A Conversation with Christian van Nieuwerburgh (Part One)
August 27, 2019
A Conversation with Christian van Nieuwerburgh (Part One)
August 16, 2023
August 27, 2019
I'm traveling in Australia this week, where I'm honored to present at Growth Coaching International's 2019 National Coaching in Education Conference in Sydney, Australia on August 29th and 30th. GCI's Executive Director, Christian van Nieuwerburgh, and I have been good friends and collaborators for some time, and it was a pleasure to sit down with him to discuss his journey in coaching, his publications, and his recent areas of focus, including his latest book, Advanced Coaching Practice. Christian is also a keynote speaker at our Teaching, Learning, Coaching conference this year in Kansas City, where he will expand on the complexities of coaching facing experienced coaches.
Jim: How did you come to coaching in the first place?
Christian: I became interested in coaching as a way of supporting professional development and embedding good teaching practice in schools. In the 1990s, I was working in England within the local government education sector as part of the leadership team of a group of educational consultants. Our role was to support the professional development of teachers within a local administrative area located in the West Midlands of the United Kingdom.
We were a team of about 20 education consultants – curriculum experts, behavior management experts, leadership experts. Part of my leadership role was quality assurance. To try to get better information about how we could improve our courses, we changed our evaluation forms to include the question, “As a result of this course, what will you do differently back in the school?” At one point, we even included post cards that participants would complete at the end of the course so that we could send it to their school in three months’ time, to remind them of their commitment.
I selected some of the highest rated evaluation forms, and I got back in touch with those schools – maybe 40 – and asked to speak with the person who had attended that course. My only question was, “You were on a course with us about a year ago. How are things going with you since then?” I would even remind them of what they had committed to do, followed by the question, “How are you tracking on those things?
Many were apologetic, but the majority hadn’t done the things that they had learned about. And that got me thinking about other ways of supporting teachers to implement new ideas and practices. I had come across that famous Joyce and Showers article that talked about the role of coaching and how it increased implementation. And that’s when I thought I’d like to learn more about coaching myself.
I trained to become a coach – an executive coach – and then I started to explore ways that we could build coaching into part of our offering and what types of coaching we could use to help educators implement what they’d learned. I became very curious with this, and the more I learned, the more I became convinced of the value of coaching in education.
Jim: You have a wide range of publications. Could you take us through them?
Christian: Because of my work in schools in the West Midlands, I was invited to join the academic team at the School of Psychology at the University of East London to design a module on the topic of “coaching in education.”
My vision for it was that it would be broad-ranging, providing a snapshot of what was going on at the moment. And that’s when we had the great fortune, Jim, to include your chapter on instructional coaching in there. We had the opportunity to include some stuff from Australia, as well, around positive education – Dr Suzy Green’s work – and it also gave me a sense of what was happening in England at the time.
One thing I learned writing that book is how little we in the United Kingdom were looking at what was going on elsewhere. We weren’t looking at texts that were being generated in the US or Canada, and we really didn’t look at what was going on in Australia or New Zealand. So, that book was where I just thought, “Hopefully there’s much more we can do to learn from one another.” And that book was just a first step!
Jim: And that book spurred on a conference where we and others met, so that little event was a catalyst for many things!
Christian: That is amazing because that was the first event I had organized. Obviously, I put a lot of work into it, but I had no idea how it would all work out. It’s a great example of the value of just bringing passionate people together.
Jim: So, that book was a starting point. What came after that?
Christian: I think the book that came after that was Introduction to Coaching Skills.
By the time I had written Introduction to Coaching Skills, I had been teaching for about 5 years at University level, but also to educators and people in the commercial sector. Every time that I would teach coaching, one of the books I would reference was Sir John Whitmore’s Book, Coaching for Performance, and much of my thinking around coaching is influenced by Sir John and his underpinning principles of coaching.
The idea behind that Introduction to Coaching Skillsbook was twofold. Firstly, to provide a companion for people learning to become coaches, and secondly, to provide video content to allow readers to “see” some of the skills and processes discussed in the book. I just loved writing it.
Jim: It might be my favorite coaching book. I think it is truly an outstanding book.
Christian: Well, thank you so much for saying that. It is a resource that the reader can look back into at any time, but hopefully it also takes the reader on a helpful journey. The other focus is on the use of video clips, and that’s really at the heart of this book. We filmed over 24 hours of real coaching conversations and used clips that demonstrated many of the skills that we talk about in the book.
Then my next book was driven by my curiosity about whether coaching was different depending on the sector in which it was delivered. Every time I had worked in schools, there was a sense that coaching was bit different in each context. Time pressures or different priorities or power relationships may be different. But also, the reason schools are interested in coaching are different. The “bottom line” is different in education.
I went out to people who had a high level of experience in a particular context, and I asked them to write a chapter on what it was like to coach in that context and what they thought was different about it.
