The Coach as “Experience Designer”

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The concept of the coach as experience designer is rarely talked about, but it is part of the job. All the lists of coaching competencies assume clients will feel safe and have a good experience, co-creating that feeling of trust and intimacy. After all, why would you work with a coach if you were going to feel unsafe? The International Coach Federation has an extensive list of coaching competencies and Number 4 in the International Coaching Federation’s list of core competencies is about establishing trust, one component of a helping relationship.  

Cultivates Trust and Safety DEFINITION: Partners with the client to create a safe, supportive environment that allows the client to share freely. Maintains a relationship of mutual respect and trust.

This description is accurate, but fails to mention that unless someone takes the lead in developing a safe, supportive environment, there could be some serious meandering and loss of time. Expert coaches have learned by experience and trial and error what works and what doesn’t in creating a useful, successful experience for a client.

Good coaches have for years been aware that place and surroundings need to be appealing and relaxing in order to engender comfort. They know that as a coach, they need to be warm, inviting and non-judgmental. They know they need to listen deeply and truly hear and meet clients where they are, to pay attention to the clients’ needs. They recognize that it is the relationship between coach and client that enables resolution for the client. They know that the coach must lead with carefully-constructed questions, based on well-honed intuition, in an environment of psychological safety. Research over the past 10 years has shown that people process information with their full body, rather than simply their mind. It takes all the body senses to classify something as an experience. It isn’t a matter of judgement from the mind but the experience of being heard, touched, supported, and challenged to mention some areas.

With the advent of current neuroscience research, there is now also an overlay of science on what creates psychological safety. Neuroscience has found that as a holdover from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we are very sensitive to threat, and hardwired to move away from it and toward pleasure and safety. Our ancestors may have felt threated by a saber-toothed tiger. For us it may be an angry boss.

Several organizations have applied that research to model leadership and employee applications. The NeuroLeadership Institute and Academy of Brain-based Leadership are just two examples.  

The NeuroLeadership Institute’s SCARF® model posits that, as humans, we all need varying degrees of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness to have psychological safety. In the Academy of Brain-based Leadership’s model, S.A.F.E.T.Y™, the main categories are Security, Autonomy, Fairness, Esteem, and Trust, here again with needs varying from one person to the next (the Y stands for “You” and was added to express this specificity).

In 1999, Joe Pine and James Gilmore applied their research and consulting years of experience to write a seminal book called The Experience Economy. They observed that people wanted to have their attention engaged, a feeling of participation, an emotional connection. One dictionary definition of experience is “the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation.” In other words, people will gravitate to and spend money on experiences that allow them to feel and learn. There seems to be a human need for experience. People go to amusement parks to be amused. Clients hire coaches with the understanding that they will be safe to feel, learn and find new ways of being and resolving problems (i.e., achieving success).

A good coach understands all this along with career and work content expertise.

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