What is Coaching at Depth? – Seven Guiding Principles
Coaching is such a generic term, meaning different things to different people in different contexts, so it is increasingly important to say what we mean by it, and general distinctions between life coaching and leadership coaching or executive coaching, are no longer sufficient.
The evolving coaching profession is going through a process of divergence into quite different conceptions of coaching and ways of working. I have previously written (Howard, 2022b) about the evolution of coaching paradigms, from behavioural and performance coaching, to relational and developmental coaching, to holistic and depth coaching. This article explores depth coaching in greater detail.
The recent increased interest in AI has sparked debate about whether and how AI can be used in coaching. I am not going to enter that discussion here. However, this does provoke more fundamental questions about what it means to be fully human, what it means to be relational, what it means to be conscious and about the relationship between individual and collective consciousness. Who am I and who are we? What is essential to meaningful human relationships? Reflecting upon these questions can help us to distinguish between what is surface and what is depth, between the superficial and the essential, between simulation and reality. Within this context I sense the time has come to make a clearer exposition of what coaching at depth is and why it is being called for in this time of crisis and transition.
What do we mean by coaching at depth?
When I meet people who are interested in our courses, they often say they want to learn to coach at greater depth than they feel able to at present.
It’s important to say that some of the time the depth coach might be working with goals and change, with behaviours and performance, with whatever the coachee brings to the coaching, in much the way that most coaches might be. They might also draw upon a relational and developmental approach in the way they are working in the here and now or over longer-term coaching relationships. Jenny Rogers (2016, pages 7-10) defines six foundational principles which work very well as a starting point or orientation for any coaching. Beyond this then, what distinguishes depth coaching?
First, I would say it is an orientation that is as much to do with our own ways of being, holding the space as a coach and our inner process of reflection, as with a method or approach to how we work with and engage with coachees.
To provide substance to this, I will draw out what I consider to be the seven key principles of coaching at depth, which I hope many coaches may resonate with.
Principle One – we coach the person not the problem
The first principle of coaching at depth, which may seem obvious but we can often forget it, is that we are coaching the person and not the problem (or the solution, or the goal, or whatever).
And what do we mean by the person? We mean the whole person, not just their personality or adapted self, not just their habitual patterns of behaviour, thoughts and feelings, which is what most psychology restricts itself to. By considering the whole person we are also reaching towards the being and who they are most essentially, their highest aspirations and potential as well as their shadow or what is hidden.
Principle Two – we are responsible to the coachee and for the process
Within the context of an adult-to-adult relationship (as Jenny Rogers describes in her foundational principles) we are responsible to the coachee, not for the coachee, and that responsibility is for the coaching process and not the outcome of the coaching or outcomes in the life of the coachee. We thus respect the autonomy, choice and responsibility of the coachee and support their ability to self-reflect, increase their self-awareness and self-responsibility to bring about change. Unlike counselling or therapy perhaps, it is not our job to diagnose the coachees problem or hypothesise about the causes from past trauma or history of what is showing up today, although our curiosity will often lead us to wonder and speculate and this informs how we are and how we work. [N.B. I will be further addressing how depth coaching is a different way of working to counselling and therapy in a future article in this series].
Principle Three – we build a relational space
We work in the relational space of coaching, building what we describe as conscious relationships in the here and now, in the present at the personal level of consciousness. Within this space, both (i) mirrors of the past, the impact of history or pre-personal energies, as well as (ii) purpose, meaning, potential and emergent or transpersonal energies can come into the coaching space according to the work that is taking place. We are also holding awareness for the impact and energies of collective consciousness, particularly in terms of the wider systems the coachee is part of, for example relationships, family, community, organisations, society or culture.
Principle Four – we hold a space for the emergent
As depth coaches we are thus always holding a space for the emergent within the coachee, staying curious and wondering about who they are becoming or what wants to be expressed, not just the coachee’s stated purpose or outcome for the work. This space can be quite tricky to engage with as we reach towards the gap or tension between who this being is in potential and where they are stuck or caught or struggling right now. Most coaches will recognise the idea of working in the gap, usually in practical or rational terms of the gap between the goal or desired outcome and the current situation. For depth coaching, this gap is psychological, psychospiritual or perhaps developmental in terms of the inner work that needs to be done by the coachee. Within the gap, we are looking for and attuning to where the will is available and how the coachee might start to activate that available will. [N.B. I will return to explore the nature of will in coaching in a future article in this series].
