Science behind coaching

The coaching knowledge-base arises from a number of different disciplines including education, leadership, social science, philosophy and psychology (Backhirova et al 2018). Each brings to coaching a variety of established traditions, approaches and assumptions. This can make it confusing when trying to understand what coaching is about. When wishing to provide the best coaching experience most well trained and experienced coaches will be able to flex and utilise a variety of different approached depending on what the coachee needs.

Adult learning theories underpin coaching

Coaching is fundamentally underpinned by adult learning theories (Bachkirova et al 2018). Learning can be described as "the extension and clarification of meaning of one's experience (Knowles et al 2015). The following principles of adult learning theories specifically are relevant to coaching:

-Andragogy (Knowles) recognises specific characteristics of adult learners including prior experience, a need to know, being self-directed and internally motivated, and learning when needed


-Experiential learning theory (Kolb) recognises that the immediate concrete experience leads to reflection, from which arise implications for future actions


-Transformative learning theory (Mezirow) describes a shift in perception, a fundamental revision of one's beliefs, principles and feelings. 

The experiential coaching cycle

The coaching cycle (Cox 2013) is a way of describing how coaching happens.

The starting point is "pre-reflective" stage, which contains everything the coachee reflects on subsequently; the coachee is not fully aware or conscious of it, and it is unarticulated. When something happens that doesn't match one's expectation "the touching point", the coachee may move to "reflection on experience" stage where experiences and their associated perceptions / emotions are examined. Once a "critical stage" is reached where the experience is examined critically and rationally, transformation and a shift in perspective occurs, and coachee moves to the "post-reflective" stage which focuses on logical cognitive processing as well as metacognition (ie thinking about my thinking, learning about how I learn). Finally, "integration" tests and assimilates new ideas and makes changes. Eventually, these too move to the "pre-reflective" stage where one is no longer fully conscious of them.

Transfer of learning through coaching

Cox (2013) also describes a ten step process that explains the transfer of learning through coaching (based on Mezirow).

1- disorientating dilemma

2- self-examination

3- questioning beliefs and assumptions

4- recognition and realisation

5- exploration of different belief options

6- design of a course of action

7- new knowledge / skills

8- trying out new roles

9- build self confidence

10- integration

Four dimensions of coaching

Coaching can be thought of in four dimensions (Bachkirova et al 2018)

-I examines the coachee and coach and their individual experiences


-We examines the relationship between the coachee and coach, their language and culture


-It examines the tangible aspects of coaching that can be seen and measured, including tools used, behaviours, outcomes


-Its examines the systems around the coaching relationship, such as organisations and social influences

Theory-based coaching approaches

Coaching relies on a number of theoretical approaches that provide a coherent explanation of how learning and development takes place and how this applies to coaching (Bachkirova et al 2018). Different theories are suitable for different purposes, and I work within a number of theoretical approaches based on what your needs may be, including:

-Person centre approach: working from a belief that you have a biological imperative to develop in a constructive and positive way that helps them achieve their full potential

-Narrative approach: working to help you understand your "life stories", make connections between the stories, your identify and your behaviour

-Psychodynamic approach: addresses how things that you are not conscious of can impact performance

-Gestalt approach: focusing on moment to moment awareness, understanding how you make sense of your experiences against a background of your existing beliefs and past experiences

-Transactional analysis approach: to help understand everyday interactions with the people around you

-Solution focused approach: firmly looking forwards and focusing on solutions

-Positive psychology approach: shifting focus from problems and weaknesses to strengths and solutions

-Cognitive Behavioural approach: managing your thoughts and emotions to create more effective thinking and behavioural patterns

-Acceptance & Commitment coaching: being aware of thought and feelings, open to holding conflicting or difficult ones, and taking value-guided actions

I don't draw on all those theories in every session. Rather, they provide approaches and tools that I can draw on depending on what your needs may be. Sometimes one approach works better than another for an individual, so if you prefer a different angle in coaching please tell me! 

Skills, performance, developmental, transformational...

Coaching can be used to achieve different outcome types. Whilst terminology is by no means universally applied, broadly speaking, there is a continuum of "depth" between skills training, through performance coaching, to developmental coaching, and transformational coaching.


-Skills training focuses on shorter term goals and specific pre-defined objectives related to acquisition of the skill. This often relies on teaching a skill, so it sits in the world of training rather than coaching. Coaching is about helping individuals become their best as their own experts - if an individual lacks a skill, that requires telling them about the skill, rather than expecting them to get there by themselves. So skills training is very important when someone lacks a skill, but for me sits in the training / education world rather than in the coaching world where emphasis is on the individual as their own best expert.

-Performance coaching focuses on use of judgement to apply the appropriate skills in complex contexts. It is not about acquisition of skills, it is about their application.


-Developmental coaching is about learning and building new capacity, rather than simple acquisition and application of of performance skills. It is thus learning about learning. It is a more long term process, and helps a person change in order to engage in different ways with present and future experiences.

-Transformational coaching involves a change in assumptions and beliefs that currently form a person's view of the world and drive their habitual thoughts, feelings and actions. It is about how they see themselves, what their "life story" is, or what personal illusions they hold.


For example, skills training might be me giving you a framework for answering an interview question or how to say no, or sharing an emotional intelligence or leadership framework with you. Performance coaching then is how to apply above in the real world, or how to use your strengths to your advantage, or how to use your values to guide your action in complex environments, or apply leadership skills in your team. Developmental coaching may be about opening your eyes to the idea of leadership framework stimulating you to go and learn more, or recognising that learning to say no also translates to a myriad of other challenges where time pressures limit what you can do, or discovering how you learn best and applying this in new contexts. Transformational coaching might be around your self-identity, searching for meaning, dealing with personal illusions that hold you back, or establishing a new narrative for yourself after a significant event, promotion or life crisis.

I offer all types in different contexts depending on what you need. For the most part, my focus is on developmental and transformational aspects. Even if we discuss skills and performance, I still hope that you will go away not only with that, but also an understanding of how you learnt and what thoughts and feelings may have arisen, so that you have the skill plus greater self-understanding. If your world-view is holding you back, then the solution may not be in the realm of skills and performance, but a re-appraisal of how you see yourself and your "life story" may be required. A good example to illustrate this may be a new leader seeking coaching to improve their feedback-giving skills, and also walking away with a new understanding of how they see themselves in relation to others, what impact they have on others, and constructing a new view of themselves based on change in circumstances and deeper understanding.

© Mat Daniel Consulting 2020

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