In the frame

Formulation has received scant attention in the coaching literature, yet it is an essential skill in a coach’s armoury. Sarah Corrie and David A Lane explain why

Imagine the following scenario. You are in a cafe when your attention is drawn to a debate at the next table. Two coaches are discussing the best way to assist a newly appointed executive in fulfilling her leadership potential.

You gather that the client is a gifted but outspoken individual whose interpersonal style is in need of refinement. One of the coaches favours modifying the client’s dysfunctional characteristics, the other argues for a strengths-based approach.

As a coach, you find yourself weighing up the merits of their respective positions. Each presents a convincing rationale, yet their views on how best to assist this client differ markedly. How do you make sense of these divergent perspectives? Who is correct?

When a coach meets a client for the first time they must accomplish several things. One is to establish a supportive environment in which the client can explore their needs and goals. Another is to add to their self-understanding through offering a new description or explanation that expands their sense of what is possible. A coach must also translate this richer understanding into a plan of action that is likely to afford tangible benefit – for the client and for others who have an investment in the client’s performance.

These tasks are not easy to accomplish. If you are to add value you need a conceptual ‘map’ of the main areas you will be navigating in your work together. This is where a formulation can help.

What is formulation?

A formulation is a framework that enables practitioners to make decisions and plan interventions in a coherent and systematic fashion. Broadly, it is an explanatory account of a client’s issues, taking into account: 1. relevant predisposing, precipitating and maintaining factors, 2. contextual issues and 3. client vulnerabilities and resources.

The account is the basis of a shared framework of understanding with implications for change, including choice of strategy or technique.

Formulation is believed to serve a variety of functions, including prioritising goals, determining criteria for a successful outcome and selecting appropriate interventions to achieve the desired result. Having a formulation can guide decisions about when to begin coaching, as well as constructive thinking around lack of progress.

Developing your approach

A formulation usually draws on a range of information including interviews, questionnaire data, models of coaching and the available evidence base. Although there is insufficient understanding of the factors that make formulations optimally effective, it is important to have a framework to develop a systematic approach. In our work, we have found it useful to think of formulation as comprising three core components, namely purpose, perspective and process:

  • Purpose First, you need to be clear about the purpose of the coaching. Is it to develop a new skill, tackle an obstacle to development or improve communication with colleagues? Unless you understand that purpose, it is difficult to make any decision to apply a coaching intervention to its resolution, or indeed be clear about whether coaching is appropriate at all.
  • Perspective Second, you need to be aware of the perspectives that underpin your work. The priorities of the different stakeholders, as well as their beliefs about how change occurs (and what constitutes evidence of change), will all influence the journey. There are many perspectives we might draw on: some are the client’s, others are our own and some are determined by the context in which the work takes place.
  • Process Third, you must decide what process is needed. Given the context in which you have defined your purpose and the perspectives that underpin it, what intervention strategies, methods or tools do you select? Your process may incorporate techniques derived from one specific theoretical approach, or it may involve an eclectic selection based on multiple perspectives, depending on the scope of the work and the outcomes to be achieved.

The purpose, perspective and process model can also help us make sense of the scenario at the start of this article.

Let’s assume you are still listening to our two imaginary coaches. As the conversation unfolds it becomes apparent that the approach advocated by each is the result of a very different definition of purpose and perspective.

The first coach highlights the evidence that personality characteristics predict effectiveness as a leader. His in-depth knowledge of personality theory comes from an initial career in psychotherapy and he defines his primary role (purpose) in this context as one of working with interpersonal obstacles to progression. Influenced by schema theory (his primary perspective), his approach aims to identify and modify the client’s dysfunctional interpersonal beliefs and behaviours that stem from her basic beliefs about herself, others and the world. As a result, his favoured process involves a range of specific strategies aimed at:

  • 1. enhancing self-awareness,
  • 2. increasing capacity for empathic understanding of subordinates, and 3. communication skills training in select areas.

As schema are believed to develop from early encounters with the environment, he is also interested in exploring the influence of formative experiences on the development of the client’s world view.

The second coach defines her purpose as one of liberating and harnessing potential for the purposes of client growth. Influenced by the applied science of positive psychology and, in particular, the emerging classification systems of strengths and virtues (perspective), she highlights the growing evidence-base that those individuals who consistently employ their strengths are more likely to achieve their goals and perform better in the workplace.

While she does not deny that the client needs to improve her interpersonal style, this coach is concerned primarily with identifying the client’s natural capacities for thinking and acting that have underpinned her performance to date.

Accordingly, this coach favours a process derived from strengths coaching that will enable the client to apply her existing strengths to the more challenging aspects of her new role, as well as increase her awareness of strengths that may, as yet, be unrealised.

The point is that neither approach is right nor wrong. But each formulation offers a very different learning journey, and might be more or less suited to a particular client temperament, organisational priority or wider business culture at any given time.

If you were to attempt to arbitrate this discussion, you might work towards helping each coach clarify the purpose and perspectives they are bringing to their work. Equally, you might ask about their understanding of the client’s and employer’s purpose and perspectives and the extent to which the proposed process has taken these into account.

You might also enquire whether, given their understanding of the client’s circumstances and needs, they believe it is most helpful to hypothesise about a particular incident in the present or devise a more comprehensive ‘map’ which includes the impact of past experiences.

With purpose and perspective clearly articulated you would then be in a better position to help each coach consider their understanding of the means used to achieve change (process), including the likelihood of its success.

Powerful questions

Formulation may not be essential for all types of coaching in all contexts (particularly where the focus is on skills coaching). However, it will be crucial when working with clients at the levels of performance and developmental coaching, as well as work involving any degree of complexity.

When we are training coaches and other practitioners who use psychological knowledge, we encourage a critical engagement with their own approach as a first step towards developing an individual brand. In the service of this goal, we recommend that you consider the following questions:

  • How do you define your purpose as a coach? What work do you undertake? Where is the boundary of your brand, such that you would know to refer a client elsewhere?
  • When deciding on a coaching approach, what determines your choice? Which factors are most and least influential?
  • What are the principal models of coaching on which you rely? Why?
  • Which theories of human nature and behaviour, and individual/organisational functioning, do you draw on? Why?
  • Now think of a coach you respect, but who would answer these questions very differently from you. If you were to operate using their definition of purpose and their perspectives, what kinds of processes would you use more and less of? What would you gain and lose as a result?

An invitation

Formulation is more than just a skill. It is an invitation to refine your model of practice, your philosophy of coaching and your own brand as a coach. To formulate well, we believe that each of the processes in an intervention needs to be defined, or at least be capable of it. Being able to articulate the choices we make at different stages in a coaching enquiry, and having the capacity to recognise the advantages and disadvantages of methods, is what ultimately enables us to tailor our subject matter expertise to the specific needs of those who seek out our services. n

  • The purpose, perspective, process model is developed fully in S Corrie and D A Lane, Constructing Stories, Telling Tales – A Guide to Formulation in Applied Psychology, London: Karnac, Books 2010.
  • Sarah Corrie is a chartered psychologist and consultant clinical psychologist. She is currently programme director of the Postgraduate Diploma & MSc in Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapy offered by Royal Holloway University of London and Central and North West London Foundation Trust.
  • Professor David A Lane is director of the Professional Development Foundation. He recently received the British Psychological Society’s award for Distinguished Contribution to Professional Psychology.

Coaching at Work, Volume 5, Issue 4

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