By Jennifer Goris
Boyatzis et al. (2019) says that as a coach, one can learn how to “facilitate life-enhancing change in those around you” (para 2). Every professional coach wants their clients to have successful and long-lasting positive outcomes. Depending on the type of coaching (e.g., business, career, and health), the definition of success will vary, but in the end, there is usually a decision made, a path towards a goal, or a transformational change. From an adult learning perspective, transformative learning involves a “shift in perception that radically alters understanding of ourselves and others, and our sense of possibilities” (Stober & Grant, 2006, p. 197). For the purposes of this literature review, transformational change in a coaching context is defined as helping clients change their perception of self (e.g., self-image, self-limiting beliefs, etc.) and therefore creating an environment for behavior change and greater self-efficacy. This literature review will focus on what has been written about coaching to create lasting results and transformation including common themes to creating transformational change and the challenges to understand the long-term effects of transformational coaching.
While there are numerous books on coaching methods (Boysen-Rotelli, 2021; Jackson & McKergow, 2007; Orem et al., 2007), the research around the best ways to coach for long-term transformation is neither abundant, clear, or fully aligned amongst perspectives of the authors or researchers. According to an article in The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science “to date there are no published studies of competencies of effective coaches (i.e., competencies of coaches that lead to client learning and change)” (Boyatzis et al., 2022. p. 210). Even without empirical validation however, there are qualitative studies, with different parameters but similar overall goals to determine what leads to behavior change for clients, what contributes to creating transformation in their sense of self, and how coaching can lead clients towards and through that life-altering journey. Along these goals, there are shared themes in the literature.
Encouraging Transformation: Shared Themes in the Literature
Creating a Vision and a Plan
A common theme in most of the articles reviewed, is the need to help clients create a vision for their future and a plan to get to that goal, while helping them identify blind spots. This idea applied to studies in health coaching outcomes as well as for business and general life coaching. The Harvard Business Review (HBR)recommends that coaches should work with their clients to develop personal vision statements that describes their future/ideal self (Boyatzis et al., 2019). Once that is complete, they recommend the client create a Personal Balance Sheet to assesses gaps to their future self, and finally to develop a Learning Agenda to close those gaps and identify behavior changes to try (Boyatzis et al., 2019).
In other qualitative research studies, similar milestones are identified as a critical component to creating transformation. A study published by BMC Health Services Research on the use of life coaching to improve health outcomes for patients, showed success using a variety of life coaching techniques, but all inclusive of processes to help the client create a vision for their future, evaluation of their present status, and plans to address gaps that work in the context of the client’s lifestyle (Ammentorp et al., 2013). Another study published in the International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring was specifically targeted at research on transformational change through coaching and included that coaches needed to help their clients identify blind spots as a crucial part of creating transformation (Hanssmann, 2014). This study did not include vision plans and gap analysis as part of the interviews cited, but it did indicate a master theme of seeing the potential in clients and helping them move towards that future self.
Cultivating Trust and Creating Space for the Client to Progress
Space was mentioned in many of the articles referenced for review. This emerging theme has implications for the coach and client.
From the client perspective, space includes the necessity for the client to feel safe in the space with their coach (cultivating trust) and having the space to decide when they want to move towards transformation or behavior change. In the research by Hanssmann (2014), one coach interviewed talks about this as the “importance of giving “space” which allows for the ”freedom to investigate” … opening up “a hospitable space” where the client can be completely himself” (p. 27). In another article written by Karmali et al. (2020), the coaches interviewed indicated that having a collaborative partnership and creating a safe space for clients, was one of the most important tools for change when working with the population of clients included in the study.
From the coach’s perspective, space takes another meaning. While it is part of the coach’s role to cultivate trust and create a trusting space for their client, one of the studies indicated that the coach also needs to be able to hold in uncomfortable space to encourage transformation. According to Hanssmann’s research, based on adult learning theory, a coach needs to not only believe in their client’s abilities, but they also need keep from rescuing their clients (learners) from discomfort during periods of change (2014). There is also the suggestion, according to Hanssmann (2014), that part of the process requires that the coach be open to sharing of themselves and their lives, in the process of working with the client. As said by one of the coaches in this study “inquiry without a willingness to be inquired of is not genuine inquiry… it is curiosity” (p. 28).
Coaching with Compassion and the Whole Person
A final common theme found within the literature is the necessity to coach the client beyond the initial goals or agenda and to allow for addressing the needs of the client as a whole. Tied to this approach to coach holistically is also the necessity to coach with compassion.
In the article by the HBR, in setting the groundwork for change, it says that in order to get a client into the right mindset for change, coaches need to show genuine care and interest in their clients in order to create a “resonant relationship” (Boyatzis et al., 2019. para 11). A key takeaway around this theme is to coach the person and not the problem. Coaching the problem, according to Boyatzis et al. (2019) is coaching for compliance, while coaching with compassion can lead to the discovery of a client’s ideal self (aligned with their values, identity, future hopes). Creating this coaching relationship will help the client open up further and evoke greater awareness in their self-perception.
