Research Paper By Daniel Bass
(Executive Coach, CHINA)
What is coaching? This is a typical questions, oft asked, oft answered. But for me, the real question as of late has been “what is coaching in China”?
First, let’s agree on what coaching is, in general. For this purpose, let’s use the full definition provided by one of the leading global coaching organizations, the International Coaching Federation (http://coachfederation.org):
“ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential, which is particularly important in today’s uncertain and complex environment. Coaches honor the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful and whole. Standing on this foundation, the coach’s responsibility is to:
- Discover, clarify, and align with what the client wants to achieve
- Encourage client self-discovery
- Elicit client-generated solutions and strategies
- Hold the client responsible and accountable
This process helps clients dramatically improve their outlook on work and life, while improving their leadership skills and unlocking their potential.”
With the above definition in mind, I began to think about my own experience coaching in China, as well as asking among my coaching peers. Based on the empirical evidence, it seemed the answer to my initial question was quite obvious. There is no difference in coaching in China.
After the above thinking, my answer then has become “coaching in China is basically the same as everywhere else”. Just like in western countries, coaching is about having someone help you become more aware of yourself. By asking critical questions that make you think hard and force yourself to face yourself. In short, coaching is the same. But what I almost missed was that I was asking the wrong question. For while coaching is the same, the coachees are not!
It is the people being coached in China, the Chinese coachees, where the difference lies. While a lack of comprehension regarding what coaching is may be universal, in China it can be even more daunting to implement this concept successfully. One of the main difficulties to overcome is perhaps the traditional culture of China, with the Confucian influence that still resonates today, there is a basic default to hierarchal obedience. While potentially useful when managing a classroom full of students (and even then, it is questionable), the overbearing respect for the teacher means there is a far stronger impulse to expect the coach to talk and the coachee to just listen.
This means the coach must work a bit harder to overcome this bias towards being led rather than leading. The clear expectation, when it comes to coachees in China, is that the coach is a teacher, someone to turn to for guidance and answers. This, from my experience and research, is the real difference in China when it comes to coaching. And it is absolutely critical to understand this difference when it comes to being a coach in China, and it is also important to realize if you are thinking of being a coachee…perhaps a good topic for your first coaching session!
Without breeching any confidentiality, allow me to share a few examples to help further illustrate this critical point. To start with, let’s take a look at some senior coaching examples. One of my friends and peers, a very senior and experienced foreign coach, with extensive experience both as a consultant and a coach in China, shared some of his experiences working with senior executives in China.
In one typical case, my friend shared the time he was working with a client who was very familiar with the concept of coaching, the client was a very successful CFO in a large foreign company, with ample exposure to modern learning trends and coaching thought. Yet, he still defaulted to wanting to have the coach take the driving seat in their sessions. “What shall we talk about today?” was a typical phrase at the beginning of a session. He was looking to the coach to take the lead. Even more interesting was comments he made like “what shall we learn today?”, clearly he wanted to be told, contrary to the coaching concept. This is not at all unusual, and is a typical representation of common experiences many coaches, including myself, have had. One additional example is worth noting. It is not unusual for the coachee to want homework or other “class” preparation. Chinese coachees can often view coaching as something that needs to be prepared for, potentially asking questions such as “what can I read to prepare?”.
For the Chinese, it seems it is much easier for coachee to sit there and let coach lead, this again is their learned default state, one that may not be easily overcome. Often, sessions can degrade into a greater amount of sitting back and waiting. This is something coaches face here in China, and must work out how to overcome. To further illustrate this, when asked what the best way to call a coach is, many Chinese will use the term “lao shi” (teacher). In fact, when giving coaching and explaining what coaching is to potential coachees, such as in an open info sessions, still many Chinese will default to saying “Ah, so you are my teacher!”.
The end result of this expectation is that the whole process of coaching in China can be more time consuming. In general, Chinese coachees are going to be slow to get started, generally waiting for the coach to take the lead. It can take as many as 2-3 sessions to just get the coachee fully onboard with the coaching process. And even after that, there is the trust hurdle to jump. Often, Chinese will have their guard up, maintaining a large hesitation about jumping right in, meaning more time is spent slowly building up trust between the coach and coachee. This means coaches in China need to be aware that the person may require more hand holding, and you might even need to be prepared to jump from coach to consultant, telling them when asked a question. Yes, I know that may not be “pure” coaching, but there is a need to first get a coachee ready, and this often can mean some breaking of “rules”, requiring a coach to switch to the mentor role from time to time. It is quite a tricky tightrope to walk!
