Purposeful coaching conversations — directive vs non-directive coaching

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As part of the process of training as a professional coach, there are a number of development tensions you may experience during your training. These tensions are ‘learning edges’, places of being uncomfortable and uncertain.

But if with guidance and support you are able to push through these — often as a result of a comprehensive coach training programme, supervision and hours of practice — you will move into a place where you are more confident, and have a deeper presence and way of being with coaching clients that delivers purposeful conversations.

One of the key learning edges that is often presented to us in supervision by coaches is the tension of being trained to be non-directive in a conversation — and yet seeing the value on occasion of sharing experience with a client: “I can’t tell the client what I know works in that situation as that would be leading.”  

This blog post discusses this critical learning edge for coaches. Based on our experiences as coach trainers in dealing with this issue, along with real-life experiences from coaches that we have trained, we explore how you can unlearn, and then relearn, being directive.


The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.
— Albert Einstein

When you start training as a coach, you may start to realise that to develop more insight in the coachee, it is necessary to learn to let go of the content and outcome; to move to a more non-directive and inquiry-based coaching style.

At Catalyst 14, we often use the analogy of a light switch when training coaches about the use of directive and non-directive styles of coaching. If the coachee is lost in the dark and feeling around for a solution, is your intervention switching the light (their thinking) on or off?

Most people come to coach training with a great deal of experience in helping others and giving guidance and advice, and this is hardwired in their brain. So an important shift that needs to be made is learning to be comfortable with utilising a more non-directive style. When this is used well, we experience the coachee’s thinking ‘lighting up’ and becoming more active.

By contrast, if we are ‘owning’ the content too tightly, we will see the coachee become more passive in terms of the levels of awareness they are experiencing regarding their topic — and therefore the responsibility that is being generated for the solution.  

Unless you have experienced coaching, and received another’s full attention when reflecting and thinking, it is likely you will not understand the power of this space. We often hear trainee coaches saying “all I did was listen,” and yet to truly listen is a gift.

By listening, we are not only giving the person our full attention, which creates rapport and a sense of connection, we are also demonstrating our listening — playing back what we are hearing, which in turn helps the coachee’s thinking. It continues to raise their awareness and generate responsibility for action.

And by listening, we demonstrate our belief in the coachee’s potential to solve their problem, as our questions will follow their interest and deepen their insight. As Nancy Kline says, “the quality of your attention determines the quality of my thinking.”

“I can totally relate to this learning edge in my own coaching journey. As a senior litigation lawyer I was used to being the ‘expert’ giving advice and direction. For me, therefore, adopting a non- directive style in my early coaching practice was challenging and a little uncomfortable. However, I soon appreciated how this approach expanded my coachee’s awareness and allowed them to find their own solutions. Having changed my own way of thinking, my approach has continued to evolve so that, although I prefer to be non-directive in my coaching, I feel comfortable offering a resource or sharing a personal experience, when it is in service of my coachee’s thinking.” - Toni Smerdon, Executive Coach, Toni Smerdon Associates

After a lengthy period of time practising, coaches often report that they are noticing that they are frequently holding back personal resources and experiences in a coaching session that may support the coachee’s thinking. They begin to question the fact that they are not bringing themselves and their experience fully to bear upon the coaching session.

We always train coaches so that they know there are in fact two sets of experience, knowledge, competence, skills and wisdom in the coaching relationship: their own and the coachee’s. The key learning edge we need to cross here is how to intentionally access both in a way that best serves our coachee’s thinking and insight.  

“Coming from a consulting background I found it hard not to share my ideas and experiences with my coachees. Simply listening felt passive and ineffectual, and I was certain that giving advice or sharing data was bound to help my client get to a solution as quickly as possible.

I learned the hard way that in order to have permission to be directive and for this to genuinely help the client, we first need to truly listen. Being non-directive is a hard lesson to learn when it goes against all of your career experience to date, but the power of coaching is in being present and allowing the client the space to think for themselves. This is what makes our work "coaching" instead of an everyday business conversation.

When being non-directive is mastered, it is wonderfully freeing to play along the scale of directive v non-directive. These days I am increasingly daring to be directive, but before I do I am very consciously checking in with myself to understand where my desire to be directive comes from and to what extent it will help the client, and not simply make me feel like I have added value.” - Helen Cowan, Founder, The Tall Wall

Once we have developed the capacity to use a more inquiry-based style (through training and hours of practice), we can then become more aware of our intention of offering more of our own resources, experiences and knowledge within the coaching relationship.

It is through this process of ‘unlearning’ to give solutions and then re-learning a more intentional way of offering our experiences that we can ensure our own resources, when offered, are more impactful.

The key here is that as a coach we help our coachee think how they might apply this input to their situation, as by doing this we are helping to raise their awareness and generate their responsibility for action.

“My role is to help my coachees achieve their goals as quickly and sustainably as I can. To do this, I need to be highly attuned to what they need from me as a coach and to intuitively grasp where to use their resources or my own resources for their benefit.

How I show up is fundamental, and I am responsible for creating the experience that makes the client feel comfortable searching deeply for powerful insights.

Some clients want it to feel like a casual chat, so for these clients I need to make the experience simple and intuitive, like using an iPhone. What’s going on behind the glass is irrelevant to them and they don’t want to feel like they are speaking with a professional coach. My value to them as a coach also then comes from how I use the totality of my experience to help them reach into the unknown and unlock personal insights. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know and the coach’s resources can help shine a light on things hidden away. “ - Neel Arya, Executive Coach

Lots of people believe that coaching is purely non-directive, but whilst more transformation and change happens when the coachee is taking the responsibility for the content and thinking, it is a relationship created between the coachee AND coach — it would be unauthentic if the coach did not bring all of themselves to the coaching process.

Many coaches struggle with giving themselves permission to offer within the coaching dialogue, due to their training being purely non-directive. The key check-in questions for the coach are:

  • What is my intention in offering?

  • What is likely to be the impact of doing this?

If it is to raise more awareness and insight in the coachee, then this intervention has positive intent.

When offering our own resources as a coach, our role is to help the coachee make sense of how they will use this knowledge, model or experience in their context.

To do this it is necessary to ask the coachee questions to help them translate this information into their own situation and build solutions that will work for them.

It is this period of synthesis and integration into the coachee’s experience that is often missed in other forms of conversations. Simple questions such as “How might you use that in your situation?” need to be integrated within our coaching practice.

To conclude, at the heart of a purposeful coaching conversation lies the coach’s consciousness of their intention in any given moment — and this state of being is at the core of our coach training programmes.

To learn more about the training that Catalyst 14 delivers and to find the depth of training right for you, please visit our coach training courses section.