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Advanced Coaching Skills: Part One – Ability to critique…. everything

The most transformational coaching workshop I’ve ever attended started with the facilitator (Sir John Whitmore) writing these words on the flipchart: This is not the truth!

Right there and then, I knew I was in the right place, and in the right presence.

At the time of the workshop, about 10 years ago, Sir John had moved away from the GROW model that he became famous for, and entered the field of transpersonal coaching.  In the workshop that I attended, the participants were strongly divided in their opinion of whether “coaching for meaning, purpose, and with Soul” had any place in the context of executive and organisational development.  But what stayed with me even more than the healthy debate, is the ability to critique and question everything, including the theory and models being presented.

This was the first time (but not the last) that I was in the presence of a facilitator and coach who held their approach so lightly, and were so open to seeing – and offering – different perspectives.  And it struck me that this was indeed an advanced coaching skill: not purely in the ability to apply more than just one model or coaching approach, but to shift between them graciously, elegantly and relatively ego-free.

To not insist on using the model that we have most recently learnt, or that the organisation uses for its coaching practice, but to really stay with and follow the client, and trust that the right model, approach, tool, will come unbidden.  To have the ability to ask questions of any approach that we are given: what is its purpose, what are its uses and limitations, what is the world-view that lies behind it…  These are the skills I have since tried to deploy in my own coaching practice, and while training or supervising other executive coaches.

Applying this approach does not mean that both the coach and the coachee will not have a preferred world view or approach that underpins their achievements in life.  But it does mean an advanced skill-set on the part of the coach, a skill-set and a presence that is able to question, go deeper into the assumptions, and find out whether they still serve the client – or the coach – well.

For coaches, it also requires a constant, and consistent, attention to their own learning, and developing their own practice, that goes beyond attending regular supervision or coach networking events, or reading coaching magazines and books.  It requires them to question their own practice, to not take for granted the “holy cows” of initial coach skill training, and to keep relating to the wider world, as it keeps changing and challenging our beliefs.

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The ability to critique is not the same as the ability to criticise, or judge, or pick holes in an argument or a standpoint.  It respects everybody’s opinion and held beliefs, but it is also able to offer not just one, but many lenses that these opinions and beliefs can be viewed through.  And in the service of expanding the pool of choices available to our clients in any given moment: not just in the moments when they are with us in the coaching room, but as they go back into the rapidly changing and challenging world that we all live in now.

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