A Research Paper By Jessica Hull, Empowerment Coach, AUSTRALIA
Coaching: Bridging the Growth Gap Through Feedback
The Learning Pit, Zone of Proximal Development and how to use feedback appropriately to scaffold growth and movement towards reaching one’s potential
Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom – Aristotle
In the early 20th century Kurt Goldstein, a physician specializing in neuroanatomy and psychiatry, introduced us to the term ‘self-actualization’. He saw it as the end goal for each living being. Self-actualization meant contentment, enlightenment, and pure joy. Later, infamous psychologist Abraham Maslow further explored self-actualization. Maslow wrote, “What human beings can be, they must be. They must be true to their nature. This need we may call self-actualization… It refers to man’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely to the tendency for him to become what he is potential.” (Maslow, 1987)
However, he also theorized that before humans could thrive at a self-actualized level, they first needed to survive. Put simply, self-actualization occurs when you fully meet your needs and reach your full potential, meaning you’re doing everything that you’re capable of doing (Fielding, 2020).
In 2018, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman conducted a study on self-actualized people. He discovered “The characteristics of self-actualization were also associated with greater well-being across several indicators of well-being, including greater life satisfaction, self-acceptance, positive relations, environmental mastery, personal growth, autonomy, purpose in life, and self-transcendent experiences,” (Kaufman, 2018).
I believe the journey to achieving self-actualization is one of learning and that learning does not need to be conducted alone.
Coaching is defined by the International Coaching Federation (2020b) as ‘partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.’ I believe coaching is the link or bridge to supporting more people to reach self-actualization and SHINE – at home, at work, and in their everyday lives. I believe coaching is a gifted tool to support more people to learn about themselves, understand their motivations and reach greater awareness. I believe the more we understand how people learn and how best to support them in achieving their full potential, the greater coaches we can be. These beliefs were actualized when I started my journey to become a coach.
When learning the principles of coaching and how to become a coach, we were taught to establish where the client wants to go, where they are now and a collection of strategies to encourage them to unearth motivations and move towards their goal by uncovering blockers or barriers may be beneath the surface of the ‘iceberg’. This has proven time and time again to be an effective way to evoke awareness and consequently promote growth. Efficiency is a core value of mine, so I wanted to understand not only WHY this process was so effective in supporting clients to reach their potential, but also HOW to do it efficiently.
This research paper draws together the work of developmental theorists, psychologists, and academics from around the globe. It explores the concept of the ‘Learning Pit, a philosophy about learning I have become familiar with in my career as an educator, and how it can be applied in a coaching context. It then discusses the role a coach plays to build a bridge over the ‘pit’, so an individual’s journey is one of enlightenment and empowerment. To do this, a coach must use their emotional intelligence to ascertain the client’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). It further explores the role of feedback and expands on why I believe this is the most instrumental tool a coach has to support a client along the invisible ascension to self-actualization.
Coaching – Supporting Our Journey to Learn About and Know Oneself
When we know ourselves, we can make informed choices in our lives and develop in ways we didn’t know were possible (Katherine, 2021). Learning about oneself can be both a joyous and confronting process. Our role as coaches is to support our clients in maximizing and utilizing their awareness to take empowering and considered action to achieve goals and live with intent and gratitude, with the outcome of improving contentment and unearthing pure joy. As coaches, we are the collaborators and facilitators of learning and growth. We provide our clients the support that is needed for them to self-actualize their full potential by learning more about themselves and overcoming perceived barriers. Knowledge about how to support learning is therefore vital in supporting our clients through this process most effectively and efficiently.
The Learning Pit
James Nottingham introduced the world to the concept of Learning Pit in the 1990s – the idea that between the space of where we are versus where we want to be, there is a ‘pit’ and that we must first establish, challenge, rearrange, construct, organize and connect old and new learning to generate growth and action. He reiterated learning was not a journey that needed to be conducted alone and instead reiterated the importance of others in helping individuals out of the pit (Nottingham, 2017).
