“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” ~ Albert Einstein
Research is generally defined as something along the lines of being a systematic gathering, analysis and reporting of information to describe an observed phenomenon. I prefer to think of it simply as story-telling. Why? For the reason that conducting research and telling stories both involve a way of seeing and then describing the world. As a researcher, I am a story teller, conveying ideas and studied observations in a way that captures the interest and imagination of the reader. Sure, some pieces of research are naturally more inspiring than others. Still, each time, there is a story to be shared and understood.
COMENSA’s Research and Definitions Committee (RDC) encourages coaches and mentors to become practitioner-researchers. Research opens up dialogue within a professional community. The coaching industry needs more research to take place so that our evidence-based understanding of coaching and its applications can grow, helping us to establish best practices.
Coaches are trained to be observers. We ask ourselves questions such as: What is going on here? Where is this coming from? What can be done about it? This kind of reflexivity puts coaches in an excellent position to conduct research, because the research mindset is already in operation. The dual role of practitioner-researcher requires an enhanced form of reflexivity, where a coach is thinking of the applications of their coaching practice to the broader industry of coaching.
Shaw (2003) describes the following general characteristics of practitioner research:
- Practitioners themselves decide on the research questions, aims and outcomes
- The research usually has a benefit, which is immediate and direct
- The focus is on the practice of the practitioner and or his/her peers
- It’s small scale and short term
- It is self-contained as its own project
- Practitioner usually carries out research as a lone activity
- It is one kind of “own account” research
- The focus is not restricted (can be evaluative, descriptive, analytical etc)
At the Global Coaching Convention held last year in Cape Town, many coaches shared their practitioner research. It was a lively and engaging learning experience for us all. I believe that the vast majority of coaches that attended went away with an understanding of the importance of practitioner research and the rich contribution it offers to dialogues around coaching. The remainder of this article will discuss a piece of practitioner research that grew out of the coaching and dialogue work of Jonelle Naude.
From: The No-Name Initiative: unfolding active citizenship
Practitioner research paper presented at the Global Coaching Community (GCC) Rainbow Convention, Cape Town, 11– 14 May 2011. Cape Town: GCC Rainbow Convention by Jonelle Naude
“As coaches, we hold coaching as a powerful transformational tool that could be used in both
individual settings and group”
(Whitworth, Kimsey-House and Sandahl, 1998; Whitmore, 2006).
In this study I aimed to place coaching philosophy firmly within the arena of social development and social upliftment in South Africa. Coaching is a powerful tool that can facilitate change, empower the marginalised, and enhance individuals’ sense of responsibility and ownership (Hangrove, 1995; Mink, Owen, and Mink, 1993; Whitmore, 1992; Stober, 2006; Rosinki, 2003).
Within our South African social and economic context where there is a heightened need of skills development, transfer of wealth, and equalisation, I would assert that coaching is a valuable tool to facilitate and contribute to these national objectives. Moreover, as coaching is still an emerging profession, it needs to stay aware of how and where it is needed – and how this in turns informs the development of coaching practice within the South African context. As such, I explored a combination of principles true to coaching as well as large-group change work (Mindell, 1992; Block, 2007; Owen, 1992) - in an attempt to explore my 2-part research question:
- What is needed, at this stage, in South Africa for greater healing, transformation and equality?
- How could coach-like-dialogue meet some of these needs?
No small questions indeed!
Arnold Mindell (1989, 1992, 1995), the ‘father’ of process psychology and Worldwork, compares being present to and accessing the gift of diversity to ‘sitting in the fire’: “Creating freedom, community and viable relationships has its price. It costs time and courage to learn how to sit in the fire of diversity” (Mindell, 1995:17). For many pressing reasons, explained in depth in the full research paper, I decided to “jump in the fire”, and what followed was a rich journey of discovery, despair, hope, transformation, resilience, love and power.
In an attempt to explore the first question, I identified and interviewed five experts and practitioners in the field of political and social sciences. After qualitative data analysis and further review of literature and theory, a framework (the “High Road Framework”) was constructed as a proposed outline to what might be needed at present in South Africa to move forward and follow the “high road”.
In my endeavour to answer the second question I explored how the “No-Name Initiative” (NNI), a proposed facilitation process that incorporates principles of coaching and change work, might address this High Road Framework. The creation of the NNI was informed by the findings of this study, my own training in different models, extensive literature research and further consultation. The NNI has two broad functions: It provides the platform for a transformational group process, and generates the space for creating personal accountability structures. As such, the NNI is a synthesis of coaching principles (including visioning, connection, personal accountability and commitment) as well as dynamics of change work, with an emphasis on Mindell’s (1989, 1992, 1995) Worldwork.
