The Coaching House – illuminating the roles of a coach
Updated: May 22
by Jeremy Gomm & Jan Allon-Smith
There are many ways in which coaching can support the personal and professional development and well being of a client.
Coaching can draw the coach into being a co-creative idea generator or a challenger of fundamental values and beliefs. A coach can be a mindful and caring ally or a supportive analyst. As coaches we have roles thrust upon us by our clients’ expectations and needs, some of which we may resist – trusted advisor, wise counsel, a shoulder to cry on. As we gain experience, these various roles stretch our understanding of what coaching is and what we are actually doing, as coaches, to make it work.
Central to those experiences are the conversations we have with our clients and no two coaching conversations are the same. Each has its own ingredients and while some topics are frequently raised, some issues often expressed, some aspirations similarly defined, each conversation goes where it will, although you might choose a “beginning, middle and ending” frame to shape the conversation, perhaps informed by a model like GROW or OSKAR. But while such models help coaches to recognise the ‘what’ of coaching conversations, they don’t really help us with the ‘how’. How do we see our role in these different conversations? How many roles do we have? How do we know which role to adopt and when? How do we describe, even to ourselves, the way we are responding to the client? Daphne Hewson and Michael Carroll address this for coaching supervisors in their book Reflective Practice in Supervision (MoshPit Publishing 2016) which includes the idea of a ‘supervision house’ with different rooms in which different aspects of supervision are practised. The model helps us to understand the nature of the various conversations in the ‘house’ and illustrates not only the role of the supervisor in each of the rooms but also the role of the coach.
The result is greater clarity about what is happening both for the supervisor and the coach in each of the rooms and why sometimes our conversations stall or seem confusing when, for example, one is occupying a different room from the other.
This prompted the idea of a similar framework for coaching which would not only illustrate the different conversations and roles coaches occupy but enable the coach to move from role to role, or room to room, with both confidence and purpose. It also offers coaches a vocabulary to describe and explore their practice both in personal review or reflection and in supervision.
In describing how this idea grew, references to ‘we’ generally refer to the authors but occasionally to all of us who are coaches – hopefully the context provides clarity.
The more we explored the rooms we might find in a Coaching House, the more we wanted to imagine a physical environment to clarify and add meaning to the metaphor. This ‘house’ is a workspace not a home and apart from entering and leaving it at the same point, coach and client are free to move about the rooms as they wish, most productively, together. This led us to construct a building within a walled garden which we will explain – but it is our Coaching House and, as you explore it, you might well consider why your own Coaching House would be different, and choose to make alterations that better suit your own thinking.
Bear in mind this is a metaphor, however “real” it might seem, and its purpose is to aid reflection and learning not to channel or proscribe activity.
Our Coaching House comprises a protected space comprising an open structure within a walled garden. It is designed to enable ease of movement from one space to another, hence the many openings. The illustration, by John Cooper, indicates only a cut-out section of the walls around each room to indicate that the spaces are partly enclosed but have easy access to each other. And the roof is missing so the spaces can be seen.
In our experience most of our coaching takes place in the central space, which primarily focuses on the client’s territory, and in the garden, which primarily focuses on the client’s well being. There are four other spaces with specific purposes.
We summarise each space here and have added the role of the coach in each room. We have also identified the role of the client, if this space is to serve them well, although the client will probably not be aware of the role we have described for them. However, if the coach recognises the space the client is occupying it will help clarify the role the coach needs to adopt. It’s vital coach and client are in the same room for the conversation to be at its best.
First and foremost in the coaching relationship is the creation of a safe space within which the coaching conversation can take place. In our metaphorical Coaching House, the safe space is everything inside the outer wall of the garden. In reality, coaching conversations often take place in a physical space – usually chosen by the coach and sometimes unprotected by real walls – and increasingly a virtual space. The virtual space also separates two physical spaces, at either end of a phone or video link. It’s important to recognise that these spaces are safe only if both coach and client are satisfied that they are.
