The depth of a coaching conversation: babies and bathwater

Solution Focused (SF) Practice stays “on the surface” and shies away from explanations and instead concentrates on clients’ descriptions of positive change in their past, present and future. The approach is firmly rooted in post-structural, postmodern, social constructionist philosophies in which meaning is assumed to be created between people. It is about “what’s between the noses and not about what’s between the ears” as Mark McKergow says. Therefore, no “deep”, underlying reality needs to be explored in order to help clients make progress toward their preferred future. SF theory and practice has been my home for around 20 years now.

Over the last few years, I have become increasingly involved with the International Coaching Federation (ICF) after having been awarded the credential of “Master Certified Coach”. The ICF  developed core competencies that every good coach, irrespective of their approach or foundational philosophy, demonstrates when they are coaching. An important part of these core competencies is about “depth” of the conversation, the partnership with the client and about “coaching the who” and not only “coaching the what”.

You can imagine how surprised I was that “going deep” was deemed to be a criterion of all good coaching. I showed a video Steve de Shazer (“I want to want to”) to my then mentor coach and she was appalled: no depth of the conversation, no partnering, no deep connection between therapist and client. And yet I experienced the same video as one with great “depth”.

This is what sparked me to embark on a search for the different meanings “depth” and “surface” can have. I wanted to find out how to have a conversation with clients that stays true to the assumption that there is no hidden or underlying problem to be discovered and that focuses on “the surface” of what is said in interactional terms. At the same time, I wanted to find ways to have a conversation that can demonstrate “depth” to bodies like the ICF. I had a hunch that narrative practitioners (who share the philosophical foundations of SF) know more about this than SF practitioners and therefore enrolled in a one-year class at the Dulwich Center in Adelaide learning about narrative therapy.

The following reflections are my findings thus far. Here’s what I know at this point about how to have a conversation that stays “on the surface” but isn’t superficial.

Change and Insight

In a conversation in 2014, Alex Molnar told me and Guy Shennan that Steve de Shazer was “allergic to insight”. While this was a side remark, it stayed with me to this day. I don’t know exactly what he meant, but what I made of it is that SF practice is looking for change rather than understanding. This is similar to Mark McKergow’s quadrant (Dierolf 2014 p. 31) in which draws a line between progress oriented and explanation oriented approaches. Here, SF is situated in the upper right corner of being “progress oriented” with a focus on resources.

Explanation OrientationProgress OrientationResource FocusPositive Psychology

Appreciative Inquiry

SFDeficit FocusPsychoanalysis

Psychodynamic therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

In Solution Focused practice, it is assumed that people come to coaching or therapy because they want change. Practitioner and client need to find ways of cooperating so that the desired change can come about. The sign for the practitioner that what they are doing in collaboration with the client is working is that the client is talking about change: change that they desire and signs of that change in past, present, and future.

In my experience, which is entirely of coaching and not therapy, at least in some cases my clients’ objectives for the coaching are not about a change that they would like to make in how they do things. Instead, they come for exploration and reflection. Executives and corporations have little opportunity to reflect and talk about their work: they don’t necessarily want to talk to their families because they want to leave work at work, and they cannot talk inside their company because there is always another agenda and play. Many of my coaching clients come for a time to reflect, make sense, find out what it is that they really want. In short, they want to have a meaningful and intelligent conversation. You could argue that this is also a change in viewing and not in doing – but these conversations are about insights and not about “doing something differently”.

Some of these conversations even begin with the client saying something like: “I really want to find out why….” The traditional SF way of responding would be to ask: “Suppose you did know why… What would be better?” The topic of the conversation would then be around that “better” and not about the topic the client initially brought to the session — in fact, turning a conversation from a search for an explanation or insight into a conversation around desired change. Here is an example:

Conversation A:

Creationg Table For Solution Academy
Client: I would like to explore why I get so angry when Peter interrupts me in meetings.
Practitioner: Ok, sure – what would be better when you know?
Client: Well, I would be able to react much calmer then
Practitioner: So you are looking for a way to react calmer when Peter interrupts you?
Client: Yes
Practitioner: Have there been times when you ….