Three NNI facilitations were employed during 2010. The three facilitations were thematically analysed and placed against the backdrop of the High Road Framework for further analysis. The findings showed that all elements of the High Road framework were inherent in the NNI. In the final discussion of my study, the NNI was further explored as an interface between the High Road Framework and the emerging change theory of Scharmer’s (2009) Theory U, adding rigour to the research findings. Moreover, in keeping with the social constructionist nature of this study, the framework was further informed and developed by the experience and analysis of the NNI facilitations. This resulted in an adapted version of the High Road framework.
From this study then emerged a possible framework for what is currently needed in South Africa to move forward (High Road Framework) in greater healing and transformation, as well as a proposed first-phase group process structure (the No-Name Initiative) to meet the framework’s objectives.
The High Road Framework, in summary then, took on the form of a cluster of concepts:
- A Metaview: That a process is needed which would enhance understanding of ‘other’ and increase active citizenship and build community.
- A Goal: The metaview could be accomplished by crossing the metaphorical “divides” in our South African reality.
- A Cluster of Intentions and Activities: We seem to cross some of these ‘divides’ (if only temporarily) when we endeavour and engage in the following intentions and activities:
- Acknowledging rank and power discourse - both on a individual and systems level (truth speaking and staying present with an open heart)
- Accessing the creativity and resourcefulness of the system (this becomes possible once we speak our own truths and surrender to the process with an open heart)
- Enhancing communication and empathy
- Create structures for practical and emotional change.
- Growing ownership and activism
- Allowing and evoking a new sense of community
My personal journey in designing and launching the NNI pilot has been a rich and fulfilling one –
and not without its challenges. Being a white South African woman posed some challenges
throughout this process. My agenda was questioned by many, and judged by some. For me, these were the true moments of “sitting in the fire” (Mindell, 1995).
I learned that through acknowledging our distrust in the moment, allowed for more opportunity in transformational dialogue. As such, each encounter – interviewing experts, talking to colleagues or acquaintances about the NNI, setting up NNIs, and facilitating the NNIs – became transformational conversations in their own right. The common denominators for these conversations were (a) having a heart at peace and not at war (the intension to understand and to let go of your own assumptions and perspectives (Arbinger, 2006); (b) having courage to ask the hard questions; and (c) staying in the conversation, however uncomfortable it seemed. I learned how to better accept and utilise the construct of being a “white woman in South Africa” by going to the heart of underlying assumptions, being a vehicle of apology and witnessing, and engaging in meaningful (often transformational) conversation.
Of course there are many factors (including rank and power discourses) that needed to be acknowledged – factors already mentioned in the body of the full research paper. Being privileged (through history and in our current reality), asked of me to fully accept it and own the responsibility that accompanies it. Often, we do not know how to be with our own privilege and rank. We try and “give it away” or compensate for it to relieve our own discomfort. Still other times we misuse it, consciously or not, to get our way. For me, part of building the bridge over the “divides” includes to fully accept any power or rank we might hold in our lives (whether it be social, psychological, spiritual or contextual), to acknowledge it, and then to use it, with the utmost awareness of our impact, to the greater good of our society and the systems we live in.
More than this, I remembered that it “is never personal” (and it is...). Our view of the world and those around us are influenced by our perspectives that result from beliefs and in turn our interpretations of our experiences. By acknowledging this, we can be powerful allies for each other to help facilitate greater awareness of our own lenses through which we view each other and our world - and meet each other anew in our common moments of remembering who we really are.
The full research paper can be read at (with full list of references):
You may feel that including research into your practice is a bit scary, if you are not familiar with research methods and tools. RDC offers a short workshop to assist coaches in their research, helping them to find a place to start. If you would like more information on research, please look at the research pages on the COMENSA website.
Shaw, I. (2003). Qualitative research and outcomes in health, social work and education. Qualitative Research, 3(1):57-77.
About the Authors:
Karolyne Beets is a coach, facilitator, researcher and managing director of a leadership development consulting company that specialises in peer education. She trains managers as coaches and is chairperson of the COMENSA Research and Definitions Committee. Karolyne can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonelle Naude is an international coach, coach trainer and change facilitator. She is faculty member of the Coaches Training Institute and trains coaches across the UK and greater Europe in the co-active coaching model. She is also co-founder of the Recovery Coach Training and Consultancy group in the UK and South Africa. Jonelle can be reached at email@example.com