Coaching as a management style: Carl Rogers and the humanists

It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear, it’s not the way you do your hair
But it’s you I like
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you
Not the things that hide you, not your toys
They’re just beside you

But it’s you I like
Every part of you, your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like, it’s you yourself, it’s you.
It’s you I like

Fred Rogers, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood

There are differences between being coached by an external coach, rather than a manager or colleague. The most important of these is the perception you have of the other person. A manager, colleague or partner has a vested interest in outcomes in a way that an external coach doesn’t. Strangely, it’s the way that an external coach is disinterested, the extent to which they don’t rather than do care, that can make their involvement so powerful.

But as someone interested in developing a coaching style of management, the same fundamental approaches apply. And the first of these is to create a reflective space in which it is safe to explore areas of doubt and uncertainty. The great humanist psychologist Carl Rogers famously placed unconditional positive regard at the heart of his approach to helping people.

This was based on observations of children growing up, that a nurturing environment in which the child knows that whatever happens they are OK in their parent’s eyes, creates the confidence and enquiry that allow for later self-actualisation. That there is a true “you” that can find expression, and a way of being that is congruent with and at one with your actual self.

If this sounds a bit 1960’s it’s because it is, and personally I find it too Cartesian, but without doubt it has been validated by practice. Carl Roger’s namesake, featured in the current movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” demonstrates it perfectly; if you don’t like Tom Hanks, watch this clip of the real Mr Rogers.

Funnily it’s creating this environment of unconditional positive regard that can be hardest when you’re close to or working with someone; there are things you will have a view on and can’t go along with without reservation. But nurturing staff, helping them to delve deep, to understand themselves better through reflection and analysis and to explore new and creative ways to address (and even define) problems is what a coaching style of management is all about.

The consequences should be more productive, motivated and confident staff or colleagues. Here are some key techniques of a Rogerian approach to coaching:


The centre of gravity is always the person, or client, being coached. While the discussion could be initiated by something at work, the narrative drive of the conversation should be the person and their thoughts. These may not be ones that you expect, or consider to be correct but that isn’t the point. The point is to encourage the person to follow their thinking, to strip back layers and get to what they perceive to be the core matters of substance. The role of the coach is to follow and not lead this, to be non-directive.

It’s important to state how unusual this kind of dialogue is for many people to experience, if it’s done properly. A much more normal premise of a conversation between two people is to confirm existing narratives and to seek and find similarities. If instead someone is asked to question their assumptions and really think about what their thoughts are it can be an exceptional event for them, that resonates deeply. This has immediate implications as well as longer term ones for how they think about both themselves and their interlocuter.

Open questions

A key way to encourage introspection and deeper thought is through the use of open, rather than closed questions and to follow one open question with another.

Closed questions include a premise and tend to imply a yes / no response (e.g. do you like Tom Hanks?), whereas open questions have a less direct premise and allow for variety of potentially discursive answers (e.g. what do you think about Tom Hanks?). Often the second open question is the most important as it can initiate a sequence of enquiry, while regular conversations often seek instead to reach a point of resolution.

Imagine the response to the first open question about Tom Hanks was “I think he’s the greatest actor of his generation”. A regular conversation might orient itself around this statement, by giving some kind of agreement or refutation e.g. “so do I” or “well I don’t”. Either way, any enquiry into the second person’s thoughts on Tom Hanks is now pretty much closed.

But if the next question is open we start to get more focussed and to begin a journey into increasingly more foundational beliefs.

Person A: What is it about him that you admire so much?

Person B: I know a lot of people knock him but I just think he represents decency in a world where that’s becoming a rare commodity

Person A: Decency – what do you mean by that?

Person B: Values, a conscience, clarity about right and wrong

Person A: Tell me about your father . . .

Active listening

This kind of dialogue seems simple but can derail easily if it doesn’t successfully follow the person’s thoughts (reference the last question as probably an overreach!) Practice and experience help, and we all get this from living with and interacting with people.

Active listening is a way to stay on track. The point is to simply listen and hear. Surely that’s straightforward? Well no, many of us are constantly checking in about what we think of things and making sense of our own view of the world. Hence “But surely Matt Damon is a much better actor, he did all those Bourne movies!” and other thoughts and perhaps comments that interrupt by introducing our views into the matter.

While these are entirely valid, for this period of time the focus is on the client and their exploration on its own terms.

Active listening requires concentration but also real empathy which then engenders tremendous trust. People pick up on this really quickly and intuitively. It has to be real; if you think you can fake it, you will get found out.

Summarise / repeat back

An effective way to show that you are listening closely is to be able to sum up what the client is saying. But this has a further effect on how they process their own thinking. Again, if done well it can be an unusual and potentially challenging experience.

“So, Tom Hanks’ existence helps you feel better about the world you live in?” That might provoke agreement: “Yes I’d never thought about it but I’m not sure if I could cope without him” or further refinement “Well he’s an actor, it’s a façade, so no Tom Hanks isn’t the point, but it’s the idea that there are some people who are decent that matters, whether they’re characters he plays or the lady in the shop”.

Carl Roger’s techniques have much in common with methods associated with Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, that by focussing and exploring you can find deeper truths. These might have been apparent before (to the client) but often are only revealed to them by the dynamic process of dialogue, what people sometimes call ‘lightbulb moments’. Roger’s view is that these insights can also have a profound effect on self-knowledge, ultimately leading to self-actualisation, a profound convergence between how a person would like to be and actually is in the world.

The client is resourceful

There is a key belief that underpins this approach which is that the coach believes the client has the ability within themselves to answer the questions being posed. This is axiomatic when it concerns their personal relationship with the world, but most coaching and especially coaching as a management style also has some more immediate and functional goals behind it.

Sometimes coaching needs to be supplemented by advice and mentoring. How this is done is a matter of skill and experience but part of the point of the Rogerian approach is to address the core platform of a person so that they themselves develop the resilience, autonomy and confidence to seek out help when needed.

Most coaches use the key tools of non-judgement, open and dialectical questioning, active listening and summation and they are a great toolkit for managers looking to use a coaching style. This may usefully be combined with other key styles of leadership which I’ve written about here.

If you’re interested in reading more about Carl Rogers and humanistic psychology, the best place to start is with his book On Becoming A Person.

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