What is Transformative Coaching?

What is transformative coaching

31st March 2022

Author: Nick Bolton

What is transformative coaching?

This is not a question that can be answered comprehensively in a short blog post.  Indeed, even as I write this article, I am writing a whole book on the subject of transformative coaching.

However, my aim here is to convey the essence of transformative coaching so that, by the end of this article, you’ll have a better idea of:

How transformative coaching builds on traditional coaching
The core assumptions of transformative coaching
The kind of issues transformative coaching lends itself to
How a transformative coach typically works
The stages of transformative change
The 5 Animas Stances of Transformative Coaching
Whether transformative coaching is the right approach for you if you’re looking to train as a coach

What is transformative coaching?

Transformative coaching is a specific form of coaching that encourages critical reflection of how someone sees themselves, other people, their situation and the world at large.

In other words, it seeks to evoke greater insight by the client of their mental map, or paradigm, that is a core part of the challenge they bring to coaching.

Our simple definition is:

Transformative coaching explores a client’s inner world of beliefs, assumptions, values and expectations in order to create greater possibilities for ways of being in life.

Transformative coaching works on the assumption that there is a deeper set of mental frameworks at play that are, at least partially, contributing to the challenge a client is experiencing.

In other words, how that person sees things impacts how they deal with them.

To be clear, though, this is not to deny the reality of the situation they find themselves in, eg: losing a job, developing a relationship, experiencing discrimination, struggling with health, or whatever the area of life is.  Rather it is that, alongside the reality, the change needed or wanted in the situation will be greatly enhanced, and possibly even fundamentally changed, by a deeper understanding and loosening of the mental maps that the client holds.

In this sense, transformative coaching seeks to free people from the meaning-making and assumptions that are keeping them stuck, and to create new possibilities for ways of being, thinking and feeling.

To use the classic analogy, transformative coaching helps the fish see the water that it didn’t even know they were swimming in!

But wait…how does transformative coaching relate to traditional coaching?

Before we look further at transformative coaching, let’s establish how it fits within the practice of coaching that has emerged over the last 30 years.

Coaching itself is a difficult word to pin down.  For instance, a tennis coach is a significantly different kind of coach from the type we’re referring to in this article.  

What we’re really discussing here is humanistic coaching – a form of coaching that emerged in the latter part of the 20th century and drew from the assumptions of humanistic psychology, management theory and sports psychology.

The Principles of Coaching

Without getting lost in too much detail, the essence of such coaching is that it is:
Client-led: the topic for discussion is led by the client, not the coach.
Dialogic: it is a process of conversation using questions, reflection and other dialectic approaches.
Client-initiated and realised: the change a client wants is brought about by their own actions rather than done for them.
Non-advisory: it assumes the client can come to the best answer for themselves, or at least that, in trying to, they will learn at a deeper level.
Change oriented: it focuses on creating change rather than, say, emotional release for coping, and so typically has well-established goals or outcomes.
Focused on potential and self-actualisation: it assumes that people can grow and change to become happier and realise more of their potential.

The Practice of Coaching

The practice of coaching seeks to enable these principles through the coaching conversation.

At the most basic level, coaches ask clients what they are looking to achieve from the coaching journey or from a specific session, and then explore this through a process of questioning, reflecting, clarifying, challenging and decision-making about what the client is going to do.

In the early years of the profession, coaching conversations focused predominantly on behavioural shifts in the client.  In particular, it helped clients establish clear goals and move towards them, and it was at this time that well-known models such as GROW were developed.

This focus on behavioural change was, most likely, a kind of professional individuation – an attempt by the emerging profession to create clear blue water between itself and the many forms of talking therapies that were more focused on the “why” of an issue – the causal factors – and on emotional catharsis.

At some point though, it became clear that this behaviourally-focused approach had serious limitations.  

The single-minded focus on the goal often failed to help the client question what was driving their desires in the first place.  In addition, whilst exploring beliefs had always been an important part of coaching, it was typically done in a way that was about realigning the belief to the requirements of the goal attainment rather than gaining a deeper understanding of those beliefs and the wider role they played in that person’s life.

Ultimately, these limitations led to coaching becoming more nuanced, complex and human-centric.  Transformative coaching was one outcome of this development.

To understand this more clearly, it is helpful to take a look at the concept of the three levels of coaching and change.

Three Levels of Coaching and Change

For some time now, coaching has been loosely divided into three main types, each with their own change-focus.

Behavioural Coaching
Developmental Coaching
Transformative Coaching

All of these coaching types respect the essential principles of coaching described above but they vary in where the attention and intention for change lies.

