The Facilitative Conditions of Coaching: The Essence of the Coaching Relationship

What allows the journey together?

As wellness and health coaching grows and organizations look for more and more cost-efficient ways to provide these services the quest is for that elusive optimal combination of efficiency and effectiveness.  How to make wellness coaching scalable to a large population remains a quandary.  How long does wellness coaching take?  How many sessions?  How many minutes?

The temptation is to downsize.  The mistake is to “dumb-size”.  Bottom line is, like always, you get what you pay for.  If a coaching program is not careful at maintaining quality it may degenerate into the information-based programs that coaching was designed to supplement and replace.  The computer-assisted programs are just that…assistants to the real-live coach who is working with their client.  Let’s remember why we went to coaching in the first place…we discovered that people change more effectively when they go through the change process with an ally.  What makes that ally effective?  For that I propose a small stretch over to the world of counseling psychology, which has been studying what facilitates behavioral change since it’s inception as a professional discipline.

As a counseling psychologist the foundation of my training was in the research that looked at what allowed therapists of many different theoretical schools to get effective results.  In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, three academics, Robert Carkhuff, Bernard Berenson and Charles Truax, took the work of Carl Rogers and made it objective enough to study through behavioral science.  What they found was that regardless of what approach to therapy someone took (psychoanalytic, behavioral, gestalt, client-centered, etc.), their effectiveness came down to their ability to provide what Rogers called “the facilitative conditions of therapy”.  When a therapist provided empathy, unconditional positive regard, and was authentic and genuine in their interactions with the client, the therapy worked, regardless of theoretical orientation.  Since those days we have seen other research substantiate this and point to the “therapeutic relationship” as the key determinate of therapeutic effectiveness (In 2001 Hazler and Barwick summarize much of this in their book, The Therapeutic Environment: Core Conditions For Facilitating Therapy.)

As the field of coaching evolved the term that has often been used to describe this way of being as opposed to the techniques of doing is coaching presence.  However even the ICF definition of coaching presence comes up short “Ability to be fully conscious and create spontaneous relationship with the client, employing a style that is open, flexible and confident.”  When I have been complimented about my coaching presence from a piece of coaching I have done in a public demonstration it felt like what was coming through was largely what I would call the facilitative conditions of coaching.  

 To me “coaching presence” is about providing through your own way of being with your client, the conditions which allow them to maximally open up to their own growth process.  To do that your client needs to feel safe, to feel heard and understood.  They need to feel in connection with, accepted by and receiving compassion from the coach.

“When we come into contact with the other person, our thoughts and actions should express our mind of compassion, even if that person says and does things that are not easy to accept.  We practice in this way until we see clearly that our love is not contingent upon the other person being loveable.”   Thich Nhat Hahn

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn provides a powerful description of unconditional positive regard.  We meet our client where they are at without judgment.  We notice, we observe but we don’t judge.  This is the separation between who a client is, and what they do.  We may challenge them to look at how a particular attitude, belief or behavior is working for them or against them, but we are still accepting them as a person on the journey of growth.

Empathic understanding is a very direct way to express this unconditional positive regard.  Empathy is conveying to the other person that you know, at least to some degree, what it is like to feel what they are feeling.  You may have never had their exact experience (e.g. having a heart attack, being obese, etc.) but you know what it is like to feel fear, loss, shame, regret, etc.  You put yourself in their place and see the world from their perspective tapping into your own feelings so as to connect with them deeply.

How to be is more important than what to do.

Authenticity and genuineness are not techniques, they are ways of being.  Sincerity cannot be faked.  If your heart is not in the coaching process, don’t coach.  Take a day off, or if it’s not just a temporary experience, look for a new career.  Most people, including all of our clients, have terrific “BS” detectors and know when someone if just going through the motions of being a helper.  Likewise when they experience you being your authentic self it gives them someone they are attracted to working with and feel safe enough to trust with their feelings, hopes, dreams and fears.

In wellness coaching our clients have often tried and failed at lifestyle improvement before, sometimes many times.  For them to go further towards success they have to feel like they can truly trust the ally that is journeying with them.  They have to feel like this ally genuinely cares about them, completely accepts them as a person, understands their experience and is not afraid to go wherever the journey takes them.  The coaching relationship is the heart and soul of the coaching process.  A competent coach has skills, techniques, tools and methodology to help their client on their journey, but it is their way of being that is the crucial difference.  The client/coach connection is omnipresent and foremost in the client’s mind.  For the coach it is as easy as just being real, it is as tough as Thich Nat Hahn says, loving what appears unlovable.

“The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”      Thich Nhat Hahn

Unconditional Positive Regard: The Being and Doing of Coaching – Part Two

Is this all it takes to launch your judgment?

When our coaching clients experience complete acceptance of who they are without judgment, and feel prized and understood, great things happen.

