What is Transformative Coaching?
As you’ll see throughout your time in the Supercoach Cafe, there is both an art and a science to transformative coaching. As you deepen your understanding of who we are and how the mind works (i.e. the science), you’ll begin to notice positive changes in your own experience of life. As you hone your craft and learn more about impacting others i.e. the art), you’ll start seeing the health, creativity, and aliveness sitting waiting just beneath the surface of people’s psychology and likely begin falling in love with your clients (in a good way).
Here’s an excerpt from my book Supercoach: 10 Secrets to Transform Anyone’s Life where I talk about what transformative coaching is and how it differs from many of the traditional models you may have come across before. It finishes with a story of how the impact of this work can go far beyond your coaching practice – a story about how what I was seeing impacted my relationship with my daughter at a very early age…
People hire coaches for one simple reason:
They want to get more out of themselves and their lives than they seem to be getting on their own.
As a transformative coach, I begin with the premise that the starting‑point for all life‑enhancement projects is a deeper understanding of the nature of the human experience. People will naturally get more out of themselves when they understand more about who they are and how the human system works. They’ll automatically get more out of their lives when they gain more insight into how life works. Because when we really understand how something works, from a sliding door to a car to gravity, we don’t have to think about it anymore and can just get on with it. We slide, drive, and even fall to the ground with a sense of ease and simplicity.
In the same way, when we know who we really are and where our experience comes from, we don’t have to overthink things. We can live our lives and follow our wisdom knowing that when we’re up, we’re up, when we’re down, we’re down, and love, peace, connection, and insight are available all the time, regardless of how we’re feeling.
In other words, if there’s something you want to create or do in the world, knowing how things actually get created and done is of universal benefit. All boats will rise with the tide of that deeper understanding.
Traditional coaching takes place primarily in a horizontal dimension – coaches assist their clients in getting from point A to point B. Yet lasting change nearly always happens in the vertical dimension – a deepening of the client’s ground of being and greater access to inspiration and inner wisdom.
While this has generally led to an either/or approach to success and personal growth and a sharp division between therapy and coaching, transformative coaching (or, as I like to call it, ‘supercoaching’) uses the vertical dimension to facilitate change on the inside even as you continue to move toward your goals on the outside.
The kinds of changes that transformative coaching leads to can be usefully viewed on three levels:
Change in a Specific Situation
Often people will hire a coach (or go to a counselor, therapist, or friend) to get help with a specific situation they’re struggling with. They may want to deal with a difficult person at work, succeed at an important negotiation or job interview, or stay motivated as they train to beat their personal best at a sporting event. This kind of performance coaching has long been a staple of the industry, and long before ‘life coaching’ and ‘executive coaching’ became common terms, people were using coaches in this capacity to help change their points of view, states of mind, or actions. At this level, people go from fear to confidence, from unease to comfort, or from inaction to action.
The impact of this kind of coaching is generally project specific. Once the difficult person has been handled, the interview completed, or the race run, people get on with the rest of their lives in much the same way as they did before.
Change in a Specific Life Area
Sometimes we’re less concerned with a specific event than we are with a whole category of events. This is why we find coaches specializing in any number of life areas: relationships, sales, parenting, confidence, presentations … the list goes on and on. People hire these experts to help them increase their skills and develop their confidence in the area they are having difficulty with.
Like performance coaches, these coaches will help with specific situations, but they tend to measure their impact not just by how one situation changes, but by how a whole category of situations changes.
The ultimate level of change is transformation, or what I sometimes call ‘global change’ – a pervasive shift in our understanding and way of being in the world. At this level, it’s not enough for us to develop a skill or change a feeling. We want to see our higher potential and wake up from the dream of thought, because in so doing our experience of everything changes and we begin to walk in a different world.
Each of the three levels maps across to a certain way of working on ourselves or with others. When we want to make a change in a specific situation, we apply a new technique. When we want to make a change in a broader context, we apply a new strategy. But when we want to transform our life, we need something other than techniques or strategies – we need to see what’s true about life so that we can live more in harmony with how things actually work.
How else do the three levels of change differ?
Well, the first two levels are primarily intervention based. Level I interventions take care of the presenting problem, while Level II interventions aim to take care of whatever is seen as the underlying cause. This can be helpful, but it can also lead people deeper into the morass of their own psychology. For example, people heavily into personal development sometimes get fixated on finding Level II solutions for Level I problems – they’ve got a headache, but instead of taking an aspirin, they want to analyze the lifestyle changes they need to make to become the kind of person who doesn’t get headaches. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s a lot easier to do when your head isn’t hurting.
At Level III, you’re simply looking to see what’s true for all human beings, regardless of individual differences. And while you may still take the aspirin, knowing that everyone gets headaches and they invariably pass takes the pressure off you to fix it.
The Three Levels in Action
Let’s look at a couple of examples in more depth.
Bob is a customer service rep for a medium‑sized manufacturing firm, and he’s having a really bad day. When I ask him what his biggest sticking point is, he tells me it’s a phone call he needs to make to a supplier in Detroit with whom he’s been having difficulties.
