The Co-Active Coaching Model
The term "Co-Active" refers to the fundamental nature of a coaching relationship in which the coach and coachee are active collaborators. In Co-Active coaching, this is a relationship — in fact an alliance — between two equals for the purpose of meeting the coachee's needs.
The four cornerstones form a container that holds the Co-Active conversation. In fact, the cornerstones make it possible to have a truly Co-Active conversation. In order for engaged and empowered relationship to exist — the "co" in Co-Active — and in order for life-giving action on the part of the coachee to manifest, these four form a necessary structure.
People Are Naturally Creative, Resourceful, and Whole
We start with this assertion: people are, by their very nature, creative, resourceful and whole. They are capable: capable of finding answers; capable of choosing; capable of taking action; capable of recovering when things don't go as planned; and, especially, capable of learning. This capacity is wired into all human beings no matter their circumstances. In the Co-Active model it is more than a belief — it is a stand we take. The alternative is a belief that people are fragile and dependent. With that belief, the coach's job would be to guide the coachee to the safest possible outcome. You can feel the difference. When we take a stand for other people's natural creativity and resourcefulness, we become champions on their behalf, not worried hand-holders. As coaches, when we assume resourcefulness and creativity, we become curious, open to possibilities, discovering with the coachee, not dictating. We expect to be amazed.
The key here is "naturally." Yes, of course, there are times when the circumstances feel overwhelming, when even the most resilient human being feels the mountain is too high, the road to cross too wide, the effort simply not in his power. Circumstances and that inner sabotaging voice that says, "Why bother?" or "You don't have what it takes," can leave anyone feeling less than creative, resourceful, and whole. On those days, more than on any others, it is our place as coaches to see the true, natural self who was and is still capable. We remind our coachees of their own inner light and help them find it again — because it is there. Naturally.
Focus on the Whole Person
For most people who want to be helpful, and for most new coaches or people in a coaching role, the question that's often foremost on their minds is this: "What's the problem to solve?" It's a question that comes from the best of intentions: a desire to understand and provide valuable assistance so that a problem can be solved. But when a coach is sitting across from a coachee (even by telephone), the coach is not sitting across from a problem to be solved; the coach is sitting across from a person. This person does have a problem to solve — a change to make, a dream to fulfill, a task to accomplish, a goal to reach. All of that is true. But this person is more than the problem at hand — or the goal, the dream, the task. This is a whole person: heart, mind, body, and spirit. And the issue, whatever it is, is not neatly isolated. It is inexorably entwined in the coachee's whole life.
Maybe "focus" is a little misleading in the title of this cornerstone. We are certainly not talking about a hard, tight, concentrated focus on the whole person. It is more of a broad attention, a soft focus that includes the whole person and the whole life, and involves listening on many levels. Too often, in our eagerness to be helpful, we access only the place between our ears. We use the mind to probe and understand and then create logical, pragmatic solutions. Analysis and logic are worthy and useful attributes — but they don't tell the whole story. Sometimes a "correct" solution can have emotional consequences that are just as important; sometimes what the mind says "yes" to, the spirit feels as a loss. We are not suggesting that a coach focus on coaching heart, mind, body, and spirit independently, but a coach or anyone in a Co-Active conversation ought to be tuned in to the influences that are present in each of these different dimensions.
It was not so many years ago that talking about emotions was taboo, especially in the workplace. Today, courses in mastering emotional intelligence are commonplace, thanks to the groundbreaking work of Daniel Goleman. People have been just as sensitive about conversations that included references to the body. But awareness of body language and the exceptional work of somatic practitioners have paved the way to a much better and more widespread conversation about the role of the body in communication.
Surely the most sensitive of these dimensions is "spirit." It is the most elusive to define but it is present within every human being. In coaching, we can say what it is not: it is not limited to a form of spirituality or religion. But there is a spirit dimension that influences human choices. It has many different names and different expressions, but at the core, it is the sense of living according to values or a calling or a power greater than oneself. Sometimes it is intuition, a gut feeling or a conviction that guides our lives. It is a spirit dimension that transcends this one decision; in fact, we know it is spirit because it feels transcendent.
