Four Modes of Coaching
Updated: Mar 1
As I prepare for the coaching supervision group I’ll be running with the Yugen Institute, I’ve been reflecting on four different kinds of coaching, or four different roles that I play with clients.
The four are:
Fostering inner alignment
Guiding problem solving
Under the right circumstances, each of these is a great way of helping someone achieve their goals.
Like any coach, I find some of these more intuitive than others, and having this list in mind has helped me match my style better to what any given client needs at each moment. I’ll say a bit more about each one.
Fostering inner alignment usually calls on a coach to be quite directive, actively facilitating a conflict-resolution process. At the other end of the spectrum is accompaniment.
A lot of my clients are deeply reflective, developmentally-oriented people who sometimes just need a sounding board. When our thoughts rattle around in our own heads, sometimes it’s hard to make sense of them. The same thoughts get clearer when we talk them out and know that we’re being heard sympathetically. Sometimes, a coach’s job is just to listen and understand while clients talk their own way to clarity about how to achieve their goals.
Good accompaniment can be silent, but doesn’t have to be. With a provocative question, coming from genuine curiosity, the coach can surface more of the client’s experience, drawing out more material to talk about, but then letting the client sort out what to do with that material once it’s in play.
The real key here, though, is compassion. As people think through their problems alone, they tend to hit the occasional spot where self-doubt or self-judgment grinds the process to a halt. A coach who listens and hears their goodness, intelligence, and fundamental humanity even when they’re stuck allows them to keep talking and find new paths forward.
Personally, when I’m the client, I need a lot of accompaniment. I might spend the first 15 or 20 minutes of a session just venting, putting all the pieces on the table, and only after all that will I even know for sure what I want out of the conversation.
I love providing accompaniment, and still, I sometimes forget that it might be all a client actually needs any given day. If we get to the last 10 minutes of a session, and I’ve listened like crazy, and asked some curious, nonjudgmental questions, but not, like done anything, it’s helpful to remind myself that compassionate, curious listening counts.
In fact, a client had to teach me that explicitly. We got to the end of a call, and he thanked me, and I expressed some doubt about how much I’d contributed that day. He told me, “It’s nice to be accompanied through these thoughts,” and I’ve stayed with his term for it.
I like the language of accompaniment conjures two images for me that I like. The first is keeping a client company, accompanying them on their journey through life. The other is accompanying them like a musician accompanying a singer; I help them stay in rhythm and on key, but it’s their show.
Fostering Inner Alignment
Let's say I'm accompanying the hell out of a client, and I'm all curious and compassionate, and I ask them, “What do you want?” Sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, the answer is “I don’t know,” or even, “Well, I kinda want this, and I kinda want that.” Those are my favorite moments, because now I get to foster some alignment. I love fostering alignment.
I’m working with a client now who is considering a career change. She knows very clearly what she doesn’t want - more of the same. When we first started talking about what she does want, she would tend to collapse a bit, or get frustrated with herself. There were too many competing thoughts and desires, and as she started to articulate any one vision of what she might want, she would interrupt and inhibit herself with doubts about the feasibility or desirability of the plan.
Our work over the first few sessions was to sort out the different desires on the table and just get clarity about what they were before judging them and evaluating between them. Then we were able to question the desires more constructively, sorting out which ones were calling her toward a fuller life, which represented wise caution, and which ones were “shoulds” based on outdated fears. We’ve spent some time compassionately dissolving those old “shoulds”, celebrating the wise cautions, and freeing up her creative energy to pursue the life-affirming desires. With that work done, there’s a foundation of alignment from which we can engage in productive, practical problem solving (see the next section).
The same kind of inner alignment work is necessary for transforming issues like imposter syndrome or chronic stress. These often come down to disagreement within the client about what kind of person they are, and by the time they enter coaching, the disagreement has often turned acrimonious. Compassionately gathering the different identities around the proverbial table, to hear one another out, decreases the inner friction so that life and leadership get easier.
Fostering alignment comes up, also, when a client keeps making plans and not sticking to them. It’s really hard for anyone to achieve goals they’re not fully aligned behind, because the inner resistance has too much ability to veto or sabotage otherwise great strategies. Step one, here, is identifying and honoring the contradictory desires, and then we can bring them into a productive dialog.
Like I said, I love fostering alignment. There's so much opportunity for self-discovery and transformation. I’m pretty good at it, too, so I sometimes head off in that direction even when it's not where the client is leading. Spelling it out in this way, that seems like an opportunity for more alignment between my beliefs about good coaching and my instincts in the moment. I should talk to my coach about that...
Guiding Problem Solving
This is the most classic version of coaching. The client has a goal, they're fully aligned around their goal, and the coach asks them a series of questions that help them leverage the resources they have to achieve that goal. It’s still curious and compassionate questioning, but more directive than pure accompaniment.
