When Executive Coaching Connects: A Phenomenological Study of Relationship and Transformative Learning, James Leonard Marlatt
The purpose of this study was to understand the nature of human relationships and how they can contribute to transformative learning. A hermeneutic-phenomenological methodology was utilized to explore the subjective experience of three executive coaching relationships situated in large, western-based, for-profit organizational settings. I researched my own executive coaching relationship to three female business managers. The data for analysis included transcripts of the coaching conversations, and my own prior phenomenological protocol statements as a coachee who had experienced transformative learning.
A phenomenological and hermeneutic analysis revealed 21 meaning structures that characterize transformative learning in the context of an executive coaching relationship. These structures are enduring disorientation; disorienting encounters; the executive coaching lifeline; coming to terms with disorientation; affinity; evolving trust is foundational; trust eroded; performance anxiety; dialogic openings; the free-flowing dialogue; anticipation; authentic disclosure; limits of self-disclosure; moving beyond the emotional angst; unexpected impacts; reflective leaps; epiphany emerges; a pragmatic shift; learning perspective; inverted relationships; future possibility (work-life balance). These structures were organized into six thematic patterns: the catalyst for transformative learning; the foundation of the executive coaching relationship; the nature of the executive coaching relationship; the nature of the executive coaching dialogue; the ineffable influence of the executive coaching relationship; and transformative learning and the executive coaching relationship.
This study affirms the veracity of the transformative learning theories of the individual and supports Mezirow’s alternative view that a catalyzing disorienting dilemma may be the result of a more evolutionary personal history in the learning process. Significant ineffable elements, rooted in a natural connection that can exist between the executive coach and coachee, were identified. These elements are based in trust and authenticity and can play a critical role in the process of transformative learning that is supported through the coaching relationship.
The study also affirms the efficacy of the practice of executive coaching from a humanistic perspective, as opposed to an evidence-based perspective, in assisting coachees who are facing enduring disorientation in their work world. The coach can take on a supportive role as the coachee copes with the psychological impacts that are associated with enduring disorientation that has a source in dysfunctional relationships with authoritarian individuals in the work place. The sociology of this relational setting can be modeled by an adaptation of Alfred Schütz and Georg Simmel’s conception of “the stranger” as a way to depict the dynamic and influential nature of social distance that exists between the coachee, coach, and other people situated in an organizational context. Furthermore, a humanistic coaching methodology that is based on Kurt Wolff’s pre-phenomenological concept of “surrender-and-catch” offers an ontological foundation from which to understand and follow an unorthodox phenomenological approach to coaching that embraces a free-flowing critical dialogue in support of transformative learning, as opposed to a more directive and goal-focused agenda.
Key Words: lived experience; relationship; executive coaching; transformative learning; sociology of small groups; humanism; trust; authenticity; ineffability; the stranger; social distance; surrender-and-catch