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Co-active Coaching

by Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl, Laura Whitworth
clock24-minute read
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Co-active Coaching
Optimize your life with a radical, collaborative approach to professional coaching. Co-Active Coaching (2011) is an anthology of top tips from the four coaches who founded The Coaches Training Institute. Their organization is dedicated to improving the field of professional coaching and transforming people’s lives. And this book is like having their advice right in your back pocket!
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Co-active Coaching
"Co-active Coaching" Summary
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Summary by Alyssa Burnette. Audiobook narrated by Alex Smith
Pretty much everyone has heard of “life coaching” at one time or another. But when this topic comes up, it’s usually not in the most positive context. We tend to think of life coaches as people who make money by telling suckers what to do — and we think even less of their clients. After all, everybody needs a little help in life, but it seems like a bit of a different scenario if you need someone else to tell you to pay your bills, get a job, and generally be a functioning individual!
Thankfully, however, professional coaching is very different. Unlike life coaching, professional coaching is for people who are interested in becoming the best in their field. As a general rule, clients who seek professional coaching are people who already have successful careers. Having achieved one level of success, they’re now interested in seeking the advice of a master who can help them reach the next level. Over the course of this summary, we’ll learn how anyone can benefit from professional coaching and how you can implement the authors’ advice.
Chapter 1: What is Co-Active Coaching?
As professional coaches, the authors have been providing these services for a long time. And after helping many people become their most successful selves, the authors have attempted to bottle their advice in the form of this book and make it accessible to anyone. By expounding on the philosophy that makes their brand of coaching unique, they aim to help more people achieve their full potential.
So, let’s dive in and learn more about what “co-active coaching” really is. If you’re not familiar with this term, you’re not alone; it’s not a common phrase. But this term is a deeply integral part of the authors’ coaching philosophy because it drives every decision they make when mentoring others. In their own words, the authors explain “co-active coaching” by writing that:
“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 term itself brings together the essential human qualities of being and doing:
Who we are
Who we are in relationships
Who we are being and want to be
How we are actively creating
What we are doing—or in some cases not doing—to achieve the results we want in life and work
And these essential qualities bring us to The Four Cornerstones. The Four Cornerstones represent the fundamental beliefs of a co-active way of being in relationship and conversation at the deepest level. We take a stand for these as essential to the impact that is possible in coaching and any coach-like conversation. The co-active coaching model rests on these four declarations. They 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 an engaged and empowered relationship to exist—putting the “co” in co-active—and in order for life-giving action on the part of the coachee to manifest, these four create the necessary structure.
We start with this assertion: people are, by their very nature, naturally 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 theco-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 that others are resourceful and creative, we become curious and open to possibilities. We enter into a process of discovering with the coachee, not dictating. We expect to be amazed.
Yes, of course there are times when the circumstances feel overwhelming, when even the most resilient human beings feel that the mountain is too high, the road to cross too wide, the effort simply not in their power. Circumstances and that inner sabotaging voice that says “Why bother?” or “You don’t have what it takes” can leave anyone feeling much less than creative or resourceful, and just a fraction of whatever whole is.
On those days more perhaps than on any others, it is our place as coaches, our gift to see the true, natural selves who were and are still capable. We remind them of their own inner light and help them find it again—because it is there. Naturally. For people who want to be helpful, including most new coaches or people in a coaching role, the question that’s often foremost on their minds is “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 troublesome problem can be handled quickly and efficiently. There is urgency in the air, and we want to be helpful. Leaders and managers—even those who truly value coaching as an essential and valuable contribution to their role—still easily fall into this trap. Under enormous pressure to get results and get results now, the first task they take on is to identify the problem to be solved. This urge is perfectly understandable, and of course solving problems is important. But leaders manage people, not just problems.
Developing talent and creating a more resourceful and effective organization creates sustainable results, long after the presenting problem is solved. Even under organizational stress, this whole-person mind-set sees opportunity not to be overlooked. 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 this issue, whatever it is, is not neatly isolated. It is inexorably entwined in the coachee’s whole life. Maybe the word focus is a little misleading. This cornerstone is certainly not a hard, tight, concentrated focus on the whole person. It is more of a soft or broad focus, an attentive focus that includes the whole person and the whole life, 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 are not 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 at a loss with.
We are not suggesting that a coach should be focusing on coaching heart, mind, body, and spirit as independent elements, but a coach or anyone in a co-active conversation ought to be tuned in to the influences that are present in these different dimensions. It was not so many years ago that talking about emotions was taboo, especially in the workplace. Today, courses in developing mastery in emotional intelligence are commonplace, thanks to the groundbreaking work of Daniel Goleman. In a similar way, awareness of body language and the exceptional work of somatic practitioners has 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. Spirit is the most elusive term to define, coming by many different names and different expressions, but it is present with every human being. In coaching, spirit is not limited to a form of spirituality and certainly not to a religion. But there is a spirit dimension that influences human choices. At the core, it includes the sense of living according to values, or a calling, or a power greater than ourselves.
