behind closed doors
July 18, 2018

What really goes on, behind closed doors, with an executive coach?

By Paul Laughlin

In this book review, my focus moves to the world of coaching and what goes on behind closed doors.

The title, “Behind Closed Doors: Stories from the Coaching Room“, is one that never fails to elicit a snigger from my wife. I admit it does sound a bit like a salacious expose into locker-room shenanigans.

In reality, this is a very helpful book for coaches, whatever their level of experience and whether internal or external. Within 286 pages (excluding appendices), Erik de Haan shares 15 of the highest-ranking dissertations from graduates of Ashridge’s MSc in Executive Coaching.

Unusually, for a collection of chapters by different authors, individual chapters are unattributed. However, once you understand the content you see why. This really is a peek behind the curtain, shared in confidence to help the wider coaching community.

Why this is behind closed doors

For these are not just well written dissertations, with evidence of sufficient research. They are very personal reflections. Accounts from personal journeys and ongoing challenges. As Erik himself says in closing chapter: “It is hard not to admire these coaches for the courage and rigour they have mustered in entering into their experiences and allowing themselves to be touched by them“.

I would add my admiration, for their willingness to share, with a wider coaching community who will surely benefit from such honesty.

Through the consistent use of the action research method, each chapter explores a different challenge. Each one reveals both increased self-awareness from the author, and insights for other coaches. Helpfully, across these 15 chapters, many of the doubts that assail practicing coaches are faced head on.

Alongside the level of disclosure, the other brilliance of this book, is its structure. Erik has selected and organised these chapters to cover 4 key areas of challenge (and thus doubt) for coaches.

Identity and Anxieties

In part one, the first 4 chapters, cover inquiries into “myself, my identity and my anxieties“.  These are perhaps the most emotionally touching & encouraging of all. Within them, four coaches explore the concerns, about the impact on their coaching practice, of their own struggles.

Their struggles include feelings of fragmentation, shame and acceptance of their sexual orientation. Together with addressing the impact on their coaching of OCD and excessive self-criticism. It is heart-warming to see, in each story, how action research and the courage to test new behaviours can lead to real insights. Not only are the authors helped by this process, their ‘lessons learnt’ have much to say to other coaches (with their own ‘demons’).

Being with the Client

In part two, we move onto inquiries regarding “being with the client and the relationship“. Much of this book also feels like a guide to practicing elements of Gestalt coaching (which I have recommended previously), most especially this section. Here 3 coaches explore what they are bringing to the coaching interaction. From their own protective ‘scripts’, to the potential benefits of self-disclosure and the use of humour.

This section is an encouragement. To be brave and to try new things. It feels like a natural build on more secure self-awareness, from part one. Recognising that coach is very much ‘in the field’ and their personality can be a positive help, when used wisely.

Evolving the Relationship

Part three, moves on to the “evolving coaching relationship“. In this sense the structure of the book feels like a natural chronological journey. Across four chapters, we explore the impact of emotions, different cultures, power and how to create a ‘safe space’.

Once more the coaches are honest, and their revealing of mistakes & blind-spots, only helps. These are real people as coaches. Those we can relate to and aspire to emulate in our experimentation and journeys into more accurate awareness. In my experience, such real-life stories are so much more helpful, than experts on the pedestal of a beautiful theory.

Specific Challenges

To close, part four shares four coaches’ inquiries into “specific challenges“. This gets a little more technical in use of language by graduates, but there are still very practical insights. More of a section to dip into if you face these concerns or challenges.

Our final 4 graduates explore: somatic experience and how mindfulness can help; “doing less, being more“. Plus, developing (and sustaining) motivation, and finally being affected by the coaching relationship. That final selection is a great one to end with, as much of this book has been about opening our hearts & minds.

This book ends with some helpful appendices (author profiles – so you can be naughty and try to guess who’s who, a glossary of terms & other dissertation titles). But, before then, Erik de Haan shares a glossary that helps readers both make sense of what they have learnt in this book & leave with a framework.

Thick Skin and Thin Skin

One of models, is the need to develop both a thin skin & a thick skin, as a coach. That contradiction refers to the need to be secure & sufficiently removed to explore our own doubts. That is having a robust ‘thick skin‘. The ‘thin skin‘ element refers to our ability to stay open to being moved by our clients. To be genuinely present to experience interactions as a whole person.

We all, as coaches, have our doubts. Whether those are existential, relational or instrumental – there are stories to help in this book. Personal stories, of real world coaches, and how their own openness to inquiry helped them answer those doubts.

I heartily recommend this book. If you let it move you, as well as inform you (as I have sought to do) it might just transform your coaching practice.