As coaches we take an empty space and call it coaching, but what is that empty space and how does it work? Dr Elaine Cox of the International Centre for Coaching & Mentoring Studies, Oxford Brookes University, shares her findings
By Dr Elaine Cox
Theatre creator Peter Brooks argues that he could “take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across his empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all I need for an act of theatre to be engaged” (Brooks, 1995, p5).
As coaches, we take an empty space and call it coaching: a client sits in his empty space while the coach is present, and this is all that is needed for coaching to happen.
Similarly, in his poem, The Uses of Not, Taoist philosopher Lao Tse highlights the Japanese concept of ‘ma’ (Di Mare, 1990) – the pure, and indeed essential, space between all things:As coaches, we take an empty space and call it coaching: a client sits in his empty space while the coach is present, and this is all that is needed for coaching to happen.
Thirty spokes meet in the hub,
but the empty space between them
is the essence of the wheel.
A pot is formed from clay,
but the empty space between it
is the essence of the pot.
Walls with windows and doors form the house,
but the empty space within it
is the essence of the house.
With our understanding of how coaching works we could even add a line to the poem – something like:
Listening and questioning drive the coaching,
but the empty space between them is
the essence of the coaching.
The term ‘ma’ refers to ‘the empty space between’ and constitutes a gap or void involving a collapse of teleological time and representing the essence of the object or event. Thus, ‘ma’ is an emptiness full of possibilities, like a promise yet to be fulfilled. In coaching, the empty space between could be seen as what constitutes the core of coaching.
However, although commentators often talk about the space coaching affords and conclude that one of the benefits of coaching is that it gives clients the space in which to reflect, this space has not been sufficiently researched. The empty space in coaching is variously referred to as: reflective space (Cox, 2013), reflective pause (McLaughlin & Cox, 2016), time to think (Kline, 2009), or the coaching space (Du Toit, 2014; Britten, 2015).
It is likely that within the coaching space, clients are enabled to make connections between their experience and the consequences of experience. Indeed, Cox (2013) proposes that reflection is best done by pausing and “creating a psychological space that allows clients to withdraw from the workplace in order to stand back and think, thus enabling them to gain some perspective on their experiences and on their tasks” (Cox, 2013, p73). This kind of in-depth reflection is where clients come to understand their lives and their work – it enables them to learn from their mistakes, “explore their successes, and develop empathy and understanding”
(Cox, 2006, p199).
However, reflective space can also be where coaches come to understand their practice – reflection being vital both when beginning as practitioners and when practising as more unconsciously competent.
As Schön notes in his seminal work on reflective practice, when “knowing-in-practice becomes increasingly tacit and spontaneous, the practitioner may miss the important opportunities to think about what he is doing” (1983, p61).
However, as Britten (2015) also points out, there is no research explaining what happens in the coaching space. He concluded that the space offers great scope for further investigation since it has to do with the felt sense of “a certain experience of time” that requires coaches to “create the right conditions for the creative exploration of experience” (2015, p25).
We tend to assume that it constitutes an opening for in-depth reflection and critical development in the coaching process and that this is vital both to the coach’s and client’s wellbeing and performance, but there is little empirical research to back that up.
What we do recognise as practitioners is that the impact of the coaching space cannot be underestimated – as an ‘emptiness full of possibilities’ – not only for clients to be helped to understand their experiences in the context of their current needs, but also for coaches to begin to know their own practice.
In spite of its discernible importance then, there is very little research undertaken to explain what happens in the coaching space.
Fillery-Travis and Cox (2014) point out that there are ample outcome and process studies in the field of coaching, where context and benefits are explored.
However, although we know a lot about the different contexts in which coaching is used, we understand less about what happens in the coaching ‘space’. Research is lacking investigating aspects of the interaction itself and particularly those interactions ‘linguistically poor’ and difficult to study, such as space, silence, thinking and reflecting.
Fillery-Travis and Cox (2014) also suggest that new methods are needed for this research. They argue that whereas ‘linguistically rich’ interactions can be studied by using recordings and videos of speech and interaction, those at the linguistically poor end of the spectrum will require creative research methods. The latter include systematic self-observation to report and analyse reflective space; joint interviewing in order to capture constructed meanings from both coach and client, or innovative action research where the in vivo coaching process can be observed.
For researchers, the challenge will be to find ways of researching the coaching space that are true to the confidential nature of the relationship and that take account of the intricacies and uniqueness of that space.
- Dr Elaine Cox is director of postgraduate coaching and mentoring programmes at Oxford Brookes University Business School www.brookes.ac.uk/iccams
- D Britten, ‘Felt sense and figurative space: Clients’ metaphors for their experiences of coaching’, in International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 9(14), 2015
- P Brooks, The Open Door. Thoughts on Acting and Theatre. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995
- E Cox, Coaching Understood, London: Sage, 2013
- L Di Mare, ‘Ma and Japan’, in Southern Journal of Communication,55(3), pp319-328, 1990
- A Du Toit, Making Sense of Coaching, London: Sage, 2014
- A Fillery-Travis and E Cox, ‘Researching coaching’, in E Cox, T Bachkirova and D Clutterbuck, The Complete Handbook of Coaching, pp445-459, London: Sage, 2014
- N Kline, More Time to Think: A Way of Being in the World, Pool in Wharfedale, UK: Fisher King Publishing, 2009
- M McLaughlin and E Cox, Leadership Coaching: Developing Braver Leaders, New York: Routledge, 2016
- D A Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, 5(126), New York: Basic Books, 1983