Coaching and mentoring: A Critical Text

I’ve got a bit behind on posting my readings and now have a backlog, this will be a test of my memory and how much I took in when I read the book! Last month, on my commute I was mostly reading Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text by Simon Western.

Initially, I thought this was quite a dense, “academic” read, as Western’s own premise is that there is not enough engagement with critical theories and critical challenge to much of the discourse around coaching and mentoring. However, although this book was really grounded in theory, this made it really interesting and engaging, as some of the literature around coaching does not have this theoretical underpinning. The lack of theoretical underpinning for a coach’s practice can mean that at best their coaching practice does not impact on their client or at worse can cause damage to their clients. Western points to a trend in some aspects of coaching and mentoring literature to actively eschew theory or reference to theoretical underpinnings.

Western explores the slippery language and definitions of “coaching” and “mentoring”, explores the rise in popularity of these activities with a desire for supporting practitioners by encouraging a more critical and informed discourse. Western outlines four “critical frames” that should be used for a critical approach; these are: emancipation, depth analysis, looking awry and network analysis. It is through these four frames that the dominant discourses of coaching can be considered to develop a coaching meta-theory. Whilst this does sound rather intense, Western’s style is thoughtful and engaging. He uses these frames to explore the history of coaching and mentoring, through different discourses, from pre-modern through to modern and onto post-modern. What I particularly liked was Western’s identification of the four “discourses” of coaching: soul guide, psy expert, managerial and network coach. I found it really interesting to read about the roots of coaching and mentoring, which go back to notions of friendship and soul healers which can be found in ancient texts and religious writings. How the roots of our current approaches of coaching and mentoring can be traced back to shamans, Quakers and saints. Quite humbling!

There are then substantive chapters which consider the theoretical underpinnings, challenges and opportunities of each coaching discourse, which are then drawn together to create this coaching meta-theory. Western outlines how each coaching discourse can be mapped with each other to signify how coaching and mentoring can support knowledge and wisdom for both individuals and wider society (social). In the concluding chapter, Western brings everything together to create a meta-theory of coaching which does not become a super, “uber” theory in itself, but a way of mapping “the terrain of coaching”. His meta-theory encourages engagement and dialogue, that is designed to enable coaches and clients to situate their practice and coaching activities, as well as understand the context in which they are operating, and provide a more conscious choice of approaches.

In my other readings of some coaching literature, being an academic by background, I have wondered about some of the evidence base (or theory) for the methods proposed. Whilst Western’s approach might sound initially rather exclusive and “academic”, I actually found it really interesting and a fantastic way of demonstrating both the historical roots as well as the potential transformative impact of coaching and mentoring, not just for the individual but for wider society. I have frequently found connections between my coaching practice and my yoga/meditation, and this book has reinforced that connection for me, as well as giving support for my intuition that coaching and mentoring could really change the world! You can’t ask for much more than that with a book really, can you? 🙂

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