If coaches and mentors rarely, if ever, offer advice, what do they do? They offer context. Context is “relevant information, which the learner does not hold, but which may have a significant effect upon the quality of the decisions they take”. Context might include:

  • Feedback the learner hasn’t received from elsewhere or that emerges from the coach-mentor’s interaction with them
  • Metaphor or story that shows up an aspect of a situation, which the learner hadn’t recognised or appreciated before
  • Relevant personal experiences the mentor or coach can use to draw parallels
  • A model (for example, the urgent-important matrix) that opens up different perspectives
  • Factual data – for example, how politics work in the organization

The diagram below shows two core contexts that encompass the coaching conversation. The internal context is about raising the client’s awareness of their own thinking processes, their values, aspirations, belief systems, strengths and weaknesses — and a host of other things that define who they are and their potential to become and to achieve. The external context is about how they interact with other people and the wider world – for example, who or what influences them and who or what they influence. It is about understanding both threats and opportunities.

The coaching or mentoring conversation links heightened self-awareness with heightened environmental awareness (environment meaning “anything that is not you”) to enrich how the learner analyses issues, determines what is most desirable and most important, decides what actions to take and plans how they will muster the resources and support they need to bring about change.

Non-directive questioning provides the stimulus for the learner to make sense of what they already know. But that’s not enough, when they have only a partial picture. If the coach or mentor has relevant insights, which would make a positive difference to the quality of the learner’s thinking and/or decision-making, then it would be unethical to withhold it. In some cases, it may even breach their “duty of care” towards the client.

Hence, a critical competence for both coaches and mentors is judgement about when and how to offer context. Some practical guidelines are:

  • Never tell “war stories” – they are almost more about the coach-mentor’s ego than useful input to the client
  • If you do offer an anecdote or experience, explain first why you think it may be relevant and ask for permission to share it
  • Offer the bare bones of a piece of contextual information first; let the client indicate what more they need
  • Before offering context, always ask yourself “Am I sharing this for my own benefit, or because it is truly important for the client’s thinking?”
  • Remember that your experience will never be more than partially relevant – the client’s circumstances, values and future path will only approximately align with your own.


David Clutterbuck 2018

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