Right to speak the truth – Coaching is about love, not judgement.

This blog is a re-write of something I knocked together in 2012.  I thought I’d rework it for the context of coaching and UX.  To me, it seems like there are layers to becoming an effective coach, and that isn’t just about the abilities of the coach.  I’ve worked with many many teachers over the years and what makes the best stand out is the level of respect and understanding they have for the people they are helping to develop.  This is formative feedback.

Formative feedback is given to help form better thinking and processes in the learner it is part of the coaching process.  Summative feedback is about judging the progress of the learner against others.  The worst summative assessment is effectively “guess what is in my head” type feedback, against arbitrary benchmarks which shift according to the assessor’s mood, when it’s too late to do anything useful with the feedback.

There is a massive difference between simply knowing things and gaining the trust of those you want to develop, so they are able to absorb your nudges, prompts and questions to construct their own understanding and make that part of their practice.

Helping people to grow is about speaking with Love, founded on the authority experience and expertise and good timing.

Authority from Experience:

Tweed compared Socratic with Confucian learning in an article here.

Socrates: Provoked learning by prodding his students, by using questions to expose flaws in knowledge, it is the basis of Western Civilisation, the basis of the academic,  political and legal system in the UK.  It is adversarial by nature and, done badly, ends up appearing to be sound bites and point scoring.

Confucius: Was a relentless instructor and was anxious that his pupils were not merely able to parrot the words of authorities, but to truly understand and be reformed by the knowledge contained in those words.

What a coach knows will not enable the learner to develop, the learner needs to respect that knowledge and the skills of the coach and want some of it for themselves.   Keep in mind that timing is everything, the best coaching conversations are lean, they happen “just in time” and are driven from wise questions not judgements.

A Socratic thinker will welcome any debate, but may not be merciful in the way they correct misconceptions of learners.  Their quest for the rightness may overwhelm any concerns about the learner’s well being.  A learner who is a Confucian thinker will expect equal understanding and dedication to a subject before being challenged, a premature challenge may well shatter the coaching relationship before it begins.

The long and short of this is that in a coaching relationship, the conversation must move


Confucian conversation in which the coach strives to understand what the learner is trying to achieve and the background and logic so that they can offer progressive feedback.


Socratic dissection of their decision making in the full knowledge of the background behind the decisions made so far.

Many people who do not truly ‘love’ their subject present what is a point of view as a fact, everything is a field of views, opinions and theories, very few things are absolutes. Nothing is ‘right’, it is only the most sensible opinion given the context and culture of the situation.  Absolutist language is the enemy of the effective coach, as is lazy thinking.

Are you a clanging bell?

I’m heading into scripture now, this is often used at Weddings in a romantic sense, when the original text is set in the background of advice on how to grow a community of practice (of believers), but the advice in it holds true outside of the context of faith.

1 Corinthians 13 v 1-7:

1 If I speak (in the tongues of men or of angels), but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith (skillset) that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. ……….

My analogy is this:

Confucius effectively said that before you can earn the authority to question anyone, then you must have devoted yourself to understanding them fully first…..in other words, and stretching the analogy; ‘fall in love with what exists,’. (In the coaching context this is the thinking and process of the learner.)

A coach with real authority loves his discipline enough to see all the flaws as well as all the strengths and therefore does not sound like a clanging hollow bell(v1), which can be jarring for the people they are helping to grow.


It isn’t enough to just love your discipline, you must also ‘love’ those you are coaching.  Corinthians has advice for how that should be:

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6…………………7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

An effective coach “loves” those they work with.  They speak softly and tread gently, they spend more time listening and watching their people than they do speaking until they have understood the right way to say the right thing and to know when it will be the right time.  They will know enough to know if its a bad day, or if the cat died yesterday.  They will know when to speak and when to keep their counsel.  they will know when to let the learner fall or fail in order to buy the coachable moment.

Above all, they will seek the permission of the learner before providing the challenge so that the challenge is received with love.

The first coaching question is always……”talk me through your thinking…”, otherwise the feedback will only ever meet the need of the coach not the learner.

3 thoughts on “Right to speak the truth – Coaching is about love, not judgement.

  1. A really interesting post. Too often discussions of education are confined within their own sphere, so I find your use of theology to discuss this refreshing and thought provoking.

    I have two ‘respectfully challenging questions’ here:

    Firstly I wonder if initial teacher education is slightly different than some areas of education in that as the students are learning to be teachers they need to engage both with the subject matter of the learning, and the delivery methods. I get your point about this in some cases distracting from the learning that is planned for a session, but I think the learning about pedagogy from engaging with the methods of their teachers is actually an important part of this particular area of study. What are your thoughts on this?

    I find the equation of love with understanding quite difficult. It seems a useful analogy in terms of Confucian learning (and I now need to read more on this), but I am not sure how far you are pushing the analogy? Do you have to understand something to love it? I can think of some things I have loved without having the faintest understanding of…

    I am left with questions about my own thinking, an experience of two areas I know very little about, and an impetus to follow up and learn more. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: ResearchED: What works? Where do you start? or Good Practice, the enemy of Research | The Grinch Manifesto

  3. Pingback: ResearchEd 2014 – A Cunning Plan – Research Pitch Fest | The Grinch Manifesto

Leave a Reply to Oliver Quinlan Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s