Obviously, focus on the whole person also means that as coaches we are aware of all the ways the issue or topic before us is interwoven in this person's life. There is a vast ecology of people and priorities that are interconnected with the issue at hand. Of course, it is entirely possible for the coach and coachee to limit the conversation to a single, narrow subject: completion of a specific project, for example. The ability to take the conversation into any area that the coachee finds compelling doesn't mean the coach insists on declaring the destination and going there. Again, the key is increased awareness, because no topic exists in isolation. A decision in one area of life inevitably ripples through all areas of life. An exciting career move may be very fulfilling — but it may also affect health, family relationships, free time, geography. A coach can work effectively with a coachee on a very narrow topic; but in the Co-Active way, there is a larger picture also at play that includes the whole person.
Dance in This Moment
A conversation is a powerful and dynamic interchange between people. It's natural to pay attention to the content of the conversation — the words, the positions, the ideas. The content is often what is most "visible" and easiest to respond to. And yet, as important as the words and content are, there is much more going on in every moment. Every conversation creates tone, mood, and nuance. There is as much information, sometimes more, in how the words are said versus the words chosen; sometimes there is more information in what is not said than what is said. For the coach, a conversation becomes an exercise in listening intently at many levels and, of course, choosing to respond, to intervene. The information about what to say or ask does not come from a script. It comes in the moment, in this moment, and then the next moment. To "dance in this moment" is to be very present to what is happening right now and to respond to that stimulus rather than to a master plan.
To "dance" is to respond from a Co-Active core — meaning both "co," as in collaborative, and "active," as in moving the dance forward. In a truly Co-Active conversation there are moments when the coach leads the dance, moments when the coachee leads the dance, and moments when it is not clear at all who is leading and who is following. All three states of the dance are natural; the third, the point where movement seems to lose leader/follower clarity, is a rare state of connection. It is a place of being tuned in to each other and a place, frankly, of vulnerability — a willingness, built on extraordinary trust, to go with the flow of the conversation. It does feel like an exquisite dance to the music, with both partners in tune with the tempo, tone, and steps. This agility is all for the sake of the coachee's learning and discovery.
Coach and coachee meet in this Co-Active conversation for a common purpose: the coachee's full life. The topic of the coaching will likely be something quite specific — a fraction of the coachee's life that the coachee is focused on. But if we follow that leaf to the branch and then travel from the branch to the trunk and the roots — there is always a deeper connection possible. The goal of the coaching in one session might be clarity and action around a project. The motivation for the coaching could be a new job or promotion, improved fitness, or the execution of a business plan. In fact, the coachee may only have her attention on the specific goal for that specific topic. The coach, on the other hand, sees the tree and the larger, fully connected life. Coaches in this model hold a vision that sees the topic as an expression of something even more valuable to the coachee. This action at hand is the means to a higher end, life fully lived in whatever area the coachee finds important.
There is a yearning for the very best, the full potential that the coachee can experience. And when that connection ignites between today's goal and life's potential, the effect is transformative. Now the report or the job interview or the 5K race is more than a checked box on a to-do list. It is an expression of inner conviction. The accomplishment is a message about who the coachee can be. There is a shift from the satisfaction of "ahh" to the breakthrough awareness of "aha" — a new strength, a renewed capacity — like finding muscles he didn't know he had or had forgotten he had.
And part of that "aha" — the deeper awareness — is the knowledge that the coachee has an expanded capacity to reach his potential. What he learned from this one experience he naturally applies to others.
And that is why we boldly take a stand for evoking transformation as a cornerstone of this Co-Active model. We see this as a hunger on the part of coaches for all that is possible, including gaining or recovering the inner strength and resourcefulness to evolve, grow, and expand from this one area of focus into many avenues of life. Coaches play a key role, by holding a vision of what is possible and through their commitment to transformative experience. Coachees still choose the topic, the action, and the results they want. But by taking a stand for the greatest possible impact from even the smallest action, coaches encourage and ultimately evoke transformation.
