How you think determines how you coach but how aware are you of how you think?
Sebastian Fox and Paul Lawrence report
In this article we discuss how deepening awareness of our basic beliefs and view of the world is essential in understanding how we think and act as coaches, including when working with teams.
We suggest that this is because being as effective a coach as possible requires congruence between your underlying beliefs and values, your purpose and your coaching practice. We’ll focus particularly on the philosophical aspect as we believe it’s the most difficult to address, yet serves as the starting point for any team or dyadic coaching.
Using the ‘3Ps’ model (Jackson & Bachkirova, 2018), we’ll explore how the model can be used as a guide for reflecting on our practice. The 3Ps – Philosophy, Purpose and Process – offer a framework for thinking about our philosophy and how it impacts on the way we coach:
- Philosophy: What are your beliefs, values and assumptions around change, and how you’ll support change in your coaching?
- Purpose: What purpose does your coaching serve?
- Process: What model or process is most appropriate for you to use given your philosophy and purpose?
Our ontological (a view of what is real or exists) and epistemological (a view of how knowledge is created) positions are deeply held, influenced by many factors and may differ widely. The literature on ontology is extensive, often confusing and sometimes contradictory.
It’s not our intention to set out a philosophical discussion of the differences – many books are available should you be interested in finding out more – but, rather, to demonstrate the implications for coaches, including team coaches, depending on your philosophical position. As a starting point, nonetheless, Table 1 sets out some of the more commonly used ontological descriptions. (The table is by no means definitive, and much debate exists around definitions and different schools of thought.)
The importance of ontology
Which one of the descriptions in Table 1 feels closest to your own beliefs? It may not be an easy question to answer, and will possibly change over time – ongoing reflection and reflexivity are key to deepening our understanding. However, one way to illustrate the importance of ontology in practice is through the lens of systems. As one of the authors of this article, Lawrence, has described, when working with organisations, five levels of system can be conceptualised (Lawrence, 2021), as shown in Table 2.
|Ontology||Positivism||Critical Realism||Pragmatism||Symbolic interactionism||Social
|Description. Reality is thought to be:||Real, external, indepen-dent. One true reality, granular, ordered||Stratified /layered (the empirical, the actual, the real). External, independ-ent. Objective structures, causal mechan-isms||Complex, rich, external ‘Reality’ is the practical consequen-ces of ideas. Flux of processes, experiences and practices||Meaning emerges out of interactions between people; focused on observation and analysis of social interactions such as conversations, meetings, teamwork||Constructed through social interaction in which social actors create partially shared meanings and realities|
Table 1: some common ontological descriptions
Adapted from Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill (2019 pp.144-5, 817-8)
|First order linear||Organisation as a machine|
|First order non-linear||Organisation as a ‘living’ system. Causal links still identifiable|
|Second order||Organisation as a real system, but perceived through individual’s subjective lens|
|Complexity||Organisation as a system which cannot be directed or controlled. Each system impacts others.|
|Meta systemic||Organisations are both real and not, and are not systems in their own right|
Table 2: The five levels of organisational systems
Adapted from Lawrence (2021)
It’s perhaps misleading to suggest each category in both tables is entirely distinct and discrete since, in practice, overlaps exist and thus it may be more appropriate to depict the different levels of systems and ontologies on a continuum, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Continuum of ontologies and levels of systems
By way of illustration, it may be that you understand an organisation as a first order, linear system with causal relationships between different parts of the organisation, and which can be described through team diagnostic tools and models or processes with pre-determined steps. These approaches are typically consistent with more positivist, linear systems thinking where cause and effect are assumed.
In contrast, you might understand organisations to be meta-systemic, constantly fluid and co-constructing meaning through dialogue. Unsurprisingly, team or any coaching based on such dialogic, emergent beliefs is typically associated with more social constructionist and complex or meta-systemic thinking.
To be clear, we’re not saying one is right/wrong, or better/worse. What we’re asking, however, is whether your beliefs are consistent with your philosophy, purpose and team or other coaching practice. For example, do you tend to use a team diagnostic and particular process or model when team coaching, but believe organisations are complex systems? If so, what might be the implications for your team coaching or indeed any other coaching?
