Language as Action: Managing Progress and Accountability

In a previous post I wrote about the concept of Destiny in Appreciative Coaching. For many, the ‘radical’ approach outlined in that article made sense and breathed new life into their coaching practice; however, many people are curious – how do we evaluate or monitor our client’s progress as they live out their Destiny? The International Coaching Federation (ICF) requires its members to adhere to eleven core competencies. The purpose of these competencies is to help coaches support and maximize their client’s personal and professional potential. One core competency involves managing a client’s process and accountability. This article intends to suggest some methods to: measure, track and evaluate the progress of one’s coaching, assess progress and accountability, and reinventing what these terms can mean for us as appreciative coaches.

Progress and Movement

There is a paradigm of progress that says that to progress we must close the gap between where we are and where we want to be. We start here and move to there. In this paradigm milestones, markers, progress indicators all make sense and are very helpful in making good progress. Let’s call this the traditional paradigm of progress.

There’s another paradigm that says that progress is really only seen in hindsight. We look over our shoulder and say, “yes I progressed”, but we cannot actually ‘progress’ in the present moment. In the present all we can do is live and act according to a set of beliefs and assumptions about what is possible for us right now. There is, of course, progress in this paradigm (as well as hard work), but the notion of struggle to ‘close the gap’ is absent. We are relieved of the struggle to succeed, and instead act in accordance with the future that calls us. The future we are ‘living into’ lives as something possible in the present. It is held in our images of the future.

These images of the future are held in language and are what we call possibility statements or provocative propositions.

Looking at these two paradigms, it’s clear that the traditional paradigm lends itself more easily to managing our goals and keeping track of our progress towards them. The question we are attempting to explore here is, how would this process look inside the second paradigm? And — is it necessary to track progress when we are coaching from this paradigm? How do we maintain our focus on the positive when we are looking at the inevitable shortcomings that will crop up?

I will stick my neck out and say that no matter how strong the resonance with one’s dream image and provocative proposition, most people need some form of reminding and reconnecting as they move into greater alignment with their provocative propositions. Personally I know this from art-making, film-making, coaching, parenting, mindfulness: Inspiration is not the whole picture. We need to pick up our paintbrush and, stroke by stroke, complete the image we have in mind.

Language Is the Brushstroke of Coaches

If the post-structuralist approach of AI is taken seriously — if our social realities are constructed through language — we can surely harness this and use our language with awareness.

There is no fixed way to create the futures we see in our provocative propositions; rather our intent is that we connect with our positive core – that which enlivens us, and from that create an image of the future that calls us. This is the core contribution of AI — a way of generating new possibilities. In the phase that follows, referred to in Appreciative Inquiry as Destiny, several ways of innovating and improvising actions have emerged and proven very successful. Many of these are specifically designed for group work and as such are less useful to one on one coaching. But there is an approach that gets used in AI that I believe holds promise for managing accountability in coaching.

As with many destiny phase practices, this practice is not unique to AI, and has found extensive expression in the work of Fernando Flores, a pivotal figure in the genesis of the field of coaching itself. He built on the work of philosopher John Searle, who spoke of ‘speech acts’ — ways of using language that actually act on our realities.

Four Brushstrokes: Declarations, Requests, Offers and Commitments

Once we have created a possibility statement or provocative proposition, we have declared a future to be possible. This speech act of declaration actually brings about a new possible future. In working with groups in AI we often invite members to begin living that future by making an offer of a resource, committing to an action or requesting things from others in the group. Since we are co-creating our social realities in language, these acts are all language-based.

The power and usefulness of each speech act lies in one’s awareness and understanding of them. Let’s take a moment to review each speech act.

  • Offering is simply making an offer in a way that the person we are offering to help/assist is free to accept or reject our offer. Sounds simple but when we are enmeshed in problem solving, our offers can have ulterior intentions and strategies – they are part of our strategy to solve the problem. Here however, an offer is freely made, without attachment to outcome.
  • Committing is simply committing to do something.
  • Requesting is asking for something where the person we are asking it of is free to accept, reject or counter offer. Requests, in this way of speaking, are not demands — that is because the person we make a request of is free to refuse our request. If they accept, they are effectively making a promise.
  • Declaring is bringing a new reality into being through language. A good example is when a priest ‘declares’ a couple married. At that moment, they are married, before that they are not. When we declare our future in language, as a provocative proposition, we are bringing into being a new reality for ourselves. That is why we always feel different as a result – our beingness is altered when we declare it.

It Is Appreciative To Admit Our Mistakes

We are almost ready to begin using these speech acts in our coaching. Before we do, we need to remind ourselves that only in the problem-solving approach is a broken promise a problem – for it is perceived as a fail, something that reflects poorly on our character. Conversely, in the appreciative approach, a promise is a commitment to take a certain action that is undertaken freely. Commitments that we don’t keep are not reflections on our worthiness. They are not problems. When we paint and make a mistake, we can paint over it. Often our second (or third) attempt will be surer and clearer.

Spontaneity, innovation and improvisation require an appreciative way of working. When the commitment is fulfilled it is a success to be celebrated; when the commitment is unfulfilled it is a pause to learn from our mistakes and to take appropriate action from there. It is appreciative to learn from our mistakes. It is appreciative to admit faults. Not admitting them only occurs when we have a deficit-based belief about ourselves.

Managing Accountability in Appreciative Coaching

In using these four speech acts we have a tool for managing our coachee’s accountability. In particular, in Destiny conversations a coachee can choose to make certain commitments to their coach about actions they are inspired to take — innovative actions that live out their provocative propositions.
Then, in the agreements we form with our clients, we can co-create a reporting system that keeps account of the commitments made. Perhaps we start each session with a check in on their commitments since last session. And as we do this we can make sure to celebrate our client’s achievements early and often; and we can also create a safe space for shortfalls and mistakes to be embraced and learned from.

There is no need for excuses of why we messed up. We make excuses when we’re expecting to be judged, by ourselves or others. Remind your coachees that when they report an unfulfilled commitment, there is no excuse needed. Ask them if they are still inspired by the commitment, and check if there’s any further support needed for its completion.

Above all, our task in coaching a client in destiny is to maintain the focus on the client’s positive core — the core of strengths they have and are. When their commitments are aligned with their core values and strengths, rapid and deep change is possible.

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