Coaching Report

2017 January Coaching Report

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2017 January Coaching Report

The Coaching Two-Step: From Subject to Object to Transformation

Our first digital Master Class, when we launched the Institute of Coaching membership program in 2011, was on subject-object theory. The interviews and content were based on the intellectual heavy-lifting completed over decades by Harvard professor and adult development psychologist, Bob Kegan, later in collaboration with Lisa Lahey at Harvard Graduate School of Education. (Find the 2011 resources below.) Bob, Lisa, and Deborah Helsing have presented their Immunity to Change workshop at eight of our nine Institute of Coaching/Harvard Medical School conferences.

After completing a PhD at Harvard in 1977, Bob mapped out the evolution of ever-increasing complexity in meaning-making, the mental activity of making sense of human experiences and challenges. While Bob’s frameworks, described in two books: The Evolving Self and In Over Our Heads, are intellectually demanding (I often get a headache when reading and rereading both books), the fundamental shift (what he calls a subject-object shift) is the basis for evolution of meaning-making. This type of shift is familiar to skilled coaches as peak moments in coaching. Of course, these shifts are a natural and normal process of the continuous interplay of the mind and the external world. Coaches enable these shifts to happen faster, more often, and in a grander fashion than can be done alone.

To quote Jennifer Garvey Berger, a mentee of Bob Kegan, in the Appendix to her book, Changing on the Job:

Things that are subject are experienced as unquestioned. They can include many different things—a relational issue, a personality trait, an assumption about the way he world works, behaviors, or emotions. Things that are subject to you can’t be seen because they are a part of you. Because they can’t be seen, they are taken for granted, taken for true—or not even taken at all. You generally can’t name things that are “subject,” and you certainly can’t reflect upon them—that would require the ability to stand back and take a look at them. You don’t have something that’s subject; something that’s subject has you.

Object is the opposite of subject. While things that are subject have you, you have things that are object. While all of us necessarily have many parts of our world to which we are subject (if we gave much conscious thought to our assumptions about gravity, we might not have time to go to sleep at night!), one part of development is about moving more and more things from subject to object. The more in your life you take as object, the more complex your worldview because you can see and act upon more things.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say your client asserts that she is simply not the kind of person who establishes heartfelt connections with work colleagues. It turns out that she is “subject” to an unconscious (hidden) assumption that allowing herself to connect emotionally means she will be weakened and vulnerable. She can’t be both “warm and tough.”  While subject to the hidden assumption, outside pressure on your client has little impact. With your help, she can identify that she holds this belief.  Then she can shift this belief, about who she is and how she must operate, from “subject” to “object.” For example, she might first observe herself making the assumption, and then notice how it limits her and may not actually be accurate.

Eclipsed by the assumption up until now are new perspectives, new objects, waiting to be revealed through open-minded discussion, experience, or even meditation. Maybe you offer that your read on the research on transformational leadership suggests that being warm may improve the impact of being tough.  Perhaps an experiment with warmer connection turns out to feel good and leads a colleague to generate a novel solution to a chronic issue. Instead of feeling weaker and vulnerable, your client feels stronger and more capable.  Freed from being “subject” to her assumption, she finds more options and a sense of choice.

Now you have helped your client transform one “subject” (I don’t do heart-to-hearts with colleagues) to multiple “objects:”

  1. I can choose to be warm with colleagues.
  2. Connecting with warmth feels good.
  3. Being warm catalyzes others to have new ideas.
  4. I can be warm and tough together when needed.
  5. My impact can be greater when I combine warmth and toughness.

Your client experiences two shifts, first from subject to object. The “subject” has moved from an unquestioned and unchangeable truth to a choice -– I can choose to be warm or not. Then a second shift happens, from object to more objects. Going even further, perhaps she now welcomes challenges as signals to notice and outgrow her “subjects” leading to more agility, flexibility, and wisdom.

In 2016, Bob Kegan, Lisa Lahey, Matthew Miller, and Deborah Helsing published the book: Deliberately Developmental Organizations, which describes organizations where the developmental agenda is every day for everyone, not just in private coaching. Enjoy the video of Matthew’s keynote at our 2016 conference.

Our webinar on January 30th on DDOs will be led by Deborah Helsing, ideal for those who missed the conference or want to keep exploring.

