Relational Coaching: An interview with Ernesto Spinelli and Erik de Haan


Those familiar with the world of executive coaching will know the name of Professor Ernesto Spinelli, sought after therapist, coach and author of several influential books on existential psychotherapy. In preparation for our upcoming Relational Coaching conference, where Ernesto will be speaking, we took the opportunity to interview him alongside Ashridge relational coaching expert, Professor Erik de Haan, and explore their interpretation of the role of the coach.

Added on 23 April 2015 by Erika Lucas

Relational Coaching

Ernesto, first things first, could you tell us how you understand the art of relational coaching? 

Ernesto: Well, at the heart of relational coaching is the understanding that no individual exists in isolation, but instead as a being who is present in a set of relational conditions. My focus is on the way a client encounters those conditions and how they shape their attitude from their experience. To best serve a client, the coach must seek to explore the tensions between a client and their environment. A client’s sense of belonging, or in some cases not belonging, is critical to helping them understand how to move forward.
As human beings, we all share the experience of facing and confronting any number of uncertainties of living. From a work-related point of view, this might be the eruption of unforeseen conflict within one’s company, or between competing organisations or nations. Whatever the uncertainty may be, however, our experience of it provokes a felt sense of unease, or anxiety. My approach is an Existential one, which recognises that anxiety is not necessarily “a bad thing” but can be used to improve creativity and insight. Coaching can help people realise that the feeling of anxiety can be stimulating, can put us in touch with our sense of being alive. 

That’s an interesting way of looking at it. So, Erik, does that mean coaching is all about context? 

Erik: In some ways, yes, context shapes the way an individual approaches the world, and relational coaching focuses on their patterns of relating – to themself, their colleagues and organisation. But that is not the only important aspect – relational coaching is a radically different way of looking at coaching. It puts the relationship of mutual respect and acceptance, as experienced and co-created by the coachee, at the heart of the work. 

How would you go about creating a good working relationship with your coachee?

Ernesto: The first task is to co-create the conditions where the client can hear their own voice more accurately and honestly. You assist in the person’s understanding of themselves, without distortion. Over time the coach earns the right to ask deeper questions. I find mutual trust is best built through connection, honest feedback and gentle humour. It is vital not to come across as threatening, critical or demanding in your tone or questioning. 

Trust must be incredibly important in establishing a successful coaching relationship.

Ernesto: It is. Once trust is established the coach’s voice can enter to offer different perspectives and new possibilities. If you enter with your own opinions too soon then your client may hear your suggestions as a critique or a demand.

So how does a coach learn to ask the right questions once they have that trust?

Erik: It really comes down to experience and understanding that it is all very closely connected to the expectations a coachee has of their coach. When I begin a coaching relationship I always try to build the relationship consciously, taking note of how the dynamic is developing. Does the coachee expect a doctor/patient relationship? A sparring partner or something more like a peer review situation? Once I know that, I can build questions that fit the personality and the working alliance. 
Ernesto: Yes, understanding the needs and expectations of a client from the outset provides the best starting point you can have. Your task as a coach is to understand as fully and concretely as possible what the client’s desire is. Good coaching encourages detailed description and moves away from the abstract. The ultimate goal is to move from your voice, to my voice and then to our voice. But this transition takes time to master - in the end you sometimes just have to take a risk, throw something in and see what happens. 

Finally, what tips would you have for those embarking on their own coaching journey?

Ernesto: The quality of your coaching depends on your ability to be present, relaxed and bring out a genuine sense of excitement in the client. Once you have this you are in a very good place to achieve something worthwhile. A great anchor question to start with is ‘what do you really want?’ This is simple but fundamental.
Erik: Coaching isn’t always possible to plan in advance, so you should always be adjusting your approach as sessions develop. In executive coaching especially, I find planning too much can create unnecessary restrictions, while allowing the conversation to unfold more organically can be a valuable learning experience.

If this article sparked your curiosity you can find out more about the Relational Coaching Conference and this year’s topic, culture clashes here.