Updated: Aug 12
So, you can ask a question then say nothing more whilst the client talks for an hour. How is that coaching?
A valid question from a cynical friend, and one I thought was worthy of a considered answer.
Clients often have unclear expectations of coaching. Sometimes they are confusing coaching with training or mentoring, and very often they are expecting their coach to provide advice and answers.
Coaching sessions provide a space for busy people to take time to think and reflect on their choices, to consider solutions and identify actions they need to take to achieve the change they want.
On my website I tell potential clients that coaching is “about enabling a person to move towards a desired goal, overcome a problem, or make the most of an opportunity, whether at work or in their personal lives”, and that “coaching sessions provide a space for busy people to take time to think and reflect on their choices, to consider solutions and identify actions they need to take to achieve the change they want”.
Well, a Thinking Session offers the client all of those things, and possibly more.
What is a Thinking Session?
In a thinking session, which can form the whole of a coaching meeting or just a part of it, I am offering clients time to think for themselves, independently and without interruption. Rather than talking, my job is to model the 10 Components and be a Thinking Environment® for you. The agenda is owned totally by you, the client, and any input I do give, when and if I’m specifically asked for it, is brief before I hand back for you to continue with your freshest thinking.
There are many characteristics that identify a Thinking Session as a valid and effective framework for coaching. Let’s consider a few in turn.
Having a contract in place - setting out the agreed expectations of the client and coach in terms of where to meet, how long to meet for and how much to charge is a common feature of all coaching.
In addition to the overarching agreement, in each meeting contracting will take place so that you know and agree what to expect, whether that be a Thinking Session alone or any combination of approaches and activities.
And for every individual Thinking Session we very explicitly contract around the time available for the thinking and my promise as coach, not to interrupt you. Respecting the boundaries agreed is a key part of the component of Equality.
A generative Attention so powerful that you unleash your own most courageous and cutting edge thinking.
I’m sure all coaches would highlight their keen listening skills. In a Thinking Session though, that listening is taken to an extreme art form as I seek to provide a generative Attention so powerful that you unleash your own most courageous and cutting edge thinking, which is so much more relevant and attuned for your situation than mine could be.
Clients, like my cynical friend, might argue that giving Attention and Encouragement, rather than proffering my experience, a neat model or a challenge, is not coaching. However, there is still a place for these things, and I can offer them all – but only after you have finished your own thinking first!
“What do you want to think about and what are your thoughts?”
To a greater or lesser extent, all coaches would see asking questions as part of their role. And coaching in a Thinking Session is no exception. The difference is in the number of questions asked. Sometimes literally only one – “what do you want to think about and what are your thoughts?” You will be amazed how far this single question can get you!
A Thinking Environment coach doesn’t need to ask lots of distracting questions to understand the context or the problem. This is evidenced by occasions where breakthrough thinking has occurred as a result of the generative Attention provided by the coach, even when their client is speaking in language that they don’t know.
And whilst a Thinking Environment coach doesn’t explicitly invite the client to use silence for introspection, equally they do not seek to fill any silence, knowing that in the pause often the deepest thinking is occurring.
Positive emotions enhance cognitive resilience and broaden our repertoire of thoughts and behaviours.
Positive Psychology coaching (PCC) is based on an ever-increasing body of research that shows how positive emotions enhance cognitive resilience and broaden our repertoire of thoughts and behaviours, including increase in creativity and big-picture thinking. These findings also underpin the Thinking Environment component of Appreciation – starting my coaching sessions with a focus on what is going well for you, and finishing by appreciating you for a positive quality you show stimulates the pre-frontal cortex and helps your brain to think well both during and after our meeting.
The Thinking Environment is a philosophical approach as much as it is a technique. With its components of Equality and Difference and the concept of positive psychological choice at its heart, it is not unlike the Person-centred coaching methodology with its underpinning of unconditional positive regard.
Both approaches are driven by the client’s agenda and an underlying belief that the client has the best answers to their own questions.
Confidentiality and psychological safety
In a psychodynamic approach to coaching, the coach is required to create a “holding place” for their clients. This physical and psychological space where clients feel safe to open up with their thoughts and feelings is very much echoed in the Thinking Environment components of Place, Ease and Feelings.
What a Thinking Environment coach does not do, is encourage biographical disclosure or try to make explicit links between past and current events. In fact, often there is no reference made even to what we talked about in a previous coaching session – because your thinking, like water in a flowing river, has moved on.
Many people perceive the role of the coach as being to offer challenge, and arguably this is part of the component of Information. Uncovering truth by dismantling denial is a way of challenging a client’s view of themselves or the world, allowing them to think afresh about a situation.
Unhelpful assumptions are one of the most common issues I see in my coaching clients and indeed, finding an effective method for tackling limiting assumptions was how I initially became interested in the Thinking Environment as an approach to coaching.
There are many models available for challenging assumptions. In a Thinking Session we address these through the building of Incisive Questions. What is different from other methods, is that the questions I ask as a Thinking Environment coach are designed to mirror what the brain seems to be automatically asking itself when we are thinking independently. And they are not offered as a structured framework for the client to work through step by step but asked when various considerations indicate they are appropriate.
When the client is motivated to do their own thinking on a topic of their choice, they are almost always motivated to take some kind of action as a result.
There’s no denying I’m results focused and I love the feeling of satisfaction I get from ticking completed items off a list. Handing over to my client to go wherever their thinking takes them and not following up on the thoughts they share could be frustrating, and seemingly at odds with the ICF competency “Managing Progress and Accountability”. But I have made three observations that reassure me on this point.
When someone is motivated to do their own thinking on a topic of their choice, they are almost always motivated to take some kind of action as a result. As a lightbulb goes on in their mind, I see an energy and enthusiasm that is most often translated into a written “to do” item they are excited to follow up on.
And sometimes in a Thinking Session a client won’t actually choose to think at all, but will seize their pen or tablet, and start to “do” – their plan, their picture, their timetable, whatever they need.
And if, on the rare occasions, I hear a client bringing the same topics back each session, with seemingly no movement or action achieved, I can offer this observation as Information for them to consider. Or ask an Incisive Question to help unblock their thinking and remove the unhelpful assumptions that may be preventing them making progress towards their stated goal.
I see coaching as similar to playing the piano and the methods of coaching available range from the directive at one end of the keyboard to the non-directive at the other. The challenge for me personally as a coach is not to keep practising C scale with my right hand over one octave, but to to be able to play with both hands and use all the keys on the keyboard, hitting the right note, or combination of notes, for the client at each intervention.
So, yes. I can ask a question then say nothing more whilst the client talks for an hour. And that is coaching.
And even if my client opts not to choose a pure Thinking Session, by maintaining the 10 Components of a Thinking Environment, I keep them thinking for themselves as much as possible. And this is precisely what I have promised - space to take time to think and reflect on your choices, to consider solutions and identify actions you need to take to move towards a desired goal, overcome a problem, or make the most of an opportunity.