Building a Bridge Out of the Learning Pit – Supporting and Maximising Learning by Establishing a Clients Zone of Proximal Development
Learning is an ongoing process that occurs through every stage of life. Lev Vygotsky, a renowned psychologist and social constructivist whose theories about learning underpin the experiential learning theory and positive psychology, theorized that maximized learning occurred in The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)’, defined as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under guidance, or in collaboration” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).
Vygotsky believed that when a learner is in their ZPD for a particular task (i.e. personal growth), providing the appropriate assistance will give the learner enough of a ‘boost’ to achieve the task (McLeod, 2019). This has a flow-on effect, as with achievement comes a sense of success and with a sense of success comes a greater sense of well-being, personal pride, satisfaction, and motivation.
Vygotsky’s studies were predominantly targeted at children learners within a learning environment. However, I theorize coaching is the means through which to provide appropriate scaffolding to facilitate positive movement within a ZPD for adult learners alike. Vygotsky proposed that child learners needed a more capable adult or peer to support learning. I believe a coach, while not necessarily more knowledgeable or capable, through their competency as a coach, can provide the appropriate scaffolding for clients to be positively supported to more efficiently progress on a learning journey.
Supporting clients to positively identify where they really want to go and where they are (genuinely) about that space requires significant attention and skill, for it is somewhere within the gap between these two spaces which can be considered the ‘Zone of Proximal Development. Working with clients to ascertain their personalized ZPD about their personal or professional challenges, is a skillful and privileged task. To initiate and sustain behavioral change, a coachee must receive information regarding their current position, progress, or lack thereof (Gregory, Beck & Carr, 2011). This is best done through feedback.
Feedback in Coaching
Coaching has its foundations in cognitive and behavioral learning theories. John Hattie, one of the world’s most prominent and influential education academics, investigated the impact of applied learning theories and their effects on learning. Through thorough research, he ascertained that there were several strategies with high effect sizes which could be utilized to support learning (Hattie & Timperley 2007). These include goal setting, assessment, metacognition, powerful questioning, and collaborative learning. We see these strategies clearly in coaching and their impact is undeniable. However, the strategy with the greatest effect size of all of those explored was, indisputably, feedback. It is also intertwined into each of the aforementioned strategies and essentially an overarching element in all aspects of coaching.
Feedback is arguably the most crucial element in both supporting a client to establish their ZPD and then promoting the advancement of their zone towards self-actualization. As coaches, if our focus is to move the client towards self-actualization, to be most effective it must not only occur within a client’s ZPD, but a coachee must receive information regarding their progress or lack thereof along the spectrum via feedback. Many studies have emphasized the necessity of feedback for effective coaching. These studies deemed that feedback was an integral component within the coaching process as, when used appropriately and effectively, it was most effective in revealing discontinuity between desired outcomes and current performance/behaviors (Ellinger & Bostrom, 1999). According to Gregory, Beck, and Carr (2009), this is the necessary ‘awareness’ required to motivate.
Providing Appropriate Feedback During a Coaching Session
What separates coaching from mentoring or consulting is that the coach does not impart their judgment, which is included in many ideas of traditional feedback. ICA teaches that ‘feedback is objective, observable and fact-based. It comes from the coach’s deep listening and observation skills. In offering feedback, coaches describe what they are observing rather than analyzing or assigning meaning to those observations’ (International Coaching Academy, 2020).
An essential element of feedback is the ‘mirror’ we provide our clients when we offer them our non-judgemental observations that they may have otherwise been unable to see themselves. When we reflect a client that we have noticed a repetition of words or a physical response when they discuss a particular topic, we are offering them the opportunity to become aware of their unconscious thoughts, words, and actions and thus provide a platform for them to examine and give themselves feedback.
Feedback therefore may also include shared observations. For example, “I am noticing you look to the floor each time you mention X”. Offering client observations of language choices and notable repetitions in behaviors or physical response, for example, are all ways to provide this feedback. Control theory refers to this as self-regulatory ‘help’, which is a crucial element of the support provided within a ZPD.
It can be argued, even greater than a coach’s shared observations, the most effective feedback adult learners can receive is the feedback that they give themselves.
