Co-Active Coaching

Co-Active Coaching is one of my favorite coaching books due to how it concretely describes the nature of the coaching relationship and how the coach and the coachee/client work together for the sake of the coachee’s agenda. It describes how a coach consciously creates a collaborative, proactive environment that shows up in new actions, approaches, attitudes, assumptions, and learnings. The author describes a coaching environment that supports open and transformative conversation - whether the situation involves a formal coaching relationship or informal conversations among colleagues .

Coaching is not about solving problems. Nor is it primarily about improving performance, attaining goals, or achieving results. Coaching is really about discovery, awareness, and choice. It's a way of empowering people to find their own answers and find ways to move forward as they continuously make important choices. It invites clients to see what options are available and recognize that every choice has a different impact. The co-active process intentionally combines both being and doing: being collaborative while actively moving toward one's preferred future.

There is much to digest in Co-Active Coaching, and this blog seeks to highlight just a few "takeaways" from Part 1. I invite you to read and reflect on the takeaways below, and share your insights at the end.

Coaches are aware of, and tap into their client's yearnings.
As coaches become companions with their clients while on a journey of discovery, they draw out in their clients what they want to be different in their lives. They may be looking for changes  related to their fitness, finances, family, faith, or the future. They may want more from life such as peace of mind, security, greater impact, or more adventure. Sometimes clients want less from life such as less confusion, stress, debt, clutter or negativity. Coaches recognize that their clients want a better quality of life and often yearn about different ways of being and doing in the world. In what ways might a coach stir the imaginations and motivations of the client and serve as a companion on a journey of discovery, discerning, and dreaming?  The question I'm asking myself after reading this book is "Do I know enough about the clients I serve to help them build on their best selves and honor the yearnings in their life?"

Coaches make assumptions and agreements transparent.
In the subtext of every conversation, there are often assumptions, expectations, and unspoken agreements that need to be transparent. These conversations also been to reveal the essential human qualities of being and doing :
  • Who we are and who we are in relationship with.
  • Who we are being and want to be.
  • How we are actively creating.
  • What we are doing, or not doing to achieve our desired results.
As I was reading through this section, I realized how important context is to every relationship and conversation.

Effective coaches honor the Four Cornerstones
The author highlights four cornerstones that represent a co-active way of being in relationship and conversation with others at the deepest level:
  1. People are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. They are capable of finding answers, choosing, taking action, and learning from their results.
  2. Coactive coaches focus on the whole person. The client is more than the problem at hand. Co-active coaches engage a client’s heart, mind, body, and spirit, recognizing that every issue and opportunity is entwined in the coachee’s whole life .
  3. Coaches dance in the the moment, recognizing that coaching conversations are powerful, dynamic interchanges between people. Every conversation creates tone, mood, and nuance. Coaches pay attention to how words are said and what it not said. In a truly co-active conversation there are moments when the coach leads the dance, moments when the coachee leads the dance , and moments when it is not clear at all who is leading and who is following.
  4. Coaches evoke transformation. Coach and coachee meet in this co-active conversation for a common purpose : the coachee’s full life . The topic of the coaching will likely be something quite specific — a fraction of the coachee’s life that the coachee is focused on.

The Four Cornerstones frequently show up in Vibrant Faith's coaching process and Coaching School curriculum. As coaches gain greater experience and move toward coaching at a PCC- proficiency level, I notice that they become more comfortable with the "dance" element of the coaching process that's described in this book. When coaches master the basic agreement of a coaching conversation, it frees them up to "dance" more frequently with their clients, and to discern when it's appropriate to lead rather than follow the client.

The Five Contexts
The five contexts listed below are always in play in a coaching conversation. Like five spotlights that are always shining, they help illuminate the coachee’s situation.

1 | Listening
The coach is listening for indicators of the coachee’s vision, values, and purpose. The coach also listens for the client's resistance, fear, backtracking, self-limitations, and perceived shortcomings.

2 | Intuition
Our culture doesn’t validate intuition as a reliable means of drawing conclusions or making decisions, so coaches often hesitate to say what our intuition tells us. We hold back because we don’t want to appear foolish. And yet it is one of the most powerful gifts a coach brings to coaching. For most coaches, intuition is a skill that needs practice and development. As we master this skill, we are more able to quickly synthesize impressions and information than before.

