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Can coaches be present and virtual?

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Many years ago I was instrumental in bringing Thomas Leonard the founder of modern coaching to London and helped set up the first life coach training course in the UK. I can still remember the shock and thrill we all felt to hear that he did all of his coaching by phone.

We had questions. Would this strange new idea work in the UK? Would people pay for phone coaching in the same way they paid for face to face? Would it be effective? The answers were yes (ok maybe pay a bit less!) and are still yes but as the means of communication have multiplied the answers have become increasingly complicated.

One thing nearly everyone agrees with is that presence from the coach is a precondition for good coaching and that presence is affected by the medium used for the coaching – whether it is face to face, phone, video or text. But up to now few people have considered how presence is affected by the different mediums and how much they inhibit or support quality coaching.

We are going to consider whether we lose presence when we coach in any way other than face to face. But before we do that we need to look at what we mean by ‘presence’ when it comes to coaching and other helping professions. For many people the idea of ‘presence’ brings up the memory of being in school and the teacher calling out our name and us responding with ‘present’. But if we start in a slightly reverse way by looking at how we know someone is not present. Most of us have had the experience of talking to someone and feeling that their attention was not fully on us. We might see them give a sideways glance or give an insincere or a slow response. All these things tell us that a person’s attention is not fully on us. That is a pretty basic level of presence.

In addition, when you are working with others in a helping capacity, presence means to be as aware as possible of the drives and concerns that are operating in our own consciousness. We can be aware of information from the mental, emotional, physical and possibly spiritual realms. Both arising in ourselves and within client. And the subtle interplay between both people. Simultaneously to noticing thoughts and emotions we are making a moment by moment decision as to whether to act on them. It sounds complicated and yet every coach is doing it in every session to various degrees of subtlety and awareness.

Now what happens to this dance when the client is not sitting physically in front of us but is on the phone/video or even chatting on text with us? Immediately we have less information and less contact. But is this necessarily a bad thing? There is a well-known effect that when we as human beings lose one sense we develop, or at least become more aware, in another area to compensate.

So take away the visual and we have to listen more carefully. Take away the voice and we have to really pay attention to what we are reading to get the possible meanings from it. The channels are reduced but this does not necessarily mean that the coaching will be less effective.

But of course there are dangers and drawbacks in virtual coaching. In my next blog I will explore the dis inhibition effects that can occur as soon as coaches leave the familiar comfort of face to face working.