Provocations in coaching?

Can a coach be provocative in a coaching session? Is this “allowed” according to ICF or EMCC standards? In my coaching sessions with executives and also in my coaching supervision and mentoring practice I sometimes find myself acting in a humorous, provocative way. For example, if a mentee is struggling with being able to partner with the client because this wasn’t taught in their previous training and they state something like: “I will NEVER be able to learn this!!!”, I might respond by deadpanning: “Yes, this is impossible. Nobody has ever managed to do this. Hm. I get you.” And of course, I will only do that if I am very sure that we will both have a good laugh about it.

I think that there is a misunderstanding in coaching about how coach and client co-create the relationship and the conversation. The International Coaching Federation had to come up with observable “markers” for the quality of any coaching conversation because they are providing an assessment, and assessments need to be fair. Fair assessments have criteria with interrater reliability — so if I assess a coaching conversation, the assessment should not be much different than the assessment of another assessor. However “observable criteria” for any coaching conversation are actually an impossibility because conversations are complex emergent phenomena. I will always experience a conversation differently than another person and pinning down where exactly I can see that awareness is being evoked or that the coach is present in general, is not really possible, imho.

So if we let go of “pinning down” or showing quality of coaching to an assessor and look at the experience of the coach and the experience of the client, we gain a different perspective on “provocative coaching”. A coach can say anything and everything to a client if it helps the client to move forward, gain insights and awareness toward their preferred future. The touching stone here is not “a marker” or “a behaviorally anchored rating scale” but how this (and not every) conversation unfolds to help this (and not every) client.

If my relationship to the client is such that we can joke about things, that the client knows and feels that I hold them in unconditional positive regard, I can be provocative. If the client is likely to be offended by a provocative statement, I won’t make one. I think that this is just like in any other relationship — when you do not know each other well, you’ll be more cautious because you don’t know how what you say will land. Once it is clear that you like the other person and the other person likes you and this clarity is stable, more creative and open conversations become possible. And, of course, this is very different in different cultures.

If you want some really interesting examples of provocative practice, go to YouTube and search for “Frank Farelly”, the founder of provocative therapy. Not all of his sessions are politically correct (trigger warning) and he is a child of his time, so don’t be offended (or don’t watch if you are likely to be offended).

Some of his “moves” are:

  • exaggerating the problem so that the client will respond by saying: “it’s not THAT bad”
  • playing the devil’s advocate so the client can refine their argument or thinking
  • tempting the client to continue unwanted habits so the client can plan for avoiding “relapses”
  • surfacing the absurdities of something the client is saying by bluntly stating them, so that the client can rethink

Do have a look if you want to expand your view on what might be possible in a co-creative coaching session.

If you want to discuss, bring your cases, have fun or learn about our courses, come to one of our free coaching meetups and exchanges:

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