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  • Joan van den Brink

Let's Go Down Into the River: my metaphor for coaching

When I began coaching in 2005 I assimilated information about different approaches to coaching from a variety of sources, for example, John Whitworth’s GROW model, Gerard Egan’s, “The Skilled Helper”, Henry Kimsey-House et al on Co-Active coaching to forge a practice that seemed to help clients solve the problems that they brought to our coaching sessions. Over time I incorporated my expertise in leadership development methodologies to help coachees gain new insights about their situations and their behaviour patterns. I was rewarded by the progress that my clients made in achieving their desired goals. I thought little about evaluating my style beyond the reviews that I conducted with my coachees and acting upon their feedback.

In 2016 I signed up to do the Advanced Practitioner’s Diploma in Executive Coaching provided by the AoEC. For 18 months, I immersed myself in learning different facets of executive coaching as part of a learning community comprised of fellow students and faculty. I read copiously, observed myself as others as we practised new coaching techniques with each other and with practice clients. Most of all I reflected on myself: Who am I? Why do I respond to triggers in certain ways? What limits/inhibits me? What is my signature coaching presence? Etc. I learnt an enormous amount during this time. The assignments forced me to critically assess my coaching practice in light of the body of work that exists on different approaches and to shape my own coaching model. This has been a powerful experience that has enabled me to grow as a person and as a coach.

I bring my unique style and personality to my coaching, which is hard to describe in words. Here, I introduce my coaching model and practice to you by using the river as a metaphor. I find that when I explain this metaphor to my coachees it resonates with them and they build on it to make it their own. So, let me describe it for you now.

The River

The river, full and flowing, represents the exploration that the coachee does to get a deeper appreciation and awareness of who he/she is and what drives him/her to behave in certain ways. The river ebbs and flows, which reflects how the client makes progress on his/her change journey. The river eventually pours into the sea; signifying the vast possibilities that he/she has. The river also epitomises my personal journey as I become more fully who I am and learn to be the best coach I can be. There are rocks and debris that the river flows over. These symbolise the obstacles that we must navigate on our journey together.

Getting into the river with my coachees is a big step as I am afraid of water. So, this action embodies me taking risks, making myself vulnerable and showing courage in my efforts to support my coachees on their quest. I take the plunge because this is where the coachee is and I want to be alongside my client in the river rather than looking on from the bank. I find that when I show courage and vulnerability this enables the coachee to do the same and leads to a deeper and richer discussion about what we are experiencing on our journey together. The coachee tells me things that he /she finds difficult to say or feels might upset me. This candour allows; me to learn more about how my approach is impacting the coachee [negatively] and us to adjust our working alliance.

The riverbanks form a natural container that can be breached in exceptional circumstances. They denote the boundaries I place on my coaching practice to make it a safe space for my coachee and myself.

The steepness and height of the banks change with each client. For clients whom I have coached previously I need to work hard to establish a new type of relationship where I fully trust in their abilities to make connections, spot patterns and draw conclusions based on their reality rather than be the expert with the answers. This is a different starting point than with new clients where I start with a clean state and can more easily embrace my current style of coaching. The riverbanks signify the effort I need to put in to control the degree to which I am directive. On occasion my need to demonstrate my abilities and mastery may lead me to be instructive. At times the client will turn to me to provide answers. Then I must test that there is a genuine need for me to provide that expertise rather than collude with him/her so he/she does not make meaning for himself/herself.

On occasions the river floods the banks and water spills over on to land. This represents the ethical dilemmas that the coachee and I can face during the course of the relationship. We discuss these predicaments as they arise to find a solution that works for our specific situation; this will be different for each relationship. There is a rope around my waist that anchors me to land and gives me confidence and a feeling of safety as I work in the river with my coachee. This rope represents coaching supervision, which provides a safe place where I can discuss issues that arise during coaching that may relate to handling tricky situations that are at the limits of my capabilities or emotions and reactions that are triggered in me. I can explore what is going on and what it means for me and determine how I want to handle the situation if it arises again.

Beliefs and Principles

Underpinning my coaching practice are some core beliefs and fundamental principles that orientate me in my interactions with others:

Core Beliefs:

  • I need to show courage, compassion and wisdom. Compassion means being kind to others and myself, particularly when things go wrong. Courage requires me to voice the difficult ‘truths’. I define wisdom as knowing when to speak and when to be silent.

  • Empathy and respect are fundamental to having real dialogue.

  • Everyone has the right to be who he or she is and to express that (as long as they do not harm others).

  • It is important to be open to new experiences and different perspectives.

  • All human beings are connected: I can be helpful, encouraging and send vibrations and energy into the world that have a positive impact on others.

Fundamental Coaching Principles:

  1. I bring my whole self into the coaching relationship

  2. A strong relationship is fundamental to success

  3. Individuals need a safe and supportive environment to do their work

  4. Gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves provides us with increased choice for how we want to be in the future

My coaching model and practice say a lot about who I am and what you can expect from me as your coach. My approach does not work with everyone since it Is about embarking on a deep exploration using psychological tools and methodologies to uncover hidden aspects of ourselves (myself and the coachee). We are on a learning journey together and change and grow as a result. My style is particularly suited to individuals who have developmental or existential questions that they want to answer. For example, ‘Who am I?’ How can I be a better person?’ ’Why am I doing “it”?’ ‘How can I live better?’

If these are the questions that you are posing to yourself, let me invite you to get into the river!

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