Key Principles of Coaching

Photo Credit:  michael podger

Photo Credit: michael podger


Components of being results-driven, a good thought partner, engaged in the challenge, and a connector of insights are important for an effective coaching engagement. How that is delivered requires certain qualities.

A few key principles fair better than long lists of models, worksheets, and tactics—no matter how road tested they are. We use the term guiding principles for a reason, because they literally guide us when we over overwhelmed by emotions that come up in stressful work situations, like anxiety, boredom, frustration, resentment, anger and disappointment. Guiding principles apply to when things are going well, too, like joy, euphoria, and happiness because they dictate what we do next. They guide us when we are under pressure and the stakes are high, like when our team doubles and our scope increases overnight and we are now responsible for teams in three geographic regions. Achieving personal and professional mastery at being, doing, and learning with attaining actionable results…in front of others, when our career is on the line—is hard work.

Coaches use the following principles:

  • Note their whole experience

  • Adopt a systems lens

  • Use their own experience and a systems lens in their coaching method


Note their whole experience

Often referred to as “signature presence”, “executive presence”, or one’s “whole self,” it is really about understanding what is it about that coach that we can’t get from any other.

Everyone has a unique presence that gives everyone else they come into contact with a particular experience they can’t get anywhere else. This isn’t to say that we can’t be replaced, but at the same time, we are unique beings and have unique perspectives to offer. A coach should not be performing techniques on clients. No one likes that experience, and it’s not helpful. A trainer, for example, who performs the same training in three cities is not a coach. They are giving a cookie-cutter experience to a high volume of people. I mentioned partnership as a key quality in coaching because it is a value I hold deeply. A coach is a sounding board, peer, and shoulder-to-shoulder collaborator presenting their unique perspectives on a client’s most intimidating challenges. This requires the coach to be candid, the ability to be truthful and authentic about oneself.

The coaching relationship is built on trust, the ability to provide candid feedback, and a genuine presence. The coach’s ability to be authentic helps elicit authenticity in the client. In this way, the coach helps the client bring their full self to their goals, challenges, and relationships crucial to their success.

Adopting a systems lens

Think of a system like a spider web, where the action of one person can impact the experience and potential reactions of everyone or thing else within that web. Coaches require a system lens to understand where their clients where their clients work. A systems view is by definition nonlinear. It enables the coach to spot patterns of interaction and interdependence within and across specific areas of the system.

A coach looks at the system both inside-out and outside-in. At the center of the web is the leader and their personal work. This is where the coach and the client reflect on the client’s values, motivations, goals, strengths, and core challenges. Next out is the client and their team(s), departments, vendors, customers, and strategic stakeholders or partners. The further area from the client is the market, the economy, the natural environment, and political shifts.

This last phase used to seem academic but is coming into the foreground now more than ever. When tariffs increase, whole revenue models need to be re-calibrated—as is the case with cars. When natural resources are recognized as finite, whole product lines and supply chains need to be reconsidered—as is the case with the paper coffee cup. When a company is questioned about their ethics and their impact on elections, how people approach launching their service requires more rigor in thinking through unintended consequences—as is the case with social media services. All of these external factors (and more) impact how we go about our day to day business and how we feel about our work. And, how we feel about work impacts how content we are ourselves and how we treat others.

When the coach focuses too narrowly on the client (their goals, challenges, and inner difficulties), the whole ecosystem in which they function is lost. And the client is influencing and being influenced by the interrelationships of that system (their team, departments, vendors and customers) all the time. Also important is the global area in which they operate.

Combining our experience and a systems lens with an approach to coaching

Combining the unique qualities the coach brings with a systems lens is what makes the application of the coaching method unique. Depending on how they’ve been trained and their professional experience, each coach will identify, emphasize and reflect something different from the systems in which we operate. This is one of the reasons we need to pay attention to what resonates with us when we choose a coach.

Coaching follows a predictable flow of contracting on what goals will be done, planning how to go about achieving those goals, determining how the coach intervene with the client and what interventions the client will then practice, and debriefing on what progress occurred and what next steps the client should take. This is an action research approach seeking business results while building client capabilities to identify, practice, and review their skill development across multiple contexts.

While these steps appear linear, human reactivity and responsiveness are not. A client might be on the verge of landing a vision and mission with their team or organization when they reach out for coaching. Another might be planning a big change initiative. Those projects will continue forward without the coach’s ability to influence it. The coach will instead focus on the heat and chaffing that arises in and between the individual, team, and larger ecosystem of the “web.”



By linking the coach’s whole experience with a systems perspective to the coaching approach, the coach brings ideas, particular filters and perspectives, and abilities to constructively challenge their clients. Coaches can take a strong stand in stating a position that might not be popular while remaining connected and engaged in the coaching dynamic, even when there is conflict.


This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.

Markers of emotional intelligence (and health)

Photo by  Alex Blăjan

Photo by Alex Blăjan


Coaches with a background in psychology are grounded in theoretical perspectives of family systems and the impact a family template can have on adult development; how our lopsided natures can hold us back from the progress we wish to make; and, how denial can lead to blocking learning and remaining stuck—among many other aspects of human development.

It is a great myth, and one that we have bought into, that we are one person at home and another at work. The fundamentals we just reviewed—how families work, how our lopsided natures are formed, and how we become stuck—give us a very high level, basic understanding for why “conscious leaders” and “emotionally intelligent leaders” are so highly prized in the work environment.

One way to start understanding just how lopsided we have become from our earliest experiences is to identify a range of markers of emotional intelligence and general emotional health, visualizing how we rank in comparison. In therapy we would direct most of our repair work and attention toward healing those early experiences that generated the most hurt, and therefore contributed to the greatest gaps in our emotional health. In coaching, we recognize that these experiences occurred, gain awareness and insights about how they contribute to our present, and determine actions that will increase our effectiveness and performance.

