Adaptive Coaching: The Art and Practice of a Client‐Centered Approach to Performance Management

Mark A. Arvisais (Department of Management Science, The George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA)

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Article publication date: 1 December 2004



Arvisais, M.A. (2004), "Adaptive Coaching: The Art and Practice of a Client‐Centered Approach to Performance Management", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 17 No. 6, pp. 632-635.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Adaptive Coaching is an excellent practitioner oriented book that belongs in the personal libraries of business leaders and coach practitioners. The book is valuable for the forty thousand people who are identified as coaches in Europe and the US, and supplements the 135 or so books on the subject (p. xiv). Very critical of the sports metaphors in coaching, the authors call most works in the field oversimplifications and bemoan the chasm that exists between the reality and the rhetoric of coaching. They back up their claims by reporting on an extensive survey conducted with recipients of coaching from 1996 through 2002. The survey results reveal that coaches are generally not meeting the requirements of the executives they are purported to be helping. “Coaches consistently fail in the fundamentals of listening, empathizing, probing, and contextualizing even when they think that's what they are doing” (p. xix). The objective of the text is to show coaches how they can overcome some of their failings. The survey is used to prove many points throughout the text.

Based on results of the survey, and as an alternative to the commonly used directive style, the authors propose that coaches move away from a single dominant approach and adapt their style to the needs of each individual client. The recommendation is reminiscent of Hersey and Blanchard's situational leadership theory, which proposes that leadership behavior be selected based on the “maturity” level of the follower (Blank et al., 1990). Adaptive coaching is framed by three concepts:

  1. 1.

    the two minds model;

  2. 2.

    taxonomy of coaching styles; and

  3. 3.

    the use of dialogue.

The concepts triangulate to form a compelling perspective on the work of a coach.

The book provides a comprehensive overview of the process of coaching and conveys its message through three sections. The first section, entitled Assessing Clients' Needs, introduces the reader to the early critical stage of coaching in which the coach discovers the client's needs. This section discusses context. Asserting that effective coaching can only be achieved if the coach understands the context in which coaching is taking place, the authors write: “Coaching without considering the context would be no more accurate or useful than following the astrological advice in the Sunday newspaper” (p. 3). Context includes an understanding of the client's personal situation, organizational situation, expectations, and willingness to be coached. As a means to understand this information, the authors recommend an entry process that mirrors the process of entering an organization as an organization development professional (Cummings and Worley, 2001) and includes an investigation of the following issues: goals, type of coaching desired, focus, meeting location, involvement of other people, confidentiality, accountability, information sharing, client preparation, coach preparation, communication practices, “homework,” process checks and the conclusion of the relationship. Clues on how to identify an “un‐coachable” person are identified with a Coaching Styles Taxonomy (pp. 102‐3).

It is in this section that the authors define the differences between therapy and coaching: “The more common issues coaches face are difficulty balancing life and work, being somewhat insensitive to others, failing to delegate enough to empower and inspire subordinates, and not being appreciative enough of others' contributions, and so on” (p. 6). This is a marked difference, they claim, from therapy, which may include dealing with inability to form relationships or possibly narcissistic tendencies. “In coaching, the focal point is the person's performance, in therapy the focal point is the person” (p. 10). One wonders if a “person” is not also a “performer,” whether in therapy or the organization. Regardless of the somewhat dubious distinction between coaching and therapy, the book attempts to walk a narrow path between the two foci.

Throughout the text the authors provide a series of tools and models, along with checklists, that are of practical benefit for the coach. To supplement the descriptions of the various models, the authors offer useful sample dialogues representing interaction between the coach and the client. In addition, the authors peppered the text with witty metaphors that helped convey meaning and at the same time made the writing more interesting. These are clear strengths of the book. The authors want to “teach” the reader how to be a coach by formulating the message through three common learning preferences: visual models, written text, and dialogue (listening/hearing).

Section 2 entitled, Practicing Adaptive Coaching, focuses on some fundamental issues in a coaching relationship. The initiation of the relationship is explored through the lens of trust, credibility and chemistry between the client and the coach. The authors imply that a balance must exist among all three. This implication may be the weakest argument in the book. The benefits of coaching would hardly seem to begin without a positive trusting relationship between the coach and the client, yet the text devotes only a six‐line paragraph to the issue.

