What is the ultimate purpose of Coaching?
The International Coaching Federation’s (ICF) definition of coaching describes the purpose as maximising the client’s personal and professional potential. Maximising our potential implies growth, and to leverage our growth we need to effectively apply our awareness, insight, and learning. Therefore, a key part of a coach’s role is to partner with clients in support of them becoming more aware, to have insights that lead them to learn new things, which, when applied through appropriate action, results in growth and development…and them fulfilling their potential!
The ICF Core Competencies are defined and described specifically in service of this purpose and there are several references that explicitly highlight this and our role in that process. For example:
Competency 4.3: “Acknowledges and respects the client’s unique talents, insights and work in the coaching process”.
Competency 4.5: “Acknowledges and supports the client’s expression of feelings, perceptions, concerns, beliefs and suggestions”.
Competency 7, Evokes Awareness, defines the coach’s role as: “Facilitates client insight and learning by using tools and techniques such as powerful questioning, silence, metaphor or analogy”, and all of its 11 sub-competencies are all focussed on how we facilitate this process.
Competency 8, Facilitates Client Growth, really brings everything together in its definition: ”Partners with the client to transform learning and insight into action…” and includes that the coach:
- “Works with the client to integrate new awareness, insight or learning into their worldview and behaviours” (8.1).
- “Partners with the client to design goals, actions and accountability measures that integrate and expand new learning” (8.2).
- “Supports the client in identifying potential results or learning from identified action steps” (8.4)
- “Partners with the client to summarise learning and insight within or between sessions” (8.6)
What is clear here is that the intended outcome from coaching is action and growth. More importantly, the action is in service of growth in some way, and not just for its own sake. However, so often I listen to coaching sessions where the coach places great emphasis on eliciting next steps and actions coming out of the coaching session, but very little attention is paid to the exploration of insight and learning. Focussing just on action may result in a temporary benefit, as the client’s behaviour changes in one of their subsequent transactions. However, the transformational benefit from coaching comes when the actions emerge organically from a learning process.
Are we therefore just interested in a one-off change to behaviour to get a different result? Or are we supporting the client to explore and choose different ways of thinking, feeling, and gain greater clarity of their values and beliefs, so that their behavioural changes are sustainable and are conducive to their broader growth and development?
Robert Dilts’s model of the (Neuro) Logical Levels offers a great example of this. In this model, it can be noted that change cascades down from the top, a little like water trickling down the side of a mountain. Therefore, if we only focus on change at the behavioural level the water (change) can only cascade a little further before it reaches the ground. Whereas, if we invite exploration and we evoke awareness and change at the higher levels of capabilities, values and beliefs or even identity and purpose, the change is likely to be far more impactful and sustainable in the longer term, thereby truly tapping into the person’s potential.
Finding ourselves too drawn into the need to secure actions and next steps can mean that we miss some wonderful opportunities to really explore these areas of insight and learning with our clients. The key here is for us to fully embrace our coaching presence and our active listening so that we can work with the whole of the person and elicit learning and any resulting next steps.
Here is a very simple approach to help us maximise the client’s awareness, insight, learning and growth:
For me, slowing down is probably one of the most powerful keys to unlocking our impact as coaches. When we slow down, we have more time to hear, to listen, to digest, to reflect and to consider what might be useful in the coaching process.
When we slow down, we are more likely to notice, not just what the client is or is not communicating but also to notice awareness emerging. A shift in awareness maybe evidenced in many different ways, some more overt, some more subtle. For example, an obvious shift could be when the client says something like: ”That’s a really good question” or “I hadn’t thought about it like that” or “I hadn’t realised…”. Other shifts could be exemplified through silence, changes in where the eyes focus, changes in body language or physiology, changes in energy.
When these shifts are noticed, it can be very tempting to feel energised by this and try to build upon it by asking yet another thought-provoking question to elicit even more insight. And yet, whilst that question might be a marvellous one, it can very easily cut short the depth, significance, and therefore impact of the previous insight. If a thought-provoking question is a ‘seed’ then, once the seed is sown and the awareness is evoked, our role is to ‘cultivate’ that awareness so that it can be fully considered by the client. For this to happen, the best thing we can do is to pause… By pausing, we allow time for reflection (see competency 5. 6). The pause allows the awareness to really begin to land and ‘germinate’.
Once we have paused, we could then share our observation of what we have just noticed, thereby ‘nurturing’ that seedling of insight. This could be through comments such as: “I notice a change in your energy, what’s going on for you now?” or “Something seems to have shifted, what are you noticing?”. Through sharing what we observe, we invite the seedling to be ‘nurtured’.
Finally, when the client shares the awareness they are having, we can invite further exploration to really ‘harvest’ the insight and learning in service of the client’s growth and development. We could invite inquiries such as: “With that awareness, what is now clearer to you?” or “What is significant about what you are noticing here?” or “How is this awareness (or insight) useful to you in this work?”.
The fact that the seeds of awareness can be sown at any point during a coaching conversation, highlights that, like all of the competencies, numbers seven and eight emerge at any and various points throughout the dialogue and are part of the interwoven dance of competencies.
Coach Advancement by Tracy Sinclair supports organisations to develop the potential of their people through coaching, coaching 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 is co-founder and CEO of Coach Advancement by Tracy Sinclair. She co-authored Becoming a Coach: The Essential ICF Guide (2020) and hosts the Coaching in Conversation podcast. In 2020, she founded Coaching with Conscience to have a positive impact on society and our environment through coaching.
Tracy is dedicated to the development of the coaching profession and the coaching community and has served in both local and global boards and workgroups for the International Coaching Federation. She was also named one of the Leading Global Coaches of the Thinkers50 Marshall Goldsmith Coaching Awards (2019, 2021) and was a finalist for the Thinkers50 Coaching and Mentoring Award (2021). She is also a member of the Marshall Goldsmith 100Coaches and a trained coaching supervisor, mentor coach and ICF assessor.
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