competency Model. In this same year she founded Coaching with Conscience which exists to have a positive impact on society and our environment through coaching. She was named as one of the Leading Global Coach winners of the Thinkers50 Marshall Goldsmith Awards of 2019 and 2021 and was a finalist for the Thinkers50 Coaching and Mentoring Award of 2021. Tracy was the President of the ICF United Kingdom Chapter from 2013-2014 and has been an ICF Global Board Director since 2016, serving as Treasurer in 2017, Global Chair in 2018 and Immediate Past Global Chair in 2019. In 2021 she served as Vice Chair and Director at Large on the International Coaching Federation Global Enterprise Board.

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