Haesun Moon's picture Submitted by Haesun Moon February 16, 2018 - 5:03pm

How do you know that coaching works?  I often ask this question in the beginning of my coaching class. Many shining eyes put up their hands and quote the latest research on how coaching boosts the performance, motivation, or confidence of struggling employees, confused youth, or frustrated executives. Based on their answers I can almost guess what their day job is: ROI, increased employee engagement, happier children and healthier families: the rather revealing list goes on. 

If you were in the room, how would you answer? Perhaps you have an example of outcome research readily available to share. After all, coaching has seen prolific success in the past two decades and the literature is flooded with persuasive evidence for our potential clients, isn’t it? Once the exciting competition of who’s got the latest proof settles down in the room, I often pose the next question.

How does coaching work? 

Here I love the pause - the thinking break. You can definitely see them processing the question, going through mental filing cabinets, pulling out relevant information and insights. “Empathy”, someone says. “Powerful questions”, another chimes in. “Safety”, several nod in agreement. Soon enough, conversations burst out among them about the importance of psychological safety, rapport building, goal-setting, and many other related and important ideas. 

What would be your response if you were there? How does coaching work? How does your coaching work? I am genuinely curious about what people say to this question as they bring such fascinating perspectives from their lived experiences. Sometimes this question seems to bring up a need to list so-called coaching competencies - what coaches ought to be and ought to do so that clients can reach their "aha!" moment. This naturally births the next set of questions. For example, let’s take Powerful Questions as our topic of exploration here: 

  • When you say “powerful question”, how do you know that’s what it is? 
  • What does it sound like or look like in a coaching dialogue
  • What actually happens between coach and client for you to say that it was a powerful question

Now is when we meet the proverbial group of blind men defining what an elephant is. In their attempts to describe what it looks and sounds like, you will gain another layer of insights about their habit of mind. It will become evident how much easier it is to explain rather than describe. Replace the underlined parts with other topics - empathy, safety, rapport - and you will soon have descriptions of the moments, instead of explanations, of when coaching works. 

Why is this important? 

Yes, the two-word conclusion of every good thesis: So what? 

I don’t know how many of you are educators by profession. Well, I am. And that’s why the question of “how does coaching work?” became central in my research. If I can’t describe how it works, how can I teach others? The researcher side of me couldn’t just tell the participants to “go with the flow” or “follow the client” while the facilitator side of me didn’t want to get in the way of their discovery and experiences. Based on my experience as a coach, I describe the coaching process as: coach and client collaboratively negotiating the meaning of what the client wants. And the tool they use to collaboratively negotiate is language. 

If the tool of coaching is language, it had better be precise and you’d better know how to use it and when to use it. And instead of just telling you, let me show you. 

Making the Invisible Visible 

In the CoachX video, Powerful Coaching, I used the example of the following classic question: “how can I help you?”—a common opener. For many English speakers in this profession, it has become a habit of mouth to utter those words. In classrooms and textbooks, it has been described as a neutral and open-ended question. Yet, are there assumptions we can see in this simple one-liner? At least four:  

  1. You need help. 
  2. I can help.
  3. You know what you need help with. 
  4. You will tell me what it is.

Your clients may accept all these embedded presuppositions and answer: “well, I was hoping to get some help about some decisions I need to make.” What will you say at this point if you were the coach? I encourage you to write a few possible answers down so that you will find this blog useful. (Did I tell you that I am an educator?) 

What did you come up with? Here are some popular choices: 

  1. Tell me more. 
  2. What’s stopping you from making those decisions? 
  3. What are some pros and cons of your options? 

We can do similar linguistic analysis for these phrases, and you will discover surprising assumptions when you look closely at your language. The purpose of doing this micro-exercise is to resensitize you to the power of languaging. How we use language shapes the direction and content of our conversations, and doing a microanalysis of our interventions makes the invisible process of how coaching works visible.  

Becoming an Observer of Your Own Work

I sincerely hope that you continue to become an observer of your own work to watch your language in use. Transcribe your coaching session. Analyze embedded assumptions. Describe what you see instead of trying to explain. I look forward to hearing about how you use language differently, and here’s my favorite quote in conclusion: 
 “All questions are ‘loaded questions’; the practitioner’s choice is how to ‘load’ them with presuppositions that will be useful to the client.” (Healing & Bavelas, 2011)   

Healing, S., & Bavelas, J. (2011) Can Questions Lead to Change? An Analogue Experiment. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 30 (4), p.46). 

Watch Haesun's CoachX on Powerful Coaching!