“Who doesn’t need a coach?” is the question I am left pondering after attending this weekend’s sold-out conference presented by Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital, its largest psychiatric affiliate (September 26-27, 2008). The conference, “Coaching: A New Horizon – Theory, Emerging Evidence, & Practice,” attracted nearly 500 professional researchers, medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, teachers, and yes, coaches, from around the world.
The two-day event brought together seminal theorists and practitioners to explore the intellectual and evidenced-based foundation for the emerging field of coaching psychology. The initiative is designed to bridge from the ivory-towered field of academic positive psychology to the profession of coaching, which occupies an increasingly prominent space in businesses, schools, and homes on Main Street.
Constructive Toolbox“The need for evidenced-based coaching psychology is here,” says Dr. Carol Kauffman, Co-Founder of the Coaching & Positive Psychology Initiative, “We’re on the wave of something big and positive psychology is a great partner.”Coaching psychology is the science of optimized individual and organizational health, well-being, and performance through growth-promoting relationships. According to co-founder of the Coaching & Positive Psychology Initiative and founder of Well-Coaches, Inc., Margaret Moore, coaches use a “constructive toolbox” to help their clients become their best selves. Many of these tools come from the labs of positive psychologists.
The conference introduced evidence-based tools for coaches. For example, Kauffman led participants through an exercise based on the GROW framework, which offers a model for the coaching conversation:
G – Goal (the vision, doing or being)
R – Reality (where the client is presently)
O – Options (multiple ways to bridge the gap between reality and desired reality)
W – Way Forward (next baby steps to get there)
Also speaking on leadership was professor and author Tal Ben-Shahar who suggested that we pay a high price for what we fail to focus on—what is already good and how to build on it.
Ben-Shahar used the story of progressive educator Marva Collins to illustrate what is possible when people exude high efficacy, grounded positivity, enabled strengths, and responsibility over blame. He charged the room to “cultivate the seeds of greatness already in our clients, partners, children, and ourselves” by reframing questions and increasing perspectives, tasks we can help each other do.
Coaches Help You Find Your “A”
Another moving session was led by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, co-authors of The Art of Possibility. They lit the room with an energy of abundance. Ben Zander, Conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and teacher at the New England Conservatory, brought along a string quartet to demonstrate the type of coaching he does with a process called, “Finding Your A.”
At the beginning of each semester, Zander asks his students to write a letter as if it were the end of the semester, explaining why they “got the A”. He tells them to “to let go of the restrictive voice in the head saying ‘you’re not good enough,’ to fall in love with the person in the letter, and to create who it is you will be as if success is already yours.”Numerous times we jumped to our feet in ovation, as we witnessed his live coaching elicit great passion, intense emotion, and beautiful music from the musicians. “Anyone who thinks they can manage without a coach is a fool,” he said. “To be a coach, you need to open up possibility for people they don’t even know about.”
Rosamund Zander reminded him and us that “Possibility is always only one sentence away.”
Possibilities for Coaching & Psychology
And what is possible for coaching as an evidenced-based practice is quite exciting. While questions still exist about the fuzziness between coaching and psychotherapy, researchers like Dr. Anthony Grant of the University of Sydney are working to collect rigorous empirical evidence to show the benefits of coaching as a vehicle for applied positive psychology (Grant, 2003; Spence & Grant, 2007; Spence, Cavanagh, & Grant, in press).
Dr. Susan David explored the growing body of research into emotional intelligence and discussed ways to apply it with clients. Dr. Dianne Stober explored evidence-based coaching in action, illustrating her points with her experiences in hard hat and steel-toed boots.
Dr. Mary Wayne Bush, Director of the Research Division of The Foundation of Coaching, announced that the foundation is planning to fund numerous research projects to explore the efficacy of coaching. She invited research proposals.
Conference attendee, recent MAPP graduate, and experienced coach, Eleanor Chin shares the excitement of the time. She says, “It is really a time akin to the ‘age of Aquarius’. With the convergence of coaching, positive psychology, and the health professions, we really do stand to influence great and sustainable change for our clients who are interested in holistic psychological, physical, and emotional well-being.”
For Further Reading
Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Professional.
Collins, M. (1990). Marva Collins’ Way. 2nd edition. Tarcher.
Grant, A. M. (2003). The impact of life coaching on goal attainment, metacognition and mental health. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), 142-149.
Palmer, S. & Whybrow, A. (2008). The Handbook of Coaching Psychology. Routledge.
Spence, G.B. & Grant, A.M. (2007). Professional and peer life coaching and the enhancement of goal striving and well-being. An explanatory study. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3) 185-194.
