“The Spectrum of Independence” In Leadership Coaching

Do we need to ask so many questions in coaching?  It’s encouraging that other seasoned coaches are also beginning to ask this, as did Edna Murdoch from the Coaching Supervision Academy when she contacted me to ask if she could reproduce and blog¹ about two articles I wrote for the AICTP Journal².  

In it I question the use of questions – or perhaps I should say the overuse. Questions do have their place, but sometimes we’ve got so used to asking them it’s become a habit, and when we start using habits in coaching, we may not be giving the client the very best for their needs.

The Spectrum of Independence

As an executive coach, I strive to strike a balance between providing really good time and space for people to expand their thinking, and help it to flow by listening attentively, versus making an intervention (asking questions, offering my own ideas and suggestions) which temporarily interrupts their own thinking.

In the Time to Think³ approach developed by Nancy Kline we call this the  “The Spectrum of Independence”.  At one end of the Spectrum is the coach’s Directive Intervention (by taking the lead, asking a direct question, sharing a model or a theory, giving information or an opinion); at the other end is the client’s fully Independent Thinking where the coach offers generative attention – and a guarantee not to interrupt the client – that enables and encourages the client to go as far as  they possibly can in their own thinking.

How does this Spectrum work?

When coaching new managers or supervising newer coaches, sometimes there’s a need to do more at the Coach Directive end of the Spectrum which will then in turn help to support their own Independent Thinking.

For example, Anna, a highly prized technical specialist at the peak of her career, suddenly found herself managing a small team. She had – in her own words – no idea about how to delegate. She’d “never needed a manager” herself, and because of her technical brilliance, had been left to get on with it.  She came to coaching willingly to learn how to delegate – because in her first performance review in this new role with her new manager she’d been told she needed to do this better – and do it soon!

As usual in the Time to Think approach, we started with me asking Anna what her thoughts were about this. She spoke for a few minutes only and then was stumped. When I asked what more she thought, felt or wanted to say, she was really lost. She’d a) not delegated much before, b) her old manager used to leave her to get on with her own workload, and delegated very little because she was focused on the technical not the general (and which she’d really appreciated) and c) she didn’t have a particular interest in developing people. She liked people well enough but preferred them to be more like herself – not needing much interaction or support.

It became clear that Anna knew little about different types of delegation. She saw delegation as either telling people what, how, when and where to do something, or leaving them entirely to their own devices. She could see no middle way, nor had she considered how she could adapt her style of delegation to suit the context and the other person.

So I asked if it would help if I outlined different delegation styles, which may help her to think more clearly about her own delegation challenges. She jumped at the opportunity.  She’d never read a book on management, never even had a discussion about it. She needed content and input from me at this point, not more generative attention.

Once I had – from the Coach Directive end of the Spectrum – succinctly outlined the styles, it gave her the opportunity to think for herself about what they meant in her own context. I could move back down towards the Independent Thinking end of the Spectrum and give her the generative attention that would facilitate her thinking.

In contrast there was Joe, a seasoned leader, with information landing in paper on his desk, in email on his blackberry and PC, in endless meetings, in passing conversations, in every single moment of every single day. He didn’t need any direction, questions or suggestions from me. He needed time and space to think, a precious commodity in short supply in his world. In most of our 90 minute coaching sessions I probably said less than 100 words. I stayed at the Independent Thinking end of the Spectrum for nearly all of the session,  listening with fascination to what he was saying, and to what he might say next. In fact I was engaging my brain with his, in a “limbic resonance” that helped him to articulate his feelings and order his thoughts. Had I moved to the Coach Directive end of the Spectrum I could have interrupted his thinking, infantalised him, competed with him or set myself up as the expert. He didn’t need any of that. he just needed time to think.

How else can you know where to go on the Spectrum?

Knowing when to intervene and when to not in coaching is not a science. Sometimes people say they want direction but then reject it when it’s offered. Sometimes they want to be almost rescued from difficult thinking and if we comply, it doesn’t really help anyone. Sometimes their independent thinking takes them round and round in circles, and sometimes they aren’t self aware enough to use the thinking time as well as they could if they had greater self awareness.

We have a range of information to draw upon to help us – and most coaches are already trained in spotting the signs. Firstly we can listen hard to not just what the client is saying but how. What emotions are being expressed here? Do they need more time to let them surface? We can seek to understand their communication preferences and their style. They might be people who like to take their time to articulate their thoughts, and so to interupt too soon would be an assault on their thinking. We must not assume that silence means they’re stuck – they might still be busy thinking. Or they might be someone who relishes being prompted – sometimes we can only know these things over time. 

We can observe their body language – are they fidgeting†, has their breathing changed, are they looking relaxed or tense?  When we intervene how do they respond?  Perhaps they sit upright, looking interested and engaged, or they look ready to take flight or fight. Perhaps they come across as frozen, even paralysed, and not sure what to do next. That might be a sign that they’d welcome an intervention, maybe just a question asking them “What more do you think?” or “Would you like me to ask another question?”  That’s often enough to spark new thinking.   And we can draw on neuroscience such as David Rock’s SCARF‡ model – what might be being threatened here and what do they need from the coach right now?  

Sometimes, as I have referred to in the AICTP articles, clients expect their coach to be more at the Coach Directive end of the Spectrum. Exploring their expectations at the start of the coaching is essential, and discussing the Spectrum is extremely useful – for both the coach and the client.  I often share a drawing of this with them, and ask them where they think their preference lies for their coaching, so that we can explore what that will look and feel like. If they say they want to work only at the Directive end I’ll gently challenge it, and ask if they’re willing to start first at the Independence end and see where that takes them. I’ve not had anyone say no yet. They’re often quite surprised – it’s just that they’re not used to being asked.

The aim is Independent Thinking

For me, it’s important to remember that the aim of coaching is to enable the client to think well for themselves. It’s a hectic world we live in, with many clients facing serious decision-fatigue. Anything we can do to help them to avoid this fatigue has to be of use both to them personally and to their team and organisation.

Bad decisions – or no decisions – are the enemy of progress. And the coach is not going to be with the client every day and in every situation, it is our responsibility to help them to develop the capacity to think independently so they make better decisions. This does not negate the need for people to work and think collaboratively – but every day people have to make decisions, sometimes on the spot, sometimes alone, sometimes not.

In my experience even those clients who ask to start more at the Coach Directive end of the spectrum, once settled into the coaching relationship, soon find they have moved themselves along towards the other end, because, they have truly learned to think for themselves. And when they’ve learned how to do this they’re so much more likely to be able to help others to do the same – to think well for themselves.

What do YOU think? I’d welcome your comments!

© Linda Aspey 16 February 2013

If you’d like to have some genuine Time to Think to ignite your mind, support you in your role and develop your decision making skills, please get in touch and I’ll be happy to explain more.

¹ Edna Murdoch’s blog at  http://coachingsupervisionacademy.com/to-question-or-not-to-question/ and http://coachingsupervisionacademy.com/neurosciencequestions/ 

² These articles were first published in AICTP journal, Summer/Autumn 2012 – The Association of Integrative Coach-Therapist Professionals –  www.aictp.org.uk 

³  www.timetothink.com

† Caution is advised when making a judgement about someone fidgeting – recent research indicates that when men fidget during interviews they’re actually doing better at relaxing than are women: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2278908/Men-fidget-likely-better-interviews-opposite-effect-women.html

‡ Click here  to view a video of David Rock outlining his SCARF model (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Wu33SdjeCs