MIT professor Edgar Schein suggests the open inquiry approach I concluded with last time is one of three modes of inquiry; he calls it ‘pure inquiry’).
We move on from pure inquiry to what Schein calls ‘diagnostic inquiry’ – focusing in closely on specific elements of the coachee’s story. This should not be confused with medical diagnostics, where an expert looks for symptomatic signs of an underlying condition with which they are already familiar.
In effective business coaching, the focused exploration arises not out of pre-established knowingness but out of mutual interest, anatomising actions taken, actions contemplated, feelings and reactions, and/or less obvious causes and motivations.
Schein’s third mode, ‘confrontational inquiry’, is not quite as abrasive as it sounds. We are not confronting people here but, rather, playfully challenging aspects of their stories by sharing new thoughts and ideas evoked by them.
The three essentials I have referred to in my title do not refer to stages of coaching. They are stances a coach adopts throughout. In addition to open inquiry, the coach has to be able to absorb what the coachee says. This is not the same as hearing; hearing is what ears do. It takes a mind and body acting in unison to absorb – attending devotedly, without wandering away, to what is being said and enacted, experiencing it as fully as possible, without abandoning one’s critical intelligence.
Absorbing in this fashion is facilitated by empathising. Contrary to common assumptions, empathising does not mean uncritical acceptance of everything a coachee says.
The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips once likened the therapist-patient relationship to a form of friendship; true friends feel able, safely, to speak honestly to one another, confident that their mutual affinity will allow them to be truthfully critical or sceptical without causing offence.
The same is true of effective business coaching. I listen as attentively as I can, but to honour my coachee, I retain the capacity to raise critical questions about the discourse that is unfolding before me. You cannot be an effective coach if you are a yes man.