One of the most exciting developments this year at the Instructional Coaching Group is our partnership with Growth Coaching International from Australia (GCI). I’m thrilled that we are going to be able to offer GCI’s workshops (including Coaching Skills for School Leaders) in Canada and The United States and that GCI will be offering our workshops in Australia and New Zealand. I’m equally excited that this partnership will mean I will have numerous opportunities to learn from two of GCI’s leaders, John Campbell and Christian van Nieuwerburgh, who also happen to be my good friends.
Christian is truly a global leader in the field of coaching (I’ve seen him present in England, Scotland, Australia, Hong Kong, and the United States, and he has presented in many more countries than I have visited). His many books have influenced the thinking of many coaching leaders and helped thousands of coaches make a more significant difference in the lives of teachers and students. I’m thrilled that he will be presenting at the Teaching, Learning, and Coaching Conference this year. You can read our interview below.
(Jim) How did you come to write about coaching?
(Christian) After working as a practitioner, promoting the use of coaching in schools and colleges, I was recruited to teach “coaching in education” at the University of East London and was asked to find a textbook we would use as the basis for a module we called Coaching in Education. I was unable to find an appropriate text, so a colleague and I decided we would write, or rather edit, a book called Coaching in Education. So that’s where my journey started – trying to make sense of what was already there and putting together a resource that would be helpful. That’s when I reached out to you, Jim, and also to colleagues in Australia to get other perspectives.
(Jim) Tell me about your other publications
(Christian) Coaching in Education was a great starting point. It was an overview of the field, but I thought we also needed something more practical, so I wrote a book called Introduction to Coaching Skills. Although it’s written for a general audience, I was also thinking of teachers when I was working on it. The book is structured into three parts: (a) what are the skills we need? (b) what conversational framework or process will help us to have coaching conversations? and (c) how do we need to be in order to have these conversations that can be empowering, that can motivate and engage. Probably one of the most important things about that book is that I added some video clips of coaching practice. Actually, the idea of using video clips and QR codes came from working with you Jim.
Once I had written the Introduction to Coaching Skills, I started to wonder whether coaching varies depending on the context. For example, if I were coaching in a bank or in a marketing company, would that be different from coaching in other sectors? So those thoughts are behind my next book, Coaching in Professional Contexts. Again, it was an edited book, and my intention was for it to be helpful to people who work in these various contexts, but also for me to learn. I found it very valuable to ask people in various settings what coaching was like for them. It was a wonderful project because I learned that coaching does seem to be different across contexts and, yet, there is also something consistent across these sectors. In fact, I think that the thing that is consistent is probably what is most important about coaching. Two other books I’ll mention briefly are co-authored: Coaching in Islamic Culture: The Principles and Practice of Ershad and The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools.
(Jim) What would you say are some of the core ideas in your approach to coaching?
(Christian) The heart of it, I think, is having respectful conversations. To have respectful conversations, respecting people’s right to make their own choices, maybe even make their own mistakes, that’s part of what I think is powerful about the way we have been thinking about coaching. Our approach is very facilitative. That is, we believe the role of the coach is to be a thinking partner for the coachee, with the coachee doing all of the thinking about what it is they are talking about. Therefore, when I deliver training around coaching, I am very clear that the coach should not provide solutions and that coaching is not about transfer of information. For me, coaching, facilitative coaching anyway, is about creating the right environment for coachees to do the best thinking so they will be able to determine their own solution and come up with their own ideas.
I also believe coaching should be an encouraging and supportive conversation. This does not mean it’s without challenge, because sometimes the most supportive thing we can do is to challenge our coachee to maybe think more deeply about something or take a different perspective. I believe in something I call a bias towards the positive, because many people, particularly educators, can be quite self-critical. So, I think the coach’s role is to counterbalance that– to challenge limiting beliefs or self-doubt and pick out the strengths.
Finally, I think coaching is different from many other interventions we could implement in schools. What coaching can uniquely do involves building self-esteem, self-confidence, and resilience. So, while we are helping our coachees to achieve the specific thing that has brought them to the coaching conversation, I think we are also supporting them to build lifelong attributes and ways of seeing the world. From a facilitative coaching point of view, it’s almost as important for coachees to discover this for themselves as it is to achieve their goals. And that’s why, on some occasions, even if I am not sure the coachee is leaving the conversation with a workable solution, I’m still enthusiastic and positive because I think there is a lot of learning opportunity there – through learning from less successful outcomes. And certainly, they learn to rely on themselves.
(Jim) What distinguishes your work from other people’s work on coaching?