This question was explored by Bachkirova and Borrington (2020, p338) who described the contrasting philosophies as follows:
“from what could be identified as a typical modernist [positivist] worldview, the process of professional practice looks like a step-by-step approach that starts from laws discovered in core science…translated into a method, and finally delivered by professionals as an intervention to clients. However, for those who take a more systemic view, actual practice has very little resemblance to this model…[where] the interaction between clients and practitioners is based on subjective experience, as well as constant feedback and adjustments being made in line with these experiences…resulting in understanding the process as a much more complex dynamic”
It should be recognised that it’s easy to fall into a trap of adhering too closely to one particular paradigm and labelling oneself as, for example, a ‘social constructionist’. In reality, the descriptions should be held lightly and recognised for what they are: one way to understand and frame the way we think about the world and consequently coach clients including teams, but which are neither definitive, nor fixed.
Hurlow (2022, p122) further articulates, however, in a series of questions the reason why, as coaches, we should consider the underpinnings of the theories we use and how we apply them to our practice:
- What is the ‘reality’ of the challenge faced by clients?
- How do we build our knowledge of that challenge?
- How does this inform our relationship with the client/s, and the tools we choose to use?
- What is the purpose or value of our coaching?
These are potentially tricky questions. As Hurlow (2022) argues, it’s both relevant and important for coaches to be aware of their philosophical beliefs and how they make meaning with the client, as exemplified in the work of Armstrong (2012) in distinguishing between the ‘coach-expert’ (processes and knowledge) and ‘coach-custodian’ (creating a container within which meaning is constructed).
In a similar vein, other authors have articulated different ways of making meaning, such as ‘Structure/content’ and ‘Emergent/here and now’ (Woudstra, 2021) and ‘monologic’ versus ‘dialogic’ (Isaacs, 1999). Developing greater awareness of your own preferences and how they impact the way you coach are essential elements of maturing as a coach.
An additional consideration relates to Hurlow’s (2022) final question around the purpose or value of coaching, including of teams. Jankvist, Gregersen and Lauridsen (2021) expressed a concern that all stakeholders need to be aligned in their understanding of the value of the coaching programme, if a meaningful attempt is to be made in assessing its value. Similarly, Clutterbuck and Spence (2016) noted that depending on the sponsor’s or organisation’s ontology and epistemology, the success of a coaching engagement might be perceived very differently. Both factors point to the need to understand both our own and our clients’ philosophical stance.
The purpose of this article is not to say that each of us needs to find and attach labels to ourselves around our beliefs of what is real, how knowledge is created and what we believe constitutes a system. Rather, we suggest that becoming more aware of our ontological position, how we think and consequently act, will allow us to become more congruent, adaptive and effective in working with teams and individual clients.
About the authors
- Sebastian Fox is an executive and team coach working with teams to help them increase their effectiveness. He is head of research at the Team Coaching Studio.
- Dr Paul Lawrence has been working as a coach, coach supervisor and consultant since 2007, based in Sydney, Australia, and has over 4,500 coaching hours. He is an honorary research associate at Oxford Brookes University and established the Association for Coaching in Australia.
- H Armstrong ‘Coaching as dialogue: Creating spaces for (mis)understandings’, in International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 10(1), pp33-47. Available at: https://bit.ly/3YUDRFr
- T Bachkirova and S Borrington ‘Old wine in new bottles: Exploring pragmatism as a philosophical framework for the discipline of coaching’, in Academy of Management Learning and Education, 18(3), 337-360, 2020
- D Clutterbuck and G Spence, ‘Working with goals in coaching’, in T Bachkirova, G Spence and D Drake (eds), The SAGE Handbook of Coaching, SAGE, 218-237, 2016
- S Hurlow, ‘Revisiting the relationship between coaching and learning: The problems and possibilities’, in Academy of Management Learning & Education, 21(1), 121-138, 2022
- W Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Talking Together, Doubleday, 1999
- P Jackson and T Bachkirova, The 3 Ps of supervision and coaching: Philosophy, Purpose and Process, in Turner, E and Palmer, S (eds.), The Heart of Coaching Supervision: Working with reflection and self-care, Routledge, 2018
- U T Jankvist, R M Gregersen and S D Lauridsen, ‘Illustrating the need for a ‘Theory of Change’ in implementation processes’, in ZDM – Mathematics Education, 53(5): 1047-1057, 2021
- P Lawrence, Coaching Systemically: Five ways of thinking about systems. Routledge, 2021
- M Saunders, P Lewis and A Thornhill, Research methods for business students (8th edn), Pearson, 2019
- G Woudstra, The art of team coaching: A comprehensive guide to unleashing the power, purpose and potential in any team. Team Coaching Studio Press, 2021