From toolkits to relationships: getting real about what happens in coaching

By Martin Vogel

The practice of coaching has many antecedents. But one that most eased its way into the corporate world was the analogy between sports coaching and leadership development. Corporations are susceptible to narratives of being world class and winning. So learning from methodologies fine-tuned to get the best out of athletes can be appealing to the corporate leader’s world view. This, for a long while, created an emphasis in the development of coaches on the acquisition of skills and techniques. Coaches would turn up with their “toolkits” and fine tune their clients’ performance in the pursuit of specified goals.

The Theory and Practice of Relational Coaching by Simon Cavicchia and Maria Gilbert proposes a different perspective. It views coaching as a dialogue of discovery between coach and client, one which calls on the practitioner to cultivate awareness and empathic attunement more than it demands technical accomplishment. It’s an approach which is grounded in the insight that all of our experience is socially constructed. There is no fixed thing called an organisation which provides a predictable environment for our working lives. It is enacted every day by its participants and shaped by the different world views that each of them brings by virtue of their biography.

From this perspective, to approach coaching as the application of tools and models with the aim of aligning a person with some notionally objective standard of executive practice is like trying to hold a bag of water in your hands. It provides a modicum of containment, but in the end the water will flow in all directions. Relational coaching works with the reality that organisational life is fluid – and that includes the coaching process itself. All that can be guaranteed in coaching is that, if both participants turn up, they will engage in some interaction together with the intent of shedding light on some aspect of the coachee’s experience. But this will be influenced by myriad factors such as the mood in which both arrive, by the environment they’re in, by the intuitions that arise in each of them through the session.

Simon Cavicchia and Maria Gilbert construe the coaching session (drawing on the ideas of the psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott) as an arena of play:

“A place in which room can be made for the minds of coach and coachee to wander and allow anything that arises to be considered for its possible relevance to the client and their development, rather than tightly policing in advance what might be considered appropriate to talk about.”

They bring to this arena a repertoire of theoretical perspectives with which to make sense of what arises. Primary among these is their attention to what is going on for the coach in each moment – as important as the story the coachee brings to the session, since how the coach responds is valuable data for the enquiry by both of them as to what it all means:

This orientation requires that coaches be willing to sense into themselves more and track the physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, associations and images that arise in the context of being with a specific client in their context.

The art in this approach is sensitivity to how one plays in ones thoughts and emotions. If, for example, one is feeling boredom, it could be viewed as being judgmental of the client. But it could in fact be pointing to a deep rooted boredom that the client is feeling about the matter in hand. So the coach simply describes their experience, without evaluation, treating each observation as having potentially equal significance for the client to interpret.

Coaching is often future-oriented, drawing on experiences that the client brings that have happened in the past. This approach works with the recognition that the work between coach and client can happen only in the present. It’s not surprising then that the authors would also draw on mindfulness – which they view as a means both of building one’s capacity to notice and of clearing new neural pathways that open our minds to learning (thereby shifting coach and coachee from their familiar routines of thinking).

There’s an important discussion of people’s experience of shame at work. Shame is a response that is often inculcated into us in childhood but can get activated in adulthood through experiences like struggling to cope with a heavy workload, not being able to say no or failing to live up to notions of perfection. Coachees may even struggle to bring to coaching the things they would most benefit from discussing for fear of feeling shame at admitting inadequacy. Hence Cavicchia and Gilbert argue that coaches have an important role in making it feel safe to face one’s sense of shame:

“It is inevitable that when we experience failure in living up to an ideal we are likely to feel vulnerable and ashamed. Rather than defend against this through cynicism or disengagement, we need to be able to bear our vulnerability and go on thinking and acting. If we cannot decouple our sense of self from our self images and corresponding successes and achievements, then there is too much at stake for us to share our raw talents and gifts.”

I had the joy of recognising in this book a rich description of not exactly how I work but how I aspire to work, and the rationale for it. My route to this approach was through a long-standing interest in narrative. Simon Cavicchia and Maria Gilbert come to it from a foundation in psychotherapy. Instead of tools and processes, they provide pointers – supported by rigorous intellectual foundations – of the dynamics of an effective coaching relationship. This is not a manual for the coach doing the coaching to the coachee. It’s a manifesto for coach and coachee co-creating the meaning of their work, taking into account the complex and often contradictory influences that bear on them.

It’s an overdue corrective to the cause-and-effect assumptions that govern many organisations with respect to what it means to lead and the support that managers need. Cavicchia and Gilbert bring into the conversation the dynamics of power and politics that shape working life, challenging the notion that these can be bracketed out in the name of neutrality. Their book helps coaches navigate the tricky path between serving the organisation that pays the bill and the needs of an individual coachee who may be subject to unreasonable or unrealistic expectations at work.

The relational approach is not simply about establishing a close and mutually respectful relationship between coach and coachee. It’s an acknowledgement that what coach and coachee can do together only ever emerges from what happens between them in the moment and in the specific context in which they work. This is also true, of course, of leaders and those they manage – and of all relationships beyond. Ultimately, there is nothing other than the relational approach.

The Theory and Practice of Relational Coaching, by Simon Cavicchia and Maria Gilbert. Available from Amazon.

Image courtesy Tilman Haerdle.

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