One important thing to say right off the bat is that these approaches differ in how they are done but they are not better or worse. Each has a place in the coaching world based on what a client is looking for.

Behavioural Coaching

In behavioural coaching, the focus is almost solely on achieving an agreed outcome or goal.  

The coaching is typically more task oriented, though it may tackle things like beliefs if they are a barrier to the goal-achievement.  

Such coaching can be very effective since it is based around highly-controllable aspects of someone’s life – deciding what they want, making a plan and taking action.  However, it tends only to be effective when the client truly wants what they say they want!

This kind of coaching is ideal when someone knows what they want to achieve and are seeking a process for focus, challenge and accountability.

Developmental Coaching

In developmental coaching, the focus tends to be on developing greater competence in a given sphere of life.

This includes leadership, relationships, communication, health and other areas where there is a lifelong engagement with that theme.

Whereas behavioural coaching is focused on short-term goals, developmental coaching is focused on wider issues in which a client begins to build strengths that have a longer term impact.

This kind of coaching is ideal where a client feels they could achieve more, or have better outcomes, if they were to develop greater strengths.

Transformative Coaching

In transformative coaching, the focus is on helping a client become more aware of their deeper, often taken-for-granted, assumptions that shape how they experience their life or a given situation.  

The ultimate aim of transformative coaching is to create perspective shift, or as the transformative learning theorist, Jack Mezirow, described it, a change in a person’s frame of reference.

For many people, life is not clear.  They don’t have clear goals and they’re not looking to simply develop a strength in a part of their life.  They are challenged by a much wider question of meaning, purpose, value and satisfaction.  Similarly, they may encounter moments that make them question their very identity – becoming a parent, retiring, divorce, changing careers, suffering a loss, for example.

For people facing these questions, it can often be unhelpful to go charging off in pursuit of a goal – this can be more akin to covering up the cracks with a plaster.

Transformative coaching, then, has its biggest role when someone enters coaching in a degree of confusion or, to use an underused word, discombobulation! 

Transformative coaching can also come to the fore when another form of coaching is confronted by issues that show a lack of congruence in what the client says and what they do. 

How the three levels of coaching work together

At this stage, if you’re thinking of training as a coach, you might be wondering how you would possibly know if you should pursue transformative coaching or another kind of coaching.  

The good news is that you don’t have to decide.

The three forms of coaching work well together and it is down to the coach and the client to get a sense of what’s needed and to respond over time to what emerges.  

For instance, a client might come with what seems a pretty clear goal but time and again they fail to take the action they commit to.  It might be that as you explore this together, you realise there is a deeper issue at stake here and one that begins to call into question the original goal.  And so, behavioural coaching moves into a transformative phase.

The reverse may be true too.  A broad inquiry into a client’s general sense of boredom with life might switch to behavioural coaching or developmental as they become clearer on what they really want and why.

What is clear from experience though is that a behaviourally trained coach will not necessarily have the skills or knowledge to work at the transformative level, but the transformative coach will certainly have been trained in both behavioural and developmental approaches.

When you learn to become a transformative coach, you will naturally also learn these other levels.

How does a transformative coach work with their client?

Earlier in this article, we explored, at a very basic level, the way a coach works: establishing outcomes; inquiry through questions and reflection, challenging assumptions; coming to new decisions; and agreeing next steps.

We also saw that, within coaching, there are three key levels of change which are loosely held by three types of coaching.

So to answer how a transformative coach works is relatively straightforward. They work in the same way as any other humanistic coach.  

The difference though is in the attention and intention.

When a coach is working transformatively, they are paying attention to the clues that suggest that there is a deeper belief or value at work behind the scenes.  

Their intention is to help the client explore this; to bring it out into the open and critically reflect on it allowing more room for change to take place.  Or, at the very least, for the client to own the fact that they have certain beliefs.

To give a concrete example, imagine someone who wants to find an intimate partner.  

At a behavioural level, a coach might help the client aim to go on one date per week and this might lead to a whole series of actions that include signing up to a dating site, completing their profile, having some photos taken, reaching out to a certain number of people and so on.

At a developmental level, the coach might help the client develop better relational skills, become better at asking questions rather than always talking, and exude more confidence.

At a transformative level, however, the coach might help the client see that the search for an intimate relationship is a repeating pattern that the client falls into when they are bored of current circumstances – when life feels a bit humdrum. They might help the client see that this is not useful for them or the people they date and to question whether this is the right solution.

That’s not to say the coach would encourage the client to not seek a relationship – the coach has no agenda – but certainly the aim would be to ensure that the client has taken a deeper look at their motivations, their assumptions and, in this case, the manner in which repeating patterns reveal a bigger picture that the client is broadly unaware of.

