Give a man a fish, or teach a man to coach?

In a coaching workshop, a participant shared a powerful insight: “I’ve just realised – this programme is called ‘Coaching with Emotional Intelligence’ and you mean coaching with your own Emotional Intelligence… the tools and models are useful, but it’s really about using my EI when I’m coaching!”

A moment’s contemplation was broken by raucous laughter around the room, full of warmth and empathy for a challenge every coach faces: how do you deploy knowledge and techniques without disrupting the coaching relationship, the human connection that enables learning and change? The laughter reflected a shared experience – having introduced a structure for coaching conversations, as part of the course we provided cards with example questions. Although everyone agreed these served best as a support rather than a constraint, the temptation of over-using the knowledge and cards led some participants astray. Much was learned from this activity about staying present, listening fully, being guided by the person on the other side and most importantly, coaches trusting themselves to ask questions spontaneously – in summary, to use their Emotional Intelligence.

Ashridge Business School research supports this by highlighting the importance of the coaching relationship. Investigating what determines the helpfulness of coaching, “quality of the relationship” is identified as a core factor (de Haan et al 2011). Behaviourally, clients found listening, understanding and encouragement most valuable, especially early on when the coach/client relationship is forming. A subsequent study reinforces that the working alliance is significantly related to the coaching outcome (de Haan et al 2013). These papers also note that skilfully deploying the right techniques at the right time, and the coach’s breadth of interventions, do positively impact helpfulness; however for clients, the relationship is the priority.

How then can all of us as coaches apply our Emotional Intelligence, form quality coaching relationships and skilfully deploy techniques?

There is no single answer, however my experience is that effective coaching principles are a great help. Through developing more than 1,000 people as coaches we have distilled seven coaching principles aligned to JCA Global’s model of Emotional Intelligence, which informs all our work with leaders, teams and organisations:

  • Recognise the value you bring as a coach
  • Believe in your coachees and their potential
  • Be aware of yourself
  • Build the coaching relationship
  • Act intentionally and in service
  • Promote accountability and personal growth
  • Reflect on your practice

Such principles underpin technique, guide reflection-in-action and act as a compass for navigating coaching conversations. For example, our principles around relationship, service and value remind us that a thoughtful, empathetic question emerging a little clumsily far outweighs the most artful, pre-prepared question that jars rapport or doesn’t meet the client’s need.

It’s valuable for everyone to consider:

  • What principles do you work to, as a coach or as a leader?
  • How do your principles serve you, those you work with, and your shared goals?

By reflecting on my teaching practice, I had recognised that the example question cards had been handed out too soon in the session – paraphrasing the saying ‘to give a man a fish feeds him for a day, but to teach a man to fish feeds him for a lifetime’, I had unintentionally provided a tasty catch that overtook participants’ experience of testing their own rods in coaching’s flowing waters. We had shared in the relationship-technique dilemma!

Socrates wrote “I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only make them think“. My sincerest wish is that our principles continue helping our community of coaches to think, to use our EI, and to fish out our best coaching from within ourselves.

We are running our next Coaching with EI programme on the 20th to 21st of September 2017, London. The course is designed to meet the exacting standards of the EMCC and involves a commitment of around 5 days across a 4 month period, including the Coaching with EI 2 day workshop. If you would like to chat to a member of the team in more depth about this, please contact

Watch this video to get more of an insight to our Coaching with EI courses.

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