In an interview on the Ashridge Executive Education blog, the relational coaching expert Professor Ernesto Spinelli describes how relational coaching means understanding that neither the coach nor the coached exists in isolation. According to Professor Spinelli, they are always subject to the relational conditions around them, and their experience of these conditions shapes their attitude, which in turn feeds back into the experience. Relational coaching involves exploring the tensions between the subject and their environment, and using the results to find ways of moving forward.

In the context of business relationships, the situations that need to be dealt with may involve conflict at work, dealing with competition, stress or just the pressure to succeed and keep one’s head above water. These conditions generally provoke unease and anxiety, which the coached may be trying to get rid of. However, stress and anxiety are not always bad things. They can be the engine for forward momentum. Relational coaching can help to transform these fears from a paralysing inertia into a strong motivational energy for change.

Sometimes, a situation is not objectively bad or good; it’s how we look at it and define it that determines its impact upon us. Relational coaching can help to shift our attitudes and perspectives on the conditions we see around us towards a positive outlook rather than a negative one. Our idea of ourselves in the world is too often one of feeling isolated and put upon, the little man struggling to survive against near-impossible odds. This narrative is popular partly because it can make eventual success appear more heroic, and can also be used to explain, excuse and rationalise failure. However, when one is in the midst of the struggle, it is not necessarily helpful.

Relational coaching can help an individual see the conditions around them not as overwhelming threatening forces but as conditions to be understood and worked with, much as a surfer may use the energy of the waves rather than be dragged under by them.

The other important element of relational coaching is the relationship between coach and coached. This must always be based on trust, mutual respect and acceptance. The coach is not looking down at the individual from an elevated position, imparting wisdom from above. Effective business relationships should be as equal and honest as possible. Feedback and communication should flow both ways for a truly meaningful and constructive dialogue to be built up. Ultimately, both parties should be working towards a specific goal. Although relational coaching has some common ground with therapy, it is not just about feeling better but is also about affecting real change through positive affirmative action.

Initially, relational coaching provides a mirror whereby the coached can see, hear and understand themselves more clearly. This should be achieved via slow and gentle prompting by the coach, in an atmosphere of trust and cooperation. Judicious questioning can help the coached to discover aspects of themselves and their situation that were previously obscure or misunderstood.

In relational coaching, any action plan should be allowed to develop organically. Because the core principle is that each individual is in a specific relationship with their circumstances, there can be no pre-prepared guide as to how to approach this method. However, an attitude of trust, openness and willingness to embrace positive action are the starting blocks for any session.

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