‘The Three Core Conditions of a Coaching Relationship’ – Congruence

In my last Blog on the ‘Three Core Conditions of a Coaching Relationship’, I discussed ‘Unconditional Positive Regard’ as being one of the three core conditions of a successful coaching relationship as defined by Carl Rogers (1) who suggested employing this, along with ‘Congruence’ and ‘Empathy’ as being the other vital ingredients that determine the quality of any therapeutic or coaching relationship.

Let us consider the third of these core conditions; ‘Congruence’. The Cambridge University Dictionary describes congruent as being “similar to or in agreement with something, so that the two things can both exist or can be combined without problems: for example, if our goals are congruent; there is no conflict”. In geometry congruent angles measure the same.

Some might reject the geometric view as the coach and coaches may not, from the outset be ‘measuring the same’. The Cambridge Dictionary definition may help here as it suggests that the two things may not be the same, but “can both exist without problems”. The suggestion is that when success is achieved in the relationship then “congruence” occurs.

Some may substitute “genuineness” for congruence; meaning that you act in accord with your values and belief system, seeking to be real and genuine in your interactions with others. This approach may require ‘movement’ from either coach or coachee (or both) which then results in congruence.

Which ever definition you choose, it is that meeting of minds that allows the energy between the parties to flow back and forth without hindrance thus adding to the quality of that relationship.

(1) Carl Rogers was an American psychologist and among the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology.

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‘The Three Core Conditions of a Coaching Relationship’ – Unconditional Positive Regard

Following my last discourse, I discussed ‘Empathy’ as being one of the three core conditions of a successful coaching relationship. It was Carl Rogers (1) who suggested employing this, along with ‘Unconditional Positive Regard’ and ‘Congruence’ as being the vital ingredients that determine the quality of any therapeutic or coaching relationship.

Let us consider the second of these core conditions; ‘Unconditional Positive Regard’. Breaking this down into three definable areas, the dictionary tells us that: Unconditional is described as; unequivocal, complete, total or without condition; Positive as constructive, optimistic or confident and Regard as ‘to consider or think of in a specified way’. This certainly makes it easier to understand, but is there a particular slant or angle that Carl Rogers and other eminent psychologists might have had in mind ? The general view coincides with the above: to communicate with a deep, genuine, non-judgemental attitude of care for their client, with kindness and openness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn’s (2) defines “mindfulness” as being ‘non-judgemental’. This is not to say that in following the path of mindfulness we are unable to make judgements on what is or is not appropriate. Instead the Microsoft Word, built-in thesaurus assists by describing “judgemental” as: critical, condemnatory, negative, disapproving, disparaging or pejorative. These descriptions which, in the context of mindfulness and coaching would be regarded as an anathema to the conduct of any therapeutic activity. Kabat-Zinn goes on to explain that in our non-judgemental attitude of care to our clients, there are also elements of wisdom and compassion; wisdom to accept that things are as they are; not whether they are right of wrong and compassion to shut out that critical commentary on ourselves and others and to treat more kindly what we actually are.

While it is true that there are other factors that if included can lead to a successful coaching relationship. However, it is our assertion that coaches who embody the three core conditions are more likely to establish an efficient coaching relationship than those that do not. Nevertheless, none of us is perfect and there is always room to develop these core specifications further.

Indeed, in normal conversational relationships the same ability to communicate with ‘unconditional positive regard’ will make that communication more effective, fulfilling and therefore more likely to achieve the purpose of the encounter. So there is scope for us all, Coaches and those who don’t coach to learn from this key ingredient of communication.

As already hinted, practicing Mindfulness can be a way of helping us to develop further our ability to employ properly the attitude of ‘Unconditional Positive Regard’ and ultimately any form of communication, particularly in a coaching relationship.

(1) Carl Rogers was an American psychologist and among the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology.
(2) Jon Kabat-Zinn was an American professor emeritus of medicine and the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society. Kabat-Zinn was the creator of The mindfulness-based stress reduction programme (MBSR) widely used by clinicians and recommended by the UK NHS as method of reducing stress.

