I have long been unhappy with the expression ‘Non-Directive Coaching’ for the very simple reason that it tells the coach what they should not do – but gives no indication of what they might do.  Indeed, and forgive me if this sounds too self-assured,  outside of my own work I have not found one description of the ‘non-directive’ process.

I am currently trying out the term ‘self-directed coaching’ to see how that works.

I notice that there are many people who say they follow a ‘non-directive model’ – because it is the ‘correct’ thing to say – but who actually do not know how to do this. Many seem to think it means to ask questions – and too often the question that gets asked is merely a thought that has occurred to the coach that then gets re-worked as a question.  This is manipulative and disingenuous and will ultimately undermine the relationship with the player (coachee).

And then there are those who think that coaching should only be non-directive.  I don’t believe this right or helpful to the player.  Let me explain.

Non-Directive Coaching is a theoretical concept.  Conceptually it has a place but is not viable in practice – because it is impossible to execute.  Behind the idea of ‘non-directive’ is the ideal that the player should do their own thinking without being influenced by the coach.  Great as an ideal but it is this ‘not being influenced’ that is impossible – human beings are designed to pick-up even the smallest signals, verbal and non-verbal, ands so if, for instance, the coach agrees or disagrees with the player, if they are excited or disappointed, the player will pick this up and, in all likelihood, respond to it.  It is impossible for the coach not to signal what he or she is thinking –the coach ‘leaks’ – a flicker of the eyes, a quickening of the breath.

Following the argument that non-directive coaching is impossible in practice I will also be a little more controversial (to some) in suggesting that it is in fact undesirable.  In a therapeutic context I can hold onto the argument for a solely non-directive stance for a little longer because the goal of the intervention is to help that individual to become whole or “a healthy, coping’ individual (an inner goal) which, I think, demands that the individual be given the opportunity to pursues their own thinking in greater depth and to own and develop their meaning making capacity.

Equally to prioritise learning over performance may well be appropriate in a therapeutic contract but one of the things that differentiates coaching from therapy is the performance bias

But my reason for suggesting that it is OK to be ‘directive’, to suggest or offer an opinion for instance, is that there are many occasions when the coach sees, knows or understands something that the player does not.  This is inevitable.  If in that moment the information is offered with the intent to increase awareness then it might well be the appropriate thing to do.  Imagine a professional business coach, having come to the end of a session in which the player has not achieved resolution, simply getting up and leaving when he or she – the coach – has a clear idea as to what might be done.  I cannot imagine doing that.  More than that I would suggest that to leave without offering the idea would be professionally negligent.  This is the case in coaching where the goal is almost always external – a result or end to be achieved – so the coach’s intervention has much less impact on the players meaning making capacity.

There are also moments in coaching when the player is in a situation of distress and where immediate action or a decision is required.  If the coach knows what to do in that moment then to do nothing is simply not helpful and may again be negligent.  Of course, at a later date when things to have cooled down, it would be ideal to revisit the situation for the player to understand why they became stuck.

A further part of my argument for the ‘directive skills’ comes from the observation that, in executive coaching unlike therapy or life coaching, it is not only the individual player’s needs that are being taken care of.  In a business context the individual/player is seldom the client (this ‘client’ title is part of the problem): the organisation paying the bill is the client.  And the client organization must have its needs met in the coaching process.  This will sometimes demand that the coach uses ‘directive’ skills.  As an example, if the coach believes that the course of action being adopted by the player will not achieve the organisation’s goals then, I believe that giving feedback might be an appropriate response.  Or if a player is about to do something that is unethical or unlawful – what then?

Having made an argument of sorts for the directive coaching skills I find the need to reposition Self-Directed Coaching Skills.  These are the skills that have the player do the thinking, creating, problem solving.  These skills are the foundation of effective coaching.  They must be learned and practiced until a level of mastery is developed such that the coach has almost no need to stray to the directive skills – coaches most often revert to ‘telling’ when they have no other option!  Once the Self Directed skills have been learned then there is a job to learn the directive skills – for the coach to be able to use their own Resources – in such a way as to raise awareness in the player and not unduly influence their meaning making or decision making capacities.

I will finish with this: a coach who is dependent on their own knowledge, experience or problem solving abilities will never Enable Genius, will never enable the player to gain Mobility or experience their own Authority.