Critical moments
August 24, 2020

How are you growing from the critical moments in executive coaching?

By Paul Laughlin

How can clients and coaches better understand executive coaching (or mentoring) and the critical moments that help them?

As a blog focussed on the data, analytics & customer insight communities, part of the answer must be more research and to study the data. So, I am delighted to recommend a book that shares & reflects on both.

Building on the encouraging honesty of “Behind Closed Doors: Stories from the Coaching Room“, in this post I recommend “Critical Moments in Executive Coaching“. Whereas the first was collated by Erik de Haan, as he shared the stories from his graduates, Erik is the author of this book. His brilliance & warmth shine through in both the content & style.

One of the key questions I am asked by those wrestling with whether to invest in coaching or mentoring is “does it work?” Being largely from the data, analytics or research fields, such leaders want to see the evidence. In his contribution to helping coaching & mentoring become a genuine profession, Professor de Haan regularly makes academic research accessible to the rest of us.

Erik de Haan is Director for the Ashridge Centre of Coaching at Hult International Business School & Professor of Organisational Development at VU University in Amsterdam. I’ve also shared previously how helpful his engaging talk was at the 2020 Wales Coaching Conference.

Coaching is doing Research

The subtitle of this book is “Understanding the Coaching process through research and evidence-based theory“. Erik delivers on that promise both in the mix of content in this helpful reference and the way it is structured for different readers.

His first chapter is entitled “Coaching is doing research” and after sharing a personal anecdote he explains why he sees such an equivalence. In essence, both concern problems to which there are no easy answers, they are journeys of discovery with process & ethics to guide us on the way. Both also benefit from more light being shone on the results & processes. Accountability and transparency can lead to better practice not threaten the ‘magic‘.

The bulk of this chapter is a useful summary of the qualitative research methods used in studying executive coaching. Erik shares that he plans a companion book which will focus on quantitive research results.

Whilst reading Erik’s explanations of four key qual research methods, I was struck that this would be useful to many market researchers. So, if you are a market-research or customer-insight leader, you might also want to consider investing in this book as a useful guide to the appropriate use of qual methods, especially to understand human behaviour & processes.

Erik summarises the four main research methods used in studies shared in this book. Sharing how use of them has developed and the different insights these methods can expose. These are positioned in the following table.

Qual Research MethodsPhenomenologicalRetrospective
Self-research(1) Action research(2) Case-study analysis
Independent research(3) Field research(4) Process research
Table 1.1 from book (overview of qual research methods)

Structuring a research summary to be accessible

Given this book is stuffed full with the results of so many research studies, there would be a risk of exhausting the reader. Particuarly those of us not working in academia might find it dry or intimidating.

Without any degree of dumbing down or losing the research evidence that will satisfy scientific enquiry, Erik cleverly structures his material to avoid this. He also adds his own human stories with the humility and warmth that I’ve also seen when talking with him.

The structure which really helps to avoid overwhelm is different levels of detail for each chapter. This is consistent throughout the 7 primary chapters, providing the reader with the options as to what they read. These represent increasing levels of detail, so a reader can choose how deep to go.

In each chapter those levels are:

  1. Anecdote (Erik starts each story with a human story, well worth reading and encouraging for coaches & clients alike).
  2. Essences (a brief summary of the main conclusions or themes that emerge from the research – fastest way to read this book).
  3. Research (a more detailed discussion of methods, hypotheses, findings & limitations of different studies – which also gets into specifics in coaching sessions that can be very insightful).

Each chapter also closes with a summary box that reviews the key lessons from that chapter. A really useful aide-memoire to help you recall what the research has taught us.

Critical moments for experienced & inexperienced coaches

In his research Erik defines critical moments as ‘an exciting, tense or significant moment with one of your coachees‘. He asks coaches who are surveyed to think about ‘what was critical in the coaching journey, or a moment when you did not know what to do‘.

So, it is interesting to discover what robust qual research reveals about the different critical moments identified by both inexperienced and experienced coaches. Do they identify similar or different moments? Are critical moments when you don’t know what to do still a reality for very experienced coaches?