(Christian) I think there are two possible differences. One is my argument that coaching in the education sector is different from coaching in other contexts. First of all, coaching in education is specifically about learning and development. Second, I see three elements as required for effective coaching: skills, process, and a coaching way of being. The good news is that educators already have the necessary skills for coaching. That is, to be a good educator, you need to have the very skills that coaching require, such as asking questions, listening, actively summarizing, paraphrasing, etc.
The other important thing to remember is that coaching is a managed conversation and, therefore, needs to be different from other types of conversations. We have to make sure that coaching isn’t something that you can easily get from a friend or a colleague sitting in a coffee shop somewhere. It has to feel different, and for me the way to ensure that it feels different is to make sure there is a managed, professional conversation. In order to manage the conversation, we need a conversational framework. The conversational framework we talk about is the GROWTH process based on the GROW model developed by Sir John Whitmore. So, in addition to skills, we need a process. Because of the need for an evidence-base to support the work of coaches, these two components are important and can be scientifically measured, which is essential.
The third element, the coaching way of being, is the most intriguing to me. Unfortunately, this is more difficult, if not impossible, to measure scientifically. The coaching way of being has to do with how the coach is with the coachee, and this is an important part of what is behind transformational conversations. This transcends coaching conversations and the professional context. The beautiful thing about coaching is that when educators learn some of these skills and the processes needed to become a coach, it also has an influence on who they are and how they interact with others.
(Jim) When people say to you, “the way of being is who you are, not something that you can learn,” how do you respond?
(Christian) The big challenge here is that I don’t think it is teachable. But while you can’t teach a way of being, I do believe that you can learn it. In going back to the three elements we talked about, I think you can teach the first two, the skills and the processes, but in order for coaching to work well, you have to develop your own way of being. It is about being authentic, and that is uniquely individual, and that is why I don’t think it is teachable. But, fortunately, this way of being is something each one of us can learn through the process. That is, in the process of learning how to become a coach, we learn the way of being that that’s most conducive to supporting others to grow and develop.
(Jim) What have been some of your key learnings over the past few years?
(Christian) I learn a lot when I write, and one of the things that I have discovered recently is that I like to write with others because the learning is doubled that way. One of the books I am working on is called Advanced Coaching Practice, and that has been a great learning opportunity for me. In fact, part of writing about advanced coaching practice has made me realize that there are no additional skills beyond what is taught in an introductory coaching program. So, it seems that advanced practice in coaching is really about accepting ambiguity, being comfortable with uncertainty. This, in turn, has made me realize that the coaching way of being has a much bigger influence than the other two elements – skills and process.
The other thing I’m learning is the importance of alignment. This idea stems from my Coaching in Islamic Culture book, where we came up with a different model of coaching than the western model. We talk about the importance of alignment within a faith context so people who have strong religious faith are able to live day-by-day in a way that is aligned with their faith and beliefs. When I reflect back on much of the executive coaching work I have done, I realize that a lot of the stress and the pressure that some of my clients faced was due to a lack of alignment. I would hear people say things like, “I never got into this job to do this,” or “I know what I need to do but it really goes against my inner principles or whatever.” So, I have learned the importance of helping people make sure that what they are doing on a day-to-day basis is connected to their values or principles and is meaningful to them – that they are living in a way that is more authentic, more aligned for their wellbeing.
(Jim) It’s fascinating, this work is a lot bigger than just setting a goal, making a plan, to hit the goal.
(Christian) That is absolutely right. The coaching model presented in the Coaching in Islamic Culture book does not include a discussion of “goals” and, as such, it is a sort of a critique of the western models of coaching, where both coaches and coachees can become obsessed with achieving and hitting the goal. In some ways, if we don’t bring meaning, purpose, and alignment into our coaching processes, we run the risk of becoming obsessed with achieving the goal for its own sake. In the education sector, it’s important to avoid getting too worried about statistics or achieving particular teacher- or school-related goals and remember that, ultimately, our work should have a positive impact on the life chances and opportunities of all of our students. For me, coaching is one way of counterbalancing that, and that is why I’m interested in bringing positive psychology in.
(Jim) What is a good metaphor for what coaches do?
(Christian) I know it’s an old metaphor, but I’m going back to it anyway: the metaphor of coaching as a journey. Some people have said that a coach is like a Sherpa, but I disagree with that. Sherpas take huge risks while their clients take a lot of the glory. And I guess there are some ethical questions around that relationship, too. In coaching, it’s not even that the coach is walking along the same path as the coachee. Instead, the coach joins the coachee at a particular moment in time. At some point, the coach comes along and walks alongside the coachee for a while. I think that it is important for the coach not to have walked the exact same path but to have walked a path as well. In other words, it is important for the coach to be pursuing a goal for him/herself because we want the coach to know what it is like to walk down a path, but I think it’s important that the coach hasn’t walked that path one hundred times because then that changes the dynamic. And that is where difference from the Sherpa comes in. The Sherpa knows every path, knows where there is a dip in the path. The coach doesn’t need to know that, but needs to be on a journey as well so he or she can bring empathy – that moment of a connection where the coach would say, “I know there are hills and I know they can get really tough, but I don’t know this path, this is your path, you know it better, and I am just here to help you to do your best thinking.”