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The Three Core Conditions of a Coaching Relationship – Empathy

Over half a century ago Carl Rogers (1) suggested that a successful ‘coaching relationship’ was based on three core conditions: unconditional positive regard, empathy and congruence.

“The quality of a coaching relationship, says Peter Bluckert (2) is not just a critical success factor, it is the critical factor in successful coaching outcomes. Good coaches create a safe enough space for the individual to take the risks necessary to learn, develop and change”.

So how do we aspire to and fulfil the quality required of coaches to ensure a successful outcome in their coaching relationship ?

Let us take one of Rogers’s core conditions, that of Empathy. It is not simply a coach understanding their client’s thoughts and feelings, although that too is important. It is more of an attuned relationship where one another ‘feels felt’ which is crucial, Daniel Siegel (3) suggests if people in relationships are to feel alive, vibrant, understood and at peace.

10,000 years ago man had to work in small teams to survive. As the success of those teams grew so too did the size of those groups. ‘Relationship’ developed from the success of those teams creating the genes we have inherited today. We have a remarkable ability to read the inner states of others derived from neurological mechanisms which enable us to empathise with others. We have the capacity to sense and stimulate – within our own experience, others’ thoughts, emotions and actions.

Our neurological networks sympathetically activate strong emotions in you when you see others having the same feeling; the better you understand you own feelings the better you will be at understanding those of others’. We grimace when we see others in pain, although we do not feel that pain in our bodies to the same extent as the ‘other’.

All this comes from our own experience and crucially, how well we know ourselves. Our experience we have already, but there is much more we can learn – or be mindful of our own thoughts, feelings, sensations and impulses. The more we understand these the better the Coach will be able to ‘tune in’ and be empathetic to the Coachee.

(1) Carl Rogers was an American psychologist and among the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology.
(2) Peter Bluckert is the Chairman of the Standards and Ethics Committee of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council.
(3) Daniel Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine (USA) and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute.

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“Have we all become Mindless …… ?”

‘Modern man’ is afflicted with an almost constant source of stress in their daily lives. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is predicting that ‘stress’ will be the biggest ‘killer’ this Century and in the UK it is estimated that stress is the greatest cause of absenteeism in the workplace.

Thousands of years ago ‘man’ was used to a very different way of life; his brain was hard-wired to deal with infrequent, but sudden, extreme situations where stress was generated as the ‘by-product’ of the survival functions of flight or fight; the inevitable consequence of having to take action in adverse or demanding circumstances. Notwithstanding this, normal and routine tasks were given little thought and considered only ‘in the moment’ thereby not anticipating or fearing a situation where stress might be generated.

Today, the hard-wired brain that experienced extreme stress as a consequence of imminent danger in the past, still persists. However, the knowledge now used to formulate the learned instructions that trigger the chemical reaction preparing the body to respond to danger, are seldom informed by instances as extreme as our forebears had to face. Instead today’s ‘imminent danger’ is informed by a constant source of pressure, frustrations and thoughts of inadequacies that create that “stored knowledge” and become the default trigger for the chemical reaction resulting in stress. Conversely, our ancestors paid little attention to these relatively routine ‘stressors’ since they weren’t life threatening.

These modern-day “adverse or demanding circumstances” are brought about, in part by the plethora of tasks we now have the ability to carry out; something that has increased exponentially over past decades, frequently enabled by rapid advances in technology. Add this to man’s inherited ‘herd instinct’ that encourages people not to be singled out and so, by default, comply with the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Furthermore, Michael Formica in ‘Psychology Today’ suggests that, “The brain was never designed to think of more than one thing at a time …..contrary to popular belief, human beings cannot multitask. What we are capable of is handling a number of serial tasks in rapid succession, or mixing automatic tasks with those that are not so automatic. That’s one of the reasons that the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB a US government investigative agency responsible for civil transport accident investigation) reports that texting while driving is the functional equivalent of driving with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit. You just can’t effectively attend to two things at once – even the superficially automatic ones.”

