Towards the coaching relationship

this second article in the five-part Masterclass series by Ashridge Consulting
on achieving best practice in coaching, Charlotte Sills gives a detailed
breakdown of the coaching relationship

The single factor most vital to successful outcomes in executive coaching is
the quality of the relationship between coach and client.

In her article in this series last month (Training Magazine, January), Ina
Smith stressed that executive coaching is quite different from ‘training
coaching’, which focuses on the development of skills or knowledge.

What, then, can the executive coach offer? What can a client reasonably
expect of his or her coach, and what skills or knowledge should the coach have
in order to secure the best possible outcome for their client? Smith’s article
has already identified many of these. However, even the coach with the best
‘kitbag’ of skills, knowledge and business experience will not procure the best
outcome for their client unless they are able to establish and build a good

Consultancy coaching has many features in common with counselling and
psychotherapy. It is the intentional use of a relationship that aims to develop
the entire person of the client in relation to his/her professional life. The
personal and professional areas of a person’s life cannot be kept separate. The
client brings his/her personal self to the professional role and it is this
area of overlap that is usually the focus of a coaching intervention.

Because of the features coaching shares with counselling and psychotherapy,
consultancy coaches can learn important lessons from some of the research into
successful psychotherapy outcomes. This research has identified the ‘common
factors’ that contribute to positive change, and studied their relative

In numerous studies over the last 30 years, it has been confirmed again and
again that the largest contribution within the therapy room to client outcome
was the existence of a positive therapeutic relationship. Summarising much of
this research, Assay and Lambert, in 1999, identified the following relative
importance of key factors affecting client outcome:

– client factors – 40 per cent: such as openness, optimism, motivation, a
strong friendship and family network or membership in a religious community

– expectancy/placebo factors – 15 per cent: the instillation of hope brought
about by the engagement

– model and technique factors – 15 per cent: gains arising from the use of
particular theories, models or techniques

– relationship factors – 30 per cent: the client perceives the practitioner
to be offering empathy, respect and genuineness, and there is a shared
understanding of the nature of the work

If we transpose these findings to the consultancy coaching context, the
message is clear: the establishment of a meaningful relationship between
practitioner and client is vitally important – and far more important than the
application or teaching of theories and models.

The implication for coaches is that they may need to resist the urge to
impart knowledge or theories in favour of developing a good relationship.
Frequently the coaching client, eager to advance, will be very keen to learn
new models or formulae, but this should not be the initial priority for the
consultancy coach.

Coaching contract

What, then, will ensure the creation of a good relationship? Research such
as the 1994 studies by Bordin state that positive outcomes rely upon
relationships that involve mutuality of goals, tasks and bonds.

In the coaching context, coach and client must have:

– a clear, shared agreement about the goal of their work – the direction and
the desired outcome

– a clear understanding about how the coaching work will happen and what
will be the role or tasks of each party

– bonds of mutual respect and empathy. A relationship in which the client
experiences him or herself to be understood and warmly accepted even after they
has shown their vulnerabilities.

All these three elements are held within the coaching contract, which
provides a container for the work and represents both its scope and also its

Core elements

The effective coaching relationship needs to:

Provide the opportunity for understanding. It is important that whatever
theories are used to understand a situation, they should make good sense to the
client. In fact, they are more effective if they are generated by the client.
Therefore, the coach needs to be flexible and responsive in the first instance
to the client’s assessment of the problem rather than their own.

It may also be relevant to share with the client, as mentioned above, that
40 per cent of successful outcome is due to client factors. It is often
important to enquire into the client’s support network, where they get
professional and personal support, what else they have in their life that
supports them (family, hobby, or religion). If this area of the client’s life
is impoverished, he/she should be encouraged to develop it.

Build on existing strengths. Unlike counselling, coaching does not set out
to heal psychological or emotional difficulties, nor bring about major
characterological change. Naturally, these may happen as a by-product of the
coaching engagement, but they are not the goal and do not form part of the
contract. What coaching will do is help the client to know him or herself
better and identify their existing and potential strengths. Building on what
they can already do will both maximise Lambert’s ’15 per cent hope’ factor and
also help to open the door to the development of new skills.

Develop skills and encourage experimentation. Another of the ‘common
factors’ is the opportunity to identify relevant skills – to polish up existing
skills or practice new ones while having the chance to get accurate feedback.
The relationship should foster an atmosphere of experimentation and discovery
rather than ‘finding the right answer’. Then the client can review and reflect
upon the results of their experiments and use them to challenge beliefs they
may have about themselves, others or the organisation.