Principle Five – we enable flow and awareness within the coachee’s consciousness
The depth coach is future or outcome oriented, even if this might be in relatively intangible terms of personal growth and leadership development and yet we work with the whole person, all of who they are and can be, all of what shows up in the coaching space. Often only certain parts, aspects or dimensions of the person will show up in coaching and our role in supporting growth and expansion involves enabling the flow and movement of awareness and energy in the way we work with the coachee. This involves working with the principles of polarity and synthesis, which I have explored more fully elsewhere [Howard 2022]. For now, I just want to touch upon three important polarities that we work with as depth coaches, which again the reader may resonate with from their own experience.
- As we are working psychologically and psychospiritually, we are working with what is conscious as well as what is unconscious within the client system. As depth coaches we hold the space for the endless flow and movement between these realms. Many coaching schools try to remove, boundary or ignore the realm of the unconscious, either to simplify a method which can be more easily taught, or to keep a safe distance from possible confusion with therapy. Many psychological approaches also try to minimise the role of the unconscious by reducing who we are to a set of behaviours which can be explained and mastered by analysing the workings of the human mind or brain.
- We are working with the inner world (e.g. thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears, dreams and shadows, regrets and self-realisation) of the coachee, as well as their outer world (e.g. goals, careers, relationships, achievements, self-actualisation), even if they aren’t fully aware of the distinction or the interplay of these in their lives. With some coachees we may need to help them draw out their silent inner dialogue and with others we may need to challenge them to see the outer impacts or implications of their inner world.
- We are holding awareness on the tension between both the individual and the collective or the systemic(and at different, levels, e.g. groups and organisations, communities and society) and the way they shape, inform or influence each other at primarily an unconscious level. This requires knowing or inquiring into what is our “stuff” and what is in the system, so we can see what is the coachee’s “stuff” and what is in their system.
Each of the above points suggest a polarity or dichotomous tension that we work with as depth coaches with a view to enabling flow and movement between the polarities. The aim is to free up the coachee’s choice and will and to release habitual patterns or unconscious blocks and barriers which might appear in terms of limiting beliefs and mindsets. We support them to recognise and work with parts or subpersonalities that sabotage or take over when deeply ingrained survival strategies are activated. There are many more polarities we might engage with in depth coaching, but these three will help anyone orientate to this way of working.
Principle Six – we enable embodied flow within our own consciousness
As well working with these three fundamental polarities in relation to the coachee, there are another three key polarities we work with in relation to ourselves as the coach through reflective practice.
- In any coaching session, we can hold or shift our awareness between the coachee and ourselves, between thinking outwardly (with the coachee) and listening inwardly (body, feelings, mind). More than this, we are working on ourselves at the same time as supporting the other, our coachee, to work on themselves. As depth coaches, we are constantly or at least frequently engaging in self-reflection, the process of self-awareness as a way of using self as what gestalt psychology describes as an instrument of change. The means using the moment to moment experience of our bodies or somatic experience, our feelings and emotions, our thoughts and mind both in its concrete forms but also the abstract mind which connects through our intuition and imagination. Knowing or inquiring into what is my stuff and what is their stuff and the ways that projection and transference come into the coaching space. Working on oneself is a parallel process to working with the coachee as they work on themselves.
- As well as shifting our awareness or attention between self and other, we can also shift the quality or nature of the attention we are engaging. So, we can shift between two different ways of attending to the world, between (i) focused attention on (re-presenting) the parts and contents and (ii) broad attention (being present) on the whole or Gestalt and context. These can also be described in terms of engaging our concrete mind and our abstract mind, or as Iain McGilchrist [2009, 2021] writes about, the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
- As depth coaches, we are as much concerned with how we are as with what we do, with our ways of being as well as our actions or choices and ways of working or intervening. So a lot of the work we do in training and development as depth coaches is about finding new ways of being, drawing more upon the intuitive or abstract mind in ways which create space for what is the emergent for the coachee.
