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Advanced coaching practice vs academic analysis

Coaching: the gulf between advanced coaching practice and academic analysis

Why is the gulf between advanced coaching practice and academic analysis of coaching so vast?

If you are an advanced coach, you may, like me read the academic journals and have this thought: “Have the people writing this paper ever done any coaching?”

How can you develop advanced coaching skills when our academic understanding is so primitive?

The naivety with which most academics write about coaching is not their fault. Such people are highly intelligent and very thoughtful. So, why does their writing seem so naïve?

For a whole host of reasons!

Coaching and MentoringThey are trying, with great diligence, to explain something which is, probably, with our current knowledge, beyond academic comprehension, yet, in an apparent paradox, can be understood and practiced effectively.

“How,” you may ask, “can such a gulf exist between an advanced coach’s ability to transform behavior and an academic’s ability to comprehend the processes involved?”

Advanced practitioners in any field go into pattern recognition mode after much experience; they see a pattern that they have observed many times before and know exactly how to deal with it.

Here is just one of the factors that put such decision making beyond academic scrutiny: the advanced practitioner knows what to do, and that it will work, but s/he cannot explain how they make that decision or those decisions.

That seems strange; how can one not know the basis for one’s decision making? Surely, one would argue, the transition to unconscious competence is the same for all; before we get to that pinnacle state we are all consciously competent? In which case, surely we know how we make our decisions?

On first viewing, yes, that seems to be so.

Let’s test that observation by looking for counter examples. Are there skills that we master where we were never consciously competent?

Audio version of The Perfect CoachIf there are, then we have an explanation as to why advanced coaches can achieve results where others fail, and yet they cannot explain why.

Riding a bicycle. How do you balance? For most learners , they go from being consciously incompetent to unconsciously competent in a very short time; from not being able to ride, to being able to ride in one gleeful moment, after many failed attempts. Ask any newly skilled rider what they are doing, and I think you already know: they won’t be able to tell you. Yes, they will make an attempt at a post hoc rationalization, but they don’t and can’t know.

Not convinced?

OK. Go to a javelin throwing facility, and try to throw a javelin (spear) at a target, and after each attempt gets closer and closer, ask yourself how you are doing it. You might say: “Well, with my last throw I was too far over the target so I dropped my angle, or I was too far left so I threw a bit more to the right: I adjusted from my errors.” 

On first hearing that sounds like an explanation. On second examination it merely begs the same question again: how are you doing that? “Well, I just decide to,” is the often uttered indignant response I hear when helping people to understand that much of our processing is beyond our awareness. Yes, we “do it” but we simply have no access to how we do it. For hundreds of thousands of years humanoids were able to throw spears accurately, before academics figured out the maths behind our throwing. Although we understand the maths, we have next to no idea how we process the huge numbers of calculations that are necessary for any throw.

Audio version of The Perfect MotivatorNow, turning our attention to advanced coaching practice, imagine you are an advanced coach, and you have just asked THE question that gets the client to have an instant mental revolution, which enables them to remove an internal barrier that has impaired them for decades (it is an amazing thing to behold). The present and able, friendly academic researcher asks you: “What factors did you considered to ask that question?” How would you, how could you answer? Yes, as we all do; you would try to give a post hoc rationalization: “I merely followed the information that I had been given.”

Alas, we are back to the spear throwing problem: “I adjusted from my errors.” The question is HOW did you make that adjustment? How did you process that information to arrive at precisely THAT question, for THAT person, in THOSE circumstances, with THAT background, at THAT time, among the vast array of other variables?”

Academics are up against it. They have to analyse coaching by trying to access processes about which we, collectively we, know nothing. To make any sense of what is happening academics must have access to processes which are even inaccessible to the person experiencing them: the advanced coach. The processes are so complex, so hidden and so instantaneous, that it is utterly unreasonable to expect any kind of coherent answer even from the person experiencing those processes, even when you ask that person immediately after.

So, why do we have this huge sense of gulf when we read academic papers on coaching? Possibly because those same unconscious processes that we cannot access; those same patterns developed on the journey to advanced coaching practice, tell us that the analysis we are reading is very wide of the mark.

Here is the problem in a nutshell.

We cannot define, let alone understand consciousness. We have almost no understanding of how communication takes place between two people. We don’t… let us stop at only two of the huge number of unknowns (and probably unknowables) and express the problem.

Coaching: one consciousness (which we do not understand) is seeking to improve the way another consciousness (which we do not understand) operates by way of communication processes (which we do not understand).

Back to our opening statement. “Coaching: the gulf between advanced coaching practice and academic analysis.” We have explored just a handful of the reasons that there is such a huge gulf. It is not that the academics ‘don’t get it,’ it is that they are brave enough and determined enough to study probably one of the most inaccessible and complex of all human activities: one human mind seeking to help another human mind to direct itself to achieve more than that previous human mind could have achieved.

Despite all those academic research problems, we can develop people to the point of advanced coaching practice; to be advanced coaches, and Dr Nigel MacLennan runs an advanced coaching skills programme for already experienced coaches.

If you want to develop cutting-edge coaching skills contact Dr Nigel MacLennan. The programme is ONLY open to experienced coaches and is NOT suitable for beginner or elementary level coaches. (Another programme is available for new coaches.)

Alternatively, you want to wait until our bright, brave and dedicated academics have fully understood how to reach advanced coaching practice standards, before embarking on such advanced coaching practice training. It might not take the hundreds of thousands of years it took to figure out the maths behind spear throwing, but don’t expect the academic answers any time this century millennium!

Copyright Dr Nigel MacLennan