All of the coaching space needs to be safe and can only be safe if it is in the shared care of both coach and client, hence the gateway into our Coaching House requires two keys. Both keys are needed to open the gate. If one or other doesn’t feel the space is safe, the gate cannot be opened and the coaching either cannot take place or risks being ineffective.
There are two Baggage drop spaces at the entrance (hidden behind the wall in our illustration) where the coach and the client can leave things at the door and pick them up again later on the way out – for the coach, these might be things that have been on your mind and that you don’t want to include in this conversation or be distracted by; for the client, some of these things may later be shared, informing the coaching conversation, as the client becomes more self-aware and more trusting of the coaching relationship.
Garden walkway – a reflective space Focus: the client’s well being – providing time to think, to wonder, to celebrate and enjoy, to relax, to let go and to restore Coach’s role: reflective observer, supportively challenging Client’s role: relaxed reflection, open to celebration and to wonder, welcome peace
This is the first space the coach and client occupy when they meet, including for the first time. It is a relaxing environment where they can become comfortable with one another before moving into the room in which they choose to hold the next part of the conversation.
In this space the coach can focus on the client’s safety and well being, to help the client to relax and feel good about themselves, to embrace the here and now, to enjoy pleasing memories and wonder about opportunities. The coach is the reflective observer, listening without judgement, sharing with empathy and supportively challenging to encourage the seeds of opportunity being stimulated to grow and flower.
There is access from every room to the Garden Walkway. In this reflective space it is safe to ‘not know’; it is a big space because much of a coaching conversation is likely to take place here and it needs access at all times as a restorative and relaxing environment. The Garden Walkway is always the starting point and finishing point but how long the conversation remains here and whether it returns before the end is entirely dependent on how the coach and client see the conversation developing. Our own experience is that much of most coaching conversations takes place here.
Map Room – an active space Focus: the client’s territory – exploration of the here and now, setting goals, solving problems, planning and reviewing progress; contracting and re-contracting
Coach’s role: mindful ally and guide Client’s role: reporting, goal setting, action planning
The Map Room is where the client’s territory is revealed and developed, another large space because much of a coaching conversation will take place here too. This central space is directly accessible from every other room and the Garden Walkway.
It is here we gain an understanding of the territory of the client – what is their interest, how did they reach this point, where are they going, where do they want to be . . . and so on. In understanding the territory, we have to be excellent listeners, be prepared to challenge and prompt to generate enlightenment for both ourselves and our clients about what the territory really amounts to and to help the client to find ways forward, perhaps setting goals and navigating obstacles to achieve that.
Ahead of all this is the creation and acceptance of a contract, practical and psychological – how coach and client will work together, what the boundaries are, the expectations we have of each other. Depending on circumstances, some of this may be fixed in advance of coach and client getting together, or at a “chemistry” session, or may not be addressed until the start of the first coaching appointment. Affirming and modifying the contract will be part of the Map Room conversation.
Play Room – a creative space Focus: ideas and inspiration – stimulating new ideas, new thinking and new perspectives; finding innovative solutions to intractable problems; revealing hidden ambitions and fresh inspiration Coach’s role: to provoke and delight in the client’s ideas Client’s role: open-minded explorer of ideas and possibilities, wakeful dreamer
There are times when exploring the territory in the Map Room unveils feelings or thoughts that need a more expansive space. This is the blue sky room, the blank page room, the space to rethink anything and everything and invent something new.
The client may just want to explore ideas and possibilities without having a particular goal in mind. Or perhaps take an innovative approach to solving a problem. The coaching support will be to stimulate new thinking and perspectives. It might involve helping the client to reveal hidden ambitions and aspirations, recognise the drivers – values and assumptions – that lie behind them, build on what works and encourage new possibilities.