So, I think the journey or the walking down the path is a great metaphor, but I think we all need to do more thinking about it. For example, who is learning in that metaphor? So, coaching is a journey of discovery for the coach and the coachee, but the coach isn’t on the coachee’s path. They discover what it is like to be a human being by walking alongside each other. Coaching allows us to keep teachers motivated, engaged, and remind them why they got into their profession in the first place. Remind them what a privilege it is to do that role because teaching can be very draining. So, coaching is one way to give teachers the support they need to be energetic, to be motivated, etc., alongside the students they are working with.
(Jim) What else do people need to know about your approach to coaching?
(Christian) I believe we need to think about the wellbeing side of things. Wellbeing is now on the agenda much more globally. I’ve heard people arguing that wellbeing is as important as academic success or even more important. I don’t like the idea that the two are in competition. I think that coaching and positive psychology make it possible to help young people to learn and thrive in a way that actually enhances their wellbeing.
(Jim) What are your thoughts about the upcoming partnership between GCI and ICG?
(Christian) There are two major reasons why I am excited about the opportunity to work together. The first is personal; I really admire your work, and you inspired me to get into this area. The other reason is related; I have always been passionate about our work having an impact internationally or globally. The opportunity to have a partnership like this means that (a) we can learn from one another; (b) we will be able to lead the conversation globally; and (c) we will be able to provide more choices for our clients about the right approach, as the options we will be offering are both based in evidence and supported by practice. In short, what is exciting to me about the partnership is the ability for us to say that within our network, we have a range of interventions, tools, and techniques that we all support; we can promote any of these ideas with huge confidence in them, whether it’s something we developed ourselves or it’s something one of the partners developed.
(Jim) Since our conference theme is courage, please tell me a bit about how you see courage in coaching.
(Christian) I believe that both coachees and coaches need courage. For coachees, coaching is the safe space that allows them to think about the courage needed to achieve what they hope to achieve. In the process, the coach and the coachee build a strong relationship of safety where the coachee can start to think aloud about what might be possible. So, on the one hand, I think coaching is all about helping our coachees to have the courage to do the things that they have always wanted to do.
But why do coaches need to have courage? First, they need to have the courage to challenge their coachees in certain circumstances. Second, and even more important, coaches must have the courage to be authentic, to show vulnerability. We are now back to coaching as a way of being. It may sound like a strange thing to say, but it’s easier not to be authentic – or perhaps to not show vulnerability. When the coach has courage and is prepared to be authentic, it allows a stronger relationship that builds safely because both people feel that they are truly equal.
(Jim) Please give us a quick summary of what you are going to talk about at TLC.
(Christian) One of the things that I am going to talk about is how to use strengths in a coaching conversation and I am going to demonstrate the use of strength cards during the coaching conversation to help coachees to (a) identify their strengths and (b) think of ways to use their strengths more broadly in their everyday lives. I’m also going to be delivering a workshop about a useful conversational framework that can used during coaching sessions. Simply using the framework increased the chances of a conversation that leads to a change in behavior or way of thinking.
(Jim) Is there anything else you want to add?
(Christian) I would finally like to reiterate why we think coaching is important and how to evaluate it. It’s possible to evaluate coaching on whether the conversation went well and whether the coachee achieved his or her goals or found something meaningful to pursue. But in the coaching-in-education context, it’s important that the coaching is evaluated on how it is having a positive impact on learners. I think this is especially important because we are doing different things in different parts of the world, and coaching is becoming more and more popular. We must not lose sight of why we are pursuing coaching in education. It’s about ensuring that people are able to pursue meaningful goals in ways that enhance their success and wellbeing.
Christian van Nieuwerburgh, Stephen Barkley, Joellen Killion, Chip Heath, Randy Sprick, Pedro Noguera, Elena Aguilar, Peter DeWitt, Kristin Anderson, Nancy Love, Ray and Julie Smith, Lisa Lande, Jamie Almanzan, Kathy Perret, Ann Hoffman, Michelle Harris, and Sharon Thomas are just some of the presenters at this year’s Teaching, Learning, Coaching Conference.