Drawing upon coaching psychology to help leaders navigate the “new normal”

This article draws upon the book, Becoming a Coach, authored by Tracy Sinclair and Jonathan Passmore and seeks to highlight the benefits and application of a particular coach approach and how it can be applied to leadership.

Integrating coach approaches to leadership can be very valuable, especially when it comes to more successfully navigating times of challenge and leading into new environments and circumstances. Here we will explore the humanistic approach, its implications for relationships, and how we can bring this alive in leadership through the Time to Think approach. The humanistic approach (sometimes called person-centred approach) is a way of leading that holds people and relationships as a central focal point. This approach embraces the belief that within all of us is a ‘self-righting reflex’. This links well to leadership and is where we hold the perspective that our people are creative, resourceful and whole and the idea that, if they can discover this aspect of themselves, they can achieve any goal. The Time to Think model (Kline, 1999) applies these principles to coaching conversations and the same could be applied to leadership. With this approach, the focus is on the relationship, suggesting that the role of the leader is more often to get out of the way, than to intervene with questions, suggestions, instructions or directions. Carol Rogers was central to the original therapeutic aspect of this approach and two other key contributors to this field were Abraham Maslow and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Rogers initially developed the approach and focused on the principle that people are their own best experts and are, as such, the best source of reference for their wellbeing and development. A core theme to humanistic psychology is what is known as our “actualising tendency”: a motivational drive leading to growth, development and autonomy that can also be described as the “self-righting reflex” noted earlier.

Relationship is Central

The humanistic approach is relationship based and is considered to be highly non-directive. The humanistic way would propose that it is the non-directive nature of the relationship that enables the process of self-actualisation. Characteristic of, and in-keeping with, this non-directive leadership approach and relationship, Rogers believed that change is a natural human process and that there are six necessary and sufficient conditions for positive change.

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Change

  1. There is a safe, trusting relationship between the leader and their staff or team.
  2. There is a gap between the person or team’s experience and their awareness of that experience.
  3. The leader is sincere, deeply present with the individual or team and is able to draw upon their own intuition and experience to facilitate the individual or team’s progress.
  4. The leader acts without judgement, disapproval or approval and champions an increase of self-regard in their staff and/or team.
  5. The leader demonstrates empathy and understanding of the person or team’s concerns, thus enhancing the relationship
  6. The person or team perceives and experiences the leader’s positive regard and empathy.

Time to Think Model

A key contributor to the application of the humanistic approach in coaching is Nancy Kline and her work titled Time to Think (1999). The sub-title to Kline’s book is: listening to ignite the human mind and, when applied to a leadership context, it epitomises the idea that the leader’s contribution is largely centred around the belief that their people are indeed creative, resourceful and whole and therefore have a self-righting reflex. As such, the role of leader is to honour that belief by building a safe and empathic relationship and to then get out of the person’s way, creating space and time for them to think so that they may access and utilise their own inner resources.

With this approach, the leader listens without judgement, allowing the person to come to insights themselves. The role of the leader is to ensure that all of the person’s thoughts and feelings about their topic are being considered and that the leader fully understands their concerns, in a non-directive way and which brings a degree of warmth, acceptance and empathy. The leader employs strong skills of active listening, going with the other person, at their pace for them to uncover their insights and make choices that will lead them to fulfil their potential.

Origins of the Time to Think Model

Inspired by her own mother’s capacity for listening and deep presence along with her own studies in the fields of education, counselling and philosophy, Kline observed that everything we do, depends for its quality on the thinking we do first. Thinking comes first, therefore, to improve action we have to first improve thinking. She had co-founded a school to help teenagers think for themselves and consistently observed the difference when students thought clearly and for themselves and when they did not. What was less obvious was what enabled them to do so. Age, gender, background, intelligence and experience seemed to make little difference. However, one differentiator began to emerge and that was how they were being treated by the people with them when they were thinking. Kline and her colleagues discovered that when someone is trying to think, much of what the “listener” hears and sees is the effect that they themselves is having on the “thinker”. They decided that, if it were possible to identify what was thinking-enhancing behaviour, it could be learnt and therefore taught to others. Over the following years, Kline and her colleagues identified and described the components of this Thinking Environment.

As the concept of the Thinking Environment evolved, Kline remembered and compared some of the qualities she experienced with her mother, whose listening had such a profound and positive impact for her. These included:

  • Naturally keeping her eyes on the other person
  • Being at ease in her own posture, settling in to listen carefully
  • Her tone and sounds she made while listening
  • Laughing with, never at
  • Conveying equality and encouragement
  • Comfortable and relaxed with the other person’s emotion and feelings of fear
  • Occasionally and un-intrusively giving information needed
  • Affirming, not criticising
  • Not interrupting
  • Showing joy when the person discovered an insight

At the heart of these behaviours was attention. Later, a client of Kline’s summed this up as: the quality of a person’s attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking. Kline and her colleagues proposed the following two statements:

  1. Everything we do depends upon the thinking we do first.
  2. Our thinking depends upon the quality of our attention for each other.