Dark Room – a space for reflective exploration, self-insight and self-acceptance
Focus: discomforting thoughts and feelings which undermine self-esteem, sow the seeds of self-doubt and fracture self-confidence. Coach’s role: gently challenging, delicately examining damaging thoughts and feelings; being aware of boundaries Client’s role: willing to confide, deeply reflective
The Dark Room is a special place in which the negatives in the client’s mind can be gently coaxed, and reframed, into clearer and hopefully positive pictures. Sometimes clients need space to address a particularly difficult feeling, an uncomfortable failing, a puzzling blockage or a persistent belief or assumption that is getting in the way of new thinking, undermining their self belief or confidence or preventing them shaking off habitual behaviours. The coach’s empathetic listening and intuition are important elements in this space as is their gentle, thoughtful challenge to carefully uncover the hidden layers, conscious at all times of their own boundaries as the client engages in deep reflection.
Class Room – a space for a little tuition Focus: Sharing knowledge and experience to restore self-learning and self-development Coach’s role: Tutor/mentor, offering and illustrations to reconnect the client with the process of self-development Client’s role: Learner
We coaches implicitly believe that our clients already have the answers to their own questions, the resources to achieve their own ambitions, and that our job is to help them to recognise, accept and work with the inner knowledge and expertise that surfaces during coaching. But clients are frequently unable to access this inner knowledge bank and need more external stimulus. They are stuck. So we might offer them some illustrations, some examples, some stories that we have gathered in our own experiences or through our work with other clients.
The coach may have knowledge the client doesn’t have but does need – to lead, to manage, to achieve what they want to achieve – and may offer some wise questions for the client to ponder and seek to answer. A client who is stuck because of lack of knowledge or experience, has run out of ideas or energy, is yearning for someone to give them guidance or direction will find relief in the Class Room.
A client who is stuck because of lack of knowledge or experience, has run out of ideas or energy, who is yearning for someone to give them guidance or direction, or to elucidate or interpret their experience will find relief in the Class Room.
First Aid Room – a space for urgent repairs and comfort Focus: alarming, unethical or illegal behaviour; sadness or despair that needs to be aired; the coaching relationship Coach’s role: nurse, comforter, mindful colleague, co-collaborator
Client’s role: patient, colleague, co-collaborator
In the First Aid Room the coach offers comfort and cold water – whatever is required to address issues that are in need of urgent repair. It might be the relationship between the coach and the client; it might be an alarming, unethical or illegal behaviour that the client is displaying or dealing with; it might be an outburst of emotion, of sadness or despair.
The coach can address these various issues in different ways but using familiar coaching tools, holding the space while emotion is expressed and processed, combining a comforting cloak with a glass of cold, clear water to help clear the client’s head and refresh their thinking. This is the space where the coach as mindful friend is tested to the full.
Each of the outcomes from these various spaces will contribute to an understanding of the client’s territory.
As you progress through a coaching conversation with a client, from contracting to conclusion, you as the coach will recognise and facilitate the flow between these roles and the client will trust you to know which role is appropriate at any one time. Sometimes the coach will be explicit about the role being taken, sometimes not – it will depend on the circumstances.
Where the conversation goes and which rooms it uses is generally led by the client. Clients often create their own learning space, wandering from room to room (unaware of their coach’s framework or metaphorical house unless it has been shared with them).
Recognising that it is best for coach and client to be in the same room helps us to consider what role the client is adopting at any point in the conversation and so which role we, as coaches, need to adopt by asking ourselves: Q. Where is the client at this point? Q. What are the client’s needs which require me to respond? Q. How do I respond at this phase of the conversation? Q. What intervention(s) meet this need?
Here’s an example of how this might work for you. Consider a frequent issue, dealing with conflict. This might be conflict the client is experiencing with a manager or colleague; it might be conflict between other colleagues which is affecting the client’s well being; it might be a conflict of values between the client and the organisation. Where might the coaching conversation start?
If the problem is causing the client some distress or discomfort, it might start in the First Aid Room, until the client is ready to move on; perhaps to the Garden Walkway, to metaphorically breathe the air and smell the flowers; or perhaps to the Map Room to go directly to action; or maybe to cross into the Play Room to rethink the whole situation.