The Heart of the Model
The ongoing relationship between coach and client exists only to address the goals of the client — and so naturally, the client's life is the focus at the center of the diagram in Figure 1. There are two ways to think about this. One way is to see the action of the day as part of the big picture for the client's life. People make dozens, even hundreds, of decisions every day to do or not do certain things. The choices we make during the day, no matter how trivial they may seem, contribute to creating a life that is more (or less) fulfilling. The decisions we make move us toward or away from better balance in our lives. The choices contribute to a more effective life process or to a process that is less effective. And so at one level, the client's action is always wrapped in these three core principles of fulfillment, balance, and process. They are principles because they are fundamental to the liveliness of life. In the same way that oxygen, fuel, and heat are necessary for fire, these three principles combine to create an ignited life — perhaps "Life" with a capital "L."
The second way is to look at the specific issues the coachee chooses to work with in the coaching sessions. Clients bring all sorts of agenda items to their coaching. This issue of the day or week or month is about life today with an everyday "l" for "life." Yet, whatever the specific issue, there is a way to link it to the larger, more fulfilling Life, to Life-giving balance, or better process.
The coachee's definition of fulfillment is always intensely personal. It may include, especially at first, outward measures of success: a great job or promotion, enough money, a certain lifestyle. Eventually, the coaching will progress to a deeper definition of fulfillment. It's not about having more. It's not about what fills the client's pockets or closets — it's about what fills the client's heart and soul. A fulfilling life is a valued life, and clients will have their own definitions of what they truly value. If they value risk taking, is there enough adventure in their lives? If they value family, are they shortchanging themselves by caving in to the demands of work? What are the personal values they want present in their work? Sorting out values is a way of sorting out life choices, because when the choices reflect the client's values, life is more satisfying and often feels effortless. Achieving a certain goal can be very fulfilling — especially as a benchmark — but most clients find that fulfillment is not the finish line. At its deepest level, fulfillment is about finding and experiencing a life of purpose and service. It is about reaching one's full potential.
With so many responsibilities and distractions, and given today's high-speed rate of change, balance may feel like an impossible dream. It's especially elusive for most of the people who come to coaching. They tend to be dissatisfied with functioning at some minimum standard of being alive: they want more from life and want to give more back. They are passionate about the things that matter to them, focused in their commitment, and so intense that sometimes one corner of their lives is a model of excellence while the rest is in ruins. They understand the value of balance and have probably made attempts to achieve it — with good intentions to exercise more, take time off, or reconnect with friends — and found that weeks or months passed without any change. Life is out of balance.
People often seem resigned to being out of balance, as if that's just the way life is. That's the real world, given the circumstances. There's only one way of looking at it, and it looks bad. Coaching for balance, however, focuses on widening the range of perspectives and, therefore, adding more choices. Ultimately, balance is about making choices: saying yes to some things and no to others. This can be challenging. Coachees often want to say yes to more in their lives without making room for it by saying no to something else. This impulse leads to an overwhelmed feeling — and to lives that are out of balance.
Balance is a fluid state because life itself is dynamic. Therefore, it makes more sense to look at whether clients are moving toward balance or away from balance rather than to offer them "balance" as a goal to be achieved. Like the seasons of the year, balance is best viewed over the long haul. It is also a perennial issue, one that coaches will see, in some form or another, many times over in the course of a coaching relationship.
We are always in process. Sometimes it looks frantic; sometimes it looks graceful. Because coaching is effective at achieving results, both coachees and coaches can get drawn into the "results" trap — focusing entirely on the destination and losing sight of the flow of the journey. In fact, process is often compared to a river. As life flows, there will be fast periods of onrushing, white-water progress as well as days of calm, steady currents. But there will also be times of drifting, being stuck in job eddies and relationship whirlpools, and backsliding into treacherous swamps. There will be flooding and drought. The coach's job is to notice, point out, and be with clients wherever they are in their process. The coach is there to encourage and support, provide companionship around the rocks, and escort clients through the dark waters as well as to celebrate their skill and success at navigating the difficult passages. Coaching allows clients to live more fully in a deeper relationship with all aspects of their lives.
Co-Active coaching therefore embraces this whole picture of the client: fulfillment, balance, and process. These are the core principles at the heart of the coaching model. Together they create the heat and light of a Life that is fully alive.