Constructivist conversations – the essence of being a constructivist coach

Table of Contents:

All coaching approaches rely on conversations to create understanding and agreement between coach and coachee, and many formulate a linear ‘path’ that the coach can follow to extract information from the coachee and carve a new path to follow. However, this can create a perspective of the conversation as a ‘coaching tool’, something that can be usefully applied within a coaching relationship and that, by adhering to the procedural guidelines, will transport the coachee to a given destination. In constructivist coaching, the role of conversation is materially different. It is conversation with a purpose, but that purpose is not to ‘extract information’ blit rather to help the coachee explore their own perspectives on the world and consider if they might be enhanced or changed for the better. It is the essence, or beating heart, of every constructivist coaching encounter and outcomes are dependent on the coach’s self and social awareness and their conversational artistry.

Within PCP, people are naturally curious about their social worlds and, as ‘scientists’ or ‘storytellers’, we actively interpret our everyday encounters in our efforts to make sense of them, which we then communicate to others through language and discourse. The coaching conversation is not a friendly chat or a counselling conversation, it is a form of emic research, based on discursive rather than extractive principles, that helps us surface and explore the coachee’s constructs in relation to a given topic. Kelly recommended taking a “credulous approach” (1955, p. 322) to any discussions, meaning that you should accept and acknowledge what the person describes as their reality, however distant or different from your own construction of reality it might seem.

You should be careful to not draw your own conclusions about what you are being told and should also remain watchful for any inconsistencies and conflicts within the person’s own narrative. People are active agents whose identity and relationship with their lived world continues to evolve over their lives as they accommodate and assimilate their lived experiences into their construct system. Inconsistencies and conflicts are a natural part of this continual sensemaking process and can be useful for you both to explore as they may represent points of change, or have symbolic meaning, that have become lost within the continuous flow of life. Therefore, as they become apparent, it is helpful to bring them into the conversation, so that you can deconstruct them with the person.

Constructivist approaches provide you with tools to explore more deeply a person's perspectives, including then feelings, schematic beliefs and actions, and this is largely facilitated through the accompanying conversational process in vivo, meaning ‘within the living organism’. You must ensure that the coachee understands that the aim of the coaching conversation is to help them identify and reflect on their constructs in relation to a specific topic and reassure them that you are only interested in understanding their views and experiences. It is essential that the coachee feels they are directing and shaping the conversation and it is therefore important to agree at the outset the topic to be discussed and to check back with them periodically that they are happy to continue or wish to change topic.

Building rapport

As coach, it is also your responsibility to create a trusting environment, where your coachee feels psychologically safe. As we have alluded to several times in this book, constructivist approaches can go deeper than many other methods, surfacing thoughts and beliefs that were previously habituated and acted on without conscious consideration. For the coachee to feel empowered, rather than overwhelmed, by these new self-insights, they must feel that the process and your intent is wholly positive and developmental. They may need encouragement to try out new behaviours and thoughts, and support in dealing with their experiences through transition. We reiterate, this is not counselling, and your relationship is not therapeutic. You are working with psychologically healthy people navigating their daily lives and conforming to accepted social norms. But, a great deal of those lives are enacted habitually and our learned scripts are often self-limiting, so it can be a challenging experience for some people to face their thoughts, especially if they do not engage regularly in meaningful reflective practice. A crucial part of your role is helping them identify and try out changes that will help them feel liberated, rather than or constrained.

How you listen and question are key skills in developing rapport with your coachee, so that they feel able to recognise different ways of construing events and safe enough to go through a process of transition. A sense of familiarity within the coaching relationship also changes the role dynamics and leads to a more equal distribution of perceived power. This then helps the coachee feel more able to tell a richer stoiy in a more open manner, without concern for then- relative role position.