Our featured research paper by coaching scholar Tatiana Bachkirova helps coaches view themselves more objectively as an instrument of coaching. The title is: The Self of the Coach: Conceptualization, Issues, and Opportunities for Practitioner Development.

Need another aspiration for 2017?

Let’s do the coaching two-step. Let’s mosey up to have a good look at our own subjects, with curiosity, compassion and courage. Then let’s nudge the subjects aside to reveal fresh new objects. Now that does feel good!

With warmth,

Margaret Moore, Co-founder & Co-Director

Bachkirova, T. (2016). The Self of the Coach: Conceptualization, Issues, and Opportunities for Practitioner Development. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 68(2), 143-156.

Abstract (by Author)

This article offers a conceptual and developmental proposition based on the centrality of the practitioner’s self in the achievement of coaching outcomes. The central role of the self of the coach is established through a theoretical comparison with a competency (knowledge and skills) frame. Positioning the self in this way acknowledges the complexity and unpredictability of the coaching process and aligns with a complex adaptive-system perspective on coaching. In turn, it provides a platform for a professional-practice view of the self as the main instrument of coaching and, further, a developmental proposition for the good use of self as an instrument. Three main conditions for the good use of self as an instrument are proposed: understanding the instrument, looking after the instrument, and checking the instrument for quality and sensitivity. Each condition is discussed, and the implications for coaches and educators of coaching in relation to initial training and the continuing professional development of coaches are considered. In keeping with the underpinning theory of self around which itis built, this article gives witness to multiple voices: theory, practice, and development. (APA, all rights reserved)

Summary (by Irina Todorova and Chip Carter)

This conceptual article explores the complexities of the coach as “self” – the key instrument in the coaching process – beyond the idea of the coach as simply an aggregation of applied skills and knowledge.  Why is the self as a coaching instrument central for both the coaching relationship and outcomes?  How can the coach understand and develop the self – and the coaching practice – using this model?

Coaching institutions, instruction and standards usually emphasize knowledge and professional competencies.  Yet we know there are less tangible – and, as suggested by research -- more impactful dimensions of the coach as self in coaching interaction.  These multiple complex elements of the coach as self – including less visible traits and assumptions described as “subject” above – should be understood by the coach to optimize coach-client interaction and outcomes.  While professional competencies are developed through training and experience, the coach’s philosophy and approach – expressions of the unique self -- are equally relevant.  There is no “one-size-fits-all”.   Just as the coach facilitates client subject-to-object shifts, coach self-awareness crystallizes the coach’s “self” and the coaching philosophy-approach most resonant with it.  For example, the “competent self” focused on knowledge, skills and tools might shift toward the “dialogical self” for which coaching is a joint process of meaning making.  Through three elements the coaching self becomes more objective and effective:

  1. Understanding the self as an instrument
  2. Looking after the self as an instrument
  3. Checking the quality of the instrument
Finally, both coaching supervision and better education can help practitioners move toward congruence between who they are as individuals and their professional approaches and style, beyond a “one-size-fits-all” paradigm.


Implications for practice, Supervision and Education

  • Coaches should respect the centrality of the self as a coaching instrument, the key determinant in coaching relationship and outcomes.  To do so means to actively explore values, beliefs, and personality traits to develop and customize a coaching approach, integrating skills and knowledge with the coaching self as instrument.  Exploration can take many forms: discussion, meditation, coaching supervision, etc.
  • If coaches are coached and supervised, self-reflection can be a way to care for oneself as a coach.  This can contribute to sustaining the coach’s well-being and avoiding the negative sides of helping professions (such as burnout).  It is part of developing and protecting the self and the self as an “instrument of coaching”.
  • Coaching supervision can also make coaches aware of self-deception around the relationship and process.  Consistent with the ideas above, moving toward objectivity with more subjective elements which might otherwise constrain or compromise coaching effectiveness.
  • In terms of education of coaches, the focus would be on “the development of the person, the reflexive ability, and personal capabilities in addition to narrowly conceived competencies. Educators would be helping practitioners aim for congruence between who they are as individuals and their professional approaches and styles, seeking to achieve a unique fit with each client, instead of advocating a ‘one fit for all’ way to practice.”

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