A Compass or an Arrow? 

Author: Ian Day (Leadership Coach and Assistant Professor Coaching Programs at University of Warwick. Challenging Coaching co-author, speaker, and cardiac arrest) 

Published Sep 30, 2015

It is a pleasure to feature a guest blog from Angela Dunbar. In July, I attended Angela’s session “Directive, non-directive and clean coaching; whose direction is it anyway?” at the Coaching at Work conference in London. I was intrigued by the session title and wondered how similar or different our approaches are. In the first of a two-part blog, Angela discusses non-directive coaching, and in part 2, I respond. I hope you enjoy this blog, and will engage in our debate. I would like to thank Angela for this contribution:

Part 1 by Angela Dunbar: 

It may be an old chestnut now in the world of coaching, but it still seems to be hot. Most coach training courses and professional associations broadly support a non-directive approach to coaching, but there is still disagreement and confusion on the extent that coaches should provide advice and answers. Many coaching experts consider it impossible to be completely non-directive, and therefore a ‘dash’ of directional is the accepted norm, with some advocating a more challenging approach. The difference between taking a directive or non-directive approach is seen as a pendulum that can freely swing from one side to the other, moment by moment. However, I am not so sure.

When you are being more directive or more non-directive, how do you know? As a supervisor it’s a question I am keen to explore with coaches, and I find many rely on their gut feel and expect that their conscious intention will determine the degree of directiveness. Yet when I encourage coaches to examine what was actually said and done in the session (through a session recording and/or transcript), the impact of more subtle influences can emerge.

The coach’s specific behaviour is of paramount, and questions play a crucial role. Questions can be phrased in such a way to invite the coachee to explore their own thoughts, or can lead them towards a pre-selected path of possibility, where the coach assumes the right way(s) forwards. I believe the latter path of assumptive questioning happens far more frequently than most coaches intend as it happens outside their conscious awareness. A single word can creep into our question and bias our coachee’s response without them realising the influence. For instance an innocuous question like “How have you worked on your confidence levels this month?” This question implies that confidence needs to be ‘worked on’ and that confidence as a quality can be measured by ‘levels’. But, for example, the coachee might be more effective ‘playing with confident feelings’

The very notion of ‘direction’ is metaphoric, and metaphors around direction crop up frequently in most coaching conversations. We ‘point’ to where we want our coachee to get to – with verbal and visual language, through our hand gestures and eye movements as well as signposting with our words. We hint at the kind of direction required by talking of ‘steps’ or levels, crossroads and pathways. Our language is embedded with little metaphors that can influence our approach, and also your coachee, unintentionally. Suggestions are, after all, highly suggestive. Once you have ‘pointed’ the way forwards, how readily will your coachee notice and/or explore any other paths that there may be?

I would argue that all good coaching is directional, as the coach must firstly help their coachee decide where it is they really want to be and in doing so, the coachee’s outcome provides the broad direction to aim for. Every single question asked is a choice made by the coach and will direct the coachee’s attention somewhere. In which case, does it matter whether the route taken involves open questions, suggestions or advice, as it’s pointing towards the coachee’s outcome? I tend to see the directive approach to coaching as being like an arrow, when aimed carefully, it can reach its target very quickly and precisely. However, unlike a real journey, a coachee’s metaphoric journey is rarely as straightforward as finding the shortest path between A and B. With coaching, the journey itself often changes the desired destination. If you have taken a directive path with your coachee, there is the danger that you’ll reach a destination only to discover it’s no longer the right place. As the destination belongs to the client, it is only the client who can really know whereabouts to head for, moment by moment, to get to where they want to be. Non-directive coaching is sometimes described as unfocused and directionless, but I don’t believe that needs to be true. Highly effective non-directive but focused coaching can concentrate on tracking where the coachee wants to get to, compared to where they are now, in order to continually re-navigate the path ahead. Like a compass, a non-directive coach can help orient the coachee towards their outcome, but only the coachee can decide which path to take.

Part 2 by Ian Day: 

I would like to thank Angela Dunbar for the insightful blog on non-directive coaching, introducing the notion of the ‘arrow or compass’. In this blog I respond and build on Angela’s ideas and the value of the arrow.

