The use of coaching approaches in impacting social change is slowly being accepted as an inclusive practice; one that opens up possibility and offers access to thinking and planning tools that enable active pathways towards individual and community empowerment. As practitioners, we know that the transformative effect of change in the life of one individual can lead to a concomitant ripple effect on their close relationships and community. This potential is increased through the intentional coaching of disadvantaged or excluded groups facilitating social change, as highlighted most recently by the swathes of local and national community helpers who supported their neighbours and friends during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On 23 March, we held our first ever BACP Working with Coaching Day focusing on coaching for social impact and change. As organisers, our core intention was to offer those attending – recipients, practitioners and commissioners – the opportunity to come together to discuss the benefits and challenges of using coaching in community groups to foster change.
Like most of my peer practitioners, supporting others on their path to change has been a motivating force in my life and work. It is deeply rewarding for me to witness moments when those I work, or have worked, with negotiate new ways of relating, being and growing that make sense to them. Carl Rogers refers to this as operating from within their actualising tendency, which he expands upon in his widely applicable theory of change.1,2 I recognise these positive effects of alignment with my actualising tendency when it appears, as a kind of ‘coming home’: a truth, a lightness, which is the experience I aim to facilitate in those I work with.
As I see it, the coaching partnership is about working collaboratively to facilitate change in a trusting, listening and learning relationship; one that is attentive to the past, respectful of varying contexts and focused on the present and the future, with an intent to consider and arrive at greater internal stability, and the best of available options for action, to enable a greater sense of autonomy.
Researcher, coach and mentor Hany Shoukry writes that he thinks of coaching as ‘…a way to change the world, one person at a time’.3 This idea resonates powerfully with me, as does his recommended coaching for social change approach when working with groups, which includes: establishing safety; getting curious; supporting awareness; encouraging exploration; discovering next steps; and creating accountability.3
Ethical and practical considerations
Recently, I have been wondering how, as an advocate of coaching for social change, I can more actively incorporate the concepts behind coaching practice for social change into my daily life. Through my explorations in peer and individual supervision, many questions and challenges have arisen for me, such as: What are the ethical and practical implications of this action? Who might I be doing this for? What am I already doing? What can I do more of or less of to effect change?
In this personal reflective piece, I use examples from situations I have encountered that illustrate my thinking as a practitioner about practice, power relations and the ethical use of coaching approaches for social change. We cannot ignore the justifiable claim that coaching, and coaching for social change, could be experienced as a form of social control, which gives a lie to the notion of limitless options and promise of achievement because it has been envisioned in coaching. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that the effect of coaching with emphasis on realistic envisioning can lead to sustainable improvement in people’s lives.4
The anonymised and fictionalised accounts that follow are offered from a highly personal perspective, which I reflexively critique and invite you to offer your own responses to, through the sharing of your experiences.
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Caught up in the group
Many years ago, I joined a campaigns group, some months after it was established, and I immediately witnessed and became part of the usual dynamics theorised as present in groups.5 I recognised early on that a coaching approach would have been helpful, but I felt unable to usefully offer my skills from inside the group in a meaningful way, except occasionally on a strategic level in my discussions with the group leader. Coaching offers structured time to think, listen and envision; a gift rarely offered to grassroots groups and organisations in their haste to enact change, and coaching is not necessarily seen by these groups as a helpful ally. Campaign groups are often evidentially motivated and hampered by their lived experiences of being marginalised and simultaneously limited by the very structures within society they are opposed to or are challenging. To a poorly resourced group, time and space to reflect, review and strategise in a peaceful, non-combative way with a facilitative coach is often seen, at best, as a luxury, or worse, as a risk to safety and confidentiality.