Conversation B:

Creationg Table For Solution Academy
Client: I would like to explore why I get so angry when Peter interrupts me in meetings.
Practitioner: Can you tell me a little bit more about this?
Client: Whenever I want to talk longer maybe than a couple of sentences, Peter interrupts me and meetings. Just yesterday I wanted to explain why we needed more time on the project and he simply jumped in and said that he didn’t really want to talk about the roadblocks. It’s just so frustrating that he doesn’t want to listen.
Practitioner: I’m sorry to hear that, that sounds tough. So, what’s important to you in this situation?
Client: The one hand this is a content issue — I really want to make my point and I want to get my information across. On the other hand, I think it’s completely unfair that some people feel entitled to interrupt others, it just makes me so mad!
Practitioner: Hm – is “making your point, getting your information across” related to “the unfairness and feeling mad” or are these two different topics?
Client: I think they are different topics
Practitioner: Which one would you like to start with today?
Client: I would like to look at the unfairness and feeling mad about it, I need more help there, I think.
Practitioner: Ok, so how would you like to start thinking about this?
Client: Hm – I don’t know
Practitioner: Can I just ask you a few questions around this?
Client: Sure
Practitioner: Might it make sense to look at what you would like to be feeling instead?
Client: Yes – I’d like to be relaxed, calm and have a really constructive way to react when Peter interrupts me. Actually, that might even be the link to the “getting my point across”

The ICF would recognize Conversation B as the “deeper” conversation: more exploration and more partnership. In SF terms, the invitation to exploration “can you tell me a little bit more about this” could be labelled an invitation to “problem talk”. Quests for the construction or post-hoc confabulation of explanations, “why”-questions, are to be avoided.

There are a few reasons that are traditionally given for shying away from explanations. One is practical: by focusing on the desired change directly, clients and practitioners need less time to achieve the change. Descriptions and explanations of the problem seem like unnecessary detours in that process. Practitioners aim to keep the involvement with their clients brief because on the one hand, there are limited resources in the therapy field, and the briefer the involvement with each client, the more clients each therapist can see. On the other hand, therapists want to minimize the risk of the client becoming dependent on the therapist. Both arguments don’t necessarily apply to a coaching context where resources are not scarce, and the coach is more like a service provider or a luxury than a lifeline. In my opinion, the risk of an executive becoming dependent on their coach is much lower than that of the therapy client becoming dependent on the therapist.

The other reason why practitioners might shy away from “why” conversations is philosophical: in a complex world root causes for human behavior cannot be ascertained. Many modernist psychological explanations for human behavior look at a human being as an individual whose inner mechanisms can be analyzed and changed accordingly. They are looking for “explanations” of why something is wrong in order to find out what to do differently. For example, one might analyze a faulty thought pattern and help the client develop a healthier one. This reasoning does not apply when you are working from post-structural, postmodern and social constructionist assumptions. In these approaches looking at a person as an individual entity, outside of their context, separating inner and outer world of a human being simply does not make sense.

The baby and the bathwater

In the following I would like to make the case for Solution Focused conversations that cater to the need of those clients who don’t necessarily come to talk about change but come to have a “deep” conversation.

As a starting point, I looked at how the word “depth” is used in the descriptions of ICF. Here, some conversations are described as “deep” and others might be described as “shallow” or “superficial”. In the terms of the ICF, a “deep” conversation is preferred. However, as long as we are not talking about conversations taking place either in the Mariana Trench or on top of the Mount Everest, we are probably using the word “deep” or “depth” as a metaphor.

The tricky thing with metaphors is that they can contain a whole field of meanings which are subsumed in the metaphor and given the semblance of “a thing”. A coaching conversation is said to “have depth” — as if a conversation could own anything and as if “depth” was something that could be owned.

In order to gain some clarity as to what is generally described by the International Coach Federation as “depth” of a masterful coaching conversation, I have taken the “Minimum Skills Requirement” description from the website of the International Coach Federation for the credential of “Master Certified Coach” and analyzed the usages of “deep” and “depth” and the various contexts. Here are my results:

Depth is mentioned as:

  • Scope of topics
  • Scope of measures of success
  • Level of partnership with the client around agenda, topic, how the coaching conversation is conducted
  • Variety of topics:
  • thinking, feeling, learning
  • who the client is, the client’s way of being
  • how the client learns and creates
  • what the client has to teach the coach,
  • client’s abilities, greatness and gifts, strengths, hidden powers, gifts
  • new growth, growth in relation to the client stated objectives and the future the client is trying to create, client’s agenda and stated objectives
  • limiting beliefs and patterns
  • Significance of topics:
  • “more significant” thoughts, learnings and discovery related to present challenges and agendas and the creation of the client’s future
  • the coach allows the client time to think, learn and discover in relation to significant topics.
  • Quality of learning:
  • the client’s learning shows more understanding or is more sustainable than superficial learning
  • Scope of actions:
  • the client’s actions include thinking, feeling and learning, and presumably not only thinking, or learning, or feeling.
  • Length of time remembered by the coach:
  • the coach demonstrates that he or she remembered things from previous sessions or from earlier in the session and brings the topic back into the conversation