The authors discuss how effective dyadic dialogue (verbal and non‐verbal) represents the only real tool available to the coach and client. The dialogue skills required of the coach are identified. An entire chapter is devoted to listening and questioning, with advice on how to improve upon one's skills. The authors also suggest ways to encourage the client to open up and sustain the dialogue through the use of “minimal encouragers” (pp. 158‐9). The value of reframing and synthesizing is discussed. Checklists of useful questions, here and throughout, are valuable and could benefit any coach.

The concept of “pushing and pulling” is presented as a method for moving clients forward on the path to sustainable change. Pulling a client means encouraging whereas pushing means advising, teaching, and confronting. The authors rely extensively on sample dialogues to demonstrate the various “pushing” strategies and introduce a model entitled the Continuum for Confronting Clients. The concept of a “process check” is explored as a useful debriefing mechanism about the process and outcomes of the sessions. The authors present this late in the book even though it should be used consistently at the conclusion of many meetings.

The final section, entitled Coaching Special Populations, ties up loose ends and describes issues the authors say are not often discussed in the literature. The section highlights cultural, gender, minority, generational, and senior executive (identified as “C‐level” executives, e.g. CEO, CIO, CFO) issues that are often faced by coaches. This is an important section of the book since unique demands for coaching arise in these populations.

The epilogue of the book describes barriers and difficulties in achieving personal change. The authors do a nice job of realistically conveying how traumatic it is to change.

Most of the book's ideas are practical and of significant value for the practitioner. Curiously, the book parallels the field of therapy – an area the authors warn practitioners not to cross into. When one looks at a recent text on counseling, one recognizes a similar pattern. For example, in Corey's (2001) Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy, one reads about issues such as techniques and models for identifying the current state of a client, the skills required of the therapist and issues for dealing cross‐culturally. It is also interesting that Carl Rogers's theory of “Client Centered Therapy” is referenced in the title of this book. Rogers believed that clients should be treated with unconditional positive regard (Corey, 2001), and this is also what the authors assert. Where the authors differ is that Rogers steadfastly stayed with his non‐directive style regardless of the client's circumstance. The authors recommend a more eclectic approach whereby the coach's style is matched to the requirements of the client.

One area they did not address is when and if the selected style should change during the tenure of a coaching experience. Is it realistic to assume that clients will always want a non‐directive style even though that is what they initially required? The process checks are designed to help identify when coaching directions should change, but the book fails to discuss other signals. It is possible that a client may be pleased with the direction, yet a change is still necessary.

The extensive use of sample dialogues is quite effective at driving home the main points. However, in at least one dialogue, the authors may have erred. In a technique called the “Five Why's,” they suggest the coach ask five “why questions” in a row as a means to “drill” to the real meaning and confront the client. After reading the dialogue one feels pangs of discomfort. The concept of detailed questioning makes sense, but the “five why” approach would seem to cause defensiveness (Merton et al., 1956). This could leave a high‐pressured feeling even if there is a highly trusting relationship. The placement of this section would also seem to be misguided in that matching client preferences and “pushing and pulling” confrontation are not discussed until later. It is doubtful that the authors would recommend a series of “why” questions without considering these issues first. Thus, I recommend that you read the entire book before adopting any one technique as later sections may clarify an earlier technique.

The text offers little guidance on how to recover from mistakes or what happens when the coaching experience is negative. Further, the authors describe some instruments (e.g. lore leadership assessment) but fail to discuss the psychometric properties, including reliability and validity, even in an appendix. In addition, while the survey is very useful, the authors fail to account for the differences between what clients want and what they actually need. Should a coach be guided only by the desires of the client? The use of the authors' “Needs Compass” (chapter 3) would seem to suggest otherwise, but the argument is defeated by a consistent reference to the survey results.

As with all texts, there are some failings. However, in this instance, the strengths of the book far outweigh the weaknesses. The book is an interesting read and covers all the appropriate bases of the coaching experience. While suitable for practitioners, academics will appreciate the empirical research that supports most of the claims of the authors.


Blank, W., Weitzel, J.R. and Green, S.G. (1990), “A test of situational leadership theory”, Personnel Psychology, Vol. 43, pp. 57997.

Corey, G. (2001), Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy, 6th ed., Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, Belmont, CA.

Cummings, T.G. and Worley, C.G. (2001), Organization Development & Change, 7th ed., South‐Western College Publishing, Cincinnati, OH.

Merton, R.K., Fiske, M. and Kendall, P.L. (1956), The Focused Interview, 2nd ed., The Free Press, New York, NY.

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