Coaching changes lives and not just in the business world. As an Executive team, we at BACP Coaching were delighted to have the long-planned article, ‘Coaching for Social Change’, placed in Therapy Today in September.1 The article looked at how coaching can enable personal and systemic challenge to disadvantage and was based on my interviews with four practitioners who were previously inspiring speakers at our BACP Coaching division events.2 In this and a forthcoming issue of Coaching Today, we publish extended versions of these interviews.
All of the coaches featured share insights about challenges faced in in those communities and demonstrate a commitment to advocating and giving voice and leadership opportunities to the people they work with. They are also psychologically aware/therapeutically trained and recognise the importance of creating psychological safety as well as using coaching questions to enable critical reflection on thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
While recognising that deep listening and the provision of emotional acceptance and support are essential, their experience shows them that a coaching approach is particularly empowering, because, beyond providing a safe place to talk and be supported, and beyond equipping people to tolerate or even individually grow past, the limitations placed on them by society, it has the potential to influence broader systemic change, to give people a more equal chance to succeed.
I began by asking all my interviewees about assumptions that get in the way of coaching being offered to the groups they are working with. All felt that there is a widespread belief that coaching is largely confined to organisations and to people working in senior roles, and is unaffordable for individuals, except the very wealthy, and too costly to be included in charity and community group budgets. It has traditionally also been seen as something for the psychologically robust, rather than for people who struggle to keep good mental health, and not as an intervention that can work at the depth needed by people whose circumstances may be complex and chaotic.
David Weaver also pointed out that, while there is less of a stigma attached to coaching, even in the context of organisations, and particularly where there are financial constraints, people can perceive coaching as performance management rather than performance improvement, and that is compounded when you are a minority in an organisational setting. He told me: ‘Most senior people recognise that it’s about moving forward; but there can be many assumptions in the workplace – but also within communities – around that notion of needing help at a deficit model, rather than seeing what coaching can do for you.’
An extended interview with David will appear in our next issue, focusing in more depth on his work with young people and communities and also including a powerful call to action to counselling and coaching bodies.
Another limiting assumption at play, with some truth in it, is that coaching places too much onus on the individual and so takes the focus away from wider social issues and injustices. Hany Shoukry,4 a leading writer and researcher on this theme, describes how coaching for social change is emerging in the literature as well as in practice. The following interviews highlight why this is so, and what more needs to happen if coaching is to be more completely embraced as a process for social change.
There is much to celebrate in this emerging practice of coaching for social change, and great challenges yet to be faced. Being well informed is fundamental. As Nancy Kline writes: ‘Full and accurate information results in intellectual integrity. Recognising our collective social context creates psychological safety. Facing what we have been denying leads to better thinking.’11 This holds true whether this be about the climate emergency12 or structural and social inequalities. There is abundant evidence of the benefits of welcoming and valuing diversity; benefits for everyone, not just those currently facing exclusion.13
Next in this issue
Katharine, working with LGBTQ+ people is a key aspect of your practice, as well as working with unpaid carers. Why coaching?
Katherine Collins: It’s important to acknowledge that coaching provides a safe place to talk and be supported for those clients who either cannot, or would choose not to, access counselling. There is a stigma attached to counselling, and many people still associate it with being weak and failing. Coaching can provide flexible support to people struggling with multiple disadvantages and often chaotic lives, as it does not require a weekly commitment.
It creates mental and emotional resilience because of its focus on strengths and achievements. Clients invariably leave coaching feeling good about themselves, and with a greater sense of power and self-agency. This allows them to tackle the problems they encounter from a stronger, more resilient, place.
How can coaching create the conditions for a shift that impacts on individual lives but also on the community around them?
KC: Many unpaid carers have internalised the belief that because society does not value the work they do, they themselves do not have value. This can often present in low self-esteem and low self-confidence. Being able to connect personal struggles to wider issues of prejudice and social injustice can be very freeing and empowering because it moves the conversation away from perceived personal failure or weakness.
They connect with their own power, and seeing that they can effect change in their own lives naturally leads to the belief that they can effect change in their wider communities too.
How can we coach in such a way that we influence broader systemic change to give people a more equal chance to succeed?
KC: I think we need more coaches to be flag-bearers for the communities we work with. It can be really difficult for individuals experiencing disadvantage to find the time, energy and internal resources to raise awareness of the issues and campaign for social justice, because for the most part they can’t get paid for this important work and so have to do it in their spare time. As coaches, however, we can not only benefit from the well of knowledge and experience of our clients, but can more easily incorporate awareness raising into our work because it is good for our business as well as the world. Equally, I think that coaching those at the top with the power is just as important and just as powerful.