Actually, it’s our colleague John Campbell, the Founding Director of Growth Coaching International, who wrote the chapter about coaching in schools, but we also have chapters about coaching in the University sector, in the health sector, in the financial services sector and others. I think there’s about 10 different sectors included. The idea was that even if a person worked in the schools sector, for example, she would gain insights and ideas about coaching by reading about what was happening in other sectors.
Jim: And then there is coaching in Arabic culture right?
Christian: Yes. There were two book projects I worked on next. One was with a good colleague of mine named Dr Andrea Giraldez, who is the program leader of the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology at the University of East London. We worked together on a book called Coaching in Education, but in the Spanish language, it’s called Coaching Educativo.
We wanted to write a book that took into account cultural and language differences. So rather than translate something, we started from scratch. We started with conversations between me and Andrea, and we talked about how some of the ideas in Introduction to Coaching Skills or Coaching in Education might be slightly different for people for whom Spanish is the first language.
Of all the books I’ve written I probably learned the most in writing that book because I worked with a practicing Muslim executive coach, Raja’a Yousif Allaho. Raja’a is a Kuwaiti citizen, and she and I started from scratch thinking, “What is a culturally and religiously appropriate methodology for people for whom living according to their faith is an important part of their everyday life?”
What came out of that was a methodology of coaching that didn’t have goals at its heart. There’s no discussion of goals in the methodology. It’s called the Ershad methodology, and the process is different. So, if you are familiar with the often discussed ‘GROW’ or ‘GROWTH’ models, the idea is that it starts with a goal, then it goes to current reality, then options, then a way forward, tactics, then habits. That would be a traditional western model of coaching.
With the Ershad coaching – we start with the discovery phase, and that is really finding out about one another, because particularly in Arab culture, relationships are so important. We start out with, “Tell me about yourself,” and unusually in this methodology, the coach would also share a bit about her own background. Then, rather than talking about goals, we go into that positive intention.
So, it is less specific than a goal. Positive intention is more about what it is that the coachee would like to do. A way of asking the question would be, “What’s your purpose in life? What are you on this planet to achieve… to do?” It’s that kind of a broad intention that we want to identify, and it could be, “I’d like to be a better father, a better mother. I’d like to be a better leader. I’d like to have a bigger impact on my society. I’d like to be an inspiring school leader.” It’s kind of, “What would you like to contribute?”Then from there, we go on to what we call pathways in English, and this actually ties into the work from Snyder and work of Hope Theory.
Jim: From right here in Lawrence, Kansas
Christian: Right here in Lawrence, Kansas. The idea of pathways and agency. The idea in that process is to show people that they have pathways to help. If your positive intention is to be a better leader, what are the pathways that are available to you right now that are going to get you to what you are here to do? In this model we don’t talk about the coach and coachee; we talk about facilitator and learner. We invite the learner to say something about all the different ways that they might get closer to their intention.
The biggest contribution made by Ershad coaching is what we call the “alignment phase.” Once the person has selected some pathways that would allow them to move closer to their intention, we want to make sure that there is good alignment between their intentions and important relationships in their life.
Once they have done that, the last phase is called effort, and this is about really manifesting that positive intention in one’s life. At that final stage, it would be saying, “How do I need to think or act differently in order to start being or living my positive intention through the pathways?” That would be where the conversation concludes, and the person would start to experiment with those behaviors and ways of thinking.
Jim: So, Discovery, Intentions, Pathways, Alignment, Effort…
Christian: That’s right
Jim: Have you tried that in other cultures?
Christian: Well, that’s the beauty of it. That learning I did just highlighted for me how important aligning is for everybody. Especially for people who want to live their lives according to a set of important values or beliefs. If something is an important part of one’s life, the idea that coaching might somehow get in the way of that was troubling. In my experience coaching people, there were times when I thought, “You know, somehow it feels like the coaching topic and the ‘goal’ are maybe moving the person awayfrom deeply held values.” So, that highlighted for me the importance of making sure that any coaching we do also looks after the well-being of participants.
Jim: Let’s say you have a life coach and they are trying to come up with a business, and they come up with a marketing plan, but the marketing plan is inconsistent with their values…
Christian: Yeah, that’s right
Jim: They don’t want to do any kind of manipulative kind of ads, but creatively they think, “Well, marketing probably looks like this, and I want to do this business.” So, this would be about stepping back and asking, “Does this pathway of sending out annoying emails align with your belief about valuing other people?”
Christian: Exactly. “What does your faith tell you about these things?” I guess the critique of some western approaches to coaching is that we prioritize the goal above everything else.
But, the alignment is part of the Ershad model so it can’t be avoided. Whereas in western models it’s not explicitly built in. I know many excellent coaches who would bring those questions in anyway, but I think there’s a weakness that it is not built in anyway.