If I were to approach this on Level I, I might work with his frame of mind by helping him get into a more confident state. We might role‑play a phone call with his supplier, and I might offer him tips and techniques to better handle the call and get the outcome he most wants. We might even choose to script the call, or at least the beginning of it, to help boost his confidence and resolve the situation.
But let’s say I want more for Bob – I don’t just want to assist him in getting through this one situation, I want to help turn him into a more effective employee, one who can handle a wider variety of customer service situations. So I give him books like How to Talk So People Listen. I teach him rapport skills like ‘matching and mirroring’ so he can use body language to effectively allow others to feel more comfortable around him.
What then? In time and with practice, Bob might be able to turn things around and maybe even become the best customer service guy in the whole company. But in another way, nothing will have really changed. Because in order for something to change at a fundamental level, that change has to happen via an insight – a sight from within.
So at the level of transformation, our conversation will no longer be about the supplier from Detroit, or even about customer service. Our ‘transformative conversation’ might be about the nature of satisfaction and dissatisfaction – what they are and where they come from. Or we may go even deeper to look at the nature of what it is to be alive. In exploring these universal truths, Bob will get insights and fresh thinking that change the way he sees himself, the way he sees his job, and the way he sees other people. And through those insights, he’ll not only become more effective in his job, he’ll also become more satisfied and effective in his life.
Here’s another example, one that might hit closer to home. Imagine you’re having difficulties with your resident teenager. You want them to help out around the house and be more respectful toward you and your partner, but they seem determined to set a new world record for most dirty clothes piled up in one corner of a bedroom. At Level I, you could go in guns a‑blazing and order them to pick up their dirty clothes ‘or else.’ You might even try a subtler approach – the dangling carrot of concert tickets or a shopping trip to the nearest mall in exchange for a cleaner room.
At Level II, you might read parenting books on how to handle discipline problems with teens, or even business books on how to handle difficult people at work in the hope that you could map it across to your own child at home. (Of course, if you come across a copy of What to Do When You Work for an Idiot in their bedroom, chances are they’re planning a little Level II intervention with you!)
But at Level III, the level of transformation, you would know that the difference that would really make a difference was insight – a shift in consciousness that comes about through looking within (‘in‑sight’) to see a deeper truth about how life works. For example, when my daughter Clara was six, she went through a period of violent temper tantrums that frightened her teachers to the point where they were considering either putting her on medication or kicking her out of school. My wife and I had no clue what to do about it, so we turned to one of my mentors, Bill Cumming.
His coaching addressed all three levels simultaneously. At Level I, he continually checked in with us to ensure that we were doing okay within ourselves – that is, we were getting adequate sleep, food, and exercise, and doing whatever else we needed for what he called our ‘spiritual self‑care.’
At Level II, he shared some wonderful strategies for dealing with difficult children. The one that sticks in my mind is the two ‘C’s: clarity and consistency. We got clear about what was and wasn’t okay, and more consistent in our enforcement of those rules.
But in all honesty, other than taking our minds off the problem and focusing us on what we could actually do instead of everything that might go wrong, I’m not sure that those things made much of a difference. What has stayed with us to this day, however, was insight from our conversations into where Clara’s behavior was coming from and the nature of unconditional love. It became obvious to us that the only reason someone would behave in the way Clara was behaving was if they felt unwell within themselves. Her behavior was actually an attempt to self‑soothe and make herself feel better.
As we began to see the discomfort in Clara that was leading to her acting out, it became much easier not to take her behavior personally, as though it was her way of punishing us for our parenting failures. More important, any catastrophizing we’d been doing in our heads about how this would be a problem for the rest of her life, and ‘if it’s this bad now, imagine how bad it will be when she’s a teenager,’ fell away. We began to see her as a little girl doing the best she could to manage her feelings, in this instance by controlling her environment through a reign of six‑year‑old terror. We knew that when she was less scared of her own feelings, her innate wisdom and common sense would guide her forward. That made it easy and natural to feel the full force of our love for her, even when she was behaving in ways that were shocking and at times a little bit frightening for us.
It no longer made sense to me to send her to her room when she had a tantrum in a behaviorist effort to ‘extinguish’ the unwanted behavior. What it occurred to me to do was to go into her room with her and just quietly be with her as she worked through whatever it was she was working through.
At first, she didn’t seem to like this new approach. Instead of simply putting holes in the walls of her bedroom, she seemed hell‑bent on putting a few in my head. But after a few tantrums, she somehow recognized that she was safe, even when she was suffering from the mental clutter and discomfort that affect all of us from time to time. That feeling of safety allowed her natural wisdom, clarity, and wellbeing to come back to the fore.
Now, as a young adult, Clara is more secure in herself and her thinking than most people I know. And while we certainly had our share of issues during her teenage years, the closeness we felt and the insight we gleaned when she was six went a long way to seeing us through them.