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How does coaching work?

A woman in mid-career approached me to explore the possibility of engaging in coaching. She inquired about how I could help her to solve some challenges that she had around communication and working with her peers. As an executive she felt that she had a great deal of responsibility and was sure of what needed to be done by her peers but was unsuccessful in getting her solutions across. She knew that she had a problem and was asking me to help her to solve it!

As we explored the possibility of coaching I was very conscious of the influence that David Rock ‘Your Brain at Work’ and Edgar Schein, ‘Humble Inquiry’ have had on my thinking and approach to coaching.

It was clear, at the beginning that the potential client was looking to me for a solution to her problem.

My thinking was that if coaching was to be successful then I would need to support her to find her own solutions and to see within herself the capacity to think and act differently with her peers.

As we engaged in the conversation it became very clear that she was having difficulty reflecting on her own thinking and actions. She was very confident in her ability to be decisive and direct in her approach. It was a challenge for her to imagine that there were other approaches. She was hoping that I would tell her how to make her style more effective!

The possibility of thinking about her communication ‘problem’ with new eyes seemed to be a threat that caused her to become anxious. As I described coaching as a way of exploring what was behind her communication style to find new approaches she expressed discomfort and voiced: ‘this was not what I wanted to hear.

In her mind her desire to be seen as decisive and influential could only be demonstrated with one communication style.

As a coach I was exploring the possibility of the potential client to focus on solutions rather than the threat that she was feeling.

Rock and Schein have taught me that ‘asking questions to explore solutions’ has a greater potential to generate new thoughts, actions and reinforce new behaviour than focusing on ‘the problem’.

I envision a circle of change that rotates from ‘certainty’ to ‘uncertainty’ to ‘a new certainty’ (and over again). This circle generates creativity and forward thinking. It requires us to reflect on the impact of our thinking on our actions, to become less threatened by being ‘wrong’ and more energized by new growth.

Because the possibility of solutions may threaten the client’s ‘norm’ the client could become resistant. Here is the opportunity for the coach to engage the client in designing actions to test possible solutions to work through the resistance that comes with change. For me this is a simple approach to maintaining a solution focus.

I am also aware of how easy it is to get trapped in the role of advice giver. This potential client was looking for the solutions through my advice. A subtle expression of this trap is to provide her with options for solutions; or to even derive options from her exploration of the possibilities. Effective coaching asks: ‘what possible solutions do you see in your exploration’ as an approach to enabling her curiosity, focus and potential actions.

At the end of the day coaching is about helping others explore the impact of their thinking and actions and to discover new possibilities.

My approach was to provide a safe place for her to ‘think about her thinking’ (Rock) and find new ways to communicate more effectively.

I am uncertain if she will engage with me as her coach, and I am ok with focusing on solutions as a coach approach!

These brief thoughts are intended to facilitate or prod deeper coaching conversations among coaches and with our clients.

Explore the Possibilities


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