March 29, 2024

Hierarchies in coaching

„Flattening hierarchies? Thoughts on collaboration and psychological dialogues that clients might consider socially just” is a very interesting article by Tom Strong which appeared 2011 in the International Journal for Dialogical Science. It talks about how meaning and action are negotiated in psychotherapy and the social constructionist philosophy which provides a framework for dialogues that “clients might consider socially just”. In this blog, I would like to reflect on what “flattening hierarchies and collaboration in dialogue” might be for coaches.

The hierarchy Tom Strong writes about in his article is linked to the distribution of power over the conversation. In medical-model psychology, the psychotherapist has the role of a diagnostician who identifies the root cause of the troubles the patient is experiencing and subsequently engages in a suitable “evidence supported conversational script” (p. 2). The role of the psychotherapist is to “manage the therapeutic dialogue”, the role of the client is “information provider, recipient of psychological knowledge, and enactor of psychologist directives” (p. 2) which constitutes a hierarchical relationship. The therapist is the expert and director of the conversation, the client is the recipient and follower of direction. The therapist mainly decides on the meaning generated in the conversation.  In contrast, “Flattening the hierarchy”, a preference of social constructionist therapists, is about creating conversational processes and meanings with clients rather than about them.

The social hierarchies between coaches and clients may be more varied than the hierarchies between traditional providers of psychotherapy and their clients. Coaches can be seen as “service providers” or “suppliers” to their clients who are responsible for ensuring that the coaching process brings a return on investment. They can also appear in the form of a “guru” who has access to privileged knowledge about the client. The positioning of coach and client can take many forms.

Nevertheless, coaches can also choose which paradigm they would like to follow: Do they see themselves as directors of the conversations or as co-creators of meaning or maybe a mixture of the two? As you probably know, I have a strong preference for co-creation and flat hierarchies not only because the creativity of two people in the room usually produces more ideas for forward movement than if we relied only on one person but also because I have a strong dislike for treating human beings as objects.

Observing the coachosphere, I see different developments:

On the one hand, when you go to conferences, coaches seem to flock to the offerings of new tools, new conversational algorithms. “How-to workshops” seem second only to business development offers in popularity. The same is true for publications – books that teach coaches “how-to” do coaching are very popular.

On the other hand, there are developments in the direction of “flattening hierarchies” and preferences for co-creation of conversational processes. For example, Rajasinghe et al. interviewed 46 experienced coaches using an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis for their paper “On becoming a coach: Narratives of learning and development” and found a theme of “Narratives of letting go” (p. 13) which centers around mature coaches letting go of their models and increasingly trusting the process and relationship. The International Coaching Federation also places a lot of importance on the concept of “partnering with your client”, especially for their MCC credential. “Partnering with the client” means allowing the client to co-create the coaching process and to choose what happens in the session.

What is confusing for me is that many coaches seem to hold incommensurable paradigms: Most would agree that co-creation and partnership are desirable in a coaching relationship which hints toward “flat hierarchies”. They also appreciate a “not-knowing” stance of the coach, again privileging collaboration vs. expert knowledge of the coach. Nevertheless, coaching schools teach processes, coaches love to learn about psychological assessment tools or how to recognize the developmental stage of a client.

I literally don’t get it: How can you espouse the medical model role of a diagnostician and director of the process and at the same time believe in a collaboration of equals and joint meaning making between coach and client? My need for consistency in my thinking is rather high and I know not everyone shares it, but I am puzzled! Imagine Luke Skywalker learning to use the tools of “the dark side” (not to defeat it but to actually use it) while at the same time aligning himself with “the force” – how would that work?

Anyway, if you have an answer, please let me know. Come to one of our free meetups and let’s discuss!

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