This might lead to the client reassessing their initial stance and taking time to think about what they really want from a relationship and whether now is the right time.

I like to imagine it as the coach surfacing all the moving parts of the issue – all the beliefs, assumptions, desires, values and so on – and putting them on the table to look at.  I picture the client’s look of surprise as they shuffle through all the bits with murmurs of “Wow! I had no idea that was there!”

The core assumptions of transformative coaching

Now we’ve seen what transformative coaching is, we can have a deeper look at the theoretical assumptions that set it apart.

Whilst it upholds all the assumptions that make up coaching in general, it also works from some additional assumptions.

Much of this was developed by Jack Mezirow, whose seminal book, Transformative Dimensions to Adult Learning, was published in 1991.  

From this book was born a whole field of education known as transformative learning.

Some of the key assumptions are that:

We cannot ever truly know the world as it is.  Rather we do our best to make sense of the world and we make meaning based on limited information.
Much of this meaning-making is taken from wider systems that act as shortcuts.  In other words, most of the time we are operating from ways of thinking that we have taken unconsciously from the wider systems we are a part of, whether that be family, organisations, society, nation state and so on.
We are able to free ourselves from the taken-for-granted assumptions that shape our life by engaging in some form of critical reflection – in other words, a deliberate attempt to understand and question our frames of reference that make up our worldview.
This is helped by dialogue in which one person is able to provoke new awareness in the other through questions, reflections and provocations.
And finally, it doesn’t matter what is true or not, what ultimately matters is the person’s experience.

Whilst Mezirow didn’t conceptualise this with coaching in mind, it certainly translates perfectly!

Mezirow goes on to share what he described as the 10 Stages of Transformative Learning which we also find are directly transferable to coaching and which, with some creative thinking, can be mapped to the three core forms of coaching.

Mezirow’s 10 stages are:

  1. An individual encounters a disorienting dilemma
  2. They undertake a process of self-examination
  3. They critically assess their assumptions
  4. They recognise that others have shared similar transformations
  5. They explore new roles or actions
  6. They develop of a plan for action
  7. They seek to gain new knowledge and skills for implementing the plan
  8. The try out the plan in the world
  9. They develop competence and self-confidence in new roles
  10. They begin to integrate these new perspectives into their self and their life

Whilst we don’t have space to explore this in great detail here, it is worth noting that the first 5 steps focus on the transformative approach, steps 6 to 8 take a behavioural approach and 9 and 10 a more developmental approach.  Thus we see how the three coaching styles can be integrated under a transformative umbrella.

The Animas 5 Stances of Transformative Coaching

At Animas, we have stripped transformative coaching down to 5 core stances, or principles, that act as the DNA of the work we do.

In brief these are:

The Phenomenological Stance

Essentially, this says that what has greatest validity and meaning in the coaching journey is the client’s own experience of their challenge.  It matters little what we think or even what is fundamentally true if the client doesn’t experience it this way.  Much of the role of the coach is bringing awareness to the client’s experience and enabling them to question it.

The Humanistic Stance

This stance puts human growth, potential and personal agency as core attributes of a human’s natural condition. This in turn allows the coach to take a position of unconditional positive regard to the human in front of them and allow for the process of respect, non-judgement and inquiry.  Finally, it assumes that the client has the power and ability to make some difference in their life.

The Holistic & Systemic Stance

Balancing the previous stance, the systemic stance recognises that we are all part of much wider systems that shape and influence us and which provide an often taken-for-granted and powerful set of beliefs that we taken on board and live out.  Thus whilst celebrating the individual, transformative coaching explores how these wider forces are playing out and how the client can become more critically aware of them.

The Psychological Stance

It would be fair to say that transformative work is inherently psychological since it is focused on creating internal shifts rather than only external changes.  As part of our approach, we therefore look to work with psychological approaches that enable a loosening and reassessment of existing patterns rather than only working on existing strengths or methods of self-management.

The Integrative Stance

The fifth stance wraps around the other four in providing an integrative approach to the work.  In essence, this means exploring multiple ways of working from across different schools of thought but which connect to the unifying theory of transformative change.  It this approach that allows us to teach often contradictory psychological frameworks such as cognitive behavioural approaches and psychodynamically influenced approaches such as transactional analysis.

Together these five stances provide a mental framework that the coach is able to adopt and work across.

Of course, this isn’t something that is mastered overnight and the journey to becoming a transformative coach is one of incrementally growing skills and slowly spreading your competence across the full spectrum of work. 

