Working with a coach can be a very valuable experience. It can help you to develop both personally and professionally. But it can also be disappointing.

I think that one of the causes of that disappointment is a lack of clarity about the type of conversation needed by that particular client in that particular session.

Simon Western suggests that you can divide coaching conversations into four types:

  • Managerial
  • Psych Expert
  • Network
  • Soul Guide

Western makes the point that coaches need to be aware of which coaching focus is appropriate for a given context.

When a coach is unaware of the differences between these coaching conversations, it becomes easy for the discussion to stray into difficult waters, where a coaching client feels confused and uncomfortable.

In a little more detail, the four types of coaching conversation identified by Western are:

Managerial: Here the focus is on helping the coachee to perform well in their roles at work. It is about improving productivity. This type of coaching draws on leadership and management literature. e.g. how to delegate and empower staff, how to create effective and cohesive teams, how to achieve outcomes etc.

Psych Expert: This type of conversation draws on tools from psychology to help the coachee to improve their performance often not just their performance at work but also in life more generally. The focus is on behavioural change and goal attainment. The risk in this type of coaching is that psychological techniques can open a can of worms that the coach may not have the skills to manage or the coachee would rather have not discussed with this person in this context.

Network Coach: In this approach, the coach helps the coachee to understand and influence their workplace. They take a systemic approach and consider interdependencies, ethical influence and power. The coachee starts to see the complex and shifting network around them and as a result can make better strategic choices.

Soul Guide: In this type of coaching conversation, the focus is on helping the coachee to connect with their values and with a sense of meaning and authenticity. The coachee is encouraged to open up to vulnerable feelings and explore parts of themselves that are often hidden or neglected. This approach aims to help the coachee both discover and construct a sense of ‘this is the real me – this is who I want to be’. The coach creates a compassionate space for this exploration, encouraging courageous and vulnerable reflection. This openness and vulnerability needs to be treated with the deepest respect and care by the coach.

In today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment, leaders probably need to develop in all of these areas. They need to gain leadership and management skills; understand their own behaviour; think systemically and strategically and also developing a clear sense of their values, meaning and purpose.

A good coach can coach in all of these spaces and can flexibly shift the focus, depending on the needs of the client in each moment.

But shifting focus or combining different approaches can cause problems.

A line manager can offer excellent managerial coaching but if they stray into using psychological strategies in their performance coaching, they can easily find themselves on dangerous ground. A coach who adopts a soul guide focus can easily create a relationship that feels confusing and a bit yucky if they have a competing agenda, perhaps around achieving KPI’s, or encouraging the coachee to align their values and purpose with those of the organisation.

Both as a coach and a coachee, it is wise to be mindful of these different conversations as they unfold. To keep checking in, is this the right sort of conversation for us to have today? To consider the broader context of the relationship, are their potential conflicts of interest? To honestly ask, does the coach have the necessary skill to navigate this conversation in a way that feels both challenging and safe?