The Fallacy of the Primacy of Goal-Setting in Coaching

The Fallacy of the Primacy of Goal-Setting in Coaching cover

When I first became a coach in the early 2000s, coaching was fundamentally concerned with goals and goal-achievement.

The concept of goals was baked so deeply into coaching that the seminal coaching model, GROW, puts it front and centre with its structure of Goal, Reality, Options and Will.

Goals are undoubtedly still important to some degree within coaching but I want to challenge both their centrality and their usefulness to coaching as it has evolved over the years.

I do recognise that this article might evoke some strong responses.

Some coaching purists might roll their eyes at my attempt to muddy the waters of coaching and may argue that goals are still the core focus of coaching and that this is what distinguishes it from therapy.

I can also imagine another group of coaches who see goals as a symptom of an industrial, capitalist system that exploits and alienates people in equal measure for the sake of economic productivity.

For my part, I don’t see goals through either of these lenses and it is not my intention to treat them as an ethical or moral question.

But I do think they are less useful within coaching than they were once thought.

I’ve come to this conclusion both through my years of coaching and, more importantly, from how I live my own life.

Goals and the Three Levels of Coaching

In the early days of coaching, goals made a lot of sense. Coaching primarily concerned itself with specific outcomes (classic SMART goals) and this approach became known as performance coaching. Sir John Whitmore’s book, “Coaching For Performance”, was the epitome of this and introduced us to GROW.

It wasn’t long, though, before coaching became more nuanced and developmental coaching and transformative coaching emerged, drawing from different bodies of work and supporting different needs.

In each case, the focus and outcome of the coaching changed.

Performance coaching focused on goal achievement.

Developmental coaching focused on learning and competence

Transformative coaching focused on critical self-reflection that leads to wider personal change.

Already, within this tripartite schema, the centrality of goal-setting was shifting.

Goals vs Outcomes

Yet, I would argue it goes deeper.

Unless a coach is truly focused on improving performance specifically, say, running further and faster, in which the outcome can be clearly measured, most humanistic coaching (ie. non-directive) focuses more on outcomes than goals.

This might sound like splitting hairs but there’s a big difference between the two.

Goals are typically specific and measurable and time-bound. As the saying goes, what can’t be measured can’t be managed.

If I set a goal to run a marathon in 4 hours in 12 months, that’s a pretty clear outcome which I could safely call a goal. How I get there may vary and might include work to be done on mindset, physical strength, habits and so on. But the focus is on that explicit goal.

Outcomes, on the other hand, may be looser, more subjective and able to adapt to the emerging experience of change as it unfolds.

A goal is an outcome. An outcome is not necessarily a goal.

Let’s take a look at a real example of this from my own life.

Case Study: My coaching journey as a client in 2022

Last year I undertook a series of coaching sessions as a client of Susie Burdekin in which my stated outcome was to figure out how to become happier and more congruent within my role in my business.

I didn’t want to be involved in the day-to-day running of the business but I also didn’t want to be just an uninvolved shareholder.

Animas still mattered to me hugely but since I get bored with detail and routine, I can be a real problem in my own business if I insert myself too much into it.

Having retired briefly from 2018 to 2021 to live on a boat, I also learned some critical lessons on what can go wrong and what I am prepared to accept.

I came to the coaching with only the vaguest notion of what the ultimate outcome was and the journey was one of exploration and emergence rather than of planning towards a clearly defined goal.

I went on a 6-month journey with Susie in which we worked with what was presenting itself, what I was feeling and thinking, and what this meant to the overall journey we were on.

I had no idea what the solutions would be nor what the goal was. But I did know that by the end I wanted to have learned more about myself in relation to my business and my life. And I knew that I wanted things to change and to feel differently.

At no point would I call what I had a goal, as such. It was far too ill-defined to be called that. But I had feelings in the here-and-now that gave clues to my current experiences and I had a sense of what I wanted to feel like in the future.

By the end of the 6 sessions of coaching, through Susie’s questions and reflections, I was in a very different place. I had removed myself from most of the daily work, I had accelerated the installation of a new Managing Director in place and I was able to focus on the stuff that piqued my interest – such as writing posts like these.

I’d also carved out time to enjoy being in the world more and for embracing what life meant to me on a day-to-day basis that wasn’t only about the business.

The coaching journey was not about goal-setting and planning but about exploration, reflection and emergence.

Yes, it was also about practical outcomes based on decisions and actions that I made along the way but they were not guided by or directed towards a specific, predefined goal.

Most People Don’t Come To Coaching With Goals

Implicit in my story above are the qualities of unknowing and emergence.

I came to the coaching with a feeling of something not being right but no clear picture of what the outcome would be.