Facilitate the sense of achievement. Clients need a sense of agency or
achievement and self-responsibility. It is important the client be able to
articulate what they have done or are doing differently in order to increase
the feeling of mastery and self-efficacy. Coaching is less effective if the
client perceives him or herself to be dependent on the coach’s expertise.

Prevent ‘relapse’ . Where the identified goal of coaching is a change in the
client’s behaviour, it is extremely unlikely the client will not at some time
lapse into old ways of behaving. It is important they don’t see such lapses as
setbacks but believe that they provide the opportunity to check and see whether
there was something useful in the old behaviour. To prevent serious lapses, it
is always useful to invite the client to predict them, discuss what triggers
the old behaviour and, subsequently, develop strategies for responding


– Ashridge Consulting’s Coaching for Consultants programme will
include a module that explores what skills and attitudes are needed by the
coach in order to establish the kind of relationship that will provide those
core facilitative elements. Enquiries about this programme should be made to
Tracey Field, 01442 841106,

– TP Assay & MJ Lambert (1999) The empirical case for the
common factors in therapy: quantitive findings

– MA Hubble, BL Duncan and SD Miller (eds) The Heart and Soul
of Change: What Works in Therapy, (pp33-56), Washington DC, APA Press

– ES Bordin (1994) Theory and research on the therapeutic
working alliance

– Horvath and S Greenberg (eds) The Working Alliance: Research
and Practice, New York, Wiley

– AN Schore (2000) Minds in the Making, Seventh Annual, John
Bowlby Memorial Lecture (CAPP), London

Understanding the contract

It is important to recognise there
are significant differences between the contract in counselling/therapy and the
contract in coaching.

Normally, the goal of coaching is defined in terms of the
client’s professional life rather than their personal life. As a result, the
coaching contract might well include levels of complexity that are not present
in the therapeutic engagement.

Private agreement

Sometimes a coach will have the luxury of a private agreement
between him or herself and the client, but more frequently the consultancy
coach is subject to multiple levels of contact and commitment to other parts of
the organisation. Usually the fee is paid by the organisation, which may have
its own agenda for the client, or the coaching may be part of a wider
consulting initiative, which may create possible confusion or conflict of
interest. Conflicts abound arising from confidentiality issues, financial
loyalty (who is paying?) and ‘best interests’ allegiances. These areas need
careful and explicit contracts involving clarification of goals and tasks if an
atmosphere of trust is to be created.

Empathic relationship

As identified on page 32, the third of Bordin’s elements – the
empathic relationship – cannot be established by contracts alone. It is built
by the quality of the contact between coach and client, and I believe it to be
the heart and foundation stone of all the work that takes place. Indeed,
without it, the client cannot feel safe enough to take the risks of self
disclosure either to the coach or to themselves.

Human beings are programmed from birth to seek attachment and
relationship. We become who we are by being shaped by our relationships with
the world and the people around us. Neuroscientific research has found that in
infancy, the empathic loving bond between a responsive parent and the baby is
actually essential in developing the neural networks that regulate the young
child’s sense of itself, its feelings, and its capacity to think and make

In 2000, Schore presented exciting evidence to suggest that
even in adulthood, an empathic accepting ‘right brain – right brain’ connection
with someone we trust, can provide the possibility for the development of new
neural pathways, of new ways of feeling and being.

All this would tend to confirm what many people believe – if we
are in a relationship in which our thoughts and feelings are heard and accepted
in an empathic way by another person, we learn to hear and accept ourselves.

This is essential if the client is to use coaching to raise
awareness of them-selves and their working patterns, rather than put energy
into either denial or paralysing self-criticism. They need to acknowledge what
they know and what they don’t. They need to be available to hear feedback,
examine their working patterns and experiment with new ideas.

Empathy means allowing someone to feel met, truly understood
and seen. Within a solid working alliance, empathy can include, when the time
is right, the difficult confrontation or demanding challenge. However, it is
characterised at heart by a real relationship of acceptance and resonance that
invites the client to step into the area of ‘bounded instability’ from which
real creativity and change can emerge

In summary, the client needs to feel safe enough and valued
enough to be able to use the other core ‘common factors’ of the successful
therapeutic relationship, all of which are highly relevant to the coaching

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