The suspension of judgment is a real challenge for many people. To keep ourselves safe we have learned to make distinctions in the world. Our ancestors needed to quickly appraise the behavior of an animal and know whether to ignore it, hunt it, or climb a tree very quickly! Today we can certainly protect ourselves by being wary of the suspicious salesperson (or website) pushing the deal that sounds (and is) too good to be true. We can hold on to our right to choose whom we associate with. Drawing distinctions is not the same thing as making judgments, but sometimes we get the two confused.

Our first distinction as a coach may be between the person who is our client and their behavior. We may get a picture of a client who may behave in ways that are contrary to our own personal values, perhaps as they recount a tale of moral ambiguity. But can we suspend judgment, listen deeply, connect with the person telling the tale, and help them feel heard? If we show in any way our disapproval of them, or communicate that they are a bad person for having behaved as they have said, their defensive walls will go up. If we stay with them and allow their story to unfold we may be surprised at how our perception of both them and their behavior changes.

Sometimes passing judgment occurs when we are in the diagnostic mindset of trying to figure the other person out or fix them. When we don’t understand another person’s actions or motivations we fill in the blank with a theory of our own usually based in judgment. “Well, they must be a lazy person because they aren’t willing to work at getting better.” Perhaps we have a belief system where we believe that people have to “earn” our respect by living their lives as we think they should. It is so tempting to “make sense” out of our client’s behavior by trying to imagine what we would do, and when it is different, to pass judgment. Despite our own efforts to convince ourselves that we are merely figuring out the person’s characteristics, we are usually just being judgmental.

Don't let what you fear cause you to judge.

Judgment also occurs when we are trying to keep our world small. When I exclude others because I judge them to have faults or behave in ways I don’t understand or agree with, I whittle down whom I am willing to associate with. Perhaps I judge them because they are experiencing something I never want to experience and that frightens me (like being divorced, obese or having heart disease). If I judge them, then they are different than me and there is more distance put it place between me and what I fear.

The most devious aspect of judgment is that we usually aren’t aware we are even doing it. Sometimes the most judgmental people may aspire to be very non-judgmental! If we have learned that our natural tendency is towards judgment, we need to do our best at self-monitoring and then choose how we want to interact with others. Once again, providing unconditional positive regard, being non-judgmental is a coaching skill of being rather than doing. It is not a technique. Techniques come from the head, less from the heart.

“When we come into contact with the other person, our thoughts and actions should express our mind of compassion, even if that person says and does things that are not easy to accept. We practice in this way until we see clearly that our love is not contingent upon the other person being loveable.” Thich Nhat Hahn

Carl Rogers 1902-1987

What we call coaching today is rooted firmly in the work of Carl Rogers. Most second cousins such a Motivational Interviewing, Appreciative Inquiry, and Non-violent Communication all share this original foundation. Roger’s Facilitative Conditions of Therapy apply directly to coaching as Facilitative Conditions of Coaching, and, I believe truly define Coaching Presence. For Rogers unconditional positive regard (UPR) was just that…acceptance without conditions, and he held this acceptance to be a basic human need. UPR is about respect without strings. The other person need do nothing at all to “deserve” it.

UPR is about accepting all aspects of the person’s experience, even those aspects that they don’t want to change. For the health and wellness coach or any wellness professional, this is a critical point. Can we accept the fact that our client does not want to quit smoking? It is not “okay” that they smoke. It is not good that they smoke. We know it is bad for their health (as they probably do too). We don’t “collude with their illness” and give permission. However, can we suspend judgment on that behavior and work with the whole person, accepting them fully as a person, and becoming a true coaching ally? Experienced coaches will often tell of many times when they did this, that their clients eventually choose to quit smoking on their own later in the coaching or afterwards.

The Samurai of ancient Japan had a saying: “Expect nothing, be prepared for anything.” The saying entreats us not to hold the expectation that nothing would happen, but rather to have no expectations whatsoever. Expectations are the flipside of the same coin where judgment resides. Our expectations limit our awareness and ultimately our experience of the other person. In coaching we create “agreements” rather than holding expectations. My client and I create an agreement whereby she/he will track their activity each day for the next week. If I simply “expect” these things to happen I may be disappointed and have no real way to confront the client if they fail to follow through on my expectations. If I “expect” the client to behave in certain ways, I am putting my own “should’s” on to them.

In the new book by Al Ritter, The 100/0 Principle ( we see how essential a lack of expectations and judgment is to all of our relationships. Our relationships are in fact the biggest factor in our success and satisfaction in life. Ritter proposes that by taking 100% responsibility for our relationships and expecting 0% back in return we can transform our lives by creating solid relationships all around us. He outlines three simple steps: 1) demonstrate complete respect and kindness whether you believe the other person deserves it or not; 2) expect nothing in return, absolutely nothing; 3) be persistent, we often give up too soon. Sound like he’s been reading Carl Rogers.

Please comment on your own experience with unconditional positive regard, whether in coaching or everyday life. Be well!