What do you think makes an effective coaching-for-social-change project? What do coaches need to be aware of and cultivate?
KC: We need more funding. For that to happen, we need coaching for social change to be higher on coaches’ agendas, and we need better evidence to demonstrate the impact of our work. That’s why monitoring and evaluating our work is a big part of what we do at Coaching for Unpaid Carers.
When we talk about social justice and social disadvantages, we are talking about difference. It’s important that the coach has done some work on their relationship to their own and others’ difference.5
David, you described in your presentation6 how the project you evaluated took a recovery-orientated stance, which involves enabling the person to live life as well as possible, rather than just treating illness. It also involves supporting the person to grow and develop. Why do you think that coaching was a better choice for this work than counselling (with people living with quite serious and enduring mental health problems)?
David Britten: One feature that generally distinguishes coaching from counselling is the more concentrated focus on identifying, realising and applying strengths and untapped resources; seeing the potential in the person rather than approaching them as fundamentally broken. My experience, and my research, strongly suggest that focus on positive qualities rather than perceived deficits can empower people in ways that counselling does not necessarily achieve.
We took a recovery approach, and if you look at the ‘Recovery Star’,7 it’s very similar to the ‘Wheel of Life’,8 often used in coaching. The focus was on fostering relationships, identifying and exploring personal values, and identifying and using strengths and engagement in goal-directed activity where small steps develop a sense of agency and possibility. Some of the participants in the coaching scheme were also accessing other forms of therapeutic or psychiatric support, and found that these complemented rather than conflicted with the coaching.
Beyond creating the conditions for a shift that impacts on individual lives, how does coaching impact on the community around it?
DB: I would say the main social impact of the York Mind coaching was that it fostered social inclusion and integration. First, it enabled the clients to (re)engage with the worlds of work (whether paid or voluntary) and social activity, and to develop better networks of friendship and support. Second, it enabled the volunteer coaches, many of whom had no prior experience in or knowledge about mental health, to question their assumptions and prejudices, and to better understand and appreciate the lived experience of those with serious mental health problems.
How do you think that we can move beyond equipping people to tolerate or grow past the limitations placed on them by society, but coach in such a way that we influence broader systemic change to give people a more equal chance to succeed?
DB: One way [of extending impact] is to encourage coaching clients to think of themselves as, and to become, leaders in their communities, and to adopt a coaching philosophy in their interactions with others. Another is to advocate for the more widespread adoption of a coaching approach by professionals working at the interface of state and society, both locally and nationally, as part of the process of redesigning public service provision to better meet the requirements of 21st-century society. York City Council, for example, has been exploring coaching as an approach to enabling people to access services in a less dependent way. Having said this, structural societal change generally requires political action, at various levels. I detect among some members of the coaching community an unhelpful element of wishful thinking about the ability of coaching to cure social ills, a reluctance to acknowledge the structural pathologies of globalised capitalism, and a degree of discomfort with the issue of political engagement.
If coaches want to get involved in coaching for social justice, what attitudes and skills do they need to cultivate/bring?
DB: Above all else, the humility to listen to, and learn from, the people they are working with. And to address people’s needs and concerns as they understand them, rather than as they are interpreted by policy makers. The world is complex, so it’s important to listen to people who have the lived experience. Recognise too the very real economic and social pressures that coachees are under, eg a person waiting for benefits may struggle to find ways to get food to eat, which creates debilitating feelings of anger and guilt in them. It’s useful in my experience to have dual-trained practitioners who can work along the counselling-to-coaching continuum so that interventions can be focused on what is most helpful for the person along that continuum. A coach with counselling training is likely to be more comfortable negotiating some of the boundaries and to see when somebody needs a different approach.
Can you describe how coaching works well as an approach with unpaid carers? I know you also see an integrated approach as important. Can you tell us about that too?
Catherine Macadam: From our experience, we know that coaching provides a much-needed chance to talk to someone about life as a carer, find support to take action, make change, work towards goals and make them a reality. By working on emotional and psychological blockages as well as practical problems, coaching can help carers to manage the stress of caring and maintain motivation and resilience. They can improve their quality of life and continue caring, if that is what they choose to do, and juggle the demands of work and caring, develop their careers and become or remain economically active.
Coaching can be tailored to individuals’ needs and circumstances, be solution focused, evidence based, person centred and empowering. It can support carers to better manage their physical and mental wellbeing and achieve their own goals and ambitions.
It teaches people strategies and techniques that they can continue to use to coach themselves once the coaching is finished, because coaching is about empowering people and building a sense of agency and control in relation to things that are happening around them.