For several months, we oscillated between the forming and storming stages (as described by group theorists Tuckman and Jensen).5 Productivity and actions towards progressing the campaign were sporadic and reliant on the actions of a few members. Meanwhile, group members engaged in numerous and enduring personal conflicts and membership numbers fell. I believed the group had a potent and ambitious mandate long overdue, yet we were struggling to see and review the bigger picture or to move from our position of storming. Taking time to consider some of the obstacles we faced, planning and making space to listen to one another and ourselves would have been of great benefit and prevented some of the costly conflicts that endangered the group’s existence and had a damaging effect on its membership and leadership. Without a coach or mentor, our fierce energy and enthusiasm were dissipated and wasted on internal disputes and misunderstandings.
Through coaching practice, being encouraged to monitor our vision regularly, appreciate the progress made and collaboratively design and map out our next steps would have been another great use of a coach – providing structured and disciplined spaces in which to alight on errors without some of the blaming and shaming that can occur within groups; but also invite sensitivity and empathy, so often needed in a grassroots campaigns group that might not have experience of this.
Asking those important ‘what’ and ‘how’ coaching questions would have helped to re-establish or renegotiate the vision of the group – to see that important bigger picture and motivate group members to deliver on their individual and collective responsibilities and tasks.
Critique of my own functioning, action and inaction
So, I return to my earlier questions around practice and ethical considerations, as well as questioning my functioning and apparent inability to use my influence and knowledge of coaching effectively. I am unsure of the answers, but speculate that fear of criticism and my own personal narrative, my ‘baggage’, and lived experience of oppression, got in the way. That ‘who are you, anyway?’ piece of luggage that I carry around with me obscured my intellectual and emotional understanding of the power dynamics at play. I reasoned too that, although they were aware of my profession, I was not engaged or contracted as a coach in this group and concluded it was unethical to position myself in that role from within the group. Our shared sense of social injustice in the group was useful in binding us together, but not necessarily progressive which, as some theorists note,3,6,7 can often maintain or even increase the effects of oppression.
If anything, the hesitant responses to my facilitative skills, even on a basic level, indicated suspicion of and resentment towards me. This might be attributed to my use of ‘coaching-type’ language. Trust in this group was low, and the motivations of individuals within the group were regularly challenged. Under these conditions, engendering trust in using coaching approaches would have been counter-productive. My suggestions to reflect, question and even to reframe our vision were met with temporary acknowledgment, silence and then a return to the default position of conflict. Frequently finding myself in the position of wondering what more I could do or what I should do less of, I felt powerless.
Despite my strong commitment to and passion for the campaign’s causes, fear of using my own power, or of being accused of misusing my power, was also a hindrance to me. I capitulated, in the face of what I experienced as the fearful and distracting noise typical of any emerging group. My solo voice was frequently drowned out by those with louder and more self-assured ways of being heard, seasoned activists with excellent ‘stock phrases’ and claims of insider or historical knowledge, or who were less interested, it seemed to me, in carrying the campaign forward but in favour of point scoring, disrespectful commentary and regular bids for leadership.
What I did find effective on several occasions was my simple, open question to everyone in the group: ‘What are you each going to do this week that will further the work of this group?’ It is almost as if, in the maelstrom of being in the group, in my fear (caught up in the emotive nature of the group), I forgot so much of my coaching knowledge and training, stopped applying it to my daily life, and lost courage. I forgot how to invite others to check in on our purpose and to question whether our current actions and inaction were progressing our purpose, or bringing about the social change we all desired. What I often came away with was a sense of guilt, frustration and culpability. Guilt for not speaking up or finding a better way of being heard; frustration because the ‘work’ to be done was not being done, with so few of us prepared to take responsibility; and culpability because my social change convictions, and my coaching and therapeutic skills, fell on stony ground. It is possible to speculate that engaging a coach and/or having a coaching approach in the organisation of this campaign group would have been helpful and moved the group to further progress. The good news is that, over a period of years, the group made significant progress in its campaign for social change. I remain convinced that coaching can help groups to pursue clarity of purpose and a sense of group ownership.
‘Who is this for, right now?’
