May 3, 2024

Coach like an ethnographer

Sounds like “walk like an Egyptian” – or is that only my 1980ies mind? Anyway, I think ethnography and coaching are much more related than coaching and individual psychology or coaching viewed “scientifically”. Let me contrast:

Coaching as a science

The scientific method in a nutshell is:

- Make an observation

- Form a hypothesis

- Test the hypothesis

- Form a conclusion preferably resulting in a “cause and effect” description

A coach operating with a “scientific” paradigm might observe a client, e.g. they are often making self-deprecating remarks. A hypothesis is formed: “The client is suffering from imposter syndrome”. This hypothesis is tested by asking the client about the self-deprecating remarks, what they believe about them and what they feel about their performance. If the client says: “Yes, I often feel like an impostor”. Bingo! Conclusion: “The client has impostor syndrome.” Whip out a “treatment plan”, i.e. recommended tools to work with “impostor syndrome”. These tools will logically also follow the scientific method. Science is about understanding how something works, what causes what and what are the mechanism at play. A tool might therefore be trying to understand the cause of the impostor syndrome.

While this may seem helpful to the client, the client is treated like a scientific object to be analyzed (which I object to). Also, the client’s situation is generalized and classified. The coach acts as an “impartial observer” as if they did not influence the situation at all.

Coaching as ethnography

Modern ethnography research is taken seriously as a social science. One of the recognized research methods is “participant observation”. The researcher gains access to a social setting and participates in it while observing at the same time. They do not perceive themselves as an “outsider” who analyzes their field but want to understand what is going on by participating and speaking to key informants. Researchers want to describe the experience of the individuals or groups that they are participating in, including the meaning that they make of these experiences.

When I am coaching, the ethnographic methodology resonates with me. I am engaged in a conversation with someone as a participant in the conversation. I am centering the client, inviting them to explore their experience in ways that help them grow in a desired direction. The conversation revolves around the co-creation of meaning and progress rather than on explanation and analysis. Coach and client still can aim at “understanding” something, but it is not the scientific “why” but the ethnographic “how”.

What metaphor are you using for your coaching? Do come to one of our free meetups to explore!

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