What is person-centred coaching?

Does the idea of asking what person-centred coaching is strike you as odd? We suspect it might as coaching seems, through and through, and activity centred on the person.

However, when we talk of person-centred in coaching (and other disciplines such as therapy and counselling), we mean something quite specific. The influence of person-centred theory and practice is certainly a bedrock of coaching but it is not always an easy companion to some of the more management-based, sports-based and even philosophically based coaching foundations.

Person-centred coaching, both in theory and practice, has grown out of the work of Carl Rogers, the American psychologist working in the 1950s who founded the therapeutic school of Person-Centred Therapy. In many ways a reaction to the behaviourist and psychodynamic schools of psychology that held that people were governed by things outside of their control, Rogers created a way of thinking that focused on what he described as self-actualisation and the conditions needed for self-actualisation to take place.

At its most basic level, he suggested that, just as an acorn has all the resources it needs within it to realise its potential of growing in to an oak tree (and never accidentally a sycamore!), so does a human being. And just as an acorn needs the right conditions (sun, space, air, water, soil, time, etc) so a person needs the right conditions too. Without these conditions, he said, a person becomes invalidated and their authentic self fractured.

Rogers described these conditions as the Six Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Personality Change.

The Six Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Personality Change

In essence, the six conditions are:

  • 1. That two people are in psychological contact (this seems obvious but there are varying qualities to that contact)
  • 2. The client experiences a state of incongruence and desires some kind of change (it needs to be wanted – think of the lightbulb joke!)
  • 3. The therapist (in our case, the coach) is congruent and authentic in the relationship (openness and honesty).
  • 4. The therapist (coach) experiences unconditional positive regard for the client (non-judgement).
  • 5. The therapist (coach) experiences an empathic understanding of the client’s inner world and experience and communicates this.
  • 6. This empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard is in some way felt by the client.

For Rogers, this was all that was needed for change to be enabled.

You can certainly see some of the key principles of coaching here, but it doesn’t describe coaching in its entirety. After all, coaching is often challenging, provocative, inspiring, confronting and much more.

So what makes person-centred coaching, person centred?

We would suggest that the heart and soul of person-centred coaching is a focus on creating the right conditions for change to take place. That’s it. The focus is not on the conversation itself but rather on the conditions in the relationship that allow the client to self-actualise. Unlike some forms of coaching in which the client may be encouraged quite strongly to focus on a goal or to undertake practices that ground them, inspire them or take them on a journey into a future self, person-centred coaching is about creating the space for emergence of the person through their own unwinding and through the non-directive, non-polluting (eg. no agenda) approach of the coach who subtly enables the client to talk about their challenge.

You might wonder how this differs from counselling and it’s a valid question. Firstly, it’s likely that the subject of the coaching will not be one in which catharsis, or even simply unloading, is the answer. There is an active change ingredient but it is being enabled by the spacious conditions of the coaching. Secondly, it is likely that the client is in a greater state of readiness for change rather than the stuckness which often leads to counselling. The coaching space is more about the client finding time and space in a hectic world to explore their question. Clearly these are generalisations but it offers a fairly useful guide to the difference.

When learning person-centred coaching, you are likely to explore and practise:

  • Spaciousness
  • A focus on relationship
  • Non-interruption
  • Silence
  • Subtle reflection of language to help the client hear themselves differently
  • Tuning in to the client to attain greater empathy
  • Connecting to an unconditional positive regard for people

It would be a fair comment too that the art of person-centred coaching is as much about what you don’t do as what you do and the power is often in these absences of action.

Person-centred coaching forms a key part of our Accredited Diploma in Transformational Coaching which you can find out more about here.