Is there a difference between transformative and transformational coaching?

To some degree the words “transformational” and “transformative” are synonymous.  Indeed, our own course used to be called the Diploma in Transformational Coaching.

However, we chose to rename it to transformative less from the real meaning of the word than how transformational as a word is used within coaching.

Transformational is now often used more as an aspirational word without necessarily referring to a substantive theoretical foundation. 

The risk here is that the word transformational becomes almost meaningless and able to be applied to anything without inferring a specific theoretical or practical stance.

We chose to adopt transformative for our approach to coaching to more clearly indicate its origins in transformative learning and the philosophy and psychology that this springs from.

Having said that, we have also noticed the interchangeable use of transformational and transformative in learning theory too so it seems that this is a semantic question in other fields struggle with!  Our own sense is that we wish to be clear that for us transformative is not simply an aspirational descriptor but a reference to a way of thinking about how people make sense of the world through frames of reference that can be potentially rigid and constraining yet always open to revision when questioned.

Is transformative coaching the right approach for you if you’re looking to train as a coach?

Transformative coach training is not for everyone and it’s good to become clear on whether it’s right for you.

Who shouldn’t train as a transformative coach?

Manager as coach

If your aim is to gain core coaching skills to support team members perform better at work then transformative coaching is probably overkill. You might enjoy the course and yourself might find yourself enjoying transformation but it is probably the wrong kind of coaching for your team.  One minute you’re their manager, the next you’re uncovering their deeper beliefs.  That’s not always appropriate or, indeed, needed.

Aspiring therapists

Transformative coaching is also not for you if you’re looking for doing therapeutic work.  This is a risk with transformative coaching.  It can sometimes look like some talking therapies and can lead people to treat it as a shortcut to such work. 

However, therapy typically works with more intractable issues, often born of deeper trauma and typically with a great deal of intense emotions.  Whilst emotions are a core part of coaching – they are human after all – there is often a qualitative difference in the nature and intensity of emotion that comes from therapeutic issues.

It is ethically imperative that coaches work with coaching issues rather than therapeutic ones.

You like to have all the answers 

Finally, if you’re someone who loves to have all the answers (and, who knows, perhaps you do!) then transformative coaching is only going to frustrate you.  

Transformative coaching is based on “not knowing”, not ”knowing”. 

It is a space of inquiry and curiosity, of a gentle untangling of thoughts and beliefs, an emergent process that leads to multiple possibilities, a journey of learning.

Who should train as a transformative coach?

If you want to work with people at a deep level of change and if you’re fascinated by the individual’s own journey of meaning-making in life, then transformative coaching will be right for you.

The life coach

Transformative coaching is ideal for life coaches who help individuals navigate the complexities and uncertainties of life. Life coaching supports clients in all areas of their lives through the process of inquiry described above and there is no doubt in my mind that life coaching benefits from the transformative lens.

The internal coach

It is also a good fit for those who want to become internal coaches within organisations.  To be clear here, I don’t mean coaching your team members, but rather acting as a coach to parts of the organisation without attachment to the outcomes they produce.

The associate coach

Increasingly coaching is being provided by mega organisations who pass work to a huge cohort of freelance coaches.  Organisations such as BetterUp and CoachHub.  

Transformative coaching can be a great fit for the clients of these organisations as you will typically be coaching them without agenda and so taking a truly humanistic approach to the coaching.

The coach-therapist/coach-consultant

Finally, this style of coaching is often an excellent fit for therapists and consultants who work with clients over long periods of time and who are looking to add a coaching element to their work. The depth and spaciousness of transformative coaching complements these ways of working well.

In general, transformative coaching is for anyone who wants to coach at a deeper level of change but also who wants to be able to move across the three approaches to coaching, behavioural, developmental and transformative with ease.

Conclusion

I recognise that I am scratching the surface of transformative coaching here.

There is much more we could explore including diving deeper into our 5 Principles of Transformative Coaching. Indeed, I recently gave a series of lectures on these which can be found on our YouTube site under the Transformative Coaching Series playlist.

What I hope to have conveyed here though is what makes transformative coaching specifically transformative, that it contains certain assumptions about how people make meaning and how this can be critically reflected upon, and that all transformative coaching is not better than other forms of coaching but serves a specific function in helping a client loosen their fixed frames of reference on themselves, other people and the world.

Author Details

Nick Bolton

Nick is the founder and CEO of the Animas and International Centre for Coaching Supervision. Along with his love of coaching and supervision, he is a a passionate learner with a fascination for philosophy, psychology and sociology.

Categories: Coaching explained  

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