Helping that Helps…

I have been thinking some more about ‘helping styles that help’.  Many services that purport to ‘help’ appear to be helpful on the surface, but often leave clients more dependent on experts to help them with decision-making in the future, rather than less. We achieve a net loss in ‘enterprise’ rather than a net gain. Or we deliver the bureaucratic requirements of our service while leaving things substantially unchanged.

Every interaction offers us possibilities to help or hinder the development of clients (and ourselves). For some years now I have trained a person centred approach based on 4 styles of intervention intended to help advisers/coaches to think about how they can use every interaction to both strengthen their relationship with the client and to move the change process along:

  1. acceptant (getting them the client talk and to acknowledge feelings and emotions as well as facts)
  2. catalytic (introducing models, theories and concepts that help the client to see the wood for the trees, to recognise patterns and ‘make their own sense’ of the information they have available to them
  3. confrontational (challenging the client when words and actions seem to lack coherence – when they appear to be acting against their own self interest)
  4. prescriptive (telling clients what they should or should not do – a very common subset of this is called ‘veiled prescription’ for example ‘Have you thought about calling Business Link?’ which is really a prescription disguised as a question.

These four styles are then used in conjunction with what I call the enterprise coaching cycle. This starts with initial contact/gaining entry (winning the permission of the client to help; crossing the threshold at which the client ‘invites’ us to work with them on exploring options and plans). It then goes through contracting, data collection and option generation phases (all led by the client with the coach in the role of facilitator in nearly all occasions), option selection, planning, implementation and then either exiting or re-contracting for a further cycle of support.

In practice many of the people I train recognise that their ability to help is limited by the extent to which they can effectively ‘gain entry’. They are often not trusted as being ‘on the side of the client’. Gaining entry is a challenge because as it cannot be done on the basis of expertise and power (the usual starting point?) but on the basis of trustworthiness and intent.  Without gaining entry we can go through the motions of a helping relationship and tick most of the right boxes but nothing substantially shifts.

When working with coaches and advisers I have had to do quite a lot of work to decrease the amount of prescription that goes on and to increase the amount of acceptant work. This is usually resisted until advisers experience the style helping them with one of their own real life challenges. Even then they will habitually revert back to advising each other – even when they know from personal experience that ‘prescription’ is often almost useless as a helping style! There is a challenge of learning new techniques and skills, but the main challenge is unlearning old habits!

There is also often a resistance in case what the client really wants to work on reflects neither the coaches’ expertise nor the remit of their project.

I have also done quite a lot of work with advisers and coaches on ‘self directed learning’ which draws heavily on reflective practice techniques and helps them to build personalised learning support mechanisms. One of the unintended consequences of the standards based approach to professional development has been emphasis on the collection and collation of evidence that criteria are met rather than genuine reflection and the creative development of professional practice.

Another challenge has been to get advisers/coaches to be genuinely client centred, rather than centred on either the solutions that they have up their sleeves (workshops that have been commissioned and need filling, managed workspaces that need the same, existing services provided by ‘partners’) or the outcomes that draw down their funding (steering people towards business start ups, VAT registrations or training places – because they count as ‘success’ in the terms of the funder).

Working on the front-line of service delivery leads to challenges further up the supply chain. This includes helping service managers/designers to balance the tensions between client centredness and outcomes that funders demand. In my experience this balance is nearly ALWAYS struck on the side of the funder rather than the client which often dilutes the potential of the service as we cannot gain entry if we are more concerned in gaining outcomes for the funder than helping the client on their agenda. There is also the challenge of helping funders to recognise that they are much more likely to achieve their outcomes if they fund person centred support rather than policy centred ‘advice and guidance’. Work is required in all these areas if we are to make a real shift in the system and its efficacy.

I am not sure if this stream of consciousness will add anything to the analysis of the challenges in developing enterprise coaching as an impactful and cost-effective practice, but I hope it shows that I have perhaps some of the pieces of the puzzle that may help to shift things a little at both theoretical and practical levels, both at the front-line of service delivery and the design and management of services.

If any of this may be relevant to your work then please do give me a shout.

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