At least five qualities come to mind.

1.       Self-love: the ability to like oneself, wholly.

Before we can empathize with other’s experiences, we must learn to empathize with our own internal experience—the emotional reactivity and interior monologue that is generated when we are under stress.

Self-love is the quality that determines how much we can be friends with ourselves, learn to become our own (caring) advocate, and commit to constructive choices that suggest we are on our own side.

When we observe a stranger having things or experiences we don’t, how quickly do we feel less than or resentful? How long is it before we are making assumptions of how they came by those things and experiences or questioning the fairness of things? When another person irritates or demeans us in some way, can we let the slight go? Can we see the action for what it was (senseless spite) or are we left brooding and lose ourselves in overwhelming sadness, indirectly agreeing with the verdict of those judging us? How much can the disapproval or neglect or public opinion be counterbalanced by the memory of the steady attention of a few significant people in the past?

In relationships, do we have enough self-love to leave an abusive partnership? Or are we so down on ourselves that we carry an unspoken belief that mistreatment, disapproval, or outright abandonment is all we deserve? In a different vein, how good are we at apologizing to a lover, a family member, or dear friend for things that actually might be our fault? How rigidly pious do we need to be? Can we dare to admit mistakes, or does an admission of guilt or error bring us too close to a sense of complete insignificance?

How do we regard our desires? Therapy will venture into family histories and the bedroom for those answers. Coaches will seek to understand how we define and self-edit our desires for success. Are our desires clean and natural or alternatively disgusting and sinful? are we a little off, but not bad or dark, since they originate from inside us and we are not wretches?

2.       Candor: the ability to be truthful and authentic about oneself.

Candor is about being “real” when you might feel vulnerable to judgment and open in the face of difficult ideas and troubling facts. It determines the extent to which you can consciously open your mind, to thoughtfully explore and accept facts without denial—without lying to yourself (and then others).

One question both therapists and coaches get equally: “Am I normal? You’ve seen this before, right?”

The fact is, there is no normal. And, yes, we’ve seen it before.

The essence of candor is intimacy, with ourselves. How much can we admit to ourselves about who we are—even if, or especially when, the material is unflattering? How much do we need to insist on our own normality and sanity in order to accept ourselves and admit our inner natures? Can we explore our own minds? Can we, as one psychology professor challenged, confront “the dogs in the basement”? Can we shine light in those darker and more troubled corners without flinching too much? Can we admit to foolishness, envy, sadness, confusion, and galactic mistakes?

Around others, how ready are we to learn? This matters for parents and partners as much as it does for newly minted managers and CEOs. Do we need always to take a criticism of one part of us as an attack on everything about us? How ready are we to listen when valuable lessons come, painfully, over and over again through multiple contexts?

3.       Social Skills: the ability to communicate, persuade, influence, and listen.

Can we patiently and reasonably put our disappointments into words that, more or less, enable others to see our point? Or do we internalize pain, act it out symbolically or discharge it with counterproductive rage?

When other people upset us, do we feel we have the right to communicate or must we slam doors and retreat into sulks? When the desired response isn’t forthcoming, do we ask others to guess what we have been too angrily panicked to spell out? Or can we have a plausible second go and take seriously the thought that others are not merely being nasty in misunderstanding us? Do we have the inner resources to teach rather than insist?

 4.       Motivation: having an interest in learning and improving oneself.

Do we have the strength to keep going when there are obstacles in life? Motivation is about setting goals and following through with them.

When something deeply interests us, we take initiative and demonstrate the commitment to complete a task. If we are truly passionate about our goal we will persist through adversity, boredom, frustration and find creative ways through setbacks.  

Embracing better health, taking steps to advance our career by attending graduate school, saving for retirement, and paying off loans are examples of goals that motivate us internally and result in self-improvement.

Marrying at the “right time”, getting the best grades, having the latest gadget or car are examples of chasing goals that flaunt wealth or status and can represent a slippery slope. Failure in the face of these kinds of goals is unlikely to result in a constructive learning opportunity. More than likely failure to maintain the perfect house, keep the kids in private schools, avoid divorce and poor performance at work will result in increasing self-doubt, and reducing one’s ability to be their own best advocate (and friend).  

5.       Self-Management

How do we react in the face of risk? And, how do we manage our impulses in relation to those risks? Do we think before we speak/react? Do we express ourselves appropriately?

How well would we perform a challenge in the form of a public speech, a romantic rejection, period of financial strain, immigrating to another country or lengthy physical illness? Sometimes a small cold can set us back in ways we didn’t expect. How close are we, at any time, to financial, professional, or personal disaster? What mettle are we made of?

Is the stranger dangerous or benevolent? If we lean towards be a little more direct than most, will they accept us or ghost us? Will unfamiliar situations end in a disaster? Around love, how tightly do we need to cling? If a lover, parent, sibling, friend is distant for a while, will they return? If a boss neglects regular touch points, stakeholders go silent, or direct reports fail to check in are they sabotaging us or will they still support our efforts? How controlling do we need to be? Can we approach an interesting stranger or colleague to connect on some interest or other? Or move on from an unsatisfying relationship?

Overall, do we think the world is expansive, safe and rational enough for us to have a genuine shot at fulfillment, or must we settle, resentfully, for inauthenticity and misunderstanding?

Our first answers to these questions are not our fault, or anyone else’s. They are merely the first responses that were wired into us during a galvanizing experience. Many of these questions are so hard to answer sincerely in a positive light. But, by considering them, we are at least starting to know what sort of impact our primal wounds have and, therefore, what we need to do to address it.


This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.