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Dr. T. V. Rao is currently Chairman, TVRLS. A former professor and Board member at IIMA, Dr. Rao is the Founder President of National HRD Network and has been in the forefront of HRD movement in the country. Dr. Rao worked as a short-term consultant to UNESCO, Bangkok; USAID Indonesia; UNIDO Malaysia; and Commonwealth Secretariat, London and as HRD Consultant in India to over a hundred organizations in the public and private sectors. Dr. Rao received many awards including Ravi Matthai Fellow (AIMS), Asia Pacific HR Professional of the year 2019 (APFHRM) and Lifetime Achievement Award from Indian Academy of Management. Authored over 60 books.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Dimensions and Styles of Coaching


Styles of Coaching
T V Rao

Based on personal reflections of working with performance coaching and counselling

Coaching is a form of interpersonal conversation where one person (Coach) tries to influence the second person (Coachee or Coached). There is group coaching and team coaching possible, but I will restrict myself to two person coaching - formal or informal. Formal coaching can be paid, system driven (example performance coaching, career coaching) and more organised, while informal coaching is unplanned and can even happen between two people  without time lines and even acknowledging. Many conversations in our families, schools, colleges, organisations and communities are informal and all the time happening and some of these could be coaching conversations.

The essential component of coaching is “communicating to influence”. One person tries to influence the other consciously or less consciously. I will restrict myself to formal coaching in this note. The  purpose of coaching is to help the “Coached” or the “Coachee” to make choices and solve his/her own problems, issues, dilemmas, conflicts, stress situations etc. and  get the best out of self or emerge as better than before (more effective, happy, integrated, contented, powerful, empowered, peaceful, balanced, motivated, energised etc.). 

The following ten categories of behaviours are exhibited by a Coach in coaching the coached. They are not always mutually exclusive and may occur in combinations. These are:

1.      Listening: Actively listening to understand the issue or perspective. For this the Coach has to pay undivided attention to hear and also interpret the situation or experience the way the coachee experienced or experiencing or perceiving the situation or events. Listening involves listening to what is said and the feelings behind what is said (stated and unstated). Passive listening while may have a cathartic value does not help this. Listening with empathy and listening to feelings is a critical skill. For this other behaviours like probing may need to be used. 

2.      Probing (asking questions, seeking information or explanations etc.): In this the Coach attempts to understand by asking questions and details the way the Coachee perceives and interprets his/her work, life, events, situation, people etc. that are of significance to the Coached. This essentially depends on the agenda set for the session or the series mutually by both or singularly by the Coached.


3.      Reflecting or mirroring: This is a great tool in helping the Coach as well as the Coached understand the situation as he/she experienced. Mirroring is a mere paraphrasing of what has been said or feelings with which it has been said. It clarifies and helps the coach and coached to levelling or attaining a shared understanding.


4.      Exploring (generating or help generate alternatives): This goes beyond probing and asking questions. This can occur at three stages- in the beginning of conversation for understanding of the situation. In mid-course for generating alternate interpretations and exploring possibilities that enhance understanding of the situation and events. It could be at the end of the conversation for generating or an exploring alternative solutions, actions, behaviours etc. to be adopted by the Coached. In probing normally the coach plays a lead role while in exploring c the coach plays a suggestive role. Exploration can also be joint and sometimes facilitated by the coach and coachee driven.

5.      Appreciating and Empathising: Empathising is putting one-self into the shoes of the other and communicating how the Coach is in tune with the coached.  It involves accepting and sharing the feelings and interpretations of the coachee and (not necessarily approving or disapproving). This is essentially used to create a feeling of acceptance and unburdens the coached. This can be done at any point of coaching conversation. It helps build rapport. Sometimes the coach may share his/her own experiences or stories to support, mirror or reflect the actions and feelings of the coached. Appreciating and empathising helps making the coachee “feel, seen and heard” and experience unconditional positive regard in the conversation. 


6.      Generating alternatives or help generate alternatives: This is normally during action planning stage. This could be done by the Coached or Coach or both. It creates a sense of ownership if the Coached plays an active part in generating alternatives and the Coach merely helps generate alternatives.


7.      Hypothesising: This again may take place at different stages: interpretation of the past events to help coached appreciate others’ and gain clarity of the situation. It may also be used for anticipating the likely consequences of future actions or behaviours by the Coached. 

8.      Guiding (suggesting): In this the Coach suggests preferred solutions and likely consequences and helps the coached to make choices.