Spence, G. B., Cavanagh, M. J., & Grant, A. M. (in press). The integration of mindfulness trainging and health coaching: An exploratory study. Coaching: An International Journal of Research, Theory, and Practice.
Stober, D. & Grant, A. (2006) Evidence Based Coaching Handbook: Putting Best Practices to Work for Your Clients. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Zander, R. & Zander, B. (2000). The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. New York: Penguin.
Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and PracticeInternational Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring
International Coaching Psychology Review
Louis, have you ever thought about the underpinning emotions that underpin coaching – empathy (the relationship with the coach) and self efficacy (it feels good to achieve goals).
Also just a heads up on emotional intelligence – the research shows that EI predicts very little if you control for personality and affect (see http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=152). This is primarily because EI overlooks positive emotions (with ethe exception of the EQ-i)
Thats why I run workshops on positive emotional intelligence (EI+)
Thanks for your note. I often think about the emotions that underpin my job as a coach, because it is that emotional and empathetic connection that creates a trust between coach and client. Trust is crucial to a successful coaching relationship.
As for self-efficacy, that is built over time for the client. A coach models self-efficacy and helps his client reach increased levels of SE for the client’s own change-process.
As humans, often we base our actions on how we feel, as opposed to how we want to feel. If emotions are fundamentally adaptive and we consider the power of emotional contagion, a coach’s job is to help his client find the pathways in life that yield more positive emotions. I like, then, that you lead workshops on EI+!
At the conference, Susan David cleverly combined her work with Tony Grant’s (2001) “House of Change.” She suggests that in Recognizing, Using, Understanding, and Managing emotions, we build a “RUUM” on that house.
It would be great to hear from other coaches on this . . .
Louis – In my experience as a coach its all about empathy (the same as psychotherapy). Take the empathy away and the coaching doesn’t work.
Again a heads up on evidence based coaching – Tony Grants research isn’t that convincing. Have you looked at it? You’ll notice that there are no controls – therefore could all be the Hawthorne effect? – which is in itself a positive emotion.
Also doesn’t control for personality and no longitudinal studies
Is talking to a good friend, or exercising regularly as impactful on life satisfaction as working with a coach? Tony’s work doesn’t answer this question
I am very happy to respond to these comments.
Q: >>>> Louis – In my experience as a coach its all about empathy (the same as psychotherapy). Take the empathy away and the coaching doesn’t work.
This is an interesting comment. Of course empathy is important, but in coaching I think it is far less so than in therapy. Furthermore, there is lots of good research to show that even in therapy interpersonal empathy is not as important and is often thought … for example, computer delivered CBT can be very effective (check Google scholar with keywords “computer delivered CBT”) – and there is no interpersonal empathy there!
Q: >>>> Again a heads up on evidence based coaching – Tony Grants research isn’t that convincing. Have you looked at it? You’ll notice that there are no controls – therefore could all be the Hawthorne effect? – which is in itself a positive emotion.
I’m a bit confused about this comment because in fact we have conducted five controlled outcome studies some of which I talked about at the conference. The one I spent the most time talking about in the conference was the latest one which is under review and is the first randomised controlled study of executive coaching conducted by professional coaches external to the organisation.. The early studies I did, did not have a control group, but many of my more recent ones do. These include:
Green, L. S., Grant, A. M., & Rynsaardt, J. (2007). Evidence-based life coaching for senior high school students: Building hardiness and hope. International Coaching Psychology Review, 2(1), 24-32.
Q: >>>> Is talking to a good friend, or exercising regularly as impactful on life satisfaction as working with a coach? Tony’s work doesn’t answer this question
Once again, I am a bit confused by this comment. Gordon Spence and I have published a paper in Journal of Positive Psychology on peer coaching vs. professional coaching which addresses the issue of does talking with a supportive person (i.e. a good fried) lead to better goal attainment. This paper suggests that professional coaching is better than peer coaching. Again, this is a controlled comparison study which deals with the “Hawthorn effect”. This paper is:
Spence, G. B., & Grant, A. M. (2007). Professional and peer life coaching and the enhancement of goal striving and well-being: An exploratory study Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(3), 185-194.
Q: >>>> Also doesn’t control for personality and no longitudinal studies
Once more I am a bit confused by this comment. At the conference I discussed briefly a study I conduced with Dr Suzy Green in which we did a 30 week longitudinal follow-up and found the positive benefits of coaching were sustained. This paper is:
Green, L., Oades, L., & Grant, A. (2006). Cognitive-behavioral, solution-focused life coaching: Enhancing goal striving, well-being, and hope. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), 142-149.