3 | Curiosity
We recognize that coachees are capable, resourceful and have the answers. The coach’s job is to ask questions that further the discovery process. The context of curiosity helps frame the process of uncovering answers and drawing out insight. Curiosity helps us be open, inviting, and at times, playful. Curiosity in coaching allows coaches and coachees to enter the deepest areas of the coachee’s life, side by side, simply looking, curious about what they will find. When coachees learn to be curious about their lives, they become more willing to look in the dark places and try the hard things.

4 | Forward and Deepen
The two products of the work coachees and coaches do together — action and learning — combine to create change. Because the notion of action that moves coachees forward is so central to the purpose of coaching, we often say that one of the purposes of coaching is to “ forward the action ” of the coachees. The other force at work in the human change process is learning. Learning leads to new resourcefulness, expanded possibilities, and strengthens our change muscles. I often wonder, "How often do I help clients pause and learn from their results?" 

5 | Self-Management
In order to truly hold our clients' agendas, coaches must get out of the way which is difficult for some of us to do, particularly if we are fixers. Self-management shows up when coaches demonstrate the ability to set aside personal opinions, preferences, pride, defensiveness, and ego. Coaches need to be “over there” with their coachees, immersed in their situations and struggles, not dealing with our own thoughts, analysis, and judgments. Self-management means giving up the need to look good and be right. The light should be shine on the coachee, not the coach. Self-management is also about awareness of impact. In the course of a coaching relationship, coachees learn about self-management in their own lives as they see coaches demonstrate this practice during coaching sessions.

Final Thoughts from Part 1
Coaches serve as a change agent, entering the equation for change without knowing what the outcome will be. Goals and plans, new practices, new benchmarks, and achievements of every kind are all part of the coachee’s ongoing work, facilitated by the coaching interaction. If coaches are to be catalysts, this may require them play more than a passive role in a coaching relationship. When we aim for this higher purpose, we create the means for transformative change in coachees and, by extension, in families and organizations. Making a difference—helping others to achieve their dreams and reach their potential—this is why most coaches are drawn to this work.

Questions for further reflections

  1. How do you manage the tension between being fully engaged yet sufficiently detached when coaching a client?
  2. When have you experienced the "dance" of a coaching conversation?
  3. How can we more curious about the clients we serve without being nosy or taking clients to places they didn't wish to go?
  4. What are some ways you could help clients be more aware of their yearnings in life?
  5. What's the "difference" you're seeking for your clients that really energizes you?
  6. Is intuition an underutilized skill in your coaching practice? When does it show up?
  7. What's your process for evaluating the impact and partnership you share with your clients?
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Ladd - March 14th, 2022 at 3:30pm

"Self-management means giving up the need to look good and be right. " This is such a stumbling block for me. I so want to be the best coach and get the client to where their preferred future is that often times mentally i focus or create fears of failure. I just love what this says.

Mary Eide - March 14th, 2022 at 4:23pm

Ladd, your point is an excellent example of what we talked about in class today...what self-limitations do we impose upon ourselves that can limit the client's movement forward. Funny (strange) how we can so easily place unrealistic expectations on ourselves (like perfectionism or having to be the best at coaching), that we would not impose on our clients.

Dan Solomon - March 14th, 2022 at 9:33pm

Ladd, this can be such good news for us (even though we might struggle to live into its truth).

Mary Eide - March 14th, 2022 at 4:20pm

"As coaches become companions with their clients while on a journey of discovery, they draw out in their clients what they want to be different in their lives...They may want more for life...or want less form life."

Just reading these words for the first time created another AHA MOMENT. In simplest terms, we just want the client to imagine/name what they want to be different in life. And as their coach/companion on the journey of 'different' we can help them understand and imaging that this 'different' may mean there will be MORE of somethings and/or LESS of others.

Ladd - March 15th, 2022 at 1:49pm

It is truly amazing when you boil this whole thing called coaching down to "helping people imagine/name" which makes the role of a coach seem very doable. In all honesty maybe that is what we need to remind ourselves before every session... imagine/name, imagine/name:)

Tom - March 15th, 2022 at 2:52pm

Thanks for the reminder, Mary, that less can be more sometimes! I tend to think about what needs to be done or added rather than what might need to be released in order for transformation to occur.

Hmmm. What do I need to release in order to grow as a coach?

Sherry Villanueva - March 20th, 2022 at 7:41pm

Tom, I like this point too. A preferred future can be less of something. Sometimes I get stuck in "adding into" as the goal. I should know better as I myself have experienced releasing as being very healing and opening pathways to a better future.

