How Do We Establish Effective Relationships?
by Francine Campone, Ed.D., MCC
In past columns, I’ve discussed research which points to the essential role of an effective coaching relationship in setting the ground for successful coaching outcomes. As the authors of this month’s focus study note, however, “little dedicated research literature currently exists on those qualities or characteristics important in its formation.” (p. 124). O’Broin and Palmer set out to gather empirical data to identify those key characteristics and to better understand how these aspects of relationship formation contribute to the coaching engagement. They also sought, through interviews with coaches and their coaches, how the coach can adapt to the individual coachee in the relationship. This study provides useful insights into the key elements of the coaching relationship. The researchers also offer a worthy model for interview-based research which incorporates several specific strategies to support validity and control for potential bias in data collection and analysis.
The authors document the results of the first part of a mixed-methods, sequential exploratory study which utilizes semi-structured interviews. The interviews were constructed following a Repertory Grid Interview method to minimize interviewer bias. Twelve participants- six coaches and six coaches- were selected through a purposive snowball sampling method. The coaches self-identified as executive, career or personal coaches and men and women were equally represented. All were coaching psychologists based in the United Kingdom. The researchers took additional steps to avoid bias or selective attention or interpretation through triangulating methods of interviews and analysis and use of on-going researcher self-reflection journals. All of the interviews were audiotaped and transcribed for analysis. Following the Repertory Grid method, the authors elicited elements of the coaching relationship in the interviews then grouped resulting elements into triads according to similarity or difference to form constructs which were recorded sequentially using participants’ own words. Elements and constructs were separately categorized into themes and categories were analyzed for frequency of response.
The article cites three main themes which emerged, along with subthemes for each. The first theme, coach attitudes and characteristics, comprised three subthemes: coach attitudes, coach characteristics and adapting to the individual coachee. Aspects of the coach’s attitude included elements of style such as “warm and friendly” or “generating ideas”. Most responses focused on coach self-awareness and self-management, coupled with a majority of responses indicating the coach’s objectivity or non-judgment toward the coachee’s point of view. Several participants also raised the importance of the coach’s ability to adapt to the coachee’s individual needs rather than a “universal” form of relationship. In particular, results underscore the value of personalized responses and recognition of the coachee’s uniqueness.
The second theme, bond and engagement, comprised two subthemes of engagement and disengagement and the characteristics of the bond. Engagement and dis-engagement included the importance of establishing trust, the quality of listening, the role of rapport and openness. Respondents also noted the importance of the coach’s ability to respond to disengagement or disruption on the part of the coachee with openness and the coach’s responsibility for efforts to regroup and get the relationship back on track. While almost all respondents described the bond as an important element of a good relationship, the bond itself was perceived in different ways, suggesting relevance for the individualized adaptation noted in the first theme.
The third theme, collaboration, incorporated three sub-themes: two-way relationship, respect and support. This theme emerged in responses from about half of the participants with equal coach and coachee representation. Two-way relationships were characterized variously as reciprocal, based on mutual understanding and- in one instance- a “united front”.
A comparison of coach and coachee responses resulted in the development of seven main with three predominating: coach attitudes and characteristics, bond and engagement, and collaboration. A chi-square test showed no significant differences between coach and coachee responses in these areas. The authors note that within these three broad categories, “responses primarily highlighted coach self-management; adapting to the individual coachee; engagement and dis-engagement; characteristics of the bond; and the two-way relationship.” (p. 135). In their discussion, O’Broin and Palmer underscore the importance of coach self-management as a “doubly important element of the coaching relationship”, indicating that a lack of self-management is detrimental to the coach’s effectiveness and the coachee’s perceptions of the coach. (p.136). This is tied, in the discussion of implications, to the need for coaches’ development of their interpersonal, perceptual and communication skills, self-awareness and self-management and ability to adapt and customized approaches based on the client’s unique needs. Other areas for coach development included psychological awareness and knowledge, coupled with the ability to think about psychological states underlying behavior.
Alanna O’Broin and Stephen Palmer. “Exploring key aspects in the formation of coaching relationships: initial indicators from the perspective of the coachee and coach”. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice. V.3, no.2. September 2010
Francine Campone, Ed.D., MCC coaches mature professionals to reinvent their lives by reinventing their work. She is a leader in the coaching research community and deeply committed to the development of reflective coaches in practice. Francine teaches evidence-based coaching and coaching research practices for UTD and enjoys a wonderful life in Denver, Colorado beyond her activities in the coaching field.