Jim: So, how would you approach this issue of alignment? Can you approach it within the GROWTH context?
Christian: Yeah, I think we can. So, this is one of my academic interests because I also work at the University of East London in an academic context. My interest is in integrating coaching psychology with positive psychology.
For me, the integration of these two things means that when we coach people, we should also be thinking about their well-being. So, the purpose of coaching should be about both supporting people to achieve goals whilst also taking into account their well-being when pursuing those goals.
An example of that would be if I am coaching someone and they were to say, “I think I am going to hit the goal, but I am not sleeping, and it’s going to mean I won’t be sleeping for the next month” or whatever.
Jim: Or “I’m going to be away from my kids…”
Christian: Yeah, “I might be away from my kids for 6 weeks, and it means that I’m going to have to ignore other important things in my life.” It gives me permission to bring other things in and to say, “It looks like you are going to hit your goal, but what’s the impact on your well-being or the well-being of people around you?”
I think we can still do it. Then again to be fair and equitable, I think it’s a person’s choice about how they are going to be coached, and if someone were to come to me and say, “Christian, for me it’s about hitting the goal. That’s my main focus.” I’m not sure how I’d respond to that, but I would want to respect the person’s preference.
Jim: I suppose you could just play it back. You could say, “What I hear you saying is you want to do this” and “there are these consequences” and “are you ok with that?” In a non-judgmental way.
Christian: I think you’ve hit on the trickiness of adding it to an existing model because there is a bit of judgment implied in it. Because if I were to play it back and the person were to say, “Look, I don’t care. I just want to hit the goal,” it’s tough not to get into a judgmental way of thinking about that. It’s even difficult for me and my values to say, “That’s fine. Then let’s ignore all of that.”
Jim: I still want to get back to your other publications, but I think this is one of the things that characterizes your coaching. When I’ve been coached by you, or when I’ve seen you coach, you care deeply about me succeeding, about this coaching helping me have a better life, but you are detached from the outcome.
When you are coaching me, there’s a sense that I am free to choose without judgement. In fact, it almost feels like if nothing came of it, you would say, “Well, that’s ok,” but at the same time, I don’t feel a lack of caring.
Christian: That’s great to hear because in what I do, respecting people’s autonomy is so important. I think one very important choice every person has is whether or not to pursue a goal. I think my role as coach is to create an environment where people can do their best thinking, make good decisions according to them.
I do remember coaching conversations where the outcome has been the coachee saying, “You know, that’s really not an important goal for me,” or “it’s not important enough for me,” so I’m not going to pursue that goal. And that’s tricky because a lot of times we evaluate the effectiveness of coaching on whether they help you to achieve your goal. So, that’s a perfect example of a failure if we were evaluating coaching on “does it help you to achieve your goal?” because the person has decided not to even pursue the goal.
But for me that might have been a good coaching conversation because it has raised the awareness of the participant, and they’ve said, “Actually, I don’t know why that was an important goal. I don’t know why I selected it.” It has raised awareness, and it has respected their autonomy.
Jim: What is the next book?
Christian: The next book was The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools because I had been itching to get back to talking about education again, and I wanted to get back to working with John Campbell who is the first author.
It was really capturing a Coaching for Leaders in Schools program that GCI had been developing over many years. We look at it from a leadership lens. What does coaching in education look like? It addresses the idea of leaders taking a coaching approach.
Neither John nor I think that every school leader should be a coach, but we do think that the coaching approach is helpful as part of the repertoire of school leaders. When we are talking about a coaching approach, we are talking about being focused on the future, creating the environment for the people to feel comfortable, listening first, being encouraging, seeing potential in people, and noticing strengths. All of those things which are important for coaches to do are transferable skills that leaders can benefit from.
We also talk about this idea of having coaching cultures – creating ideal learning environments. I think every coaching conversation is about that, but if you look at it from an educational leadership perspective, that’s the role in a school or a district. You are trying to achieve an ideal learning environment for all of the students, all of the staff, all of the people in your community, and that just makes me excited about the idea that schools are really learning hubs within their community. There’s no better place to give a focus and attention to creating a learning environment.
Jim: Yes, that book was very helpful. We are sharing it in our institute. And what is the latest book?
Jim: Yes, I have a hot copy up on my desk right now that I got two days ago, so I can’t wait to read it.
Christian: Advanced Coaching Practiceis another book that taught me so much! It’s a different kind of book from Introduction to Coaching Skills where my main focus was keeping things as clear and simple as possible. In Advanced Coaching Practice – which I have written with another dear colleague of mine, David Love – we are now talking about the complexity of coaching.
This Thursday, check out Part Two of the interview for more focused discussion of Christian's new book, Advanced Coaching Practice, and the tensions that can complicate coaching.