Research now concludes that with the ever-increasing number of tasks required of us, the stress induced, reduces our ability to focus on any one thing at a time. Michael Formica continues, “The first thing we need to recognize is that, try as we might, we really can only do one thing at a time, so we ought to do that thing wholeheartedly. Most of our time is spent in the past or the future, rather than the present moment. What we end up doing is passing through that moment on the way to somewhere else and, in doing so, we miss the moment. That’s how life ends up passing us by – we do it to ourselves.”

Meditation has been part of Buddhist teachings for generations: used as a practice where an individual focuses his or her mind on a particular object, thought or activity to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state. Now scientific research has confirmed the benefits of “Mindfulness”. Indeed the UK National Health Service (NHS) recognises “Mindfulness” as a very practical and effective therapy for reducing stress following the development by Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Therapy (MBSR). The plethora of evidence from modern cognitive psychology and neuroscience point out the positive effect of meditation on the brain and our ability to focus with a purpose.

Willie Horton, a Coaching Psychologist argues in a recent paper that focus is the key to being Mindful. He further suggests that unless we are ‘Mindful’ we are ‘Mindless’. When we are being bombarded constantly with ‘low level’ stressors we adopt the default state of mind; one of mindlessness, a lack of focus resulting in a cycle of events which often leads to illness and death.

In his paper, he asserts that if we can learn to focus we enable ourselves to be ‘mindful for a purpose’; something greater than simply a stress reducer; more a state of mind that enables greater and more effective achievement, much like a sprinter before a race focuses on the job in hand blocking out extraneous matters that get in the way. Once the race is over the focus can shift to the next important matter.

It is interesting to note that many people in positions regarded as ‘highly stressful’ do not succumb to stress related illnesses in the same way as those who simply live ‘stressful lives’. It may be argued that this is because these people have adopted our ancestors’ behaviour of being more ‘in the moment’ for routine tasks while retaining the ability to respond to situations that require the proper chemical trigger to deal with a difficult ‘highly stressful’ situation for a short period of time.

Willie Horton suggests that there is a need for leaders everywhere learn how to properly focus though Mindfulness-Leadership Development, because if you can focus, all other matters become clearer and more manageable. The responsibility for ensuring this happens is the Coach !

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Enhancing Performance

Few would disagree that the desire to enhance performance is a very positive aspiration for both individuals and for organisations who will always wish to maximise the productivity of their staff.  Interestingly, a brief search for “Enhancing Performance” on the internet reveals, high on the rankings performance-enhancing substances.  We hear much about this form of enhancement after major sporting events or as news headlines involving ‘doping’ among athletes.

Notwithstanding this, most programmes seeking to enhance performance concentrate on recognising and reinforcing good performance by the development of knowledge and skills, improved work environment as well as rewards (and punishment !).  Such ‘external’ motivators for improving performance are both logical and helpful. However, the well known ‘coaching equation’ describing performance as:


….suggests that some of the most important ‘interferences’ that prevent people reaching their full potential are to do with an array of behavioural phenomena taking the form of physical actions or observable emotions; largely driven by thoughts and feelings.

Many in the world of psychology and sociology believe that because behaviours are ‘hard-wired’ into our early emotional development they can only be changed effectively through addressing an individual’s emotional make up.

Eric Berne expounded in his theory of Transactional Analysis that children adopt one of four “Life Positions” in their early formative years as a basic survival strategy.  The “Position” adopted would then go on to form the basis of their “Scripts” and in turn unconsciously underpin their behaviour in Adulthood.