In this case, the most important thing we can do is to listen to people so well and so carefully, to give them attention so respectfully so that they may think for themselves, clearly and in a new way.

Whilst attentive listening is crucial, Kline also noticed that there are times when this is not quite enough. Some blocks to thinking need more than just deep attention alone to enable the person to move beyond them. It seemed clear that the answer had something to do with questions, however it was not known what type of questions or in fact what the blocks to thinking generally were about. After two more years of study, it became clearer that the blocks were almost always associated with assumptions being made by the thinker. These assumptions were largely unconscious and yet were being framed or experienced by the thinker as “truths”. Of all the possible blocks to thinking, it was found that assumptions were the most powerful and troublesome.

The Thinking Environment

Eventually, the essential behaviours that comprised the thinking environment became clear and ten ways of being together and treating each other were identified.

The Ten Components of a Thinking Environment:

  1. Attention: Listening with respect, interest, fascination and without interruption
  2. Incisive questions: Removing the assumptions that limit thinking and ideas, freeing the mind to create new and different thinking.
  3. Equality: Treating each other as thinking peers. Giving equal turns and attention, keeping arrangements and boundaries.
  4. Appreciation: Practicing a five-to-one ration of appreciation to criticism, encouraging and enabling the person to feel safe to wander and delve into deep free thinking.
  5. Ease: Offering freedom from rush or urgency so that the thinking process has space and time to emerge and evolve.
  6. Encouragement: Moving beyond competition. Internal competition and judgement make new, high-quality thoughts impossible. With no inner competition, there is no inner conflict, thereby allowing free thinking to happen.
  7. Feelings: Allowing sufficient emotional release to restore thinking. Feelings cloud judgement and so the full expression of those feelings creates space for thinking to be restored and for free thinking to happen.
  8. Information: Providing a full and accurate picture of reality. Information can help to build up thinking and when faced with the clarity of full facts, the mind can wander and explore strategies and solutions.
  9. Place: Creating a physical environment that says back to people, “you matter”.
  10. Diversity: Adding quality because of the differences between us.

Whilst this humanistic or person-centred approach has its origins in the therapeutic setting, there are many aspects of this approach which have direct relevance and are applicable to the context of leadership. An understanding of human needs, how we achieve a state of “flow” and Rogers’s necessary and sufficient conditions for change are all very useful concepts in effective leadership. We have also seen how Kline’s Time to Think model offers great insight into how and why the skills of deep listening, presence and incisive questions build upon the work of Rogers and create the conditions for change to occur by enabling the person or team to remove limiting assumptions, thereby releasing and freeing new and creative thought.

How can you implement these concepts and approaches into your organisation?

Tracy Sinclair Limited supports organisations to develop the potential of their people through coaching, coaching skills and coaching culture. Our Coaching with Conscience services specialise in offering coaching and coaching related services in support of positive social impact and social progress.

Kline, N. (1999), Time to Think. London: Cassell Publishers.
Kline, N. (2015), More Time to Think. London: Cassell Publishers.
Rogers, C. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21(2), 95-103.
Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being (2nd ed.). New York: D. Van Nostrand.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002) Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness. Rider.

Tracy Sinclair, MCC

Tracy Sinclair is a multi-award-winning Master Certified Coach (MCC) with the International Coaching Federation (ICF). She is also a trained Coaching Supervisor, Mentor Coach and ICF Assessor. Tracy trains coaches and works with managers and leaders to develop their coaching capability. She works as an international Corporate Executive and Board Level Coach, a leadership development designer and facilitator working with a wide range of organisations. Tracy also specialises in working with organisations to support them develop coaching culture. Tracy has co-authored a book Becoming a Coach: The Essential ICF Guide published in 2020 which provides a comprehensive guide to coaching for coaches at all levels of skill and experience, the psychology that underpins coaching and the updated ICF Core Competency Model. In this same year she founded Coaching with Conscience which exists to have a positive impact on society and our environment through coaching. As part of this work, she collaborates closely with MIND, the UK’s leading mental health charity and the British Paralympic Association (BPA). She also offers pro bono personal development and coaching programmes to young leaders (18-25-yrs). Tracy was named as one of the Leading Global Coach winners of the Thinkers50 Marshall Goldsmith Awards of 2019 and was a finalist for the Thinkers50 Coaching and Mentoring Award in 2021. She won the ICF Impact Award for Distinguished Coach in 2023 and is a member of the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches. She was the President of the UK ICF from 2013-2014 and was an ICF Global Board Director since 2016, serving as Treasurer in 2017, Global Chair in 2018 and Immediate Past Global Chair in 2019 and Vice Chair and Director at Large on the International Coaching Federation Global Enterprise Board in 2021.

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