None of these criteria necessarily implies the aforementioned modernist, individualistic and mechanical model of explanation, except maybe “limiting beliefs and patterns”. However, even “limiting beliefs and patterns” do not necessarily presume the necessity of the discovery of an inner mechanism and its fixing by the practitioner. People believe things about themselves and about the world and they can change what they believe about themselves and the world. For example, I used to believe that meditation is boring and a waste of time and now I believe that it is soothing and helpful. The same goes for “patterns”. A “pattern” doesn’t have to be something that needs to be analyzed as if it was existing outside human interactions. You can see it as something that people observe (like a rule in a Wittgensteinian sense) in interaction. For example, I used to get into fights with my husband because I tend to wake up and be wide-awake and he tends to take longer time to be fully awake. I would get annoyed at his sleepiness — he would get annoyed at my bright-eyed and bushy-tailed cheer. Recognizing this “pattern” allowed us to do something different.

Many of the words associated with “depth”, “insight”, “reflection” (and I know I’m being extremely fuzzy here) can be salvaged in a similar way: If a client wants to have a conversation about “values”, we can talk about what the client values and what is important to him or her. “Emotions” can be talked about including their context, in interactional terms so that the conversation doesn’t become about analyzing the emotion as if it was situated inside.

On the surface but not superficial

There are already many “moves” in SF practice where practitioner and client display something that would be recognized as “deep”, for example asking what difference it will make for the client if they reach goal for the session (which does not necessarily have to be a change in doing). Asking this question several times can lead to the client discovering what they want most and what their intentions are. When we follow up by asking who might notice, we are inviting the client to think in interactional terms. This is a conversation about “who the client is” and about the “creation of the client’s future”, the same as the miracle question in one of its many versions.

In my training in narrative therapy, I discovered more ways of having a conversation that “stays on the surface but isn’t superficial” which seem suited to more explorational conversations where the client does not necessarily need a “solution” or “a way to do something differently” (White, 2015).

Listening to the absent but implicit

In the context of executive coaching, where I have a set number of sessions with a client (10 sessions of 90 minutes seems what many people expect) who does not have a pressing problem, I often leave the client more time to tell me his or her thoughts about the issue that he or she wants to talk about. As usual in SF practice, I listen with an ear for what the client wants, what he or she is already able to do, perceive, feel. I add the narrative element of listening for what is important to the client and what are evocative words or phrases until the client agrees we have explored enough and can define a topic for the session based on our exploration.

Landscape of identity

Based on the “absent but implicit”, sometimes an image of a future self of the client appears. In the above example, it seems like “fairness”, “calm” and “constructive” are adjectives that the client would like to be able to use about him or herself. I might invite the client to describe this fair, calm and constructive version of him or herself and where this version has already shown up in the past. All of this would happen in very interactional terms: what were they noticing, what were others noticing about them and so on. The client might then be interested to explore what the situation in the meeting would look like if this version of the client showed up (in principle like the miracle question), who would notice etc.

Capturing learning and results

When the client and I have explored enough, I have started to ask not only about signs of progress (or signs of the other version showing up) but also about what the client is learning about themselves and about how they are exploring usefully.


It has been my experience with ICF mentor coaches, assessors, clients and coaching students that they recognize the above described way of inviting clients to a conversation as “deep”. SF practitioners might see that these conversations also do not search for an inner mechanism or interpretation.

I hope my reflections have invited you to further exploration – I am intrigued by the possibility of salvaging “deep” conversations around things that are traditionally labelled as “inner-psychic” or “systemic” in interactional terms. I have no idea whether these conversations are as “useful” as traditional SF conversation, but then, “useful” is not always the measure.

References: last accessed July, 7 2019

White, Michael (2015): Maps of narrative practice. Auckland, N.Z: Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind.

Dierolf, Kirsten (2014): Solution-Focused Team Coaching. Bad Homburg v d Höhe: Solutions Academy Verlag.

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