Book Review: 10 Things I’ve Learned About Coaching

Although I have had an awareness of coaching in education for a while, the first time I considered it in any depth was through reading for a National College of Education course. Since then I have been exploring coaching as a way of enhancing everyday conversations, as well as being part of a more formal coaching pilot group. So I am rather self-consciously writing this review from the perspective of a novice who still has a lot to learn, rather than as an expert.

Despite being at a very early stage in my coaching journey, however, I am convinced that what Christian van Nieuwerburgh refers to as a “coaching way of being” can be extremely powerful. Not only is it useful in an official coaching relationship, but it also helps in pastoral conversations with students and parents. And it has helped me discover more open ways of phrasing questions in the classroom, so that I am better able to resist the urge to pose leading questions, and am more able to support my students’ exploration of their own ideas and interpretations.

The main two books I have used in my thinking around this topic are Van Nieuwerburgh’s An Introduction to Coaching Skills: A Practical Guide (2020) and Andy Buck’s The BASIC Coaching Method (2020). This loosely termed “book review” is a compilation of the ideas that have struck me most over the past few months of reading and study.

  1. Coaching is about human relationships

Van Nieuwerburgh puts this beautifully: the complexity of coaching “rests in the richness of human relationships and the ways in which people attempt to support one another. And yet, at the same time, effective coaching is simply a demonstration of the most positive elements of what it is to be human” (p.x). As a starting point, this is a pretty inspiring – if somewhat daunting – statement of a philosophy of coaching. It reminds us to remove any sense of judgement or competitiveness from relationships, and to simply seek the best outcome for the coachee. This is why so few suggested coaching questions start with the word “why” (“Why did you choose to do/say that?” “Why did that happen?”), because that apparently innocuous syllable implies a sense of moral superiority that Van Nieurwerburgh and Buck would have us eliminate in a coaching relationship.

What I also like about Van Nieurwerburgh’s assertion is the word “attempt”. For a novice coach, the tentativeness of this verb is reassuring, as it indicates that failure is common and acceptable.

2. Coaching is about unlocking other people’s potential

There are many definitions of coaching, which vary from the excessively practical to the abstract, from the pithy to the verbose. But what links these definitions is the fundamental concept that coaching is not about the coach – it is about the coachee. Both books emphasise the necessity of the coach’s lack of personal investment in the situation and outcome; this is not a callous uncaring attitude, but rather a way of shifting the focus to supporting the coachee. The coach may be itching to provide a solution which has worked for them in the past, or might want to impose a particular set of next steps. But, Van Nieuwerburgh and Buck suggest, this is not the most productive way of working. The coach must guide the coachee to find their own route through the situation, allowing them to gain confidence and motivation as they create solutions that will suit their context more appropriately than any model imposed by another person.

Here we see the much-discussed difference between mentoring and coaching, and Buck emphasises that the boundaries between the two methods can and should be fluid. Mentoring is often seen to be more directive, whereas pure coaching emphasises the coachee’s decision-making. And it may be that some people require more direction at certain points in their journey – whereas others simply need the confidence to act on their own ideas.

3. The choice of coaching model is not of prime importance

Any foray into the world of coaching means coming to terms with an array of acronyms. GROW, GROWTH, BASIC, REGROW, OSKAR… As you will notice, the repetition of the letters GROW indicates that most of these frameworks are based on the foundational work of John Whitmore, who advocated using a series of questions which loosely followed the topics of Goal (what would you like to achieve?), Reality (what is the situation right now?), Options (what choices/next steps are available to you?), and Will (what will you do next?). The majority of models which have been proposed more recently build on this outline, tweaking it for particular settings and purposes.

To quote Einstein, “everything should be made as simple as possible. But not simpler”. For that reason, I prefer the straightforwardness of GROW (I tend to forget the meaning of long acronyms anyway). Yet one of the positives of Van Nieuwerburgh’s guide is that he acknowledges that the coach’s choice of framework is less important than what we are coming on to next – adopting a “coaching way of being”.

4. Key to success is adopting a “coaching way of being”

Whilst the frameworks described above and the questions in point 10 below can provide coaches with a good place to start conversations, Van Nieuwerburgh’s concept of a “coaching way of being” goes deeper than the superficial practicalities of a coaching session: this interest in the profoundly human element of coaching is one of the aspects of his work which makes it so powerful. Among other things, Van Nieuwerburgh suggests that this state of being includes authenticity, complete positive regard for the coachee, and obvious empathy for their situation. This may be best summed up in the word “curiosity”, which resonates throughout the guide; coaches need to demonstrate an unconditional and non-judgemental interest in their coachee’s experience.

5. Coaching is about creating sustainable change

Unlike many work meetings, using coaching means that you are in for the long haul. Both Van Nieuwerburgh and Buck emphasise that the focus is not on overnight transformations, but on sustainable change in an individual’s confidence, resilience, flexibility – whatever the need is. The feeling of imposter syndrome, for example, cannot be eradicated in a single upbeat conversation as the tendency to compare oneself unfavourably to others can be a deeply-engrained habit.

6. Embrace listening and silences

Many of us do not appreciate silence in a conversation, and will seek to fill it with questions, answers, or personal examples. Yet both of these books emphasise the need for silence. A pause after a question can be indicate the coachee is thinking deeply about their response, or a break in conversation can allow time for contemplation. Of course, it is very likely that the coachee will (also?) not be comfortable with silence, and so it might be worth mentioning this in the initial conversation when you are outlining your way of working.

7. Active listening is essential

One of the benefits of working through Van Nieuwerburgh’s guide is the activities and checklists he incorporates in each section (which would make it a useful book to work through as a group), and on page 33 he includes a checklist for reviewing the quality of our listening. Completing this made me realise just how often I slip from active listening into imposing my own perspective (completing sentences, providing words, prompting rather than summarising or mirroring).

8. Can we change the way we think about events?

One of the aims of coaching is to help the coachee realise their own achievements and abilities, and so it can be helpful to reflect the coachee’s words back to them with an emphasis on what they have done. (“So would I be right in saying that you have achieved…”) Challenging negative self-talk by asking coachees what they have accomplished in a situation can also be useful. As explained above, a “coaching way of being” means demonstrating positive regard for the coachee, and so even the act of taking time out to listen to someone can boost self-confidence.

9. Stepping out of the situation

Throughout Van Nieuwerburgh and Buck’s guides, they recommend questions that coaches can ask during coaching sessions. What might be particularly useful in a tricky situation is asking questions that put distance between the coachee and the challenge they are facing. For example, questions like “what advice would you give a friend in a similar situation?” or “if you were X, what would you do about this?” can help unlock a conversation that has become mired in self-doubt.

10. Questions should be carefully framed

As suggested above, one of the most applicable aspects of these books are their practical tips for asking questions. Whilst I have summarised some of the most useful questions in the document which you can download below, I would recommend reading around the subject as well to understand the intention behind phrasing the questions in the ways suggested.

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