If the problem is something entirely new to the client, who is feeling somewhat at a loss in how to approach it, spending some time in the Map Room delineating the issues and then in the Class Room may offer a way forward.
If the conflict is challenging the client’s values or beliefs and undermining self-worth or self-confidence, they may need some time in the Dark Room.
The Garden Walkway may not be a starting point for any of these conversations but will probably figure at some point in all of them, in order to address the client’s wellbeing, providing time to re-group.
Sometimes the conversation moves between rooms without us noticing it. The client may be in the middle of goal-setting in the Map Room and suddenly move into the Garden Walkway, as a thought occurs which stimulates reflection. If the coach doesn’t notice and continues as if in the Map Room (“So when did you say you would complete that?”) it can startle the client out of what might have been valuable reflection.
Sometimes we need to coax a client into an appropriate room. A client who continuously undermines their own confidence with their lack of self belief can be encouraged into the Dark Room to try to discover the root of their self doubt and determine whether it can be embraced in the coaching or needs different skills and experience applied – by a therapist, psychologist or relationship counsellor for example.
And if we have encouraged use of the Dark Room, or the client has entered on their own, how will we know when we have spent enough time there? This is the challenge to the coach’s intuition and empathy, to their capability to ask a question and know from the answer, or lack of it, whether to stay or to move to a different space.
If a client shies away from using a particular room, preferring instead to focus on the practical rather than the drivers or blockers that are causing a particular route to be followed, the coach can let this go or accept the challenge to help the client find a different route. That moment of decision is a great test for the coach as well as the client. There is a risk that a reluctant client will refuse to budge, or resist self-insight and in those situations the coaching relationship itself may be challenged.
One of the values of the Coaching House is the context it provides to coaching dilemmas like these and the framework it offers to any consequential conversations with a supervisor. For example, you might bring to mind a moment when you and your coachee were in different rooms and the conversation seemed disconnected as a result.
There are questions you can ask yourself, for example:
In which room do I spend most of my time as a coach?
Can I spot which rooms I avoid?
In which room do I feel most comfortable? Why?
In which do I feel least comfortable? How does that affect my coaching?
Which rooms do my clients seem to prefer?
With that last question, you might recognise a client who prefers the Play Room, for example, where ideas can be enjoyed without the need to ever make them come to life. However, it stops being a play space then and morphs into an ‘escape room’, free from the responsibility of ever actually doing anything. It’s up to the coach to recognise when that is happening and be willing to confront it in the best interest of the client.
Some clients, the butterfly thinkers, will flit from room to room at speed giving the coach the challenge to keep pace, monitor and capture, or challenge progress.
Some clients will want to push the coach into the Class Room to seek direction about what to do rather than work it out for themselves. It’s up to the coach to coax them into another space in which they can be encouraged to take responsibility, to explore and to think.
If you are an internal coach, you might think about which rooms are most comfortable and which are avoided because of internal pressures or corporate culture – how can I encourage a senior manager to spend some time in the Dark Room and risk revealing thinking they would not wish their colleagues to know about? How do I challenge unethical behaviour in the First Aid Room when I know it is rooted in the culture of the organisation?
When we have discussed our Coaching House with colleagues, they have imagined different rooms that hold more meaning and purpose for them. But the principles behind the model have offered them valuable learning.
One colleague advocated a mezzanine floor, an upper garden walkway, so that coach and client could look down on the rooms and reflect on their journey through them.
As you reflect on your own coaching, you may find it helpful to consider how you would configure your own Coaching House with different rooms that better reflect how you visualise your contribution to the coaching conversations with your clients.
GROW, first popularised by John Whitmore in 1992 (latest edition, Whitmore 2017)
OSKAR, a solution-focused coaching model developed by Mark McKergow and Paul Z Jackson around the year 2000 (see https://bit.ly/2V9CaVX)
Hewson D. and Carroll M. (2016) Reflective Supervision in Practice. MoshPit Whitmore J. (2017) Coaching for Performance: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership (5th Edition). Nicholas Brearley