Sometimes it is intuition, a feeling in our gut, and sometimes it is a conviction that we know we must live by. It is a spirit dimension that transcends this one decision; in fact, we only know it is spirit because it feels transcendent. Obviously, a 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 whatever is the current subject of conversation.
It is also entirely possible for the coach and coachee to limit the conversation to a single, narrow subject while at the same time having an antenna for the possibility of connecting this single issue to a broader or deeper conversation. 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—and it may affect health, family relationships, free time, and 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, and that is the whole person.
Chapter 2: The Power of Coaching Conversations
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—that’s often what is most “visible” and easiestto 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, 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 this becomes an exercise in listening intently at many levels, and of course, choosing when and how 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 respond to that stimulus, not to a master plan. To “dance” is to respond from a co-active core meaning both “co” as in collaborative, and active, moving the dance forward.
In a truly coactive 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 it seems to lose leader/follower designation, is a rare state of connection. It is a place of 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, 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 move from the branch to the trunk of the tree and its 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 execution on a business plan.
In fact, coachees may have their attention only 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; it should lead to a 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, it is transformative.
Now the report, or the job interview, or the 5K race are more than a checked box on a to-do list. They are expressions 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 they didn’t know they had or had forgotten they had. And part of that “aha”—the deeper awareness—is the knowledge that the coachees have an expanded capacity to reach their potential. What they learned from this one experience they naturally apply in others.
This is why we boldly take a stand for evoking transformation as a cornerstone of this co-active model. We see this as a yearning on the part of coaches for all that is possible for coachees, including learning or recovering the inner strength and resourcefulness to evolve, grow, 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 by 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.
You don’t need to be a professional coach to see how these four cornerstones apply to almost any important conversation. Think about a conversation you recently had at work with a colleague or a conversation you’ve had with a son or daughter. No doubt you were busy focusing on resolving a particular issue. But think again, with the advantage of hindsight,how the conversation might have turned if you were conscious of the four cornerstones.
How does the quality of the conversation change when you start with a belief that your coworker, son, or daughter is naturally creative, resourceful, and whole? Capable? It’s possible the conversation might change from giving advice to being curious: asking more questions and inviting the resourcefulness of that other person. Think about how your awareness shifts when you see the connection between what might seem like ordinary daily business and how this one issue is interconnected with that person’s life in ways you probably won’t ever know.
Those ripples may not be visible in the moment, but they are real. The ability to dance with whatever shows up is certainly a leadership competency; in today’s world of business, great agility is essential. Without necessarily having a name for it, effective leaders display that quality in their work with others every day. Even the fourth cornerstone, “Evoke Transformation,” can be a resonant field in which the conversation takes place.
That brief conversation has the potential to affirm that colleague, son, or daughter in ways that reverberate long after the presenting issue has been handled. Of course, this awareness of the depth that is possible by understanding the four cornerstones is not a suggestion that every conversation is meant to be a formal coaching conversation; you will often leave your coach’s hat on the rack. Your children, spouse, and employees will be grateful if you do.
The central point is to raise your awareness so you can be more effective in any of those roles simply by appreciating the possibilities in any conversation. From the perspective of a trained coach working with a coachee, we start with a clear commitment: the ongoing relationship between coach and coachee exists only to address the goals of the coachee. 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 coachee’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 coachee’s action is always wrapped in these three core principles—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 during the coaching sessions. Coachees 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—a link to Life-giving balance or better process. Fulfillment 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 or personal accomplishment. Eventually, the coaching will progress to a deeper definition of fulfillment. It’s not about having more. It’s not about what fills the coachee’s pockets or closets; it’s about what fills the coachee’s heart and soul.
Chapter 3: Final Summary
If you’ve ever wanted to be your best self — at home or at work — you might benefit from professional coaching! Professional coaching is designed to help you unlock the best version of yourself and reach the next level of success. But all coaching styles are not created equal. That’s why the authors invented their model: co-active coaching. Co-active coaching operates on thepremise that coaches should not be aloof authority figures who give orders and pass judgment on other people’s lives.
Instead, they believe that professional coaching should be a collaborative process. In this model, coach and coachee work together to achieve mutually beneficial results and learn from each other along the way. So, as you can see from the examples provided in this summary, anyone can benefit from professional coaching! And if you decide to seek out a professional coach in your own life, you want to make sure they believe in the co-active coaching philosophy!

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