Does Brief Coaching Work?

Conventional wisdom suggests that a six-month coaching program is the most realistic option. It’s long enough to foster assessment-based insight into self, others, and situation, and it allows sufficient time for learning and adaptive change to take root through extensive practice. Of course, there are those who may recommend programs of longer or shorter duration. But is time really the critical factor? 

What I describe in this article is an innovation that I developed based upon over 20 years of experience in coaching and organizational consulting, but it also draws upon my parallel career in clinical practice. As you’ll see, these two areas of practice, both involving assessment-based and goal-directed change, contribute to my conceptualization of what makes THE difference in coaching outcomes. 

Recent Innovations

Adaptive change in any sphere of life is generally thought to take about 90 days. But that assumes the best of all circumstances: motivation, insight, skills acquisition, and persistent iterative effort. Of course, those conditions seldom prevail and converge to produce success, at least not without expert guidance and support. So, that’s what I’ve been working on by applying recent innovations in clinical research. 

Specifically, I’ve turned to a particularly challenging arena of change, overcoming chronic depression. They label this kind of depression persistent depressive disorder for a reason; it’s proven to be resistant to treatment. That is, until a psychologist by the name of Jim McCullough entered the picture. Over the course of two decades, he designed a learning-based approach that incorporates a unique combination of features, and it’s been found to be effective for most people in 16 weeks.    

In case you didn’t already know, most theory and practice models used in coaching originated in clinical and social psychology, e.g., EQ, resilience, personality theory, and systems theory. So, turning to clinical research for insights on how to effect change in patterns of thinking, feeling, motivation, and relating to others should not seem too unusual. Nevertheless, some translation is required, and it was really a vital few catalytic factors of Jim’s approach that I found made the difference. Let me summarize them:  

  1. Goals are usually operating in our actions, but often they’re unconscious and unsupported by the attitudes and behaviors that enable us to realize them, so we’re less likely to be effective.

  2. Legacy mindsets, habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and relating to others are rooted in beliefs, expectations, and behaviors that were shaped early in life, and they worked for us then.  

  3. When we seek to change, it’s the specificity of insights, understanding, and action plans rather than general ideas that best guide our acquisition and application of new skills and practices.

  4. Learning from practice involves describing a recently experienced encounter, what happened, what was going through our mind as we experienced it, how we acted, and how it came out.

  5. In the situation analysis we have a concrete example of how patterns of thinking, feeling, acting, and interacting generate outcomes, and we can specify what helps and hinders efficacy.  

  6. The expert (therapist or coach) must help clients learn from this experience by helping them see how they contributed to the outcome, whether it was a desired or disappointing outcome.

  7. This same learning can then be applied to future situations, targeted relationships and situations that are directly linked to the client’s role, goals, actions, and her success in executing them.

  8. Learning of this kind is iterative, and it requires a bit of “tough love” and candor from the coach, usually in the form of difficult questions, feedback, all provided in a nonjudgmental attitude.

The Role of the Coach

Jim McCullough recommends a style of disciplined personal involvement. Translating this to coaching, he is saying that the coach should not be playing it safe or telling clients what they want to hear. Coaches should offer their personal experience of what it feels like to be in the client’s presence, what it’s like to interact with them. The coach should appropriately challenge clients to look at how their attitudes and actions help explain the outcomes they are currently experiencing.  

The role of the coach is to help the client see what they are missing, and to see it in ways that generate insight but also arouse motivation. The sincerity, positive intentions, and trustworthiness of the coach is established up-front in the assessment process. It happens as the coach demonstrates that he or she understands who the client is and how her life experience has shaped her. Trust is further reinforced by being respectful and honest when providing feedback. 

What I’ve found, is that when I take time at the outset to learn about who the client is and how her personal history has shaped her, and when I engage with disciplined personal involvement, we’re able to get further faster. It’s because we are working more effectively as partners in the process. And when our work is connected to the specificity of real-world challenges, we tackle the vital challenges more directly and learn more quickly. Given that approach, yes, a 90-day program can work!