I have been wondering whether there is an onus of bravery on coaches for social change? Some of this might come naturally in terms of our values system, which has led to our wish to challenge some aspect of social injustice through facilitating and supporting those we work with, and I wonder how this unfolds in daily life.
The coaching question: ‘What matters most to you?’, offered in a tentative way, often yields a surprising response about a person’s priorities, which might not be evident from their complex and troubled histories or current experiences.
Doing very brief focused work as a psychotherapist in a higher education institution, I found that a substantial part of this work involved working with clients who regarded themselves as socio-economically marginalised by their peers. This, combined with ongoing anxiety about student debt, academic performance and other personal difficulties, meant that it was hard for them to prioritise their needs. Ethical and practical questions about how best to work with clients in this position often led our explorations in the direction of their positioning in relation to social change. A broad focus on their aspirations for their future work as agents of social change meant that their explorations of their current predicament and, even in the depths of their distress, spending time on bigger-picture and vision work, was both therapeutic and inspirational. Substantial evidence for this has come from graduates reporting on their progress, pointing to the usefulness of the coaching approach as a major part of their learning and support. Negotiating and contracting to work in this way is not straightforward, requiring a level of risk assessment and regular monitoring of usefulness to the client concerned. The power relationship is finely balanced between the client’s needs in other areas of their distress, and their wish to focus on their future goals and aspirations. While clear that this approach is for the benefit of the client and their potential service users once qualified, I do need to take into account the question: ‘Who is this for now?’ For instance, is the client avoiding exploring their difficulty? This is where trust in the relationship and the client’s understanding of what is best for them now is key.
A further, but not unconnected, example from my daily life is the regular exchange that I have with a dog walker in my neighbourhood. Knowing each other only by our first names, we meet once or twice a week and over the past year I have progressively used a coaching approach in our very brief, somewhat idiosyncratic, discussions together. We have noted that over the past four months, a kind of trusting relationship has built up between us: so much so that coaching questions and the support of a conversation partner have encouraged their thoughts of applying for further training and enhanced their assertiveness.
Holding on to hope
One thing to be learned from our history is that, unless there is a war or pandemic, social change rarely happens speedily, but that should not prevent us from retaining hope. Coaching for social change practice validates the right of individuals and groups in disadvantaged or marginalised communities to benefit from taking time to explore their own experiences in a safe environment, and, on a regular basis, consider how, within their particular contexts, they can make changes for themselves and others. As Gannon and Shoukry7,8 have observed in their studies, while there is recognition that the coaching approach is not a panacea and has its own limits and critiques, through learning some of the principles of coaching, communities can use the skills and approach they have been introduced to in ways that are meaningful and relevant to them.
In times like these, I take some solace from the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius: ‘It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.’
1 Rogers C. The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. In: Kirschenbaum H, Land Henderson V (eds). The Carl Rogers reader. London: Constable;
2 Rogers C. A theory of therapy, personality, and interpersonal relationships, as developed in the client-centred framework. In: Kirschenbaum H, Land Henderson V (eds). The Carl Rogers reader. London: Constable; 1990 (pp236–257).
3 Shoukry H. Coaching’s search for meaning. Coaching Perspectives 2021; 31: 6–9.
4 Boyatzis TE, Jack AI. The neuroscience of coaching. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 2018; 70(1): 11–27.
5 Tuckman BW, Jensen MAC. Stages of small-group development revisited. Group & Organisation Studies 1977; 24(4): 419–427.
6 DeCelles KA, Sonenshein S, King BG. Examining anger’s immobilising effect on institutional insiders’ action intentions in social movements. Administrative Science Quarterly 2020; 65(4): 847–886.
7 Gannon JM. Applying the lens of social movements to coaching and mentoring. Philosophy of Coaching: An International Journal 2021; 6(1): 5–29.
8 Shoukry H. Coaching for emancipation: a framework for coaching in oppressive environments. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring 2016; 14(2): 15–30.