How, in your experience, can coaching create the conditions for a shift that impacts on individual lives but also the community around them?
CM: This is the big question that forms the core of our evaluation work. We have chosen Realistic Evaluation9 (used for evaluating complex social programmes) because it is particularly appropriate for evaluating new initiatives or programmes that seem to work, but the where, how and for whom are not yet understood, and to make sense of the complex processes which underly programmes. It’s a mixed-methods approach, which does not prescribe any particular methodology, but instead allows us to collect and analyse a range of data that help to explore and explain, What works, for whom, in what respects, to what extent, in what contexts, and how? and test our hypotheses about these questions. We are at the early stages of this research.
What we are noticing is that coaching can counteract the negative impact of social isolation and enable participation in social, cultural, spiritual or educational activities. People can be active members of their local communities, including the caring community, through volunteering and peer support activities.
How might coaching contribute to broader systemic change, to give people a more equal chance to succeed?
CM: Coaching is a co-productive activity10 and coaching philosophy emphasises equality. It should foster the sort of attitudes, attributes, skills and experience to facilitate coachees to feel able to participate as equal partners in other areas of their life. Coaching using strengths-based approaches that can help people recognise and then harness their natural strengths and deploy them more effectively to be able to make an impact on things which are important to them.
Coaches can and should think about using coaching feedback, evaluation/research and their own reflections, not just to develop the coaching profession, but also to make the case for coaching to be made more widely available to support social justice and social change projects that are relevant to them, their clients and their work more generally. Coaching bodies could be using their voice to engage with debates on topics of social justice/social change and making the case for the role coaching can play as a mainstream activity – not just as bits of pro bono or CSR activity. Also, they could be encouraging and publicising research that explores this aspect of the coaching profession.
In your experience, what has made for an effective coaching-for-social-change project so far?
CM: Firstly, a clear vision and mission for the project, supported by a proper theory of change/logic model that seeks to demonstrate what the project believes it can achieve. This then informs the evaluation activity that is essential to be able to make a compelling case for change. And stakeholder involvement – the project should be done with, not to, the intended beneficiaries of the project.
Secondly, collaboration: people who are working on similar issues coming together and pooling their knowledge and expertise, developing shared vision and values that guide all their work, sharing contacts, information and other resources for the benefit of the project, without competing. Ideally it needs a champion and an influential voice to talk about the project in the right places.
What attitudes and skills do coaches need to cultivate/bring to work to help to contribute to social justice?
CM: They need a passion for the change they are working to effect, and to really care about the success of the project and to communicate its vision and values to influence others to get involved or support the work. They should be able to leave their egos at home and be able to work as part of a ‘movement’ or campaign that emphasises their contributions to the greater good, not their own skill or expertise as a coach. Working genuinely co-productively requires humanity, humility, flexibility, empathy and a willingness to learn from and value what might be very different or challenging perspectives. And they need to be prepared to offer affordable rates for their work (and not see this work as second rate because it is cheap).
What question would you like to explore going forward in relation to coaching for social change/social justice, that I have not asked?
CM: Who (individual or organisation) is best placed to lead this work, so that it is talked about and paid attention to in the places where decisions are made? What role should coach-trainers and educators (even supervisors?) play in preparing the ground and opening up the possibility of working in this way with new or developing coaches?
From the Coaching Today archives
1 Mumby C. Coaching for social change. Therapy Today 2020; 31(7): 32-35.
2 www.bacp.co.uk/bacp-divisions/ bacp-coaching/resources/
4 Shoukry H. Coaching for social change. In: Bachkirova T, Spence G, Drake D. The Sage handbook of coaching. London: Sage; 2016 (pp176–191).
5 Collins K. The ABCD of working with diversity: a new model. Coaching Today 2018; April/26: 6–11.
6 Coaching for Mental Health. BACP. https:// www.bacp.co.uk/cpd/cpd-hub/
7 https://mentalhealthpartnerships.com/ resource/recovery-star/
8 https://www.thecoachingtoolscompany. com/wheel-of-life-complete-guideeverything-you-need-to-know/
9 Pawson R, Tilley N. Realistic evaluation. London: Sage; 1997.
10 https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/docs/ default-source/improving-care/nccmh/ working-well-together/working-welltogether-evidence-and-tools-to-enable-coproduction-in-mental-healthcommissioning.pdf
12 Aspey L. Coaching with the earth in mind. Coaching Today 2020; January/33: 8–13. 13 Syed M. Rebel ideas: the power of diverse thinking. London: John Murray; 2019.