Less is more: New evidence into executive telephone coaching

Less is more: New evidence into executive telephone coaching

by Moira McLaughlin


This article offers a brief summary of my recent MA research into the executive coach’s experience of working on the telephone. The full paper is published on 1 June 2013 and available at:  http://business.brookes.ac.uk/ijebcm  Special Issue 7 pp. 1-13.

For a copy of the dissertation, please email me at: moira@mclaughlinassociates.co.uk

Telephone coaching: some common assumptions

As an executive coach, my interest in the topic was triggered a couple of years ago by a growing awareness of a ‘disconnect’ between my long-held assumption that telephone coaching is a poor relation to face-to-face working, and my experience of several powerful telephone sessions with individual clients. Intrigued, I began to explore the issue informally with other coaching professionals.  These conversations uncovered a set of common responses, which I’ve summarised by the following:

Telephone coaching is either:

  • Not ‘do-able’ (often based on an assumption that technology acts as a barrier to the human connection)   or
  • ‘Second best’ to face-to-face interventions – therefore only adopted as a contingency plan when geographical distance, or lack of resources (time, funding etc), i.e. practical obstacles to face-to-face working, demand an alternative solution   or
  • The ‘same as’ face-to-face coaching, and therefore wholly interchangeable

A minority of coaches that I talked with though, spoke persuasively, and on occasions, sometimes tentatively of the power and potential of the medium, often suggesting that it could offer ‘added value’ to face-to-face methods. Corporately, however, the above assumptions seemed to be strongly internalised, and as a result, it appeared that the application of the modality sometimes ‘hit the spot’, but at other times limited – or wholly denied – the power of a coaching intervention.  As E-Coaching communities such as ours observe, research in this area struggles to keep pace with practice.  Indeed, a review of the literature highlights an apparent conflict between evidence indicating that the telephone offers a range of benefits for leadership development, and an ongoing discourse of uncertainty and suspicion in the professional coaching press, mirroring the assumptions above.  I therefore became increasingly keen to research the actual experience of other coaches to discover ‘what lay beneath’ such confusion.

My study adopted an interpretative qualitative analysis of one-to-one interviews with six practising executive coaches, who were asked to describe their experience of using the telephone for contracted coaching sessions.  (I’m defining telephone coaching here as:  ‘The use of the telephone for explicitly contracted coaching sessions between a practitioner and a client’).

Telephone coaching:  what I found

The results present new evidence, suggesting that telephone coaching can offer a powerful, highly flexible and creative intervention in executive development.  Three key themes emerged:

1  The power of the aural connection

All the interviewees felt the modality to be comparable to face-to-face coaching in terms of its efficacy.  Indeed, half the coaches experienced the telephone as a more powerful and effective way of working:

The intimacy…. allows you to get to the essence of that other person.  You        start hearing things that they are really, really passionate about…. it just seems more powerful on the telephone    (Coach 1)

Each of the participants valued a heightened sense of depth and pace when working on the telephone, and three specifically commented on the potential advantages afforded by the anonymity of the medium.  These included the potential ‘equalising’ power of the telephone, where a range of social indicators are “obscured from view” (Coach 5), enabling participants in the coaching relationship to shift their focus from individual difference – and the implication of these differences – to an emphasis on the process.

2  The impact of the physical environment on the virtual coaching space

            Solace…. a lot of the time when I’m on the phone, I’m kind of gazing…. at the trees…. it feels natural…. where I should be…. (Coach 5) 

The findings also suggest that telephone coaching can offer unique opportunities to optimise the quality of the physical setting for participants and thus the quality of the virtual learning space, highlighting previously un-evidenced potential for coaches (and clients) of the impact of exercising choice of, and control over their respective physical environments (e.g. by ‘working from home’).  For example, half the coaches specifically appreciated the greater freedom of location afforded by telephone working, most particularly one (Coach 5) whose visual impairment made travel challenging.  For the other participants, the lack of distraction and sense of comfort afforded by the medium, and the impact of this ‘customised’ physical space on their sense of preparedness, mindfulness and ease proved a significant advantage.

Similarly, three coaches highlighted striking examples of how the client’s choice of their coaching environment (again, often the comfort of calling from home), enhanced the ease and depth of the work.  One practitioner invited her clients to move physically, doing ‘perspective work’ for example, around a kitchen table.  She also spoke eloquently of the impact of executives moving outdoors for the coaching session, where such a physical shift can deepen the quality of their learning and psychological exploration:

I’ve had people who have been walking the South Bank…. that environment is very different for them and so what comes out of coaching can be very, very different… [for instance] “I’m looking at the Thames and it just feels like a bridge over troubled water”    (Coach 1)

3  The coaches’ adaption to the medium

The analysis also suggests that telephone coaching appears inherently ‘different’ from face-to-face work and may require specific capabilities to optimise its effectiveness.  A key to optimising the medium’s advantages may lie in the practitioner’s active appreciation of, (and ability to work with) its strengths and challenges, that is, its intrinsic differences, as well as the similarities it shares with face-to-face work.

All the coaches, with the exception of Coach 5, spoke of a necessary journey of adaptation from face-to-face coaching (the basis of their training) towards establishing a sense of ease and confidence with the medium. Three of the interviewees described initial resistance to using the telephone.  For them, their emerging insight into its complexities had subsequently initiated a significant and unexpected shift, often triggered by practical necessity, and followed by periods of continued practice, reflection and learning

It’s probably become my main form of communication.  Maybe before I would have   said, no, I need to see people face-to-face…. before I did the [virtual training]              programme…. So that’s a change for me   (Coach 2)

Specifically, these coaches developed capabilities that included an increased emphasis on pro-activeness and contracting, an ability to intuit verbal cues and silences, and to work with uncertainty.  For two of the coaches though (in this study, those with the least experience), adaptation felt more partial and cautious, as they struggled with the challenges presented by the lack of visual cues (e.g. in building rapport, using ‘visual’ and kinaesthetic techniques).  They voiced their anxiety and frustration at not being able to see the client’s response:

Maybe I feel more responsible when I’ve got somebody on the phone…. I’m always questioning am I doing this right….?  Am I doing enough for this person?  (Coach 3)

These accounts therefore raise significant implications for practice and the provision of educational opportunities for practitioners.  The findings also suggest the importance of raising awareness of the medium’s possibilities at an early stage in the coach’s training. 


This study demonstrates that telephone coaching can therefore extend choice for participants, rather than diminish it, a phenomenon that has particular relevance for issues of inclusion, (such as disability, for example).  The sense of anonymity afforded by the medium may also appeal to a range of clients.  The telephone is therefore potentially more than a distance coaching tool.  Whilst not appealing to every coach, it may be a preferred modality for some, regardless of considerations of geographical location, time or cost. The accounts in this study offer compelling invitations for the profession to further its understanding of telephone coaching, both practically and theoretically, and communicate the possible strengths and complexities of the medium in the corporate world.

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