Uncovering and understanding human responses to behaviour is an ongoing psychological and sociological commitment. As a clinical psychologist with over 20 years of experience, my professional development takes me on a continuous journey and I recently embarked on a new challenge, to become a coaching psychologist.
There are different types of coaching such as cognitive behavioural and developmental and sitting alongside these, but perhaps bridging the gap between more traditional therapies and the newer model of coaching psychology, is transformational coaching.
What is transformational coaching?
Transformational coaching enables and encourages people to review and revise how they see themselves. It effectively gives the client the freedom to view their circumstances differently, allowing change to occur naturally as a consequence of an internal shift in perception.
By allowing people who are unhappy or experiencing specific challenges to see their situation in a new light, we encourage a change in attitude, and it is this attitude shift that inevitably leads to a more lasting change in understanding and feelings.
Awareness and understanding are paramount in transformational coaching. Transformation cannot unfold without insight into the, often unhelpful, beliefs one holds about oneself. But, unlike therapy, the client is not asked to analyse the origin of these beliefs to bring about psychological change.
I find most of my coaching clients would like to change something about their personal situation when they come to me. Although there is an expectation that those about to embark on coaching do not usually present with high levels of distress, this doesn’t mean they are happy and fulfilled. Admittedly they will be functioning well, although it is not unusual for there to be evidence of some underlying psychological distress as a consequence of the situation they find themselves in and their perception of any future outcome. However, the distress is manageable for the coachee at this stage and acknowledging and normalising their distress is important because it reinforces the need for change - indeed transformational coaching would be irrelevant if there was nothing one wanted to transform!
What kind of change is being sought?
People come to me for transformational coaching citing a range of issues they want to address. These can include issues such as stress at work, health issues, an unhappy marriage or difficulties in relationships. Sometimes a client is aware of a debilitating pattern in their behaviour, other times there is little understanding until in-depth conversation and curiosity allow us to understand how the pieces of their individual puzzle are interconnected and reinforced via damaging self-belief and enforced limitations. I find those who embark on transformational coaching are seeking longer-term solutions, and an end to their current social and emotional paralysis. Some coachees seek a reconnection to their discarded identity that has been eroded by the circumstances of life and compounded by their ongoing internal criticism. Initially, goals are not always clear but an intention to unearth purpose, question meaning and find satisfaction strongly underpin a client’s desire to navigate their way successfully through coaching.
When is transformational coaching useful?
In any situation where a client wants to create significant, lasting change, to understand themselves in detail, and to create a shift in their perspective that enables them to believe that they are worthy, and deserving, of the change they are so desperately seeking.
The situations coachees find themselves in may often be different but the sentiment remains the same - limitations on our own abilities are placed on us by our experience of ourselves. Whilst we must all learn to work within the parameters of some limitations (we are not everyone blessed with the voice of Whitney Houston for example), a negative belief often leads a person to interact with the situation from a protective stance. Freedom from this protection, to be able to break through and adapt those unhealthy defence mechanisms can be truly liberating.
Indeed, Jack Mezirow developed his theory for transformational learning with the understanding that adults are well-equipped to observe their current frame of reference and challenge critical self-reflection. This process creates new possibilities by allowing the individual to shrug off existing assumptions and adopt new, healthier and more useful ways of viewing a situation.
Whilst transformational coaching does not work alongside those showing signs of deep emotional distress, it is inevitable that uncovering and reassessing damaging and unhelpful self-perception might generate discomfort, so being able to sit with a client’s emotional pain safely is still an important part of the relationship.
Why can change be difficult?
Changing our perception of ourselves is not done overnight. I know from experience that people in therapy can take years to adopt new attitudes. Internalising part of the therapist to incorporate a more well-rounded, healthier and realistic belief system is a lengthy psychological process and its success hangs delicately on the therapist’s ability to successfully build and maintain the necessary relationship. Transformational coaching is not therapy, but it is still vital to allow clients the time needed to assimilate and embrace new ideas. Although the coaching relationship is rather more like working in the person to person from the offset, there must still be the offer of patience and the understanding that touching on unruly perceptions is painful for those involved. The difference here is that coachees tend to be actively seeking those changes and because the objective is to enable them to understand how limiting self-beliefs or ideas may be holding them back from achieving their goals, there tends to be less reluctance to explore. Resistance does appear in various forms, understandably, but embarking on a transformational coaching journey is by its very nature, an acknowledgment that one wants to change. Awareness, as always, is the cornerstone for growth and enduring change can transform one’s life.