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Challenging coaching: Time to face the facts


Where is your business on the coaching spectrum? Ian Day and John Blakey tell us about the FACTS approach.
Consider a continuum from 0 to 10, with 0 representing a coaching style that is totally supportive, attending to the client's agenda with empathy, summarising and active listening in a safe environment and where 10 represents a totally challenging coaching style which positively confronts, holds the client accountable, provides honest feedback, challenges assumptions with an intuitive and risky 'edge'. Everyone has a natural coaching style and so if you were to assess your default position on this continuum where would you be? Maybe 0, 3, 8, or 10? When carrying out this exercise with coaches over the past three years, we have found most place themselves in the range 3 to 5. This is not surprising as most coaches want to help and support people, and when we started our own coaching ten years ago we would have also scored ourselves at a 4 on this spectrum.
However, our style has changed as the world has changed – our default style now lies in the range 6 to 8 and we believe it is time for coaching as a whole to become more challenging and for coaches to develop challenging skills so that they can stretch their coaching style up to a 10 on this continuum as and when necessary in the service of the individual and the wider organisational system.
"The traditional, person-centred notions of being non-directive, holding the coachee's agenda and building rapport are foundations for effective coaching, but also come with limitations and risks."
How did we get to this starting point? Well, coaching is a young profession which accelerated its development by adopting many of the supportive skills and approaches of its fellow profession of counselling. This has undoubtedly served coaching well and helped it to quickly become a mainstream development intervention with competency frameworks, supervision, principles and codes of ethics. However, we would argue that this legacy of person-centred counselling is now holding back coaching and preventing it from becoming all it can be as a transformational force within a 21st century business environment.
The traditional, person-centred notions of being non-directive, holding the coachee's agenda and building rapport are foundations for effective coaching, but also come with limitations and risks. There is the risk that the coach colludes with the coachee, trusting in their isolated view of reality without reference to other perspectives. If a coach holds strictly to the coachee's agenda irrelevance can occur as the conversation becomes detached from the wider organisational context. For example, how many coaches have asked themselves the following question in the midst of a coaching conversation - "How did we get here and what on earth has this got to do with the people that are paying me to be in front of this person right now?" Finally, there is the risk of self-obsession, focusing only on the individual's short-term wants rather the longer term organisational needs and fuelling a 'me, me, me' attitude - the very attitude that pervaded in the business culture of the boom years and which many commentators believe was a contributing factor to the subsequent financial crisis.
The diagram below, originally researched by Daloz amongst others, demonstrates that there are two variables which are essential to maximise performance: support and challenge. It is when these two are out of balance that performance suffers. Too often in business (and in life in general) people avoid challenging interventions fearing that these will cause disruption and create ill-will. However, a high level of challenge is not inherently 'wrong' and in fact the absence of challenge in a business environment risks complacency, indulgence, apathy and disinterest. When the stakes are high, a lack of challenge causes people to 'play small' in an environment that is forever demanding that they step up. The key is that challenge is provided alongside equally high levels of support.
The high support / high challenge area of this matrix is where growth and development can be maximised. This is the 'loving boot' which can stimulate and 'kick' a person to pursue a new direction or goal and to achieve high performance.
We propose a conscious, intelligent use of both support and challenge skills where the coach can dynamically shift depending upon the circumstances and environment. Take the metaphor of a train on a track; it can only go backwards and forwards and on a limited gradient. Compare this with an all-terrain, four wheel drive vehicle, which has the power and ability to go in any direction and handle any gradient as the environment changes. If we switch back to coaching with our preferred style and default position then, without knowing it, the coach may be like that train on a track - only able to go in one straight, gradual line. However, if a coach develops awareness of the support / challenge matrix they will be more like the all-terrain vehicle, being flexible and dynamic to respond appropriately as the coaching relationship develops, changes and grows.
So what are the skills a coach needs to develop to avoid the risks highlighted above and ensure an optimum balance of support and challenge? Through our coaching experience and observation of the economic, social and business trends we have distilled the essence of our experience into the five cornerstones of a more challenging coaching stance known as FACTS coaching:
  • Feedback - How does a coach provide challenging feedback that informs and inspires? How can we ensure that praise and recognition for a job well done is balanced with honest feedback on mistakes, learnings and failures? How can team collusion and compromise be avoided by skillful yet direct interventions?
  • Accountability - How does a coach hold people accountable for commitments without blame or shame? How can accountability be extended from personal commitments to alignment with the values, strategy and ethos of the wider organisation? How can coaches anticipate the rising tide of accountability in the world at large and role model this behaviour in their daily work?
  • Courageous Goals – How does a coach or leader move beyond rational, linear, incremental goal setting models such as SMART to goal setting models that engage the right-brain attributes of courage, excitement, inspiration and transformation? What models and concepts help structure these conversations and provide a practical road map? What blocks this approach in the world of business?
  • Tension - When is tension constructive? How can coaches practice creating and holding tension without risking burnout in key performers? How can the tension in a conversation be calibrated and dynamically adjusted to ensure peak performance? When does tension go too far and damage the underlying relationships?
  • Systems Thinking - How can a coach stay sensitive to 'big picture' issues such as ethics, diversity, and the environment without losing focus on 'bottom line' results? What can be learnt from the world of systems thinking that enables the coach to be a positive agent of change for the wider organisation? What is the role of intuition in guiding interventions that reach beyond the immediate coachee and touch upon deeper organisational changes?
"FACTS should be regarded as a further development of coaching skills once the core skills have been mastered and a firm foundation of a trust and respect has been established."

By using the acronym FACTS we grounded the approach in a word that sums up a theme of realism, honesty and challenge. Many coaches will already be practising many of these skills on an ad-hoc basis, however, we would encourage coaches to 'turn up the volume' and consistently apply these skills proactively and professionally. FACTS coaching is not to be regarded as a sequential series of steps like other models such as GROW but as an integrated suite of thinking with dynamic elements that interact and overlap.

The behaviours and skills in FACTS are not used instead of the supportive skills and models of more traditional coaching approaches but rather to expand on these skills and leverage them to further improve performance and sustain the coaching impact. FACTS should be regarded as a further development of coaching skills once the core skills have been mastered and a firm foundation of a trust and respect has been established. From this starting point, a FACTS approach will provoke performance and change.

In summary, as coaches we need to walk the talk and find the challenging edge of our coaching. The edge that allows us to grow and so inspires our clients to grow with us amidst the shifting environment of business leadership. What is your edge? Are you willing to step up to it and accept the coaching challenge? Are you willing to face the FACTS?'
 "Come to the edge."
"We can't. We’re afraid."
"Come to the edge."
"We can't. We will fall!"
"Come to the edge."
And they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.
- Guillaume Apollinaire
Ian and John's book 'Challenging Coaching– Going beyond traditional coaching to face the FACTS' published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing is available on Amazon. More resources can be accessed via This is the first of a monthly column on TrainingZone to explore the detail of challenging coaching 

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