Nathan Luitjens - March 15th, 2022 at 3:22pm

That is a really interesting observation Mary and I wonder how often people have a deep desire for something to be different in their lives but have never given voice to those desires. Then, once people give voice to their desires it can begin a process where they can think about how they might live into those desires. Sometimes people spend all their time wishing something was different but don't know what that should be, but once they have a vision it can release their ability to live into it.

Sherry Villanueva - March 20th, 2022 at 7:38pm

Mary, I so resonate with this as well. Our clients preferred future is likely very different than what we would see as the ultimate best if we were writing their narrative. Our best is best for us. The clients best is best for them.

Michelle Townsend de Lopez - March 21st, 2022 at 11:57am

Mary, that is so true and again NOT letting what we think is better or not get in the way of what the coachee desires. And I love the word "accompaniment that used previously as companions along the way of their journey and as a coach having clarity on "Different" without a value judgment placed upon was a reminder to me.

Tom - March 15th, 2022 at 2:50pm

These five spotlights have me returning to the basic definition of coaching-partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires a client to maximize their personal and professional potential.

The last part of this-maximizing potential-requires change and change requires effort. For me, the effort involved in developing a coach-client relationship that is transformative is love. I'd like to believe that with love for neighbor as the underlying motivation in a coaching session every coaching session, regardless of how I might evaluate my own performance, will be life-giving.

Jason D. Bland - March 17th, 2022 at 11:38am

Your statement about love is so critical to the discussion here… True leadership, which is Christ-centered, servant leadership is altruistic in nature, i.e. the thought of putting the needs of others before your own. Coaching, whether by a certified coach or from leaders within an organization, is a form of leadership – supporting the growth and development of a person by facilitating their personal “discovery, awareness, and choice.” This is only possible if the coach truly cares about their client – not just dollar signs, but a real human being that is moving and living in a unique way, a person who is “creative, resourceful, and whole.” If the coach’s motivation is to support and serve co-actively alongside the client then a transformative relationship will truly exist.

Nathan Luitjens - March 15th, 2022 at 3:17pm

It really strikes me that one of the things that a coach must learn to do is to be curious without being intrusive. I find this to be one of the most difficult things to figure out, because curiosity makes sense to me. But, what I want to know and what I need to know and what the client is willing to talk about are all different things and figuring out the best questions to ask that draw the client out while allowing them to maintain their boundaries is a skill I need to develop. There is difference between what is okay in curiosity in a friendship and what is okay in curiosity in a coaching relationship, and figuring out what that looks like is a key component of coaching.

Michelle Townsend de Lopez - March 21st, 2022 at 12:01pm

Nathan I would agree that the context of curiosity makes a huge difference and the complication in figuring that out occurred to me it is in the finesse of learning how to dance better with the coachee and getting to that place where we have talked about also learning to lead when necessary. I gather that it will become more clear in the "dance" as we practice more and are willing to take those chances in our coaching of one another and not be as concerned about doing wrong, but exploring how to learn to do it more organically.

Amelia H. - March 15th, 2022 at 4:18pm

The phrase 'detached engagement' has come up frequently in class. I've been thinking a lot about this because at the surface one could conclude the coach stay separate. But then, aren't we to come alongside? So, how to stay detached? Clarification is needed to say that the detached engagement is not with the client per se but rather detached from the outcome. Our egos are attached to outcome. The blog has helped frame what detached engagement looks like, sounds like, feels like. When listening, using intuition, being curious, putting together action and learning, we do then serve as the change agent. For me, being a change agent is why I want to coach. It is why I coach.

Dan Solomon - March 15th, 2022 at 9:29pm

I find this to be a very rich discussion of how coaching can be transformative. The four cornerstones and five contexts are helpful. The cornerstone of Dancing in the moment and context of intuition are especially intriguing. I'm learning to trust my intuition. How do I further practice and develop it? I was also struck by the co-active process bringing together both being and doing. At times it seems that the coaching conversation tend to focus more on doing.

Brian Hooper - March 19th, 2022 at 3:06pm

Thanks Dan. I too appreciate the analogy of dancing in the moment. Sometimes the coach or the coachee take the lead, and sometimes it is like the spirit is leading. There may appear to be missteps along the way, but the dance keeps going and the way to the next step is found.