Listening skills

Effective listening enables you to hear your coachee’s stoiy properly, which is crucial in constructivist coaching. Mien we talk about effective listening in this context, we move beyond the empathic level of listening often referred to in other coaching texts. Here, we refer to a profound level of listening that links with the credulous approach discussed earlier. We encourage you to invest enough time in developing your listening skills as your role in the coaching conversation should be more of a listener than a speaker. As coach, your responsibility is to understand how your coachee construes the events in their lives, to accept the perceptual truth of those constructs and the impact they have on their thoughts, feelings, and behavioural responses, and to help them reach a new level of self-understanding by being able to tell and re-tell their stories in then- own words and experiment with new ways of being.

The events that coacliees tell us about as they narrate their experiences do not exist in isolation. Instead they provide us with a window into the person’s lived world, a small and somewhat angled view of a broader life landscape. It is not enough just to hear what the person is saying, or to attend to the individual words they use, even though both are essential components of effective listening and identifying constructs. In all constructivist approaches, the skill of listening involves both intellectual and emotional engagement, of deciding what aspects of the narrative should be attended to and explored, and of being mindful of those things that the coachee is not saying. This includes setting aside your own opinions and not filtering your coachee’s narrative through your own values.

Listening is not just an auditoiy process, it involves all our senses, so that what we see, what we feel and our physiological responses, are integral parts of it. Appreciating how things are said, what tone, expressions, discourse markers and/or non-verbal gestures or utterances are used that might suggest how the coachee feels about the things they are saying helps us build a more holistic listening picture. For example, do they appear happy or fearful, eager or hesitant, vague or determined, animated or reserved? Are they saying the opposite of what they mean to make a joke or be sarcastic? Try out the simple task in Activity 6.1 and see how much you notice (or do not) when you attempt to listen profoundly.

Activity 6.1 Listening skills

This activity takes around 30 minutes. Find two partners, a quiet space and sit facing each other in a circle.

There are three roles (storyteller, listener and observer) and everyone takes on each role once:

  • 1 The storyteller (S) takes 3 minutes to describe an incident from their past that neither of the others know about: what happened, how they felt, what impact it made.
  • 2 The listener (L) pays careful attention but must NOT take notes while the story is being told. As soon as the story is finished, the listener re-tells the story back.
  • 3 The observer (O) listens to S’s story, taking notes of important points, then listens to L’s re-telling, noting any mistakes, misunderstandings, additions and subtractions to the original story.

When all stories have been told, each S, supported by O, gives feedback to their L on the accuracy of their recall.

The group then discusses what they have learned from the activity. You can recreate this activity in a wider team task and broaden out the debate by having more groups or more observers.

Two other practices that support effective listening are how silence is managed and how understanding is checked. In our normal everyday conversations, there is generally no space given to silence and it is more common that we will start our speaking turn before the other person has finished theirs. Indeed, silence in this context is mostly experienced as a breakdown of conversation, or of awkwardness between parties. Why not try for yourself Activity 6.2 in your next conversation and see how it feels.

Activity 6.2 Using silence

When you are next engaged in a reasonably critical conversation with another person, on any topic, try out using silence and see how it feels.

When it’s your turn to speak, maintain eye contact but remain inexpressive and wait a few seconds before responding. You might have to repeat this a couple of times.

What do you notice? How long does it take the other person to ask if you are okay, or to fill that silence themselves by starting to speak again? How do you feel during those few seconds, how does your body physiologically respond?

Being conscious of the physiological and psychological responses that are created when we behave in an inverse manner to accepted social rituals, such as turn-taking in conversations, is the first step towards freeing ourselves from their constraints. In constructivist coaching conversations, the coach needs to feel comfortable with adopting such oppositional behaviours.

Within the coaching relationship, it is essential that both parties come to value silence and work with it, rather than try to mitigate it, because it is an essential part of the sensemaking cycle. It can be helpful to make the silence explicitly permissible, by using such supportive statements as “take your time” or “I’m still listening, there’s no rush".

The second practice of checking understanding is important in ensuring that you are working with the coachee’s meanings and not your own. It can be useful to inteiject their narrative by summarising back to them what you think you are hearing and asking them if your interpretation is correct. For example, you might say “this is what I think I heard when you were talking about [topic], is that light?” or “when you said [topic], it made me think of [connective thought], does that make sense to you or would you explain it differently?”

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