Five principles of coaching

One of the coaches I most admire is James Flaherty in San Francisco.  Flaherty is the author of Coaching:  Evoking Excellence in Others which is truly one of the definitive texts of the profession.

Flaherty advocates five key principles for coaching: relationship, pragmatism, two-way learning, context, and full engagement. 

One. The foundation of coaching is the relationship between client and coach.  There must be a base of mutual trust, respect, and freedom of expression.  The coach and client have to be able to speak clearly and openly with each other.  In the coaching relationship, feedback, insights, and observations are respectfully and honestly shared between both parties, coach to client, client to coach.  Complete confidentiality is demanded on the part of the coach. 

In law firms this lawyer-coach relationship creates a new space for learning that I believe has never before existed in the profession.  Mentor-associate relationships involve one-way feedback, as do evaluations, and other regimented feedback mechanisms.  For the first time there is the opportunity for a professional to “look in the mirror” as it were and obtain neutral feedback, while at the same time providing feedback for the coach on her own performance.

Two. Coaching is essentially pragmatic.  The goals set are practical and observable.  The coach is always observing the outcomes and self-correcting along the way.  Flaherty writes: 

¦it’s a discipline that requires freshness, innovation, and relentless correction according to the outcomes being produced.  In other words it is invalid for a coach to say, I did everything right, but the coaching didn’t work. My view is that the coach who makes that statement wasn’t self-correcting as he went along, and instead followed a rote routine that may have worked before (p. 11).

Three.  The principle of two-way learning means that both the client and the coach are engaged in a learning experience.  On one hand is the work the coach does with the client.  On the other, the coach works on herself.  She must be vigilant in self-observing, checking assumptions, and remaining focused. 

Often coaching fails because of the blindness, prejudice, stubbornness, or rigidity of the coach, and not because of the uncoachability of the client (p. 12). 

Four. The next principal, context, emphasizes that as adults we come to everything we do with a personal history.  We all have our own perspectives, view of the world, commitments, and take on things.   Flaherty does not advocate giving up on the “tough cases”, or in other words the individuals who are not instantly motivated to try something new, or who are in some way “stuck”.  This is particularly valuable in the law firm context where, given the conservative nature of the profession, the majority of professionals will be cautious, and at times seemingly unmotivated, to try new behaviors and approaches.  In many cases, the “unmotivated” individual, is in fact very motivated, just not by the stimuli or methods that have been presented!  As one lawyer said to me about a behavior a sales trainer was asking him to adopt: That just isn’t me.  I am never going to be one of those people that does that.  All people are attached to a particular way of being in the world. Coaching must be adapted to fit individuals. 

Five. The fifth principle is that coaching calls for the full engagement of the coach with the client.  This means that the coach does not rely on a series of techniques to influence the client’s behavior.  Coaching does follows a structure, and employs tools and learning exercises, but it never relies on a set formula.   

Flaherty advocates an approach to coaching that is authentic, rigorous, and most importantly for clients, powerfully effective.  The coaches are engaged in continual learning and are responsible for their actions. Coaching of this nature is designed around both short-term and long-term objectives.  In the short-term the coach supports the client’s progress towards set goals, while at the same time enhancing the competence of the client to take on new challenges in the future.


About the author

Allison Wolf

I am the founder of AWAL and one of the most senior coaches for lawyers in North America. I have helped countless clients over the past fifteen years, develop thriving legal practices and before that served as director of marketing for award-winning law firms. My specialty is uncovering the thinking traps and gaps holding clients back and helping them acquire the mindsets, skills, and habits for growing successful and rewarding legal careers. After a career in legal marketing and business development with law firms in Beijing, New York, and Vancouver, I was trained as a coach in 2004 at Royal Roads University and now coach clients from across North America. You can reach me at or learn more about my coaching practice from the coaching section of the Attorney With A Life Website.