The study by Karmali et al. (2020), aligns with the HBR perspectives and found that clients had more positive outcomes when they addressed other aspects of their lives and self, beyond or before addressing the primary intended goal of improved nutrition and physical activity. According to the article “clients stated that being able to address different aspects of their lives… allowed them to focus their minds and deal with greater stressors, which in turn led to addressing health behaviours” (p. 127). This approach also ties to a complimentary idea that it is important to meet clients where they are, accepting them for who they are, and not force them to move at a pace faster than they are comfortable with (Karmali et al., 2020).
Challenges in Measuring Success
In a research study (Jakobsen et al., 2017), which looked to assess the long-term (two years) effect of behavior change to impact health outcomes, there were no significant improvements in long term outcomes using coaching as part of the intervention. While this does not provide any conclusive evidence that coaching cannot provide long term transformational results, it is important for coaches to understand that transformation through coaching may not always stick, and that further research is needed to determine effectiveness, drivers necessary to enable behavior change beyond the coaching relationship. Even within the literature reviewed earlier that speak to the ingredients for transformational coaching, the study by Ammentorp et al. (2013) concluded that more research is needed to further cement the benefits of coaching to support healthy behavior change. As stated in the article “the review has pointed to some interesting aspects which make it relevant to undertake further research into how this method can improve the well-being of patients” (Ammentorp et al., 2013. p. 10).
Another challenge with measuring success with transformation is detailed in the study by Hanssmann (2014). The findings showed a time lag with transformation, and that changes often manifest after the coaching process is over. This means that unless there is further research conducted and follow up with clients, a transformation that occurs after coaching might be attributed to other factors (Hanssmann, 2014). According to the article “very little research has looked at coaching with a long-term view and examined retrospectively emerging results” (Hanssmann, 2014. p. 32).
Possibilities for Coaches to Assess Success
As a coach, one way to gauge success with clients might be to conduct assessments at various points within the coaching engagements, include in the future, beyond the coaching process. This could be done as a survey or an interview, where the client assesses the coaching process, how they feel they are progressing towards goals, and how they feel coaching has either positively or negatively impacted their behaviors and perceptions. Another tool that could be used for gauging progress and success post coaching could be using the Wheel of Life. The Coaching Tools Company suggests using this tool in 3-month periods (Louise, 2021) throughout the coaching arrangement and using the results with the client for further reflection. Once the client is familiar with the tool, it would be much easier for them to use it after the coaching engagement is over and could give the coach an indication of how their former client is progressing.
However, there could be significant challenges in getting clients to respond post coaching and respond honestly. If a client did not stick with their planned next steps or make the changes they wanted to when they were engaged with coaching, they may not want to admit that to their coach. In addition, once the coaching engagement is over, the client may not feel motivated or interested in providing feedback. Getting a client to respond to a survey or provide feedback post coaching would most likely be more successful if it were presented up front as part of the coaching arrangement. This method can serve two purposes, 1) it plants the seed for the client to be aware of the expectation for feedback (helps the coach with assessing/measuring success longer term) and 2) it can be positioned to the client as a way to help them stay accountable for their outcomes in the future.
Overall, the research in this review supports the benefits of coaching to help people achieve goals and change behaviors that can lead to greater self-confidence, self-awareness, and self-efficacy. Does this mean that coaching works? The International Coaching Federation conducted a conference to discuss gaps in research and future research topics needed to further the coaching profession (Boyatzis et al., 2022). Topics for further research, contained within the article, incorporated effectiveness studies including behavioral measures, coaching approaches, research on effective coaches, and critical moments in the coaching process and how those impact outcomes (Boyatzis et al., 2022).
Within the literature, the Hanssmann (2014) article specifically targeted transformation. This research shared many of the themes found in the other articles but there were a couple of unique findings in this work. I mentioned one earlier, related to the coach being willing to share their experiences and stories with their client, but Hanssmann (2014) also points to another sub-theme of spirituality as a catalyst for change. According to the coaches, their ability to step back and allow the coaching process to occur organically without interjecting their own bias, judgement, or agenda, was based on their belief that while they can help and support clients, it was not in their control to transform their clients (Hanssmann, 2014). While I didn’t find the theme of spirituality in the other articles, I think that it is important to understand that whether you believe in a higher power or not, the reality is that as coaches, we must always remember that we can only help, support, and facilitate for our clients. Ultimately, transformation is on the client to drive forward.
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Jakobsen, A. S., Speyer, H., Nørgaard, H. C. B., Karlsen, M., Birk, M., Hjorthøj, C., Mors, O., Krogh, J., Gluud, C., Pisinger, C., & Nordentoft, M. (2017). Effect of lifestyle coaching versus care coordination versus treatment as usual in people with severe mental illness and overweight: Two-years follow-up of the randomized CHANGE trial. PLOS ONE, 12(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185881
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Louise, E. (2021, October 21). A Simple 3 Step Process to Measure Progress – Towards ANY Coaching Goal! (UPDATED) | The Launchpad – The Coaching Tools Company Blog. The Coaching Tools Company. https://www.thecoachingtoolscompany.com/how-do-you-measure-progress-towards-goals/
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