I’m not sure what kind of study would control for personality or whether or not that would be useful thing to do given that coaching clients have lots of different personality styles and as coaches we need to work with all types.
It is important to remember that doing this kind of research is very labor intensive and extremely complex to organise. That’s why there’s not much of it! … and of course no research design can be “perfect” and address all questions. We trying hard to do more research and answer more questions.
Please do feel free to contact me if I can be of any further help.
Louis – “coaching appeared to have minimal impact on the menatl health of participants”. This was Tony’s conclusion in one of the articles he references*(page 191). Hardly a ringing endorsement.
I still think it would be interesting to control for the strength of the relationship (empathy) to look at the its importance with regards to coaching outcomes Your social emotional leadership seems to be underpinned by relationships.
Tony – its good to see some controls in place – I understand how challenging this can be.
* Spence, G. B., & Grant, A. M. (2007). Professional and peer life coaching and the enhancement of goal striving and well-being: An exploratory study Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(3), 185-194.
Louis, I really suggest you look at the articles that Anthony is referencing.
If you look at the raw data in another study* you’ll notice that the coaching group were still more depressed, anxious and stressed than the control group.
Again not a ringing endorsement for coaching
The study is available at http://www.bps.org.uk/downloadfile.cfm?file_uuid=A2997265-1143-DFD0-7ECC-FF4455E779EC&ext=pdf
I’d love you to tell me kwo you would interpret the research?
* Green, L. S., Grant, A. M., & Rynsaardt, J. (2007). Evidence-based life coaching for senior high school students: Building hardiness and hope. International Coaching Psychology Review, 2(1), 24-32.
Dr. Grant-Thanks for joining the conversation. I will piggy back on your last point (and one of the overarching themes of the conference)–we need to develop more empirical studies on the effectiveness of coaching. Just as Seligman and the other big boys faced ten years ago with positive psychology as a discipline, coaching finds itself at a similar cross roads.
Wayne – Grant, Spence and others are working to build the literature, but remember that this is just the beginning. How do I interpret the research? As nascent. The questions are just beginning to be asked and this is a good thing! I agree with you that empathy is important (as is in any relationship), and personally, I would love to see more studies that control for that. But as Grant suggests, that is uber-difficult to do.
Trust me though–as an method for intervention, coaching is powerful. As a coachee and a coach, I am excited by the possibilities the scientific method may open up for this field. (Social-Emotional Leadership does fare well through all of this too.)
However, as Csikszentmihalyi* warns: “The dangers consist as with all good ideas of this kind, in promising too much, in extending beyond the knowledge base, and in becoming rigid and territorial.” But let’s take the positive approach and focus on the benefits that will come with an increased amount and robustness of the literature (and thus the practices)–in good time.
*Grant, AM, & Cavanagh, M. (2007). Evidence Based Coaching: Flourishing or Languishing? Australian Psychologist, 42(4), 239-254.
Just a couple of comments here:
“If you look at the raw data in another study* you’ll notice that the coaching group were still more depressed, anxious and stressed than the control group.”
That’s not really the point – as you can see in the paper, both the coaching and control group fell within the normal range for anxiety, stress and depression. This means that it is unlikely that there would be much change in anxiety, stress or depression, as there is not really that much to change.
This is one of the key issues with using pathology-orientated measures to assess coaching outcomes. One needs to use both pathology and wellness measures. This is what we did.
The key finding then is that both hope and cognitive hardiness increased following coaching, and this shows that in this study coaching increased well-being.
The comment that “coaching appeared to have minimal impact on the mental health of participants” in relation to the paper: Spence, G. B., & Grant, A. M. (2007). Professional and peer life coaching and the enhancement of goal striving and well-being: An exploratory study Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(3), 185-194.
… again this underscores that screening for mental health problems in coaching clients impacts on coaching outcomes by reducing the chances that depression, anxiety or stress will be reduced – which is exactly the point we made in the paper! In this paper the key finding was that professional coaches were better at coaching than peer coaches … as measured by a number of factors including goal attainement.
As regards the comment that … “Again not a ringing endorsement for coaching” … well … research is not meant to be about providing “ringing endorsements” … that is the role of sales and advertising people … not researchers!!
Hope these comments are helpful.
Can anyone recommend a valid and reliable psychometric tool that measures productivity in the workplace and stress that one might give during first coaching session and again at last coaching session to look at improvement etc? Thanks very much.