website templates


6 July 2020


Imagine & solve

In previous blog posts, I have looked at two of the five skills that the Academy of Executive Coaching see as key to good coaching (listening and facilitation). This month I am looking at a third, which is the use of creative techniques in coaching. 

A couple of years ago, I had a client who was having a tough time with his manager. My client felt the manager was too picky and detail-focused and that this got in the way of him being able to do a good job that was fit for purpose. We discussed the situation and possible options and my client decided he wanted to discuss the situation with his manager and find ways to improve it. 

The problem was my client was not quite sure how to go about the discussion or how his manager might react. I suggested we use a creative technique called Chair Work, in which the client role-plays the discussion with his line manager, in which he plays himself and his line manager, swopping between two chairs as he also swops between roles. The role-play acted out the discussion that the client wanted to have and allowed him to visualise what he might say but also, when in the character of his manager, what his manager may say in response. 

This exercise also allowed my client to vent some of his frustration at his manager in a safe environment, taking some of the pent up frustration away from the situation and leaving my client more collected for the real discussion ahead. 

After the role-play had completed, I asked my client to reflect on what had happened, what he had felt and how that would influence his preparation and behaviour for the real meeting.

When he fed back to me regarding the actual meeting with his manager, it had indeed gone well, had been professional, produced a productive conversation, cleared the air and they agreed to a new way of working together.

Chair work is one example of creative techniques that I may use with a client when a challenge arises and which lends itself to getting a different perspective on the challenge. The techniques come from Gestalt therapy, which is based on the idea of “staying in the moment” and sometimes likened to the expression “the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.” It assumes that whatever happens in the here and now is valuable and relevant to whatever other issues are ongoing in a client’s life.

The Gestalt Centre, which teaches gestalt therapy, describes it as:

“A highly positive and practical integrative therapeutic approach. Broadly, Gestalt practitioners help people to focus on their immediate thoughts, feelings and behaviour and to better understand the way they relate to others. This increased awareness can help people to find a new perspective, see the bigger picture and start to effect changes.”

It is important to make clear at this point that coaching is not therapy. But what it can do is borrow creative techniques to allow the client to get inside the challenge and imagine how it feels for him or her, as well as to use this greater awareness to shape thinking of what the client may be able to do.

Other examples of creative techniques I might use include:

Places in the room -

This technique is great when a client has a few options (i.e. future career choices) and is trying to work out which one to go with. The client describes the various options (three or four works best), then selects which one to start with and chooses a space in the room that in some way feels appropriate for that option. 

The client then moves to the space and imagines him or herself in that career choice a couple of years into the future. The coach asks him or her to describe why the space resonated with that option, how it feels and possibly scores 1 to 10 in terms of meeting a need, job satisfaction, flexible working – whatever is important to the client. 

The client then repeats this for each option, choosing a different space each time. 

Finally, the client reflects on the experience with the coach and what he or she has taken from it and how it has influenced awareness of the available options.

Objects in the room -

This technique works well to help clients see themselves as part of a system (i.e. a member of a team or group of teams, in which there is a challenge or issue of some sort). It is particularly useful in helping the client see a system with a helicopter view. 

In so doing, clients use objects in the room; Lego figures or objects at hand, paperclips, pens etc. They select an object to represent themselves and place it down, then select other objects to represent colleagues, customers, other stakeholders and again place them down in a pattern that they feel represents the current situation. As they select an object and place it, they describe the person and their role/influence on the system and the people within it. 

Once they have all the people placed and described, they reflect on the objects and think about what they need to do to improve the challenge, based on a new perspective of the players and how they interact.

There are other techniques, such as Visual cards, which is a card deck with varied photos of landscapes, people and objects that can be used to help clients think about what is important to them, based on the cards they select from the deck, and then perhaps use this to better understand their purpose or future life plans.

Last, but not least, there is Timeline -

This is a technique where the client walks an imaginary timeline along the floor to help him or her work through how they are going to get to a future state or deliverable by visualising the future state and the building blocks along the way.

I regularly use all these techniques with clients, as and when they are appropriate, and the client agrees to give them a go. I like using them and find that clients enjoy using them as well and benefit from the different perspective they get from trying a new way of looking at a challenge.

I have to admit that when I first came across these techniques, I was very dubious and thought they were a bit wacky, but after seeing them demonstrated, and then starting to use them in my coaching, I have become a convert and think that being able to facilitate the use of creative techniques is a key skill to have as a coach.

If you would like to know more about using creative techniques in coaching or have any other questions, please get in touch.

From the author:

As coaching is not an advice-giving service, these blogs are not written with the intention of proposing solutions to common leadership challenges. Instead, they are thought pieces with the aim of prompting the reader to think more deeply about the topic and reflect on whether it warrants further exploration, with or without a coach.

If you would like to hear more about coaching and how to make it work for you, feel free to subscribe to my newsletter and to share this blog with anyone that might be interested in learning about executive coaching, how it works and whether it could be of benefit to them.