In my experience, this is what most coaching entails.

It has been rare for me, as a coach, to have a client come with (excuse my play on the words of Boris Johnson here) an oven-ready goal.

Indeed, I think that, unless you are seeking specific expertise from a coach (to go back to my earlier example, how to run faster) then most people who know their goal will pursue it without the need for a coach.

What makes coaching useful is that most people are unsure of what they want, fearful of the journey, uncertain whether they can really do what’s needed and ambivalent about their possibilities.

Humanistic coaching lends itself to exploration and emergence to address these feelings far more than it does accountability, commitment and planning.

A great many coaches started their training with the GROW model and learned to help clients set specific goals and explore how they might achieve them. We’d interrogate our client’s level of commitment and desire and we’d probe the clarity of their decisions and plans.

I recall with some embarrassment now the conversations as a coach when I would ask things like: “When will you do that, specifically? Morning or afternoon? What time?”

Before or after your tea and biscuits?!

I’m not saying that this level of specificity can’t be useful, but, I tend to believe that once someone gets clear on what they really want and explores what’s holding them back, the rest begins to take care of itself.

Few people turn up to coaching with a clear goal that they just need help planning and executing.

They turn up in a state of confusion, ambivalence, uncertainty and dissatisfaction.

The Risk Of Goal-Setting

The risk of goal-setting is that it can foreclose exploration of the bigger picture and limit what we see as we pursue it.

For instance, little did I know that in the course of my coaching last year, that I would reconnect to my desire for adventure and being in the world. This led to my cycling across France and then Belgium in 2022 as a way to reconnect to this. In 2023, I am to cycle from the toe of Italy back to the UK. My passion for physical adventure has been reignited!

A single-minded focus on a particular goal at the start may have led to greatly reduced scope of our conversation that, for me, provided a rich and important landscape of self-awareness.

The coaching became as much a journey of getting to know myself (or to re-know myself) as it was an exploration of an end point that would lead me to a more effective role in my business.

But Isn’t That Therapy?

One question which is less prevalent now but still comes up frequently around this is:

“But isn’t that therapy?”

If coaches work with ambiguity and ambivalence, they can sometimes be seen as not so much coaching as edging into the realm of therapy.

But why should that be?

Coaching is simply an approach to non-directive, self-initiated, dialogic exploration and change.

Whilst this mirrors the essential principles and practices of therapy, the main difference is what is being explored and, perhaps, a clearer focus on crystallising decisions.

For instance, it would not have made any sense for me to take my question around my role at Animas into therapy. There was no emotional stuckness, no suffering, no trauma. It was just one person (me) dealing with choices and aiming to achieve clarity of mind through a process of dialogue that allowed me to be unashamedly in the spotlight.

Transformative Coaching and Navigating Choice

And this, I believe, is the power and importance of transformative coaching.

Despite the somewhat grand name, transformative coaching is simply a purposeful exploration of an individual’s worldview, sense-making, paradigms, personal constructs, values, hopes, fears and so on, in order to help them navigate complex choices that, almost invariably, bring some level of emotional response.

For some time, I have described transformative coaching as the state of the art in navigating life through dialogue and relationship.

We all have to choose, to decide, to act, to live out our time, and the place of transformative coaching is in helping us do that more purposefully.

It is one of the most truly egalitarian and empowering approaches around since it rejects the idea of right and wrong in favour of the subjective experience and journey. It also accepts that people are always in a state of emergence through both a deepening understanding of themselves and the world and the fact that the world around them is also changing. A goal can become too static within that.

Coaching creates the space for inquiry, reflection, challenge and decision-making based on the assumption of autonomy, respect and curiosity. Goal-setting is merely one possibility within this conversation and an overemphasis on it erodes the very power that coaching offers.

Summary

You might not agree with my definition of goal-setting in respect to all this but it feels quite clear to me, personally, that goal-setting and goal-achievement is a very different thing from what I am describing here as transformative coaching.

Goal-setting and achievement may indeed come into this as someone gains greater clarity, especially if that person benefits from a sense of accountability. But in this case, goal-setting is not so much a central component as a potential end point for a journey of discovery.

I still believe in goal-setting, especially for the areas of life where a greater level of control can be brought. Personally, I set very specific goals for my business every year and I also set goals for myself around exercise. These are small elements within my wider life.

But when I go on a long ride across parts of Europe, I don’t think of this as a goal because my desire and aims change as I do it. It is an outcome of enjoyment and adventure that might take me into places I had never thought to experience.

Nick is the founder and CEO of Animas Centre for Coaching and the International Centre for Coaching Supervision. Nick is an existentially oriented coach and supervisor with a passion for the ideas, principles and philosophy that sits behind coaching.

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