I’ve been been talking to fellow coaches at Ashridge Business School about the benefits of using ACT as part of coaching.
In the interests of space I won’t try to explain what ACT is, but will restrict myself to listing some of the benefits of using it in a coaching context. My intention is to generate responses below, which I’ve learned are nearly always more valuable than mine.
- Evidence-based. If coaching is to be progressive and credible, then the interventions used should have been shown to be effective. They should have achieved a desired effect over and above alternative interventions. Over 100 Randomised Control Trials now show ACT works, with most of these in the last 5 years.
- Theory-based. ACT is based on a clear theory which attempts to explain something fundamental: how language and thinking influences human behaviour. Because of this theoretical basis, ACT is clear about why changes happen, i.e. the mechanisms of change. When using ACT, coaches know that it works and why it works. In session, this enables coaching to become more accurate, as ACT coaches can focus exclusively on the active ingredients of behaviour change.
- Liberating. Just in case this is sounding too hard-edged, in practice ACT is deeply personal because it puts people in contact with the things they truly care about (if you haven’t read this post by Rachel, please do). The aim is to increase psychological flexibility – the ability to choose one’s behaviour even when experiencing difficult thoughts and emotions. For some people, moving towards one’s values is only possible in the presence of immense pain. But by increasing flexibility, they can be liberated to do just that…and the world opens up before them.
- Universality. ACT is a therapy, but it is not only a therapy. The 100 RCTs apply to almost every outcome you can think of; from smoking cessation to chronic pain to workplace performance. By promoting psychological flexibility ACT enables people to choose their behaviour with greater purpose, broadening peoples’ choices in life. This is therefore a fundamental life skill which applies equally to the clinic and the boardroom. (And don’t get me started on schools…).
- Mindfulness, with a purpose. Yes, this is another trendy mindfulness-based intervention and ACT benefits from the immediacy and vitality of being strongly in the moment. At the same time, ACT is more than just mindfulness; it is mindfulness with a purpose. It uses mindfulness as a call to action, for people to get out of their minds and into their lives, rather than a desirable end state in itself. This is mindfulness used as a lightsaber, to help deal with the danger and messiness of real life.
- Practical and pragmatic. ACT has strong behavioural roots, which means that coaching conversations are primarily about tangible and practical behaviour change. ACT has a cognitive component of course, but there is no ‘right’ mindset to achieve, no ‘good’ way to think. Behaviour is not judged as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but pragmatically assessed for its ‘workability’, i.e. whether a given action works over the long term.
- Consistency. Because of ACT’s theoretical roots, coaches work to a single, coherent and testable model of human behaviour. This allows coaches to multiply reinforce or model psychological flexibility, lending coherence and consistency to sessions. This contrasts with other approaches that more resemble a collection of techniques. NLP is a good example, as it borrows a number of tools and techniques and relates them to a theory based on language. However, this model has not stood up to scrutiny, and is therefore haphazard pseudoscience.
- Ignore this final point. In ACT training you are taught not to believe what the ACT text books tell you, or what Steve Hayes tells you, or even what your mind tells you. You are taught to trust your own experience of what works. So here is my experience…
Before ACT I was a fairly good coach. I established good relationships, was sensitive, brave and as a former consultant I had wide experience.
But post-ACT, everything is different. When my mind tells me that everything is going wrong, that I am incompetent, that I am a terrible psychologist, I can respond with compassion for myself instead of reacting.
This tiny breathing space allows me more options for responding to my client than I had before. Maybe I will share my experience and model acceptance, maybe I will choose to refocus on the working alliance, or maybe I will reconnect to what matters to me, and recommit to being of service to another human being.
As a result, I feel as though I am more purposeful as a coach, making more of a difference, helping good people do good work in often bad systems. And that’s not a bad way to spend my time on earth.
But then, of course, don’t believe what I tell you either….
If coaches need ACT, it is equally clear that ACT needs coaches. We in ACBS want to change the world for the better….and coaches are out there, right now, having helping conversations with powerful people.
I believe coaches are a force for immense good – bringing much-needed support and challenge to people who may not receive this elsewhere. If we want to get evidence-based practice into the water supply, then we must learn from coaches and welcome them.
For more on using ACT in workplace and career coaching see The Career Psychologist blog.