Working Deeply: A Q&A with Robert Barner

By Jaime Goff, Ph.D Jul 19, 2017
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In Working Deeply: Transforming Lives through Transformational Coaching (Emerald Group Publishing, 2017), Robert Barner and Ken Ideus apply their decades of experience in leadership development and executive coaching to show how coaching can move people well beyond behavioral change to achieve deep transformational learning. Barner is an associate professor at Southern Methodist University's Simmons School of Education and Human Development. He was employed for 30 years as a corporate talent development executive and executive coach. Ideus's work in human development spans over 40 years. His experience includes behavioral health, corporate leadership, organizational change and voice communications. Following a successful corporate career, he established a private executive coaching business in London.

As an executive coach who is always interested in furthering my knowledge of the field, I was thrilled to interview Barner recently for the HR Magazine book blog:

How would you summarize Working Deeply in a few sentences?

Barner: Our book helps coaches understand the psychological and interpersonal dynamics that occur when someone shifts from a behavioral level to something deeper, by taking a hard look at who they are and how they operate in the world. To do that, we brought together a series of theories, concepts, applied learning and research to support coaches in fostering their clients' transformational change.

What does the book offer that other books on coaching do not?

Barner: First, we focus on an often-neglected area in coaching, which is deep transformational learning. Second, Ken and I fold in more than 70 research studies that attempt to weave together seminal concepts that were previously addressed in isolation. For example, what does research about how we visualize our future selves tell us about the types of life decisions we make? Third, we believe the concepts we introduce have cross-cultural application. We include case studies involving coaching clients from China, South Africa and the Middle East, and our book was strongly endorsed by thought leaders in the field, from countries ranging from Sweden to India.

In the book, you identify three levels or access points in coaching: giving advice, encouraging insight and self-reflection, and facilitating transformational learning. What qualities should coaches possess to be able to move within and between all three levels of coaching?

Barner: First, they have to exude a high level of warmth, trust and intimacy. As you move from discussing what your clients are doing on a day-to-day basis as a leader, to questions that are close to the core of who they are and how they see themselves, trust must be on the table. The second thing can be summed up with the word "presence." This means being fully in the room so you can notice small, subtle shifts indicating an emotional change occurring with the person you are coaching. The last thing would be an ability to alter your approach. Executive coaches are very comfortable working with facts, data, and organizational information. To support transformational learning, coaches also have to be comfortable discussing those symbols, metaphors and dominant stories that emerge in the coaching dialogue.

At numerous points throughout the book, you mention the importance of a coach's "use- of-self." What does it look like in a coaching session?

Barner: When you are coaching people, Ken and I both believe that at some point they will bring some of the traits they are working on into the session. This means that a client who is working on being less arrogant may, at some point, make a condescending comment to you. As a coach, being reactive means keeping a poker face and pretending to ignore the comment, even though it is emotionally eating at you. By contrast, good use-of-self means being responsive rather than reactive—that is, putting your pen down, calling your client's attention to what just happened and linking this behavior back to your client's coaching goals.

Jaime Goff has a Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy from Michigan State University and a graduate certificate in executive coaching from Southern Methodist University. She recently launched The Empathetic Leader LLC, to help leaders and organizations succeed.


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