A summary of research with 72 inexperienced coaches shows:

  • Critical moments are primarily associated with doubts.
  • Doubts about all parts of the coaching process, relationship, direction & boundaries.
  • Critical moments are potential breakthrough moments.
  • Coaches only continue to learn because of critical moments.

A summary of research with 75 experienced coaches shows:

  • Still experience anxieties & doubts.
  • 110 specific anxieties identified all indicate that positive change occur as a result of coaching when sufficient trust & room to put things in perspective.
  • Still struggle with critical moments but with more self-confidence.
  • More developed self-awareness and identify cases of transference.

The perspectives of coachees and sponsors

Just as it’s key in Customer Insight to consider experiences or behaviour from the customer’s perspective, so research is shared on coachees. A step forward in this book is to also (in chapter 6) reach the perspective of sponsors.

With many senior leaders engaging coaches or mentors directly, it can be all too easy to overlook this third perspective. However, sustainable improvements for leaders & the organisations in which they work require listening to the voices of all three parties.

In chapter 4, Erik shares research with 67 foamier coaching clients. Although a number did not recognise ‘critical moments‘ in the form though of by coaches, there were some interesting insights. Their answers shed useful light on what coaching clients are seeking from this work.

Coachees identified what they considered critical moments as:

  • Gaining realisation, insight or revelation.
  • Experiencing emotions (painful awareness, elation, liberation, relief or a boost in confidence).
  • A new coaching model from the coachees’ perspective (worth reading the book for this new perspective for the coaching research field).

In chapter 6, Erik helps us recognise the different perspective & priorities of sponsors. Research with 79 sponsors helps identify some common themes that show sponsors define critical moments differently again.

Sponsors identified what they considered critical moments as:

  • New actions by the coachee or positive changes in relationships.
  • Descriptions differing from coach & coachee descriptions in each triad.
  • Involving communication skills & visible interpersonal skills.

An important remind to also consider the visible external and interpersonal progress that sponsors will be expecting to see from coaching or mentoring.

Sharing on Rashomon and lessons to apply in practice

The other two useful chapters in this book are 5 and 7.

In chapter 5, Erik introduces the 1950 Japanese film ‘Rashomon‘. Its theme is the impossibility of reconstructing the past from different testimonies. A useful reminder to all parties that we construct our own memories of coaching sessions. How can we stay open to a different perspective and realise that coachees may have different memories?

Field research is used to compare the different memories of 43 coaches and coachees, regarding coaching sessions and critical moments. Encouragingly there was considerable commonality, including a focus on coachee & spotting moments of ‘new insight‘. However, coaches are at risk of placing more focus on their own actions & jargon. Coaches also reference what they perceive to be body language signs from coachees that are not recognised.

Interestingly, they research reveals more doubt & anxiety in the coach than the coachee. Erik builds on this by sharing a new universal coding for critical moments. 12 categories are identified in this framework which will also be very helpful for future research.

In the closing chapter (7), Erik returns to his humanising & helpful best. He shares many useful lessons learnt, via commenting on a transcript of an actual coaching session. This is very helpful. Coaches & coachees will recognise moments in context. Although this is only a 15-minute conversation, there are so many lessons to learn.

For me, the one takeaway above all others is to be more open to different stories about the same moment. Listen & explore others’ stories about a moment that you may both feel was important.

Why coaches & sponsors should buy this book

I hope this review has given you a feel for what a useful reference this book can be for coaches. But my first encouragement would be for HR leaders or those considering investing in coaching or mentoring programmes to buy this book. It is a well-structured summary of the considerable research evidence that now exists – evidence of the efficacy of leadership coaching.

From a coaches perspective, this a treasury to draw from. Bringing forth things news and old at different times. As well as the benefit of the 3 levels of detail for each chapter, Erik also includes substantial appendices, so you can really get down into the detail. This is very helpful as it means you can read about specific critical moments that resonate for you.

It is great to see qualitative research thriving in the coaching realm. This book sets a good standard for researchers inside and outside this topic. So, a great combination for a blog like ours with a foot in both camps. Let’s all keep working on best practice use of research methods and letting the evidence inform our coaching practice. Thank you, Erik, for helping us do both with this book.