Courage is integral to an ongoing cycle of practitioner development, argues Chris Wood. Are you ready to take that first step?
Helping clients to be more courageous is a familiar coaching brief, but courage also plays a significant role in the development and practice of coaches, one which hasn’t been recognised widely.
In the first in-depth research into coaches’ experience of courage, undertaken for my MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology at the University of East London, I discovered that courage enables practitioners to deliver their best work and is integral to an ongoing cycle of increasing self-awareness and professional development.
Courage is something of a bridesmaid in the coaching literature – often in the picture but rarely front and centre. You’ll see it feature in a list of desirable attributes, or within a diagram of ethical practice. It gets plenty of passing references: for example, Hardingham (2004) says that “confronting requires courage, as well as skill,” and Bluckert (2014) states that approaches like Gestalt require “a good deal of personal courage”.
But there’s nothing that does more than scratch the surface. I wanted to fill this gap, hoping to replicate the level of insight about the dynamics of courageous practice that has been achieved in fields such as psychotherapy, social work and nursing.
What do we mean by courage?
The academic world abounds with definitions of courage. My two favourites come from very different worlds. In positive psychology, courage is “the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal,” (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). For Chinese philosophers, courage is “a moral strength that enables people to risk the things they most value, and gives them the agency to act according to conscience” (Jiang, 2012).
Courage and bravery are often treated as interchangeable synonyms, but, from a psychological perspective, courage is the emotional and cognitive process that precipitates brave actions. It’s also important to distinguish between general courage, where courageous acts are benchmarked against what might be expected in a given situation, and personal courage, where an individual’s responses are understood within their personal context (Pury & Kowalski, 2007). Given that general expectations of coaches have yet to be normalised, in the way that they have been of police officers or service personnel, for example, my focus was on the personal courage of the coach.
The research was conducted using grounded theory, a qualitative method appropriate for the investigation of new topics. Rather than testing a pre-existing hypothesis, the approach creates a conceptual theoretical model out of data gleaned from intensive interviews. Six clear categories, each with their own distinct themes, emerged from interviews with 12 qualified coaches with a range of backgrounds and experience. The categories were then incorporated into an overall model, which I’ll share after looking at the headline findings in each category.
Becoming a coach
Courage was first required when participants switched from a previous career, breaking away from a structured corporate environment and overcoming the scepticism of colleagues and acquaintances. Making the commitment helped participants to focus on learning core coaching skills, which took courage when there was a strong awareness of their own inexperience. They also needed courage to overcome personal doubt and fear of failure. One participant was afraid of returning to their previous employer with “my tail between my legs”.
Finding authenticity was foremost here, with participants confronting their own psychological triggers to courageously develop a clear sense of self in the coaching arena. This process was helped by the identification of values such as humility, integrity, spirituality and honesty. For one participant, “being true to your core values” was of paramount importance. Identifying personal strengths, such as self-confidence and self-discipline, helped practitioners remain open-minded and non-judgmental.
Running alongside the self-awareness strand was the parallel process of developing skills. Courage was required in contracting, building the relationship and maintaining trust over time. Holding the space involved courage because it necessitated the coach deploying complete presence whatever the subject matter, and there was courage in resisting any client desire for the coach to give advice. The use of silence called for both skill and courage to ensure a positive outcome.
Conversely, offering challenge to clients and naming what’s happening in the session was also viewed as a courageous act.
Standing at the crossroads
The categories above built over time, accommodating multiple personal and professional reflections. But courage came to the fore in real-time when the coach found themselves standing at a crossroads in a session. The crunch moment typically followed a spell in which the coach was conscious of working harder than normal, but to little effect. They felt stuck and the work became very tactical.
Participants reported tapping into their “gut feeling”, “instinct” and “inner knowing”, as they faced the two options available to them. They could take the jump into a courageous intervention, or they could turn back to safer territory.
Taking the jump
When coaches acted courageously they were aware of risks such as a rupture in the relationship or an adverse client reaction. They felt vulnerable and uncertain, yet compelled. Jumping metaphors were common, for example: “I’ve never done a parachute jump, but I imagine it’s a similar feeling to just before you jump off, it’s like your head can tell you jump now, jump now, jump now.”(Participant 12).