9.      Directing (indicating the desirable actions): In this the Coach gives based on experience or the coaching conversation, clear cut actions to be undertaken by the Coached. Leaves little freedom for the Coached to choose. 

10.   Reprimanding or Threatening:  This is expressing by the coach anger, disappointment and disapproval of actions, behaviours, proposals, plans etc. of the coachee. This includes pointing out the undesirable consequences of actions or events and reprimanding. In this the Coach points out to the negative consequences of not doing or doing or showing a particular action or behaviour. For example a friend of mine who was coaching a difficult client (coachee), after a series of coaching sessions observed that his coachee had no respect for his time and was always late or skipped his appointments. To teach him a lesson my friend shifted the venue from the client’s office to his own office and made him wait for a long time. When the coachee felt angry, my friend indicated to him that this was done deliberately to make him experience the reaction he has been generating in the coach and recounted the number of people the coachee has offended with his behaviour.  Later my coach friend also threatened to end the coaching contract. .

Coaches use a mix of all these. However some coaches may get stuck in one or more forms unconsciously and may over a period of time develop their own unique style.
Directive Coaches use categories 9 and 10 more.  Non-Directive coaches use categories 1 to 8 more. 

It is possible to observe or record a coaching session and analyse which category a Coach has used and how frequently. It is possible to come up with Directive and Non-Directive influence ratios by counting the number of times or amount of time used in Directive or non-directive coaching style. It is also possible to assess “Coaching Dominance” ratios by calculating the time spent by the coach versus the coached. I expect in future technological developments and AI applications will make it possible to have assessments of “terms used” (I suggest, let us explore, I think you.., why did you?  Do you understand... etc.?)   and classify them into Directive and Non-Directive coaching styles. It is also useful to analyse the self-directed talk and Coach-initiated talk in each conversation. This gives insights into the openness and efforts to be put in to draw the coaches out into conversations. Personally I am not a believer in machines substituting humans for coaching. However the way the world is changing to digitisation, anything may be a possible and we could soon have coaching machines.  

Listening coaches use this style of listening patiently to their coachees as they believe the purpose of coaching is to let the coachee freely express themselves. For them coaching is catharsis. Such coaches learn a lot about their coachees and the coached may get a feeling of being accepted, listened to and even understood. Such coaching helps build self-acceptance of the Coachee. Such style may not lead to action plans and in the event of action plans the coach chees feels more responsible as no ideas of the Coach were generated. This is an effective style of coaching. It has the risk of the Coach losing interest if there is only passive listening.

Probing coaches use categories 2 and 3 more liberally and frequently. They spend excessive time and effort in understanding and exploring. They are good at asking questions. Probing is a good way to go deeper into the psyche of the coachee and could result in a good diagnosis of the problems, issues and interpretations. Sometimes it has the risk of putting the coachee into a defensive mode. It could also divert attention from real issues and ends up as a game of questioning and responding. F Good q Coaches need to periodically review their style of probing and questions. Reflective questions are good and information seeking questions are useful only when the coachee is reluctant to get into details.

Empathetic coaches use categories 4 and 5 more frequently. They tend to share their experiences more frequently and keep confronting the coached with their own examples and illustrations to agree and empathise with the coached. Empathetic coaches also build higher levels of self-acceptance and create open climate for coaching.

Action driven coaches use categories 6, 7 and 8 more frequently and would like action plans to be formulated soon. In commercial coaching this may become a preoccupation of the Coaches in their eagerness to show change.

Directive coaches use categories more of 9 and 10 categories. This may be needed when the coachee is highly dependent and seeks solutions from the Coach. Normally most coaching theories discourage this as it does not build the independent decision making and sense of responsibility on the part of the coachee. However if the Coach has a mentoring role to play and the coachee is very new in early stages it may be useful to use this. Category 10 is not a desirable style as it could lead to many relationship issues. If the Coach has a mentoring and supervisory relationship with the Coachee it could be selectively sued but it may cease to be called c coaching and might end up as “Executive Action”. In good coaching situations it is better to avoid this.

This note is meant to create awareness in coaches of their own styles and make them more sensitive to unconscious sue of patterns in coaching which may become eventually styles.  

Suggested readings:


Pareek, U., & Rao, T. V. (1995). Counselling and Helping Entrepreneurs. The Journal of Entrepreneurship4(1), 19–34. https://doi.org/10.1177/097135579500400102

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