If you reduce this kind of coaching to a parody, the coach would just ask, over and over again:
What do you want to do?
What might get in the way of that?
What do you want to do about those obstacles?
What might get in the way of that?
To spice things up, someone might throw in an occasional of “What resources do you have that could help you achieve that goal?"
This version of the work is not at all intuitive to me, as you might tell from my description. I can also find it SUPER HELPFUL when my coach does it. Even talking myself through the rote version I just made fun of can be helpful, and of course coaches can bring a lot more creativity and nuance to guided problem solving than that. So I am learning.
One of the reasons I resist guided problem solving is that I don’t get to show off how smart I am. This is not a great reason. The other is that I’m a sucker for profundity, and I sometimes see it as a wasted opportunity if we merely solve a problem without using it to plumb the deep recesses of the client’s soul in the process. But that’s also not a great reason. That’s about chasing after my preferences - plumb depths, radically transform my clients lives, etc. - not my client's goals, and they’re the boss.
I was working with a client recently who wanted to develop her willingness to ask for help. A few probing questions, and we learned that the risk of asking for help is that people might not like her. Now I thought I knew where the conversation was going! Clearly, my job was to help her get more comfortable with not always pleasing everyone (and believe me, people like this leader plenty. She can afford to lose a little likability!), because that seemed like the deeper, more transformational opportunity. But happily, I asked how she wanted to address the challenge, instead of providing the solution myself, and she focused on developing strategies that would let her ask for help while also maintaining likability. Frankly, this was a lot easier than my way would have been, and it seems to be working out fine for her so far. One more win for guided problem solving!
Guided problem solving is classic within coaching because it’s so empowering of the client. Over time, it builds a self-image of knowing how to solve their own problems and achieve their own goals. Even when clients resist it, and want their coach to provide the solution, giving the work back can be the best way to help them forward.
Sometimes, a client has a goal, and they don’t yet have all of the skills to achieve it. But hey! I have skills! I can teach you skills!
When I started out as a coach, I loved training. I thought my goal in each session was to find the thing the client needed to learn, teach it to them, and send them forth. This was moderately successful at best. We never made any real progress on the deeper issues, and the new skills were forgotten as quickly as they were learned.
Training is a bit frowned on in coaching circles, precisely because newbies can be so enamored of it, and it undervalues the skills and resources clients already have. And yet, there is a lot of room for training in coaching, when it’s done thoughtfully.
Great opportunities for training include assertiveness skills, micro-scripts for deescalating conflict, time management tools, etc. I also consider it training when I teach sense-making skills (or mental models) like polarity management, SCARF, or my own lexicon of vulnerability.
One client of mine wanted to try more contemplative or spiritual practices, and wasn’t sure what would be the right fit for her. I served as her “spiritual sommelier,” listening to her goals and offering a menu of practices that might help. We tried several of them together, and she continued to practice the ones she found most compelling. She landed on a compassion meditation, and practiced it regularly. In our later sessions, we would repeat that meditation together with reference to challenges she was facing at work, building her skill in the practice and helping her be more effective at her job.
As that example illustrates, training is most effective when coach and client come back to the same skills multiple times, applying them to a variety of concrete challenges. Training also blends into other modes, as the coach and client use a tool together, and they build the capacity over time to keep using it on their own. In the right doses, training is great, it’s helpful, it’s wonderful, we’re doing it right now, … and many coaches (like me!) still need to be careful not to do too much of it.
How do you choose?
If these are four modes of helping clients reach their goals, they suggest a four-part assessment of clients needs. To achieve a goal:
You need to understand your situation and yourself within it (so your coach provides accompaniment)
You need to be aligned around a clear goal (so your coach fosters inner alignment)
You need to have strategies for achieving that goal (so your coach guides your problem solving)
You need to have the skills required to pursue those strategies (so your coach provides training)
With that in mind, a coach can assess which of these a client needs most, and act accordingly.
Often times, the process of getting to know my clients, or catching up on events since our last session, blends seamlessly into accompaniment, so I tend to start there. Then I ask about their goals and check for full alignment, flowing either into guided problem solving or fostering inner alignment, as needed. When a clear skills-gap presents itself, I offer training, which the client may choose to accept or not, and then circle back to guided problem solving as they apply the new skills to their challenge. I like to end on a note of accompaniment, too, so they’re fully setting their own direction by the time the call ends.
Of course, this is only one model for thinking about coaching, and models like this are always evolving. I see myself in these four modes, and I see the distinctions as a helpful guide to assess my own biases as a coach, and to match what I’m offering to what a client actually needs. If you’d like to learn more, or to practice flowing between these four more gracefully, consider signing up for our coaching supervision group.
Do you see yourself in them, as a coach or a client? What other modes or variations do you see as important? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.