By jumping, coaches entered a new realm, one beyond tools and techniques and evidence-based practice. They felt powerful, liberated and better able to hold paradoxes. They were spontaneous and creative, and felt they were crossing a new “threshold”, as Participant 1 said. The conversation was transformed. Courageous interventions changed the paradigm and released pressure in the conversation. The work became more intimate as the coach created new awareness and learning opportunities for the client.
There were also times when the coach felt that they had got it wrong by acting courageously. They wondered if they had been fulfilling their own needs. Negative outcomes included clients feeling confronted and the cancellation of contracts, as well as coaches withdrawing their services or recommending an alternative route such as therapy.
When coaches turned back from a courageous intervention it was often because they lost their nerve through fear and insecurity. They became over-cautious, feeling that their own ceiling had been reached and perhaps wondering, like Participant 9, “whether I’m making something up”.
The participants sometimes lost confidence in their ability to find the right words to match the situation and felt a heightened pressure to ask insightful questions and deliver results. “That [conversation] requires courage and bravery, and I’m not able to go there,” said Participant 7.
Coaches also turned back from courageous interventions when they foresaw potential harm for the client or, like Participant 5, suspected “that there was something a bit fragile there”. There was a concern that the client might be destabilised by the emotional impact of the conversation. Suspecting the client was not wholeheartedly engaged in the coaching assignment and concerns that the client was becoming too dependent on the coach, were also mentioned as reasons for having avoided courageous action.
The impact of coaching was reduced because the work stayed at a transactional level. “We never got below the surface,” said Participant 10. Energy had drained from the relationship and the coach had been complicit in issue avoidance. Where coaches felt they had shied away from a courageous route, they were left with negative feelings such as irritation, disappointment and emptiness, and the incident was often taken to supervision.
The relationship between the categories outlined above was represented in a conceptual model (see Figure 1, below), which shows personal courage to be integral to an ongoing cycle of increasing self-awareness and professional development. Courageous experiences enrich the coach’s practice. Positive experiences reinforce authenticity and confidence and negative experiences provide learning opportunities, often via supervision.
In this way, the deployment of courage, while not always successful in the moment of practice, is a catalyst in the coach’s ongoing development. The experiences create greater self-awareness and are integrated into the coach’s approach to practice until the cycle starts again as they inevitably encounter another coaching crossroads.
The research identified the role courage plays a part in the ongoing development and practice of coaches. We cannot gauge its relative significance without comparison to other attributes and characteristics. Future research might also investigate the apparent tension between best practice (as taught in coaching schools and required in accreditation) and the deployment of courage in coaching.
This tension, which relates to the readiness of coaches to go beyond tools and techniques, was detected at code level, but at insufficient frequency to establish a theme. Further exploration of this area would be beneficial to the training and development of future coaches.
- Chris Wood is the founder of Wood Not Trees Coaching and is interested to hear from coaches about their perspective on courage in coaching: email@example.com
Here’s an exercise to help you reflect on the dynamics of courage in your own practice.
- Take a look at the presenting statement below from Beth, your new client.
- Be aware of what comes up for you. What does Beth trigger in you?
- Imagine you take the leap and decide on a courageous intervention. What might that look like? Where might that take you?
‘I’ve really been having trouble with my director. He’s very process-driven, very black-and-white. He doesn’t do nuance or context. He just doesn’t listen to me. I’ve got my performance review coming up and I know he’s going to give me a really hard time. Particularly about how I handled the disastrous engagement project. I admit I haven’t been at my best, but there’s just so much going on outside work with my divorce going through and my mother being so ill. It’s all a bit overwhelming, and what would be really helpful to me, is if you could help me to prioritise my diary.’
- P Bluckert, The gestalt approach to coaching, in E Cox, T Bachkirova & D Clutterbuck (Eds.). The Complete Handbook of Coaching (pp. 77-90), Sage, 2014
- A Hardingham, The Coach’s Coach: Personal Development for Personal Developers. CIPD Publishing, 2004
- X Jiang, ‘Confucius’s view of courage’, in Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 39(1), 44-59, 2012
- C Peterson and M E P Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: a handbook and classification, American Psychological Association and Oxford University Press, 2004
- C L Pury and RM Kowalski, ‘Human strengths, courageous actions, and general and personal courage’, in The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(2), 120-128, 2007
Figure 1: Conceptual framework of the coach’s perspective on the role of courage in their development and practice