Continuing the series applying the principles of Appreciative Inquiry to one-to-one coaching

“Free choice liberates power” – Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom, The Power of Appreciative Inquiry

The Free Choice Principle states that people perform better, and are more engaged, when they get to choose what they work on. If they’re told what to do without having their own wishes and ideas taken into account, they may do the work as directed, but they’ll be doing it grudgingly, and without putting in the ‘discretionary effort’ that a volunteer would.

Like Appreciative Inquiry as a whole, this principle emerged from the experience of working with organisational change, but it’s equally true in one-to-one coaching. In this situation, an obvious question arises: who or what is in the role of a ‘boss’ who could be issuing diktats that the coachee has to carry out, no matter how they feel about it?

A moment’s thought gives us a couple of likely candidates. The first, of course, is the coach. If their coaching style is ‘coaching for compliance’ – focusing on problems, and on how well the coachee is fulfilling the obligations placed on them – this will trigger the coachee’s ‘task positive network’, evoking feelings of stress, defensiveness, and being judged, and making them less open to change. Note that ‘holding the client accountable’ by ‘positively confronting’ them ‘with the fact that he/she did not take agreed-upon actions’ is definitely coaching for compliance behaviour (wording taken from the International Coach Federation’s old professional coaching core competencies list – thankfully this element of the competencies was dropped when the list was updated in 2019).

The only time that checking up on whether the coachee had done what they ‘committed to’ wouldn’t activate their task positive network is if they had, in fact, completed all of those actions, and the actions were freely chosen. But why would a coachee commit to do something they don’t really want to do?  People can agree to actions they have reservations about for all kinds of reasons – for example, they think it’s what they ‘ought’ to do, or perhaps in the moment they are trying to say what they think the coach wants to hear, forgetting about or suppressing for the moment their lack of desire to actually take those actions. As coaches, we need to remember that this happens and watch out for signs of incongruence. It’s much better to find out that the client’s stated choice isn’t really what they want before they appear to commit to it, rather than finding out later because they’ve failed to do it.

If your coaching style is more ‘coaching with compassion’ – focusing on strengths and positives, and asking questions that help the client clarify their vision for where they want to be, and helping them reconnect with their own values and motivations – it’s still possible, though less likely, that the client might be thinking of choices that they believe they ought to take, rather than what they genuinely want to do, even if they don’t feel pressured by their coach. Again, we can look for, and gently question, signs of incongruence and lack of enthusiasm for the apparent choices.

Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Coaching: the Free Choice Principle

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