How directive should coaches be around climate change?

24th February by George Warren

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How directive should coaches be around climate change?

The building is on fire. Is it right for coaches to ask about the smoke?

The coaching industry is evolving rapidly. Businesses are increasingly offering coaching to a wider proportion of their staff – no longer exclusively the leaders. The forced shift to online has allowed coaching to become more accessible to a larger and more diverse market. The coaching industry is also progressing in how it discusses climate change.

The last year has seen a groundswell of support and engagement from the coaching industry. 2020 saw the leading global professional bodies release a joint statement and communities such as the Climate Coaching Alliance grow bigger and more impactful.

Drawing on its roots in the therapeutic world, traditional coaching asks its practitioners to take a non-directive approach: to follow the coachee’s agenda. After the financial crash of 2008, John Blakey and Ian Day challenged the status quo and sagely warned of the risks of collusion between a fastidiously non-directive coach and a client not held to account.

Coaches hold a privileged position with access to leaders and influential figures at all levels of companies. This combined with the skills to raise awareness, navigate complex, emotional conversations and to healthily challenge. Not to mention coaches’ passion and drive to help others. There is a growing sense across the industry that this privilege has evolved into a responsibility.

Zoe Cohen modernised and amplified this challenge when she asked in 2019, ‘where were all the coaches when the planet warmed by three degrees?’.

On an individual and industry-wide level, are we coaches complicit in the harm being done by not challenging our clients and holding them to account?

The debate has been distilled by some into a simple image. A coach and coachee sitting in a room (a nostalgic image for many). The coach notices the building is on fire. It is for each coach to decide if or when they are going to ask, ‘what are you going to do about the smoke in the room?’

For many coaches, there is the support, empathy and passion for the cause. But there is also crucially a blocker to taking action. From my discussions with members of the community, and my own experience, this can stem from:

  • - not knowing how or when to raise it with a (potential) client
  • - a keenness not to ‘rock the boat’
  • - a form of imposter syndrome: ‘who am I to raise this?’

The coaching industry is awake and ready for these challenges. Support and community can be found with the Climate Coaching Alliance and the Climate Change Coaches. Accrediting bodies such as EMCC and APECS have been amassing an impressive collection of resources to guide coaches. Sustainability and Climate Emergency policies are appearing on more and more coaches’ websites and LinkedIn pages. And, of course, each March, Climate Coaching Action Day presents a day of global momentum on the subject.

This coach believes that the FACTS model developed by Blakey and Day can be of great help and guidance to those who want to coach around climate change. A non-liner suite of skills and approaches which can be integrated into a coaching model or conversation.

Feedback – provocative, honest feedback that comes from a place of honesty. Daring, with a sense of telling it like it really is. They posited that executive coaching clients often need some robust, healthy challenge. Indeed, thrive on it. That it should be a catalyst for change, insight, new awareness.

Accountability – the coach as someone to hold their client responsible to themselves, their team, their industry, their community, the environment. In an EMCC webinar, Peter Hawkins argued that if you’re breathing air into your lungs – then the environment is a stakeholder in the coaching conversation. Like Russian dolls, this model encourages the coach to explore the wider stakeholders in any coaching conversation.

Courageous Goals – at a macro level, what is a braver and more ambitious goal than halting the most severe crisis humanity has ever faced? At a micro level, coaches can provide the space and the challenge necessary for individuals, for leaders, for organisations to aim big. To be brave. To make tough decisions. And to recognise what is possible and what is within their capability.

Tension – a conversation around climate change can often encompass a spectrum of emotions. Anger, denial, grief, apathy, blame. The work of Charly Cox and the Climate Change Coaches helps coaches navigate their own emotions to then arrive at a place where coaches can help others around the subject. A degree of tension and challenge, encouraging the client out of their comfort zone can be a necessary and fruitful skill in any conversation.

Systems Thinking - Regularly touted as a necessary skill in the future of coaching, systemic thinking recognises that no coachee is an island. That an effective coach can invoke wider stakeholders and repercussions of a decision in service of their client and the other stakeholders. In the same way that Jeff Bezos notoriously kept an empty chair in board meetings to represent the customer, what can we do as coaches in our conversations to represent the wider stakeholders?

George Warren is a coach and member of faculty at the AoEC. While not a climate change scientist, he believes in the power of coaching as a positive force of change.