Looking for more than formulaic coaching? Try a “useful conversation”

Sometimes the only place to be is right here and now

Coaching should be about much more than just setting goals to be achieved in the future. Important as this can be, it just doesn’t cut it for many professionals I work with. They are looking for something more meaningful, more immediate and more generally ‘useful’ to their immediate presence and impact in the world.

The reason some coaching relationships don’t cut it is that the great majority of coaching models are based on one simple premise: that there is something you don’t currently have or something you can’t currently do and that you need support in closing the gap.

The ubiquitous GROW model sums this up with its stages that agree a Goal, assess your current Reality, look at Options and develop the Will to make it happen.

Less about gaps, more about grounding

These models can bring with them a particular style of coaching. The coach is relatively passive in the relationship. They attempt to remain objective and utilise formulaic question sets, prompts and gentle nudges. The client is unilaterally doing all the work.

This is useful when there is a goal to be achieved and we need someone to be accountable to for progress and ultimately achievement. What it isn’t good for is when there isn’t a material goal, when there isn’t a gap and where options and actions plans are not, therefore, necessary. Also, most of the professionals I meet are perfectly capable and motivated in achieving their goals. This isn’t where their need is.

Often, they simply need to have a useful conversation. A conversation that allows them to clarify their thinking, explore alternative perspectives, clear their mind of clutter or inquire into their current reality.

Space for things to shift

During these useful conversations they often hear themselves articulate thoughts and feelings for the first time. As a result they often experience thought patterns and feelings that they didn’t recognise were in play. Perspectives can change and sometimes, whole paradigms can shift.

This is the kind of coaching conversation I most often enter into with clients. Their usefulness lies in the concept of true conversation, a dialogue that engages both parties in reflection, articulation and meaning making. It’s what John Heron called a “co-operative inquiry”.

Celebrating subjectivity

In this useful conversation I don’t pretend I can be objective, leaving all my past experiences and unconscious biases at the door. Instead, I bring skills and processes that ensure both parties’ subjectivity is recognised and, where appropriate, used to enhance the quality of the conversation and the meaningfulness of the insights generated.

This subjectivity is also on show as I tap into the wisdom that has accrued from a decade of study and practice in this area, combined with a career spanning 30 plus years. I might offer advice and maybe even point out potential blind spots, but I will hold these offerings lightly, not expecting them to be taken on board or feeling offended when they don’t.

I started to use the phrase “useful conversations” because following what I then called coaching sessions, one or both of us would often end the conversation by saying “Thanks, that was a really useful conversation!”

I’ve put together a schematic which shows the key elements of useful conversations as I experience them. Let me know what you think.


Heron, J. (1998) Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the Human Condition. Sage Publications Ltd. London.

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