Seven (or Eight) Reasons Why Executive Coaches Need ACT

I’ve been been talking to fellow coaches at Ashridge Business School about the benefits of using ACT as part of coaching.  It can be an incredibly powerful part of coaching and for many, is the missing piece of the jigsaw.

In the interests of space I won’t try to explain what ACT is, but will restrict myself to listing some of the benefits of using it in a coaching context.

  1. Evidence-based. If coaching is to be progressive and credible, then the interventions used should have been shown to be effective. Over 100 Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) now show ACT works, with most of these in the last 5 years.
  2. Theory-based. ACT is based on a clear theory which attempts to explain something fundamental: how language and thinking influences human behaviour. Because of this theoretical basis, ACT is clear about why changes happen, i.e. the mechanisms of change.  When using ACT, coaches know that it works and why it works.  In session, this enables coaching to become more accurate, as ACT coaches can focus exclusively on the ‘active ingredients’ of behaviour change.
  3. Liberating.  ACT is deeply personal because it puts people in contact with the things they truly care about. The aim is to increase psychological flexibility – the ability to choose one’s behaviour even when experiencing difficult thoughts and emotions. For some people, moving towards one’s values is only possible in the presence of immense pain. But by increasing flexibility, they can be liberated to do that…and the world opens up before them.
  4. Results focused. ACT is a therapy, but the 100 RCTs apply to almost every outcome you can think of; from smoking cessation to chronic pain to workplace performance. By promoting psychological flexibility ACT enables people to choose their behaviour with greater purpose. They are less controlled by thoughts and emotions. It is the ability to focus on a task whilst feeling negative emotions that drives better performance and reduces distress (see Gardner and Moore, 2008). This is therefore a fundamental life skill which applies equally to the clinic and the boardroom. (And don’t get me started on schools…).
  5. Mindfulness, with a purpose. ACT benefits from the immediacy and vitality of being present in the moment.  At the same time, ACT is more than just mindfulness; it is mindfulness with a purpose. It uses mindfulness as a call to action, for people to get out of their minds and into their lives. This is active mindfulness, for the messiness of real life.
  6. Practical and pragmatic. ACT is incredibly practical.  Coaching conversations are primarily about behaviour. ACT has a cognitive component of course, but there is no ‘right’ mindset to achieve, no ‘good’ way to think.  Behaviour is not judged as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but assessed for its ‘workability’, i.e. whether a given action works over the long term.
  7. Consistency. Because of ACT’s theoretical roots, coaches work to a single, coherent and testable model of human behaviour. This allows coaches to multiply reinforce or model psychological flexibility, lending coherence and consistency to sessions. This contrasts with other approaches that more resemble a collection of techniques.   NLP is a good example, as it borrows a number of tools and techniques and relates them to a theory based on language. However, this model has not stood up to scrutiny, and is therefore pseudoscience.
  8. Ignore this final point.  In ACT training you are taught not to believe what the ACT text books tell you, or what Steve Hayes tells you, or even what your mind tells you. You are taught to trust your own experience of what works. So here is my experience…

Before ACT I was a fairly good coach. I established good relationships, was sensitive, brave and as a former consultant I had wide experience.

But post-ACT, everything is different.  When my mind tells me that everything is going wrong, that I am incompetent, that I am a terrible psychologist, I can respond with compassion for myself instead of reacting.

This tiny breathing space allows me more options for responding to my client than I had before. Maybe I will share my experience and model acceptance, maybe I will choose to refocus on the working alliance, or maybe I will reconnect to what matters to me, and recommit to being of service to another human being.

As a result, I feel as though I am more purposeful as a coach, making more of a difference, helping good people do good work in often bad systems.  And that’s not a bad way to spend my time on earth.

But then, of course, don’t believe what I tell you either….

Career Change, Career Development, Career Management, Developing Coaches - ACT Training, Executive Coaching

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