However, Berne went on to explain that when we become Adults we have an option of making full use of grown-up resources and that when we do so these decisions are ‘script-free’ or autonomous. However, we need to understand our (unconscious) life plan in order to challenge and unpick it so that we have a better opportunity to change behaviour and maximise performance in whatever endeavour we choose.  When making an autonomous decision we are dealing with the here-and-now reality as the adult.  This autonomous decision making with or without therapy can be carried out when self awareness is raised to a point where an individual’s mind is ‘open’ to change and the choice to do so is made and carried out.

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Transactional Analysis – Maximising Effective Communications

Verbal communication is generally accepted to be at the centre of human social relationships and despite the electronic era, also in business. When coaches engage with business to maximise performance more often than not, poor communication is at the root of potential not being reached. When two people meet, one of them will speak to the other and a response normally follows. Transactional Analysis (TA) is the method of examining this activity.

Transactional Analysis is a theory developed by Dr. Eric Berne in the 1950’s as a method to improve communication. The theory outlines how we have developed and treat ourselves, how we relate and communicate with others, and offers suggestions and interventions, which will enable us to change and grow. Theoretical concepts within the Transactional Analysis world are constantly being challenged and developed making it a rich dynamic process. Berne died in July 1970 at the age of 60. However, Transactional Analysis has not stood still and continues to develop and change, paralleling the processes we encourage in ourselves and others.

Eric Berne developed his theory around three identities/roles: ‘Parent’, ‘Child’ and ‘Adult’ – although these terms have different definitions than in normal language ! The role we adopt is determined by our feelings at the time and affects the way we communicate – if you are angry, you are unlikely to be conciliatory ! In return the other person responds by fitting into the appropriate other role. In each case we subconsciously flavour the ‘parent’ and ‘child’ roles from that which we recall from our childhood experiences.
Our Parent identity is our ‘Taught’ concept of life. When prejudice or over protectiveness dominates, the ‘Parent’ is in control. The flavouring learnt from childhood experiences fall into two broad categories and in extremis, these are displayed as controlling or indulgent. It is possible to change this ‘flavour’ with effort and commitment.

Our Child identity is our ‘Felt’ concept of life. When anger or despair dominates reason, the ‘Child’ is in control. It represents the child we once were and falls generally into two categories: the ‘natural’ child being impulsive, instinctive, spontaneous, undisciplined and demanding and the ‘adapted’ child influenced by an upbringing, which ‘does as it is told’ giving rise to guilt, rebellion, disobedience and compromise. Like our Parent, we can change our Child.

Our Adult identity is our ‘Thought’ concept of life. It is our ability to think and reason, and determine action for ourselves, based on relevant facts and intuition. It is that part of us which differentiates the human animal from other animals. The Adult is the means by which we keep our Parent and Child under control. If we are to change our Parent or Child, we must do so through our Adult.

It is the learning to develop our ‘Adult’ identity further, which is the key to successful communications and the intervention of a coaches with this in mind can make a considerable difference.

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The dictionary describes communication as “the imparting or exchange of information, ideas or feelings”. It is therefore no surprise to learn that most organisations place enormous importance on the quality and quantity of their communication with their employees and the other key stakeholders.

Despite this, communication is most often cited by people in organisations as the main barrier to high performance. Research supports this and suggests that many organisations put the majority of their ‘communication spend’ in their formal, conscious communication rather than into the other, less formal, yet more impactful areas such as the communication between business leaders and the people who work with them at all levels.

Communication is a ‘two’ way process, but how many people know that people cannot, NOT communicate ? Even when not speaking people communicate non-verbally and non-verbal communication accounts for 93% of this transaction.
Verbal communication is generally accepted to be at the centre of human social relationships. When two people meet, one of them will speak to the other and a response normally follows. Transactional Analysis is the method of examining this activity.

Dr Eric Berne developed his theory of Transactional Analysis around three identities/roles: ‘Parent’, ‘Child’ and ‘Adult’ (although these terms have different definitions than in normal language !). Coaching can make a significant impact upon this vital area of communication in particular clarifying the process of “Transactional Analysis”. Organisations might consider the positive impact a well directed series of coaching sessions would have for their key staff and other stakeholders.

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