Jason D. Bland - March 17th, 2022 at 11:31am

It is the coach’s responsibility to facilitate “discovery, awareness, and choice.” This idea requires the coach to be fully partnered with the client, to be present, and dig deeper beyond the superficial ideas and noise that so often pops up during the regular sessions. In order to dig deeper, the coach must be earnest in their curiosity, open to whatever may come from the client (allowing the client to lead the dance), use intuition to direct questions, and lastly to encourage the client to move past just thinking and to put their ideas and steps for growth into actionable steps. As it’s been said in class, the coach must help the client get these ideas off the page and into reality. When a coach observes their practice as co-active it marries both the coach and client to a relationship built upon mutual trust that will facilitate real change. Without this co-active connection a meaningful and impactful relationship will be lacking.

Brian Hooper - March 19th, 2022 at 3:15pm

In conversations with clients I have felt at times the "tension between being fully engaged yet sufficiently detached when coaching a client." I can relate to some of the specific situations that the client has shared and it has taken some intentionality to not interject by personal experience. I try to recognize that in the back of my mind and then move on. I have not had a coaching conversation that got overly emotional, but this reminder to be detached will be helpful for future conversations.

Sherry Villanueva - March 20th, 2022 at 7:35pm

I think it's important as a coach not to get too ahead of getting to know the client. I need to practice not drawing assumptions even when the client shares a very familiar story to my own. The same as finishing someone's sentence or moving to the next question before the client has had the time to finish what they are sharing. The clients narrative, while sounding familiar, has a uniquely personal meaning that can only be theirs alone. It's so very important to remaining intensely curious in the presence of familiarity.

Kim Boldt - November 15th, 2022 at 8:45pm

This was a great article in multiple respects, but particularly helpful was the highlighting of intuition as a vital aspect of good coaching. I'm at the stage of life where I'm trusting my intuition more. Using this in coaching, when combined with self-management, can hopefully be fruitful.

Lea Kone - November 20th, 2022 at 3:40pm

This is a meaty blog post, and I am sure an excellent book. The part that grabbed my attention the most was the concept of "forward and deepen." I envision pulling to strings from two different directions to strengthen a knot. That a good coaching session is simultaneously moving the issue at hand forward, while also deepening the understanding for the coachee about themselves, their patterns and intents. I think that is a great aim to strive for in questions.

Liz Miller - December 5th, 2022 at 12:46pm

Lea, the image of strengthening a knot by pulling strings from two different directions is a brilliant metaphor, and one that I am going to remember. I think a coach's curiosity about the underlying motivations and vision a client has can strengthen the client's movement toward their goals. Slowing down and going deeper can bring about the kind of transformation that has a bigger impact, rather than just moving through a to-do list to meet a goal. A coach's curiosity should serve the client and help them reflect, rather than answer the random questions a coach might have that don't benefit the client's own work.

Jeff Smith - November 25th, 2022 at 6:30pm

I like the metaphor of "the dance" and if I end up coaching, I think that would be a fun place to get with a client. This article also reminds me to be curious without taking the client on a path that's not their choosing. I think to do that I'll have to ask myself if my question is helping me or helping them. But I do wonder if they are talking about a topic I'm not familiar with, if my ability to ask meaningful questions will be hindered if I don't ask some clarifying questions for myself as coach?

Wendy Petrochko - November 28th, 2022 at 4:37pm

You need to be present in the conversation but do not fall into the trap that you have to fix the situation for the client. I love the analogy of the dance in a coaching relationship, I do not think I have had enough practice to really see the dance in the relationship, but I am eager to see it happen. Being curious starts with the idea that is what you want to be, it's a feeling like a toddler and you are learning about this person that you are coaching and internally you keep asking, "why". Yearnings how can I draw that out in a client I think it starts with building trust, someone is not going to share their hearts desires with a person they do not trust. What energizes me about working with a client is for a client to be heard, valued, and that a client really wants to live differently. Being a Christian I see the Holy Spirit being at work in the coaching relationship, some people may call that intuition, I like to say, Holy Spirit power. My process for evaluating the impact and partnership is to ask them how they feel and then for me to share with them the changes that I have seen them making as a result of our relationship.

Tom Pietz - December 5th, 2022 at 4:27pm

Jim, your sentence, "Coaching is really about discovery, awareness, and choice." hit me between the eyes. I lean towards goal setting, but it's really about dancing with the client, following their lead, and in asking powerful questions, it reveals their heart and soul, they discover what's really making them tick and in the process of becoming more aware, and expanse of choices or opportunities may arise. Therefore, if I can be more curious about what they are thinking out loud about, it may bring about more self-discovery, leading to "aha" moments and high energy into actions steps.