Where is the Psychology in Coaching? Part 1


I recently took part in a panel discussion at Kingston Business School, Surrey‘ as part of their ‘Engaging with the Profession; Evening Coaching Conference Series’ at Kingston University. An enjoyable evening, it allowed me to ‘understand what I think’ as I extemporized in public. My colleague Lauren Hogg has written thoughts about the discussion which we shall post shortly, but in the meantime…..here is my prepared opening 3 minute ‘introduction of myself and my position on the question ‘where is the psychology in coaching?’

“Good evening. I am David Webster. I run a coaching psychology practice called Centre for Teams. Our purpose is to help client create a sea change in sustainable team performance, engagement and wellbeing. We do that using a good understanding of coaching, and of the psychology of people at work and increasingly draw upon coaching psychology as a field of inquiry.

Where is the psychology in coaching?

It’s like oxygen in the air…my initial reaction to the question is that ‘psychology’ is everywhere in coaching. That is to say everything the coach does or could do has its basis in some form of psychological theory. It’s rather like asking ‘where is the oxygen in the air?’ it is everywhere – whether you notice it or not. By implication, as coaches, we need to discover how to use it well; what works and what doesn’t; how we can continually refine our ability to help.

And now a more personal reponse: I was a coach and then a trainer of coaches in the mid 1990s and what I was doing seemed to be working well. The basic idea that supporting leaders to learn and perform to their best by the creation of a coaching relationship and use of robust coaching skill was attractive to me and worked for clients. It also worked for them when they used the same principles and skills with their clients – improved relationship, better decision-making, quicker problem solving, more staff engagement…I drew upon ideas colleagues and luminaries Myles Downey, John Whitmore, Judith Firman (former psychotherapist), Tim Gallwey (the inner game) and read voraciously – one example was Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which I still think is one of the greatest popular psychology books ever written – and mainly because it tells us something about the human condition, not just how to be happy.

Yet that was not enough. I needed to understand more about the body of knowledge from which we as coaches were drawing – why some things worked and others didn’t, how we could improve them, how we could measure or impact more clearly. So I started studying, and many years later I became an occupational psychologist. And I am still studying, still learning, still trying to make connections between the art and the science, what we know and how it is applied, what client need and how we can support them.

So I knew that goals were important for example but now know why they are important, and how to help leaders and teams create meaningful goals that they have a better chance of reaching. (Locke & Latham’ Goal Setting Theory)

I knew that confidence is important but how does it work in a team? What happens when you don’t have it? How might a team go about building its confidence? (Bandura’s Social Learning Theory; Social Identity Theory – Tajfel & Turner).

And I knew that the coaching relationship is important but how de we create one that was high functioning? So I looked at Jung and Freud and Rogers, Lewin, Egan, Heron…

And many other strands of research on trust, learning, systems theory, leadership, change, happiness, wellbeing…and I continue to understand more – the Everest film recently released where a number of climbers died on the 1996 expeditions has huge implications for small team leadership and team learning – and I would be unaware of that if I had not been researching team for my MSc. and come across the case study in the Human Relations Journal.

Coaching Psychology’s lead role. I think the profession of coaching psychology is in a similar spot now. Coaching is mainstream. Everybody coaches. Some learn it in a weekend, for others it is an on going development of a craft. And the need therefore for a body of knowledge to feed us all as craftsmen and women is great. Clients demand it and we, as coaches need it. And I think coaching psychologists can take a lead role in engaging in the on going inquiry of what works and why.

Above all, do no harm? I had a great friend and colleague who used to say to those he trained ‘don’t mess about in their psychology’. It was his version of ‘above all do no harm’, a critical watchword for us all. But actually, we all need to be aware that we are all students of psychology – we are all interested in the science and the art of the human mind, so lets be good students and seek out what works and keep on improving our ability to help clients create sustainable performance and stay well while they are doing it.

You can watch the video of the event here.