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Like a compass or an arrow? Part 2 – directive versus non-directive coaching

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

Last week 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.

Now that your’ve read Part 1 and Part 2, join our debate and post your comments in our Linked In discussion group.