It is, perhaps, no surprise that many coaches have images of butterflies on their websites. The journey of the humble caterpillar into majestic butterfly is an obvious trope for what coaching seeks to do – bring about change. If coaches are broadly seeking to achieve the same overarching impact, does this mean that all approaches are broadly the same too?
Whilst there might be one way for a caterpillar to turn into a butterfly there are, in fact, numerous ways for coaches to help people achieve change and not all coaches choose to work in a transformational way. Some focus on identifying and developing client’s strengths; others may offer techniques for breaking or forming habits; some may prefer to work at the level of goal-setting and action-planning and offer the client accountability to achieve progress on a plan. None of these approaches are wrong. All are without doubt useful for the right person at the right time. But these are not the preferred methodologies for a coach seeking to support a client in transformational change.
What is Transformational Coaching?
Coaches are encouraged to adopt a psychological approach when working with clients, exploring the client’s world, both inside and out. They are deeply interested in clients’ beliefs, values, expectations, assumptions and the psychological patterns that guide how they show up in life or the workplace. We all hold a map of the world in our minds, a composite of our experiences and perceptions and stories and scripts that affect how we show up, what risks we’ll take, how we communicate, how we love. By holding space for the psychological, we are inviting the whole person to present themselves for coaching, not simply their cognitive or intellectual thinking mind, thereby offering the potential to transform and update their map of the world.
Coaches hold and build on the assumption that clients are whole, unbroken and they have the resources they need to make changes. This is such an important point it’s worth stating again: clients are not broken. They don’t need fixing. They are whole. Clients therefore meet their coaches as equals, two equal thinking partners exploring the territory together. The coach is not the expert, does not have the answers and will not give advice. Rather, they show up in partnership with the client, supporting positive dialogue to realise the client’s inner wisdom.
Transformational coaches are grounded in a range of different schools of thought, offering them both breadth and depth in how to work with their clients. It’s not about finding the quickest way from A to B. Much more, it’s about allowing the client’s story to unravel before bringing in an intervention – and being willing to drop the intervention and move on to something else just as quickly if it’s not landing for the client. Different coaches may develop preferences for a particular way of working. All will bring their own unique presence to the relationship. So Transformational Coaching is not one thing as such, but will show up as a very alive, nuanced approach even amongst different transformational coaching practitioners.
Taking a holistic approach is part of what makes a transformational approach so rewarding. Coaches learn to pay attention to all aspects of a client’s experience – the cognitive, affective, somatic, relational and behavioural dimensions. They’re listening out for what clients say, how they say it, what they’re omitting. They’re looking out for patterns, of language or behaviour. They notice emotional or physiological changes in the clients – cheeks colouring, breath quickening, hands wringing – all of this is valuable data, a potential source of insight. The coach also uses their own holistic system to mine for valuable information: with permission, they may share how the client is impacting on them, images or metaphors that come to mind for them, physiological sensations they’re experiencing. This is the root of the partnership – two whole people, in dialogue, searching for meaning and insight.
What Does a Transformational Coach Do?
How might it look, to work with a transformational coach? What actually happens in a session? In many ways, the coaching approach may look and feel similar to other approaches, but the framework provides a key difference. Marcia Reynolds, founding member and former global president of the ICF, puts it this way:
Transformational Coaching is interested in getting to the root, rather than dealing with surface level solutions or quick fixes, in order to achieve that more long-lasting, developmental change Marcia mentions. It transforms something at a level usually beyond the client’s cognitive thinking capacity alone. This requires a certain level of skill and confidence on behalf of the coach, and there are some key attributes they need in order to achieve this:
Learning how to keep the coaching on track and relevant is a key skill for the coach, particularly as the focus for the sessions may change, as the client starts to go deeper under the skin of the initial issue or problem they brought to coaching.
Challenge is crucial at a number of levels, including; challenging the client over the topic they’re bringing, supporting them to delve deeper, challenging assumptions they may have, bringing blind spots into focus, and challenging them to bring into the space what isn’t being said.
The transformational coach sees themselves as an equal thinking partner with the client and they collaborate together on focus, pace, content. The coach isn’t fixed on one way of working so is willing to try something out and then move on if it doesn’t resonate with the client.
Curiosity and Enquiry
Coaches are committed to the uncertainty of not knowing – not knowing how a session will go, what path should be taken, what questions to ask. This is curiosity in action. Questions and lines of enquiry will emerge in the moment, as the coach responds to a deep, natural curiosity, for the whole person sitting in front of them.
Space and Silence
Space is crucial in allowing the client to access the wisdom of their entire system. The coach is not interested in a theoretical or intellectual conversation. Rather, they want to hold space for the client to connect to their bodies, their emotions, their intuition. Silence is a hugely powerful tool for coaches to employ, trusting that the client can endure the potential discomfort in order to find the next insight to move the session along.
This is a skill that requires coaches to take a leap of faith; what helps them take that leap is remaining entirely unattached to any outcome. Practicing the skill of noticing is to offer the client, with permission, aspects that the client may not be aware of; how they’re moving, sitting, words or phrases they use or other verbal or behavioural patterns. Equally, the coach may offer what they’re noticing within themselves; certain images or metaphors that come to mind, a tightness in their chest, the impact the client is having on them.
Because the transformational coach is trying to get to the root of an issue, there are times when intuition is going to offer the most powerful nudge in a session. Going with your gut, not your head, can unlock something beyond the logical mind. Opening a side door and inviting the client to peek through it with you – “I don’t know why, but is this relevant? Is there something here?” A disconnected hunch, metaphor or word can pivot a session on its axis.
Coaches have the flexibility to draw on a range of approaches, meaning they are open to trying something out, in the moment. They might invite the client to move around the room, to draw or doodle, to find an object in the room that signifies the topic they’re discussing, to move up and down a scale expressing themselves at different points on the ladder…the possibilities are endless, influenced by the courage, imagination and inquisitiveness of each individual coach.
How Does this approach benefit the client?
If we look at the etymology of the word transform, it shows that it comes from trans: meaning across or beyond and formare: to form. So, transformation means forming across, or beyond. This conjures images of paths or bridges reaching across, into the beyond, the as yet not known.
Working with a Transformational Coaching approach means we’re offering people the chance to form some new insight, awareness or understanding of themselves beyond what is currently available to them. Together with their coach, they walk into new ground.
Part of what makes Transformational Coaching so special is that transforming the part is transforming the whole. If a client transforms just one outmoded belief and updates it to something more powerful, then the brain ripples this new information through all of its files and reorders and updates accordingly. One assumption that is challenged will require thousands of stories stored in the mind to be updated. One behaviour bought into plain sight will require a whole sequence of other behaviours to adapt in its wake. Any change therefore impacts the client at both the micro and macro level, as they move forward on their life’s journey.
Transformational Coaching gives clients an experience of discovering and awareness raising, so they can adapt to change in an on-going way. After all, integration of the small pieces happens over time, in an on-going fashion. Such is the miraculous mystery of the mind. If we work at the root, the power of the coaching keeps working long after the sessions have ended. Now that’s truly transformational.