Critical Moments in Coaching

The Ashridge Centre for Coaching has been engaged in the study of ‘critical moments’ in real coaching conversations since 2002. We have asked clients, coaches and sponsors which moments they would characterise as ‘critical’ (exciting, tense, or significant) in their experience of coaching.

This has provided us with rich insights into the fabric of real coaching conversations, and has given us a first indication of which ‘sub-outcomes’ (outcomes per moment, or per session, or between sessions - as opposed to overall outcomes of a full coaching assignment) can be achieved. We now have a dataset of over 600 critical moments as described to us by clients, coaches and third-party organisational clients.

This longitudinal study continues and has resulted in a range of publications to date, including books and journal articles:

  • Critical moments of inexperienced executive coaches: approximately 75% were consultants (internal and external) who had recently completed a full-year programme in management consulting, and about 25% were independent coaches. 80 moments were collected. All critical moments could be expressed as doubts of coaches.
  • Critical moments of experienced executive coaches: 78 descriptions of critical moments were collected from coaches with at lease eight years' experience. All critical moments could be expressed as anxieties of coaches as they grapple with recurring struggles in their clients work.
  • Critical moments of highly experienced executive coaches: in-depth interviews were conducted with very experienced coaches (on average 11 years' experience), to reveal 49 critical-moment descriptions. Each critical moment reveals an experienced rupture in the relationship, such as misunderstanding, anger, re-contracting and referral, withdrawal and termination. The resulting outcome depended on whether continued and shared reflection was possible following the critical moment.
  • Critical moments of clients of executive coaching: 59 descriptions of critical moments were collected; clients report new realisations and insights as being most helpful from their coaching experiences. 
  • A comparison of critical moments as seen by experienced coaches and their clients: taken immediately following coaching conversations, 86 descriptions of critical moments were collected from coaches and their clients. Both report new realisations and insights as most critical in their direct experience of coaching; there is also substantial agreements about specific moments in the sessions that were critical, and the reasons for this. 
  • Longitudinal study of critical moments: a series of 86 critical moment descriptions were collected from a single coach-client relationship over ten sessions, so that critical aspects of the relationship could be followed from session to session.
  • Critical moments of colleagues of clients: this is the first study to explore directly the organisational impact of coaching conversations, but studying effects that are noted by those who are not present, but are ultimately also clients of coaching conversations. 177 critical moment descriptions have been collected, demonstrating that organisational sponsors have a different perspective on change through coaching than that of clients and coaches. 

This research has resulted in a number of publications including:

  • Page, N. C. & De Haan, E. (2014) 'Does coaching work? If so, how?' The Psychologist 27(8), 582-586
  • De Haan, E. & Nieß, C. (2013) 'Critical moments of coaching: a comparison between clients’, coaches’, and sponsors’ perceptions of change.' Training Journal, January pp65-69
  • De Haan, E. (2014) ‘I Doubt Therefore I Coach: Critical Moments in Coaching Practice’ and ‘I struggle and emerge: critical moments of experienced coaches’. In: Fundamentals of Coaching and Mentoring (Ed: B. Garvey). London: Sage

Search our publications database for specific coaching related articles, or read more about our research on Coaching Outcomes

Find out more about the Ashridge Centre for Coaching and Erik de Haan