Principle Seven – we are here to do the work
Depth coaching is always both emergent and developmental in context, whether this is explicit or implicit – by which I mean that ultimately and eventually the coachee and coach are here to do the work. This may not be so obvious in a single session of short term relationship, but is the context I hold for longer term relationships. Such a relationship needs subtle and nuanced contracting and is not always possible given the situation within which the coaching has come about. Within this context, the initial or presenting issue may not be the real issue and the coachee may not yet be aware of the real work to be done. And yet they may be ready to start the work. What do I mean by ‘the work’? That is a topic for another article!
How do I work with these principles?
The above principles of coaching at depth may seem relatively clear and simple or vague and difficult, depending upon your perspective. I will add an important point of clarification – these are principles rather than a method to be taught and practised and they may take many years or even a lifetime to learn and master. We do not expect coaches to be able to hold these distinctions in their awareness whilst coaching, at least to begin with. These ways of observing what is happening in a coaching session or relationship are explored afterwards in personal reflection and most importantly, supervision. More generally, the how of embodying and enacting these principles is the hard part and this is what a coaching at depth training programme is primarily about.
You may say, I already follow these principles, to which I would say great, you are already a depth coach! But then, it may seem obvious but needs saying – there is no limit to the work we do on ourselves, either as part of our ongoing learning and development process, or as part of our professional work, before – during – and after our coaching sessions (or facilitation, training and supervision work). We never get to a point where we have done the inner work and we can focus just on the coachee and their work. It is more important to be engaged in open inquiry than to have done personal development in the past – it is a process rather than a store of wisdom. We are touching upon a critical way of viewing personal-professional development journey – iterative, continuing, spiralling rather than one off or periodic – we are on a continuous journey of discovery.
However, we often experience the limits of the work we have done, when we are activated or our edges are triggered, when we hit up against something that gets in the way, whatever this might look like. This informs us of where we might next need to work on ourselves. Working on yourself is therefore both the starting point for this work but also the benefit of it.
Training and development as a depth coach
So, this leads us to how we learn to work at greater depth as a coach. This is where I would say it is imperative to engage with a psychospiritual, holistic, integrative psychology such as psychosynthesis, with the concepts and methods for working with what is unconscious at different levels, not just the past and how it impacts the present but with the more than and with the will, for example. There is a need for this work to be underpinned by a depth psychology and holistic model of the human being or person.
Of course, psychosynthesis isn’t the only psychology that can help. Jungian, Gestalt, Existential, Transpersonal and Developmental psychology are all examples of core psychologies that a depth coach might work with. Psychosynthesis is the one I know best and not only experience to be a powerful psychology in its own right but it also has the capacity to include and integrate other approaches.
On the broad scale of things, I am eclectic (versus purist) in my professional life and academic worldview but there are genuine problems in any eclecticism which has no philosophical centre or core, where there are not strong enough foundations, e.g. able to help us address the nature of being, experience, reality and so on. I would say some relational and development coaching teachers and writers suffer from this. Psychosynthesis provides a set of key principles, concepts and models which help us create our own understanding of the psycho-spiritual territory but are not rigid or doctrinal and allow us to integrate our understanding from other approaches we have explored and apply to our own way of working in the world built upon our own unique experience.
If all this sounds interesting, exciting or at least challenging, I invite you to join us on one of our coaching at depth pathways for development, whether PCL’s short training and accreditation courses or the longer MA in Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching at the Institute. You are very welcome to get in touch with me for an initial zoom conversation.
Thank you for reading.
Howard, Aubyn (2020), Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching, Abingdon: Routledge
Howard, Aubyn (2022a), Working towards synthesis: context, guidance and techniques for engaging with polarisation.Chapter 21 in Nocelli, Petra Guggisberg (2022) Know, Love, Transform Yourself. Theory, techniques and new developments in Psychosynthesis, Vol. II, Psychosynthesis Books
Howard, Aubyn (2022b), The Evolution of Coaching, LinkedIn article
McGilchist, Iain (2009) The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Yale University Press
McGilchist, Iain (2021) The Matter with Things, Perspectiva Press, London. Kindle version.
Jenny Rogers (2016), Coaching Skills