The art and science of coaching: polar opposites?

The International Coach Federation (ICF) defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. Is there a right way to achieve that?

In other words, is coaching a science or an art? Maybe we should rephrase that question. What people are really interested in is if there is a proven formula that they can follow that will give them the same result every time. Or if coaching is something that rather relies on intuition and sensory perception. Do you rely on a deep understanding of the scientific process or an intuitive style honed from years of trial and error?

In a coaching setting, ideas around science comprise being objective and concerned with facts and measurement rather than beliefs and feelings or having a hypothesis before you start or the idea that the process or result is repeatable and will yield the same result if and when it is repeated. And the ideas around art include passion, beliefs, intuition, feelings, and focus on the journey, not the outcome.

In today’s fast-paced business world, learning how to move others — psychologically and emotionally — is paramount to getting the most out of them. People are the ultimate performance variable. Understanding how to effectively blend scientific and practical knowledge with the nuances of human behavior is integral to helping clients achieve their ultimate goals.

Regardless of the approach or strategy a coach applies, if you examined them on their merits individually, you would probably come to the conclusion that depending on context and environment, nearly everything works for advancing the client, however, some interventions work better than others. Coaching has been more and more influenced by science. Think of the broad field of neuroscience, for instance. Coaches need to consider the impact of the strategies, tools, and methodologies they select. Remaining consistent with one’s personality and abilities and keeping in mind how those can impact their clients – instead of simply coaching the way someone else does, or because of a gut feeling – is at the heart of effective coaching.

Coaches need to be mindful of so many things in the coaching moment. Mindful of their clients’ environment, of their state of being, mindful of the chatter in their own heads etc. Coaches should also be aware of their influence on a client’s mental and emotional state. It is important to adapt, revise, adjust and sometimes follow gut instinct when working with clients. That’s just like a dance. Maintaining a healthy balance between art and science is essential to progress as a coach.

We believe that science and art are not black and white; they are no binaries. At RELEVANT, we are fascinated by the science of personality. The empirical nature of the standardized scientific method has an innate appeal. It allows us to study and explore the deepest dimensions of our being and our existence in the world.

At RELEVANT, we apply the Hogan personality assessment as basis of all our interventions in selecting and developing leaders. Hogan’s big data approach allows us to describe the relationship between personality and behavior at the workplace. Coaches are our clients whom we support in applying the Hogan personality assessment in their coaching processes.

The three-dimensionality of the Hogan personality assessment captures the bright, the dark and the inside of personality:

  • The bright side (HPI) – This is your day-to-day reputation. Characteristics like drive and emotional resilience that enable one to work well with a variety of people are particularly important to leadership success.
  • The dark side (HDS) – Reputation in times of stress, pressure, or uncertainty. These are characteristics that might be overused, particularly, when a leader is reacting in the moment, not self-managing, or being stressed. These characteristics are known to interfere with communication and relationship-building, gaining buy-in and clarity on direction, and the ability to balance conformity with being flexible and independent-minded.
  • The inside (MVPI) – Although related to personality, values are different. They are more about one’s intentions, preferences and motives. They are key to the fit between a leader and his/her organization’s values.

We view the assessment results as the “what,” and the feedback session with the coach as the “so what” (i.e., so what does this mean to me?). We then help the clients with the “now what” (i.e., now what do I do to be more effective?). We recommend a results-oriented approach of connecting what clients learn about themselves from the assessment results to their key business goals. This serves as the basis for self-directed learning as described in one of our previous articles.

Science can help provide direction and purpose. That being said, we are also practitioners who produce results, applying the science to the best of our ability by transferring it into practice. You can learn the science, but you have to practice the art to continuously get better at it.

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