The Science and the Art of Coaching


Whilst we have the expression to describe the “art and science” of something, Michael Grinder (2007) proposes that in fact it is the science that usually comes first when we are learning a new skill. We are often drawn to the pursuit of mastery, actively seeking out the magic of the artistic coaching conversation. However, in reality, our growth and development as coaches usually means that we go through learning and understanding the Science of coaching first and then we begin to develop the Art of Coaching. Grinder’s model of professional development for communication can be easily overlaid onto the process of coaching, as effective and advanced communication are such a core part of a good coach’s skillset.

Within these two stages of first science and then art, sit four levels of development:


Science:

When we first learn to coach, we can be very focused on the content: “what” the client is saying to us and what we say in return. We may find ourselves concerned that we that we will forget what they have said, that the whole story is important and that we need to understand the full detail and data of the situation in order to be able to effectively coach our client. At this stage, we may be very grounded in trying to coach the topic the client has brought to our session with them. We may also feel that we need to bring some level of “knowing” or expertise in order to be confident that we have added value to the client. As we develop in skill and confidence, we notice that there is more than simply the content or the words that the client is saying. We begin to realise that some of this content is not even needed for us to coach our client – in fact, the content could even get in the way…


There is also then “how” they are saying it and indeed what they are not saying. We learn that there is more than simply the words and our listening becomes broader, deeper and more holistic. We find ourselves able to expand our attention to the person bringing the topic as well as the topic itself. We are more observant of body language, energy, emotion and tone etc.


In summary, Grinder positions that, in order to learn a new skill, we at first need to understand the science of that skill by establishing some clear guidelines to help us know what to do or not do. For example:


“Always ask questions, never give your opinion.”


“Always allow the client to fully express themselves, never interrupt.”


Art:

As our development continues, we then begin to expand our own sense of perception and this enables us to increasingly sense “when” to intervene: when to ask a question, when to stay silent and allow space and time for reflection, when to challenge, when to probe further and so on. As our own sense of perception with our clients grows, we find ourselves increasingly more present and “in the moment” with them. We work more fluidly and naturally as we sense our way through the conversation with the solid foundation of our understanding of the science of coaching underpinning how we are operating. Our ability to work in this way is also enabled by our growing level of trust: trust in ourselves as coaches, trust in clients and trust in the process of coaching.


Enhanced perception allows us to access our own intuition and, as all of these skills come together, we build higher levels of permission and rapport with our client. In this way, we also begin to know “if” now is the time to intervene and how receptive the client might be to what we offer.


At this stage, the somewhat rigid guidelines we needed to follow in the beginning can be relaxed, like taking the stabilisers from a bike, as we can now maneuver and navigate more fluidly and confidently. For example:


“As a coach, I ask questions to evoke my client’s awareness…and sometimes, depending on the circumstances, I might offer my perspective if I felt it would useful for them…”


“As a coach, I encourage my clients to fully express themselves…and possibly, if I feel it might be useful for them, I might interject and invite them to summarise what they feel is the key issue for them.”


What is also very much worth noting, is that this process of navigating the science and art is in itself a dance, as these two aspects of great coaching interweave, rather than being a singular, linear learning process. As we transition into finding our “art” as a coach, we do not leave the science behind, for it is still there, embedded into the foundations of our knowledge, training and experience and is in fact built upon as we continue with our professional development over time. Moreover, ensuring that we embrace the concept of a beginner’s mind will help us to maintain our own growth by continuing to nurture the art through ongoing and more advanced learning about the science!

Tracy Sinclair has more than 20 years' experience in leadership development, and she currently works with managers and leaders to develop their coaching capability as a core leadership competence. Tracy also specialises in working with a wide range of organisations to support the development of coaching cultures.


A Professional Certified Coach (PCC), Tracy is dedicated to the development of the coaching profession and the coaching community. She works as an international Corporate Executive and Board Level Coach, and she has served on the International Coaching Federation Global Board of Directors since 2016, in a variety of positions including Treasurer, Global Chair and currently serves as Co-Chair and Director at Large on the International Coaching Federation Global Enterprise Board.

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