Levels of context in professional coach-client communication
Life and business coaching is conducted almost solely through direct conversation between coach and client. Similar to Pearce and Pearce’s (2000) characterization of how a dialogue facilitator operates, during a coach-client conversation, the coach balances her attention between needs of Self, of Relationship with the client, and of facilitating and contributing to the Episode. During any particular strip of talk uttered by the coach, one of the above levels of context predominates.
In my research, I uncovered and named sixteen identities, or hats, that a coach wears in conversation with a client. In my categorization of these identities, I used the parlance of the CMM construct of the Hierarchies of Meaning. That construct typically uses Episode, Relationship, Self, and Culture as levels of context in understanding what is going on for a particular speaker in a particular strip of talk. In the particular type of interaction that takes place in a coach-client conversation, the predominant level of context can be referred to as a frame (Tannen, 1993), where the choices of frame would be Self, Relationship, Content (of episode), and Process (of episode). These four frames can be thought of as a charmed loop where each is both the context for and in the context of the others (Cronen, Johnson, & Lannamann, 1982). In practical terms, every identity the coach uses in conversation can be thought of as belonging to one of the four frames. Each strip of talk can be seen as being predominantly uttered by one of the identities, and therefore from one of the frames.
Without the constructs of the levels of context, I would not have categorized the identities so neatly. Furthermore, I think the juggling of the frames (the predominant level of context at a particular time) is an important concept that coaches are not aware of. To be aware of Self, Relationship, Process (of Episode) and Content (of Episode) from CMM theory is something that takes the study of the coaching conversation where it has not gone before. At this point, the focus of this work is on description—what is currently happening in a coaching conversation and how can we talk about it? So the CMM theory is not so much shaping a social world as helping to understand one; although putting words to something that was previously untold is actually creation.
I think the biggest contribution to CMM theory is the realization that there are really two aspects to Episode –there is the content of the episode, which is contributing to the topic under discussion, and there is, at least in the facilitation world, a notion of controlling the time for and the agenda of the episode. And of course, in applying CMM to discourse analysis of coaching conversations.