The challenge for a coach, therefore, becomes developing the techniques to facilitate client-driven feedback. As coaches, it is our role to provide our adult learners many opportunities to reflect on the degree to which they are acquiring and mastering knowledge and/or skills in a given domain (Smith, 2019). It applies to positive feedback and ‘learning’ or ‘improvement’ feedback (rather than ‘negative feedback’) (Smith, 2019).
Positive psychology asserts that to make lasting changes through the process of deep learning, the most effective coaching practice integrates classical conditioning (external information), reinforcement (acknowledgment), transformative learning (via reflection and review), and experiential learning theories (learning by doing followed by reflection) (Houston, 2021). Each of these requires a client to observe, reflect, analyze and evaluate – through self-provided feedback.
Control theory indirectly supports this by proposing that deep self-regulatory help comes from supporting clients to give themselves feedback by encouraging reflection on experiences and state of being through the questions we ask. This may include asking questions specifically focused on promoting reflection, a vital element of positive psychology:
- Personal experience (How did that make you feel?)
- Reviewing previous performances (What went ‘right’);
- Monitoring learning progress through metacognitive prompts (‘What are you learning?’);
- Guiding moving from basic concepts to more complex concepts by asking questions centered around what can be done to work through their dilemma.
This technique of encouraging a client to provide themselves feedback would apply to a conversation about an action, a project, behavior, interaction, or any situation where people are being asked to reflect on themself or their opinion of their ‘performance’ as measured against their success criteria (Gregory, Beck and Carr, 2009). Understanding the origins of their criteria is a further level of depth provided through self-given feedback and is imperative in truly discovering motivations and whether their action, a project, behavior, interaction or any situation will truly support one’s journey to self-actualization and ultimate fulfillment.
Emotional Intelligence – Care When Providing Feedback During the Coaching Process
Feedback can be confronting for many and isn’t always a comfortable experience. Sometimes there can be significant discomfort in growth. Goal-performance discrepancies, or perceptions of them, may have the impact of increasing effort or, at the other end of the spectrum, by lowering or even abandoning the goal. An additional consideration for coaches must therefore include helping individuals learn from their challenges or non-successes without getting discouraged. If clients find themselves in a ‘self-talk-spiral’ of negative feedback, the outcome can be detrimental to growth (Gregory, Beck and Carr, 2009). Kluger & DeNisi (1996) suggested that effective coaches are those who are mindful of the type of feedback that they communicate. When providing feedback, coaches should choose language carefully to facilitate motivational and behavioral changes and to help clients recognize that even negative feedback has value.
This explains why coaches need to be mindful of the type of feedback that they are both giving and facilitating the coaching client to receive from themselves. Being present and mindful to monitor body language and sense levels of ‘comfort’ in receiving self-directed feedback is highly important. Not pushing a client enough will impede results; however, pushing a client ‘too far’ can evoke a stress response in a client releasing a cascade of chemicals in our bodies. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight (Musho-Hamilton, 2015). Thus, this removes a client from their proximal zone and into a detrimental space were shut down and avoidance can be seen. Instead, if a coach offers a reassuring presence and mindfully helps him or her work through and see the value in negative feedback, one piece of ‘just-right’ feedback at a time, the experience stays within the zone of proximal development and the client experience can be maximized.
While Vygotsky theorized about the appropriate level of support as provided by scaffolding, Robert M Yerkes and John D Dodson propose that the right amount of arousal/tension/stress is needed to maximize performance (ICA, 2020).
It is therefore clear that a coach must find the right balance of feedback – enough to motivate growth and scaffold learning, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming, uninspiring, and stressful.
The Ultimate in Establishing Feedback Autonomy
Self-actualization is the ultimate for human beings. It is in this space that fulfillment, contentment, and potential are reached. Coaches have the honor of supporting clients to ascend to this space by providing appropriate scaffolding for them within a Zone of Proximal Development to achieve their deep hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Coaches can enhance growth by mirroring clients’ words and behaviors back to them and crafting questions carefully to encourage clients to provide self-feedback. Using emotional intelligence to ensure they are keeping their client experience at an optimal level of scaffold and motivation, ensures they stay within the ZPD and is an integral component of the coaching journey. Empowering clients to ask these questions of themselves is the ultimate in establishing feedback autonomy and something for which all coaches should strive.
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