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Like a compass or an arrow? Directive versus non-directive coaching (part1) – Angela Dunbar guest blog.

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 this, the first of a two-part blog, Angela discusses non-directive coaching, and next week in part 2, I will respond. I hope you enjoy this blog, and will engage in our debate. I would like to thank Angela for this contribution. (Ian Day)

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.


Join our debate and post your comments in our Linked In discussion group, and next week read part 2 of this blog.