When we first start training and learning to become a coach, our focus, perhaps quite understandably, is on the learning, understanding and application of some of the relevant skills and competencies. We might call this the “doing of coaching”. Like when we learn any other new skill, getting to grips with the basics and the technical skills are an important part of the foundational process of our professional development. In this way, we can then build upon that foundation and become more natural, fluid, creative and intuitive in our work.

This is why we call our ICF accredited coach training programmes: The Science and Art of Coaching (Level 1) and The Art and Alchemy of Coaching (Level 2). These names were inspired by the work of Michael Grinder, who created a Model of Professional Development that perfectly describes this developmental transition from a focus on technique and doing (the Science) towards embracing intuition, trust, not knowing, partnering, presence and the “being of the coach” (Art, and indeed, Alchemy).

I have written about this topic and the being vs. the doing of coaching before when talking about Coaching Presence (Part 1), and (Part 2) and also, when discussing ICF Core Competency 2: Embodies a Coaching Mindset. The transition from Science to Art may seem logical and simple, as does the concept of Art being informed and underpinned by Science. Intellectually we understand it and it makes sense… and yet it is so often one of the biggest areas of growth and challenge for coaches to make. Whilst we know that something makes sense on paper, why is it that it sometimes eludes us? Well, this may be because, when we enter the realms of the “being of the coach”, there is an increased focus on us as the instrument of our work. We thereby enter a world full of our own beliefs, values, biases, judgements, fears, expectations, wants, needs and ego… and then it gets messy!

Making this transition can also be confusing and even a little deflating. When learning the science, we are often taught quite binary “rules” to help us understand the foundational skills and principles of what we are learning. For example: “always ask questions, never give solutions”. We then ground ourselves and our practice into these rules and the guidelines of a set of competencies which are interpreted in a particular way…only to be told later on: well sometimes you might offer a solution, it depends and maybe…When delivering advanced coach training or when mentoring coaches (particularly for their PCC credential), I find myself, having spent a long time teaching these grounding coaching principles that are rooted in a great set of competencies, suddenly saying things like: now put the competencies away, forget about them, trust that you know them and just coach, just be present and curious, just listen, just be, just… It’s almost like suddenly taking the stabilisers off a cycle – it’s destabilising!

At this point, we can feel that suddenly we are back to square one, we thought we’d cracked it – we’ve learnt, we’ve studied, we’ve practiced, we’ve responded to feedback, we’ve refined, we’ve even passed some exams perhaps, for our skills to be “technically sound” and now suddenly we’re told to forget them!? Even when we thought we’d “arrived” (and maybe have a badge to “prove it”) we find that there’s a whole other area of growth needed, which seems potentially even harder!

Well, it’s not really about forgetting the skills, is it? It’s about the opportunity that now faces us, which is to use our foundational skills as a springboard to truly be the best coach we can possibly be, by embracing trust (in ourselves, our clients and in coaching), by letting go of our need to know, our need to perform, our need to add value and our need to help and many other needs perhaps.

The opportunity here is to become truly artistic, an alchemist working in the moment and truly dancing with our clients, fluidly and elegantly and yet still open to learn, working with respect and humility. This offers us the chance, not only to add greater value to others, but to also add value to ourselves through the learning process we experience every time we connect in a coaching conversation with another person. We let go, we partner, we trust.

On the flip side, if we keep the stabilisers on, we stay safe and still do good work, however we also run the risk of placing a limit of the impact we can have as a coach, of placing a limit on how much more of our own potential we could tap into. Our inner dialogue; our own needs and expectations and the fears they can trigger can very easily become “inter-”fear”-ence”. Interestingly, my yoga teacher said something last week that really caught my attention when he said: “man’s longest, toughest journey is the c40cm between head and heart” — how can we embrace what we know in our heads with what we need to do from our heart in order to really grow?

How do we know that we are making this transition to embark upon this parallel development path of self as instrument? What could we do to even invite ourselves onto that pathway of working on our being as a coach? There are probably many ways to do this, however one simple idea comes from a pattern that I have observed over several years when training, mentoring, and supervising other coaches, and that is a small yet significant shift in the kinds of questions they pose in our conversations. When a coach is very grounded in skills development and technical coaching competence (a great and necessary focus to have to establish that all important foundation), they will often ask questions that begin with: “what do I do when a client…?”. Whereas, when a coach is beginning to develop self as instrument, the questions seem to shift more towards: “How can I be…?”

Drawing some inspiration from the ICF Core Competencies, here are some of the questions we could ask ourselves to develop our “being as a coach”

  • How can I be more sensitive to…?
  • How can I be a learner when I am coaching?
  • How can I be more aware of the influence of context and culture on myself and others?
  • How can I be more able to regulate my own emotions?
  • How can I be best prepared for my coaching sessions?
  • How can I be empathetic in a way that is most appropriate and helpful for my clients?
  • How can I be open and transparent?
  • How can I be more responsive?
  • How can I be more present?
  • How can I be more comfortable working with strong client emotions?
  • How can I be more comfortable working with silence and space?
  • How can I be more comfortable with not knowing?

Other aspects of engaging with the being of the coach are explored in Becoming a Coach: The Essential ICF Guide, in particular Chapters eight, nine, ten, thirty and thirty-three.

What prompted me to write this article and further explore the topic of the being of the coach, was reading the great book Stillness by Ryan Holiday, and in particular the chapter called “Let Go”. I highly recommend fully reading this chapter (and indeed the whole book) as it offers a great metaphor for letting go which I feel is so relevant for our learning and development as coaches. In essence, Holiday shares the powerful story of a great archery master called Awa Kenzo who did not focus on teaching technical mastery and spent almost no time at all instructing students how to deliberately aim and shoot. Instead, he focused on teaching his students detachment, saying: “what stands in your way, is that you have too much wilful will”. Wilful will was described as the desire to control, to shape and direct a schedule or an agenda, to be attached to getting an outcome. Kenzo’s approach perplexed his students as they mostly wanted to be told what to do and shown how to do it.

In some ways this perspective contradicts many beliefs and approaches to learning, when we are so often told how much we must try hard, how much we must strive and drive for an outcome that we so passionately want to achieve! And yet, isn’t it also interesting that quite often, the harder we try, and the more we want something, the more elusive it becomes – think of many sporting pursuits. This also reminds me of Tim Gallwey’s great example of how his approach to tennis coaching was transformed by the realisation that minimal instruction,  embracing trust, letting go and tapping into one’s own intuition and natural skills, resources and responses can be so much more powerful. Holiday advocates that stillness is the way to superior performance, and we cultivate this state through focus, patience, breathing, persistence, clarity and, most of all, the ability to let go. We achieve stillness if we embrace the process and give up chasing the goal. We’ll think better if we aren’t thinking so hard.

Reflective opportunity…

What do you need to let go of to find your stillness as a coach?

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 is a nominee for the Thinkers50 Coaching and Mentoring Award of 2021. Tracy was the President of the UK ICF 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. She currently serves as Vice Chair and Director at Large on the International Coaching Federation Global Enterprise Board and is the Co-Chair of ICF’s Global Task Force on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice.

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