Research Paper By Kathleen Vellinga-Suprata
(Creative Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
Provoking a Client towards Change: Yes or No?
In provocative therapy you play devil’s advocate with the client. It’s like the affectionate teasing banter between close friends. – Frank Farrelly
It might have been my slightly rebellious nature, the part of my being that resonates with the saying, “Well-behaved women rarely make history”, that instigated my Google search for alternate approaches to traditional coaching. As an aspiring graduate of the International Coach Academy (ICA), I had found myself immersed in the Codes, Ethics and Morals of the International Coaching Federation (ICF), the organization that regulates the coaching profession, and I was feeling quite overwhelmed. So many aspects to think about and integrate into my coaching style, which had – pre-ICA – consisted mostly of instinctive coaching to anyone who came to my kitchen table, so to speak, pondering life’s questions. I had already begun to naturally integrate all of what I’d already learned in the ICA program into my idea of how I wanted to coach. The valuable knowledge gained from my training greatly expanded my coaching skills repertoire and allowed for a better understanding of the coaching process.
When I began to actually coach clients (both internal and external) within the ICF guidelines, however, I began to feel that my spontaneity, my creativity, my desire to energize clients was lost having to adhere to this rather strict form of professional coaching. The guidelines felt confining and limiting. I was stumbling over my own words, in order to ask questions in an open ended manner. I was frustrated at not being able to offer more direct advice, to say what I was really thinking. Even when lightness was injected into a session, it felt censored, monitored. I encountered clients that, with even the most powerful questions and the most active listening I could offer, were not able to move forward. Was the traditional coaching style failing both of us? Or was I alone, failing my clients?
It was a case for Dr. Google. I needed to know whether or not traditional coaching, or rather, coaching along ICF guidelines, was friend or foe with what I have always imagined I would bring to my clients: the unfiltered experience of a fearless, entertaining, passionate, creative woman who has reinvented herself over and over. I was now focused on finding the best way to support others in their journey. I recognized that what I love most about coaching is the concept that all of us – each of our clients – always has the answer. The art of coaching is being able to peel away the layers, one by one, to get to the ‘gold’, what I call the “magic zone”, where everything is possible. Those layers can be limiting beliefs, fears, lack of confidence, outside voices and – if we acknowledge we are human – we all have these layers. In my own life, I’ve met and continued to meet challenges with fierceness, determination, and – after working through each layer – a “No Big Deal” type of attitude. So, hearing clients return session after session to the same issues, with little tangible recognition of progress or motivation to work deeply, I was thirsty to know how best to shake up our sessions in a manner that would best serve these clients.
After an hour of googling every word search imaginable, from ‘lightness in coaching’ to simply ‘telling it like it is coaching’, I somehow ended up at ‘Provocative Coaching’. A-ha! I thought. I knew I wasn’t alone in thinking that some clients did need a little push in the right direction now and then. But, provoking a client…really?
Provocative Coaching is largely based on therapeutic techniques used by therapist/social worker Frank Farrelly (or Frank, as his colleagues and friends still affectionately refer to him, two years posthumously), best known for the 1974 book Provocative Therapy1. In his book, Frank defines Provocative Therapy as “an attempt to provoke the client into certain kinds of responses”. He goes on to explain,
… what distinguishes provocative therapy from other approaches is its degree of directness and use of confrontation, its contradictory and equivocal communicational style, its systematic use of both verbal and nonverbal cues, and the eschewing of professional dignity and deliberate use of humor and clowning.
Although Frank Farrelly sadly died in 2013, Provocative Therapy is alive and well, with Nick Kemp and Jaap Hollander, two of Farrelly’s former students and close colleagues.