Angela likened directive and non-directive coaching to an arrow and a compass respectively. This is a great visual metaphor. Let’s take this further and imagine a ‘survival game’, in which a coach could take either the arrow or the compass (but only one) to a remote and isolated location. Each tool would serve a purpose and would be useful to a certain extent, but each has limitations. The compass could show the direction back to civilisation, but would be no use for hunting food for the long journey home. However, if we relaxed the rules of the game (or even broke the rules), then the coach could take both, and so have the ability to use the arrow to hunt and the compass to set direction simultaneously. This would be a very versatile tool kit to meet every possible need.

A few weeks ago I met with an HR director to talk about Challenging Coaching. After discussing the importance of balancing support with challenge and the FACTS approach, the HRD pulled out a sheet of paper with a diagram of a numbered scale from -10 to +10. The scale represented non-directive to directive coaching, -10 being pure non-directive and +10 being fully directive. The HRD asked “where would you place yourself on this line to best describe your style of coaching?” In response I pointed to +1. This surprised the HRD saying, “but you’ve said you are a Challenging Coach, shouldn’t you be more directive?” I went on to explain that +1 (slightly towards the directive side) was my default style, my natural starting point. But any of the points on the continuum are available for use, with the possible exception of the extremes (-10 purely listening and +10 giving instructions). Challenging coaching is not automatically directive, but provides a versatile tool kit, both an arrow and a compass.

To put this into context, coaching is situational; a coach should be skilled to respond at any one moment to the needs of the coachee, within an organisational context. A coach can be more, or less directive. The art and skill of coaching is the ability to flex style, and to know when and by how much. Going back to our metaphor, the coach intuitively knows when to use an arrow and when to use a compass. This is also about sequencing, open questions to start, and once the thoughts of the coachee have been exhausted, the coach can offer suggestions and even advice. Resourceful, ‘adult’ coachees are robust enough and free to accept or reject these suggestions. Importantly the coach is not dictating and is not persuading, however, the coach raises awareness of options. They guide with a compass and focus with an arrow.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider the risks of only having a compass. What are the implications of helping orientate the coachee along their path towards their own outcome? There are at least two risks. Firstly, only one perspective is considered, that of the coachee, and so in relation to the FACTS approach, the system (S) is neglected. Secondly, blind spot topics off the agenda of the coachee are ignored.

Taking a Systems Thinking approach, we are all connected within one system. Results of individual actions are felt on a local, national and international level. Local teams feel the impact of the actions of an individual leader, as do wider divisional teams, and the organisation as a whole. However, if the system is neglected there is a real danger. This was evident from the financial crisis of 2008 when the actions of a few people in one economic sector had huge detrimental effects across the whole global system that lasted for years.

Considering our metaphor of the arrow and compass, the compass is orientated to the individual and so cannot represent the system. Here the arrow can be used; the coach asks questions that are not on the coachee’s agenda. These questions are used to represent the interests of absent stakeholders, or create awareness of different timescales. For example “what would your stakeholders expect of you in this situation?” or “years from now, what are your future grandchildren likely to say in relation to your actions?” Through these questions, the system has a voice.

Let’s consider another risk of using only a compass, and an alternative use for an arrow. A coach may develop a hypothesis that there is a deeper issue to address with the coachee. The coach’s intuition is saying that this issue is at the heart of the matter and may be crucial for a breakthrough. But this is different to the original issue outlined by the coachee and so is off the coachee’s agenda. At this point the coach must be free to reach for their quiver and pull out an arrow and move the discussion into this new area. By shifting the agenda through direct questions and by offering suggestions, there is the very real opportunity to develop insight to address a blind spot. This may be a zone of uncomfortable debate (ZOUD) that without the coach’s arrow may remain subconsciously concealed and unaddressed.

So the arrow and the compass, directive and non-directive are the ultimate coaching survival tool kit. Together, the needs of the coachee and sponsoring organisation are best served within the context of our connected system.

Last modified: Friday, July 7, 2023, 10:15 AM