Another example that clearly illustrates this need can be seen in another case. Here, the client was a Chinese woman, 50 years old, who also was a successful senior executive with exposure and understanding to western learning methodology. However, even with all that, in one session, she said “I understand what coaching is, but please can you tell me what to do in this one case…”. There was a true need to switch from coaching to mentoring, not just to meet the expectation, but as a perceived value add.
Based on my conversations with senior coaches in China, I saw the above picture as a true representation of the situation in China, but one of the other coaches, being a coach, asked a very good question, and that led me to begin wondering if this was an age related issue. As we were all relatively senior coaches coaching senior executives who tended to be a bit older. Was this something specific to only one generation?
I therefore asked another friend, someone more new to coaching who is coaching younger people, what her view was. She confirmed that her experience was the same, and also that this was not unique to her experience, but was commonly shared by many other younger coaches or coaches working with younger audiences. She shared personal experiences with various coachees, such as one time when she coached some new employees at a State Owned Enterprise. These new employees approached her with their problems, and they definitely wanted answers not questions.
Additionally, some of her peers had an experience working with college students. In various group coaching sessions in association with the university, the same truth was consistent, if not even stronger. While these students were excited to have the coaching, and had the concept clearly explained to them, they were still more eager for advice to be given than being asked tough questions leading to introspection and growth.
Once again, the communal experience conclusively demonstrates the clear expectation here in China still lean more towards being advised, Chinese coachees want to be told, they want the coach to solve their problems. In a sense, there is a greater comfort in a mentoring approach rather than a coaching approach. Perhaps this is great for those of us who are consultants, but the next question that must be answered is how can coaching be made more effective and how can this difficulty be overcome?
Specifically, we need to ask what can be done to make coaching work better given the above expectations and biases.
While each coach will have to come up with their own solution, I can share the advice of one experienced coach in China. Based on his experience, he has this advice: create a structure to frame coaching. He has found that Chinese operate better when they have a clearer structure to work with, something that helps them focus their thinking by framing the overall process. This does not mean telling them what to do, it is merely suggesting some simple direction that they can use to help them explore their issues.
For example, this coach has a selection of books that he recommends to his coachees. He has them read them in advance, and use it to prepare for each session. This plays into the Chinese “what can I do to prepare” question from before. In this case, they can (and will) prepare for their sessions. Then the ideas from the reading can be used to help focus each session. Certainly, they still work on issues that are related to them, but they can use the reading as a way to help them focus and to think about what to discuss.
By using the books as a guideline, he is able to align their expectations and create a deeper focus for the sessions. It is important to note that while they come into each session with some expectations based on what they have read, the session itself is still conducted using the coaching principles of “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential” (from the ICF definition of coaching).
And that is no small feat, to create a balance between structure and creativity. But it can work, and this unique blended approach may be a good answer to a tough question.
Ultimately, perhaps this is the real meaning of Coaching with Chinese Characteristics. In China, there is an even greater need to create structure that enables Chinese coachees to be able to feel more comfortable and open up faster to the real coaching process. After that, the process should be the same as elsewhere.
But this does still engender the final question of, quite simply, is this the right thing to do? Is that too “guiding”, and hence the opposite, or at least counter, to the principles of coaching? In my humble opinion, no. This structure is merely yet another tool in the coach’s toolbox that can be applied to the appropriate situation in an appropriate manner. Just like all our other tools, wheel of life, strengths finder, visualization, etc. etc., it has a place and when used properly will only help the coachee achieve their goals in the most effective way for them.
As long as everyone involved comes to the understanding that coaching is a process where the coachee comes to their own solutions, and the coach is there to help them with the process, then it will continue to work. The danger, of course, is that the coach will be pushed into a more consulting role, and will be looked upon to solve the problems for the coachee. As stated earlier, this is to be expected, and in some cases a blended coaching style is acceptable, and may even be in the true best interest of the coachee. However, usually the best course of action is to steer the coachee back on track and continue to enable them to gain greater self-awareness that allows them to find their own solutions.
In the end, then, Coaching with Chinese Characteristics is about how to be an effective coach in China, and not really about doing anything dramatically different. It is about equipping yourself, as a coach, with the appropriate tools for the job, and preparing yourself to deal with coachees that my expect a different approach, and learning to gently ease them back into the driver’s seat, until they no longer see you as the “lao shi”, but instead see themselves as the teacher and you as their partner in the coaching journey.