Using coaching to unlock creativity

Can coaching be used to unlock creativity? Some say it can. Make up your own mind.

Coaching is well-established as a tool for improving performance and tackling remedial behaviour. It is also starting to be used as a way to engender creativity in subjects, as coaching consultancies realise that its one-to-one nature and close dialogue can be a way of unlocking the mind.

But alongside this expectation are new demands of rigour for the sponsor and the coach – and the need to have realistic expectations.

“The term ‘creativity’ can be over-used,” says Diana Hogbin-Mills, head of research at the Association for Coaching, and managing director of the TalentMax consultancy. “It is really about our ability to think outside the box, but you can’t expect a tax adviser to be creative, for example.”

She says coaches should be expected to use questioning to unlock creativity.

Pushing the boundaries

“One of the best questions is: ‘What else?'” she says. “This pushes the client beyond the initial understanding.” This creates a degree of stress, prompting the subject to think.

Hogbin-Mills asks these questions at the end of a session. “I ask them a question, and I ask them to think about it and come back next time with their thoughts.” She sees this as creating “space for musing”, and a way of giving clients the time and incentive to solve a problem.

An even more focused approach to making creativity happen is the application of appreciative inquiry (AI).

AI is best described as a meaningful encounter between people in a powerful conversation. It was discovered during a study on organisational innovation by David Cooperrider, professor of organisational behaviour at Case Western University, Cleveland, US, in the 1980s, and is regarded as a way of reaching positive collaboration through asking questions.

At The Jemstone Consultancy, managing director and chartered psychologist Sarah Lewis says AI questions prompt the coachee to “remember the times when things were going well”. They also create a positive mood, which in turn can lead to creative responses to problems and situations.

“Negative emotions, such as fear, narrow our thoughts and limit our behavioural responses. This kind of emotion limits creativity,” she says.

Lewis believes that achieving positive emotional states is the key to helping people become creative. “It’s about releasing people’s resourcefulness. AI takes people back to the good times and helps them to remember in a positive way, and gives them confidence.”

The urge to do something differently is the common link between coaching and AI.

“A coaching conversation is generative talk,” says Lewis. “Clients talk of things they learned before and fresh accounts of what they can be. People are looking into possibilities.”

But despite her enthusiasm for AI – she is joint author with Jonathan Passmore and Stefan Cantore of the recently published Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management – she sounds a note of caution about its use.

Risky business

“There is no accreditation for practitioners of appreciative inquiry,” she says. “So any coach who claims to be able to use it needs to back this up.”

Lewis recommends setting a short test, basically asking the coach to explain the five principles that underpin the AI process.

“These are five philosophical understandings, including the positive principle (based on the power of positive energy) and the anticipatory principle (the idea that we are attracted towards positive future images),” she says.

Lewis also warns that there may be times when AI is useful – for example, if the subject is depressed – and times when it is not. “It depends on the context and the skill of the practitioner in finding the right question,” she says.

At Creative HR Consulting, managing director Francine Winch says the key to creativity is to help people understand they can take risks.

“I recommend to everyone that they read Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway,” she says. “It can seem trite and American, but it encourages people and helps them to realise they have to be proactive, not reactive.”

Winch also warns of the need for the newly creative coachees to return to an environment that will be receptive to them and what they have just practised.

“It is important to get their managers on board so that they return to grow in the job,” she says. “Especially when you have invested in encouraging them to be what they can, not what they ought, to be.”

Poetry in motion

The ultimate in coaching to release creativity is to use an aid based in creativity. David Adams, managing director of Unlocking Creativity, does this by introducing the concept of poetry in group coaching sessions.

“Poetry brings both sides of the brain – from the analytical left to the creative right – together,” he says.

Adams asks the coachees to write down one word that is stopping them going from present to future.

“At first it is almost inevitable,” he says. “With words such as fear, time, money and relationships.”

When the coachees feel they know what needs to be said, they progress to writing poetry. This verse needn’t rhyme, but has the effect of freeing up their minds.

“Poetry gives energy to individuals in a short space of time,” says Adams.

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