The importance of non-directiveness in coaching – and 2 good reasons to build awareness

Remember that in a previous post I outlined the 5 basic coaching skills we really need to become effective coaches? We’ve already taken a look at the first four: contracting, use of some kind of structuring mechanism (with the GROW Model as an example), listening, and questioning. At long last we’ve arrived at the fifth basic coaching skill: non-directiveness.Cartoon man with blue arrow

In this post I’ll be taking a look at non-directiveness, as well as its place on what Myles Downey has called the ‘Spectrum of Coaching Skills’, before giving  2  good reasons for making sure we put effort into building awareness of when our interactions are non-directive and when they’re not.


Why is non-directiveness a key skill for a coach to cultivate? Because along with non-judgementalism, it’s the backdrop supporting a coaching approach which genuinely embraces coachees as experts in their own issues – albeit experts who currently aren’t quite in touch with all the relevant information and insights to help them on their way.

2 men with watering can and plants as headsCoaching focuses on the coachee, the coachee’s needs, and the coachee’s agenda. A non-directive approach means coaches refrain from instructing or ‘telling’, asking leading questions which fish around for particular answers, or harbouring frustration that coachees may seemingly ‘refuse’ to see or follow what to the coach are obvious solutions. A non-directive approach puts into practice the coaching maxim that “the coachee knows best how to deal with his or her issue.”

Non-directiveness relies on the coach standing back from his or her own preconceptions. Through deep listening, effective questioning in the moment, and providing a safe confidential space within which the coachee can imagine and experiment, a coach can facilitate the process whereby coachees come to terms with and move beyond self-limiting beliefs and/or fears.

Transformative coaching has non-directiveness at its core because only the coachee can find the key to opening the doors through which transformation comes in her or his particular case. The coach’s role is to observe, reflect back, and provide the mirror via which the coachee can see and recognise the keys that are necessary for his or her own transformational change and development.

The ‘Spectrum of Coaching Skills’

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Non-directiveness is clearly very important. That doesn’t mean, however, that more directive skills don’t have their place. Myles Downey’s ‘Spectrum of Coaching Skills’ neatly underlines the fact that, between a typically non-directive skill (such as listening to understand) and one which is obviously directive (such as instructing), there are a whole variety of valuable approaches which can be placed along a spectrum, ranging from more to less directive. Click on the PDF icon to the left to take a look.

Whilst non-directive skills such as listening to understand, reflecting back, paraphrasing, summarising and asking questions that raise awareness form the seedbed of a coach’s skill set, on occasion it can be necessary to move into a more directive mode. For example, if there is particular relevant information which a coachee cannot be expected to access through his or her own experience alone, a coach might ask permission to offer a suggestion, put in tentative non-judgemental terms, or even to put it more strongly as guidance or key information.

cogs and coaching typesThe more directive end of the spectrum is generally more relevant to a mentoring than a coaching relationship, because it’s expected that a mentor as role model will offer advice and instruction. Although this is not expected of coaches, they should nevertheless be able to escalate their style when necessary. There’s no doubt that at times coachees need to be challenged. A coach who is proficient in all the skills on the spectrum can be flexible in which is applied according to precise context, being capable of challenging a coachee to push further or to explain why agreed action points have not been undertaken.

Escalation of style needs sensitivity and a high level of ability to ‘read’ specific conditions in the moment, as well as the limits of the existing level of trust/rapport between coach and coachee. Challenging as a skill can be difficult to put into practice for those coaches whose main driver is to be liked or to please people. Which means that such individuals need to plan their development as coaches carefully to ensure that the more directive skills also become functional parts of their skill set.

2  good reasons to build awareness

There are numerous good reasons for coaches to build awareness of when they’re in non-directive mode and when they aren’t. Here are  2  to think about.

1. The coach who doesn’t coach     Most coaches know that excellent coaching is for the most part non-directive, but it’s not that easy for individuals whose strengths lie at the more directive end of the coaching skill spectrum to recognise in the moment when they inappropriately slip into ‘telling’ or ‘advising’ mode. Blue silhouette tellingThis is especially problematic for those whose professional background or current ‘day job’ is in HR or Learning & Development. So much of their time has been or still is spent solving the problems of others, instructing in rules and regulations, or telling people what to do. Whilst their contribution of insight might be invaluable if requested in a mentoring relationship, for the most part it is highly detrimental in the context of coaching.

The result is that coachees may be forced to revert to learning from someone else, being deprived of the opportunity to be facilitated in exploring how to move forward in their own time and in their own way. For under-confident ‘people pleasing’ coachees, it can even lead to reliance on the coach. In a previous post I discussed the importance of reflective practice in coach development. Establishing a reflective practice is key to helping coaches recognise the patterns of thought and behaviour which result in reversion to ‘directive mode’, and to starting the process of strategising how to avoid them.

2. The coach who doesn’t challenge     Whilst coaching focuses on the coachee and the coachee’s ability to dig deep to find solutions to his or her issues, the coach must be able to fulfil the role of facilitator, mirror and challenger when necessary. Coaching sessions should be far more than cosy chats between friends. Long-suppressed difficult emotions such as anger, grief or frustration might need to be countenanced, expressed and transitioned through, and that means the coach should be capable of being detached enough not to be pulled into over-identification with the coachee’s situation (collusion) or repulsed by what he or she is experiencing in the moment as the coachee journeys through the challenging time.

Challenge is seldom pleasant. Yet challenge is often essential in a coaching relationship – coach challenging coachee, and coachee challenging coach if need be. This is where the coach needs strong interpersonal and communication skills capable of building sufficient rapport and trust with the coachee to withstand what can become stormy seas. Having the sensitivity and ability to read the whole person is essential for a coach when choosing less or more directive modes of interaction in the moment. Challenge should not be feared. It should be prepared for by building sharp awareness of exactly how directive or otherwise one is or needs to be in the moment, as well as sufficient flexibility to move from one mode to another as and when necessary.

So non-directiveness is a key skill for any coach to master. As one of the 5 basic coaching skills we really need, it’s fundamental to how we work. Awareness of when and how we’re being non-directive is key to identifying when and how we may need to escalate our style in the moment towards more directive modes.

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1 thought on “The importance of non-directiveness in coaching – and 2 good reasons to build awareness

  1. Pingback: Starting from wherever we are and with whatever we’ve got… | Newbycoach thoughts

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