Using coaching skills has become a critical competency for leadership in global companies. Coaching credentials are required by most corporate buyers when hiring external coaches, even when they aren’t sure what the credentials represent. On the consumer side, awareness of the value of coaching is growing.1 Unfortunately, according to the Federal Trade Commission, some people still lose a great deal of money to those who sell “business coaching packages” that promise big money from their programs. Though the number of individuals hiring coaches is growing worldwide, we still have work to do to teach the public how to evaluate if coaches and programs adhere to professional standards so the value of professional coaching continues to grow.
The success and ongoing growth of coaching is due to one fact: it works. Other attempts at motivation and influence aren’t as effective.
Most people don’t relate coaching to the important work of John Dewey. They will tell you coaching came from the first founders of coaching schools, the teachings of Sir John Whitmore or Carl Rogers, neurolinguistic programming masters, or their favorite leadership book. These are great sources of coaching tools. The reason these tools work could be found in John Dewey’s writing long before our current coaching gurus were born.
Coaching is valuable because none of us transform our thinking on our own. Even powerpoint training cannot get you there. Humans are masters at rationalizing hastily made choices no matter how logical we think we are. We’re also exceptional at blaming whomever or whatever we can when those choices turn out badly.
As Daniel Kahneman said in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, we resist self-exploration especially when emotions are involved. We don’t change well on our own. To stop adverse thinking patterns, someone outside our head needs to disrupt our thinking by reflecting our thoughts back to us and asking questions that prompt us to wonder why we think the way we do. These statements and questions enable us to see our concocted stories as if they were laid out in front of us in a book to be read and analyzed.
Adults need this help to expand their thinking as much as children do, and sometimes more. As we age, we become more rigid in our thinking. We become masters at rationalizing our actions, ignoring our emotions, and finding what confirms our beliefs. We don’t distance ourselves from social pressures. We’re too busy to stop and examine our beliefs and choices. Dewey said that reflective inquiry would not only open a person to learning but also bring to light stereotypes and inherited biases. By bringing beliefs, assumptions, fears, needs, and conflicts of values to the surface, a person can better evaluate decisions and actions. He also said provoking people to think about their thinking was the “single most powerful antidote to erroneous beliefs and autopilot.”
When we are willing, reflective practices lead us to say, “Wow, look at what I’m doing to myself.” Sometimes we say, “Those aren’t my words. Someone gave them to me.” We become objective observers of our stories. Reflections followed by questions prompt us to stop and question our thinking and behaviors. This disruption initiates a shift in how we see ourselves and the world, or at least how we are framing a dilemma. We see a new way forward with a stronger commitment to taking action than if we were told what we should do by an expert.