I’m very happy to post this interview on the occasion of the renewal of this blog.
Peter divides his time between teaching on post-graduate coaching & mentoring programmes at Oxford Brookes University and his own coaching and consulting practice.
With Tatiana Bachkirova and David Clutterbuck, Peter is co-editor of Coaching Supervision: Theory and Practice which has just been published by Open University Press.
He is currently undertaking doctoral research on the use of physicality by coaches.
There are many sceptical people who say that coaching is a form of „magic“ or kind of a manipulation…have you heard such opinions? How would you describe coaching for those people?
I don’t know about magic or manipulation. I’ve come across some viewpoints that question whether coaching really works. I don’t happen to think that’s the right question. But there’s a really legitimate question about what works, when and how. We do have a responsibility to address this question and I think the growing body of knowledge, the involvement of practitioners in researching practice, conferences and work in universities all contribute to helping us understand this better.
Where is coaching already established and where is it starting to find its place?
I haven’t come across any really robust research on this.
If a coach wants to develop his/her competences, which other disciplines should they explore further and why?
To some extent this depends on where people see their practice fitting. For some types of work there are very definite fields of disciplinary knowledge. But I think your question is more about generic development. Peter Bluckert makes a very good case in his book, ‘Psychological Dimensions of Executive Coaching’ that the personal development of the coach is inseparable from the development of their practice. I certainly go along with this and it is a principle that underlies our approach at Oxford Brookes. Bluckert makes a number of suggestions in his book behind which I think sit three ideas: further study; experiential work; reflective practices. So we need to place the answer to your question in the context of a much wider developmental agenda. So you asked about “extra disciplines”.
Psychology is one that is often mentioned and there is such a significant contribution of psychological theory to coaching that it can’t be ignored. Not only that, we are quite simply working in a psychological domain – how people choose, how their feelings affect those choices, rationality, relationship, behaviour are all concerns that are well conceptualised and investigated in psychology. Similarly counselling and psychotherapy have a lot to say about the process of change and the practitioner’s part in it. There is plenty to explore in these fields.
At the same time I think it’s really important to acknowledge two things: firstly, that some of these understandings are equally embedded in other disciplines and bodies of knowledge (like business and management); and secondly that other disciplines bring some brilliant insights into the coaching relationship. For example, when thinking in terms of systems we owe a lot – and can benefit a lot from – sociology and anthropology. I originally studied languages and the whole concept of meaning and language has turned out to be a very important part of my work. Sometimes I think of coaching as ‘philosophy in action’. Perhaps everyone should study philosophy.
What other developmental advice can you provide for coaches who are going to earn a living from coaching?
Here you’re onto the point about personal development. Again I’m with Bluckert and others in believing that in the coaching relationship we have such an opportunity to ‘play out’ our own selves and our own issues that anything that develops self-awareness should be helpful. In a way supervision is an obvious starting point as it serves other important functions at the same time. I wonder if there’s an argument also for therapy as part of a coach’s development. Working with peers, receiving coaching and forums help you to formulate and test ideas. And linking back to the previous question, I strongly believe that formal study – particularly post-graduate study – has a great potential for development. I don’t know what your own observation would be, but I’m pretty sure I see people coming out of the MA programmes different people from the ones that went in.
Why has coaching attracted the attention of academics?
I don’t know if I can answer for academics generally. For me it’s a fascinating area because it’s about theory and about practice; it’s interdisciplinary; and it has immediate impact on people.
What are the most interesting/important areas of coaching research currently? Which areas of coaching are underreaserched?
There is so much opportunity for research. There are such big questions. There are some very practical questions like what works best in the room? How does the coach develop effective practice? Because coaching is such a complex phenomenon, though, it is not easy to produce definitive answers very quickly to questions like these. As a result, I think some research has fallen into the trap of elevating quantitative representations of data as necessarily more authoritative than detailed case studies or exploratory work. I am very wary of conclusions drawn from surveys where the participants have been asked to speculate about what might or might not be the case. My own research is about the use of physicality.
Atre you familiar with any serious criticism on coaching?
Good research is always critical.
Do you believe that coaching will find its place in organisations as a structured learning initiative? If yes, what is your argument?
You’re doing that thing where you ask people to speculate! All I can say is that my experience of training in organisations was that too often it was like throwing a bucket of cold water over your used dinner plates – some of is completely untouched, most of it dries out much the same as it started. I wash up every plate individually. (I guess my analogy breaks down if you happen to have a dishwasher.) But the point is that organisations are not getting simpler and neither is working in organisations. Renewal, innovation and learning are part of the world of work. And tailored learning and development has more impact than a bucket of cold water.
What are the benefits for managers personally to develop coaching in their departments?
It seems that people feel more satisfaction and less anxiety about complexity when they adopt a more facilitative style. It also improves personal relationships and the possibilities for succession planning. A lot of managers have difficulty managing their workload in ways that work well for the organisation, their staff as well as for themselves. Thinking in a coaching way can help people delegate more effectively.
How can managers find the motivation to coach?
If the benefits outweigh the costs. Often the organisation has structural features that maintain the extrinsic costs – rewarding short-term closure, for example. But you have to think of the intrinsic side as well. Robert Kegan’s concept of ‘Immunity to Change’ is very helpful here.
If managers meet resistance to coaching from their employees, how can they overcome it?
I really think coaching has to be discretionary. If the first coaching question is “what do you want and how can I help you” then imposing it on people seems pointless. The challenge for managers is that they also hold a legitimate authority in their management role. Separating the two is very difficult and can actually cause the resistance in the first place. So it could come down to a dilemma: give up your power or give up your coaching. (So maybe in your scenario the manager is resisting too!) For this reason, I don’t think the idea of the ‘coaching manager’ is that helpful. I’m all for a developmental and facilitative approach to management where appropriate. I’d rather think of it as a question of management style.
For specialist coaches, there’s more to think about. I’ve just been reading Catherine Sandler’s excellent new book on the psychodymanic approach to executive coaching where she talks about how the client’s resistance can be very informative and helpful to the coaching process.
How did you personally come across coaching?
I found that my most useful and interesting work in change in organisations was happening in one-to-one conversations rather than in project meetings looking at a Gantt chart.
How coaching helped you to develop as a professional and academic?
Coaching has helped me go where I’m less inclined to go without help and support. I’m having physiotherapy at the moment for a knee injury caused by some structural issue of underdeveloped muscles and a lack of flexibility. In addition to the diagnostic side, the physiotherapist can help those muscles behave in ways that I’m unable to do on my own. It seems almost absurd to expect to be able to do these things without outside help.
Can you recall and briefly describe “the best” coaching session you provided for your client?
I think we should be wary about being too pleased with ourselves.
How would you describe the future developments of coaching in organisations and academic word?
I suspect they will develop hand in hand, feeding ideas from one to the other. I do think it will change. We’re in a very early stage of development after all. I suspect the relationship between management and coaching will become clearer and there will be more default ‘good practice’ positions for managers. Similarly the deployment of internal and external resources will become clearer with a more obvious fit for the purpose to which they are being deployed.
If a person doubts whether he or she should use coaching, how can you help this person to make a decision?
What do they fear will happen?
This post is also available in: Lithuanian