One of the enduringly fascinating questions in coaching is why it actually works. To consider this question, a valuable body of research is that of common factors theory. Believe it or not, we’ve been talking about why therapy and coaching work for over 80 years. The common factors research suggests that elements such as client resources, strengths, supports and practitioner attitudes – warmth, empathy, compassion and many others account for about 70% of the beneficial changes a client experiences. These ideas area discussed widely in what remains one of the best books on the subject – The Heart and Soul of Change.
Still, the question remains – why do these elements make such a difference?
In coach training, we teach the 3 core skills – “doing skills”, if you will, or “micro-skills” – deep listening, open inquiry and reflection. These are embedded in the words of Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, who lived from about 50 CE to 135 CE. He was born into slavery in what is now Turkey, living many of those enslaved years in Rome, before gaining his freedom as an adult. He moved to Greece and established a school of philosophy. Among many other profound reflections on the nature of being human, Epictetus observed this: “We have two ears and one mouth - we should therefore use them in that proportion.”
Applied to coaching, such a view centralises the skill of listening, as the most important of the three core skills. Listening demonstrates a deep commitment to being present for another person. It also provides the foundation on which the other two core skills – open inquiry and reflection – are built. Without listening, any inquiries would be “unanchored”, and reflections would be impossible.
Open inquiry embodies the attitude of curiosity in coaching. Curiosity is key to remaining “non-judgmental”. Curious open inquiry communicates to the client a desire to know and learn about them. It is “co-created” by client and coach, in that a client’s response to one inquiry then has a shaping response on the following inquiry. At its best, curious open inquiry conveys to a person that their story, however it emerges, has value.
Reflection is the skill which “closes the loop” of communication – it tells the sender of a message that it has been received and understood as intended. This approach is already used in many industries all over the world including aviation, marine, rescue, first response and more. The importance of understanding a message as intended is embedded in those industries. Yet in interpersonal communication, we sometimes make the assumption that because something has been said, it has been understood. Reflection helps the speaker to be confident that they have conveyed the message they wish to convey.
When these three skills – deep listening, open inquiry, reflection - are used together, they do the work of establishing channels of communication. But they do much more than this – they provide a “meta-communication” to the client which builds a bridge between two unalike beings and forges a bond which says:
I am with you
I want to learn about you
I see you
I hear you
I understand you