What does science have to offer coaching?

Someone called me yesterday. They had read one of my posts and wanted to question something I’d said. That’s great. It makes it hard for others to follow (and learn from) any dialogue, but once in a while it’s good to hear the human voice!

What they were struggling to accept was that some of their beliefs didn’t appear to have any evidence to back them up. This wasn’t my conclusion, it was their extrapolation of something I have been saying for a long time.

As counsellors, psychotherapists and coaches, we believe that talking with someone can make a positive difference to their life. Of course, there are practitioners out there who may talk with people and yet not make a positive difference, indeed, they may make a negative difference.

How does the person wanting some help discern between effective practitioners and ineffective ones?

Professions are self-policing. This is one of the characteristics that make them a profession. There’s a reason for this. Back in the mysts of time, it was felt that while a wise judge could draw out the evidence for different arguments, it took an experienced practitioner to understand what was good work and what was bad.

Another characteristic of a profession is that it has a body of knowledge. This is a library of information that the profession holds to be true and which it therefore refers to when it’s challenged about the effectiveness (or otherwise) of the work its members have done.

Now, there’s a difference between a belief and a bit of knowledge. A bit of knowledge has evidence to support it. A belief does not. Beliefs are very important – don’t get me wrong. We often use beliefs to provide a framework in which we gather evidence. But having a belief does not mean that we have any evidence.

So, the coach who believes something but doesn’t have any evidence to support this belief has, in my mind, two responsibilities as a professional. They have to be honest about the lack (yet, perhaps) of any evidence to support their belief. They should be seeking ways of gathering that evidence. If the evidence that they find meets certain criteria, then they have begun to establish the veracity of their belief. If they find evidence that refutes their belief then they have helped move the discipline forwards, but they owe it to their clients to adapt their work accordingly.

This is very different from stopping doing anything – which was the source of confusion for the individual I was speaking to.

Scientific method isn’t that complicated. it’s just a bit threatening to anyone who has a low threshold for evidence. By which, I mean, two things… There are some people who will act on very limited (even no) evidence – believing almost anything that they are told. There are also some people who have very limited attention spans and whose eyes glaze over within a few minutes (or even seconds) of anything that challenges their beliefs.

If you are prepared to/interested in listening to a straightforward (and vaguely amusing) explanation of what science is all about, then why not make yourself a cup of tea/coffee and watch this video by Michael Shermer? Dr Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, the host of the The Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Science Lecture Series, and Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University and Chapman University. It called their “Baloney Detection Kit”. It was made in 2009, and is distributed by the Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science. While Dawkins is sometimes seen as a bit too fundamentalist as a scientist, the video is a useful way of understanding what we need to be looking for in the development of our profession’s body of knowledge.

All the best

Some of you may know that I am currently the Executive Lead for Research for the “BACP Coaching” – the Coaching division of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. This article may appear in their limited circulation newsletter in due course.

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