Navigating the coaching ‘Chemistry Call’

‘How do I manage a chemistry call?’ is a question which often comes up in supervision.

selective focus photography of black rotary phone
Photo by Pixabay on

A chemistry call is often the first point of verbal contact between potential coach and coachee.

The coachee may well be speaking to a number of coaches to check for ‘best fit’. ‘Best fit’ can be anything from; price and affordability, availability, professionalism (e.g. does the coach have a supervisor, insurance, sector organisation membership etc) to a ‘sixth sense’ that the potential relationship feels comfortable/easy/safe.

For the coach, it can sometimes feel like an ‘interview’, so it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to ‘impress’ in some way; we might over promise or try to demo our skills for example. Some coaches offer a free taster session: although we did hear of a coachee who managed to achieve a full coaching series by calling in a number of free sessions with different coaches!

So – this is what we have noticed over the years, helps establish, a best shot chemistry call;

a) Know how to describe the role and what coaching means to you. share your ‘style’ (if you have one!).

b) Have all logistics to hand; costs, availability, venue, contracts, options

c) If the potential client is happy to share, check out what they hope to gain from the coaching. This helps ensure form fit e.g. someone may really be wanting a mentor.

d) Listen actively, reflect back, invite further questions – try to avoid drifting into coaching.

e) Be yourself and confident in your offer. Try not to be attached to the outcome. Explain what you do rather than ‘sell’ what you do!

Developing a coaching culture


The Workhouse Museum – Ripon Museum Trust

This article first appeared in the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) Summer newsletter 2017. Reproduced here with permission of AIM.

Given the rapid pace of change experienced by the UK museum sector, having a workforce that is prepared to adapt and respond is critical. Recent research commissioned by AIM and other partners, Character Matters: attitudes, behaviours and skills in the UK Museum workforce, highlights two key challenges.

They are how to develop the ‘personal qualities’ and skills of the existing workforce, and how our organisations can become ‘more flexible, agile and entrepreneurial and supportive of their workforce?’

Greater use of coaching and offering leadership training to a wider range of staff are recommended by the report, and AIM member Ripon Museum Trust’s experience of this highlights how museums can build their resilience by adopting a coaching culture and ethos.

Ripon Museum Trust (RMT) is a small independent museum group with three sites that tell a story about law, order, poverty and social justice – the former courthouse, prison and police station and workhouse. Alongside the museum’s core staff team of three, more than 100 volunteers deliver the museum’s activities. In 2015 RMT was awarded a grant from Arts Council England’s (ACE) Museum Resilience Fund to develop its leadership skills and culture with the aim of making best use of all the human resources available to the museums.

A central aspect of the project involved a four-day coaching and leadership skills course developed by Relational Dynamics 1st for a group of staff, trustees and volunteers. The course offered a foundation in coaching skills and approaches (active listening, effective questions, the GROW* framework, setting and reviewing goals), and training in advanced communication skills including giving feedback, difficult conversations and building trust.

The group explored styles of leadership, and were encouraged to develop their self-awareness and understanding of others; what we refer to as ‘relational dynamics’. Participants also practiced coaching and being coached by one another, individually and via group coaching or ‘action learning’.

What is a coaching style of leadership?

A coaching style of leadership encourages and requires all of us to be involved and take responsibility for achieving success through developing high levels of trust and distributed decision-making, recognising and supporting everyone’s potential and focusing on improving performance at an individual, team and whole organisation level.

In a workplace with a coaching culture we:

share a sense of purpose

are clear how our roles contribute to the bigger picture

are willing to try new things and go the ‘extra mile

have autonomy in how we deliver our work, and,

take pride in doing our jobs to the best of our abilities.

External evaluation of the project revealed how coaching skills are already improving RMT’s resilience. Through developing a core set of organisational values and associated behaviours, RMT was able to clarify its vision and clarity of roles, and job satisfaction increased during the lifetime of the project. RMT now enjoys higher levels of trust between staff, volunteers and trustees which enables greater autonomy which in turn leads to a culture where people feel motivated to test new ideas and take the initiative.

The legacy of the project continues and staff and volunteers now have the skills and tools to continue their own development; for example the museum director has created an action learning set for other culture and heritage leaders in Yorkshire, and museum staff now deliver a half-day ‘coaching skills for leadership’ course in-house which forms part of the induction for new volunteers.

RMT’s coaching approach led to articulating and measuring the museums’ impact through research, and using study trips to increase awareness of how other museums are working with volunteers. The learning generated directly contributed to a successful £400,000 application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to acquire a new building which formed part of the original Workhouse.

RMT is bringing its coaching approach to how it develops this new site, and is planning to recruit a ‘collaborative curator’ who will ensure the wider community is involved in developing a shared vision for the redevelopment of this new site by piloting new uses in partnership with the local community.

Further information: 

*GROW – Goal, Current Reality, Options, Will – a widely-used coaching framework developing by Sir John Whitmore and Carol Wilson.

Want to know more about the project? Arts Professional also published an article in 2016, including RMT’s work with Relational Dynamics 1st.


Spring 2017 newsletter


The first few months of 2017 have kept the RD1st team busy! We ran our first public course in Scotland at CCA Glasgow in March and the National Theatre in London also kindly hosted our popular one-day coaching course. In February and March Tate invited Emma and Claire to deliver two days’ training in coaching and Action Learning facilitation for over twenty members of the Plus Tate network. March also saw RD1st complete a year-long training programme for over 150 managers at Royal Opera House, working closely with RD1st alumni Greg Jauncey, HR and Training Manager at ROH.

In early April fifteen newly accredited RD1st coaches joined our ranks – welcome to RD24! And Deb has recently returned from Tripoli in Lebanon after delivering part one of the main course with RD1st International trainer Dina Abu Hamdan.

This week sees the start of our first course specifically for artists, in partnership with and resourced by A-N: the artists information company, following a successful pilot programme last year.

Since we expanded the RD1st team two years ago we’ve been keen to develop some new opportunities for alumni. A number of new short courses are listed below. Over early Summer we’ll be putting the finishing touches to a new advanced course for later in 2017/18 – watch this space!

In our future newsletters we hope to share with you stories about ways in which people are using Relational Dynamics coaching skills and approaches. Given our current focus on artists, we wanted to share an interview with Joshua Sofaer about the ways in which he uses coaching as part of his creative and professional practice.

We hope you will find the opportunities and news below interesting. If you have anything you’d like us to consider for a future newsletter – an article, a blog post, an opportunity, a rant even – please get in touch.

Wishing you all a lovely summer

Deb, Isabel, Emma and Claire
The RD1st UK Team

Opportunities for RD1st alumni

Are you interested in joining an Action Learning set?
A newly formed Action Learning set of senior arts and heritage leaders in Yorkshire are looking for new members. Their next meeting will be held on 4thJuly in Ripon, please contact James Etherington to find out more.

Introduction to Group Coaching – 7 June, London
This new one-day course offers the opportunity to explore and refine your coaching skills in the context of group coaching. We explore the role of the facilitator in Action Learning and how to create and facilitate your own sets. Participants will have the opportunity to practice 1-2-1 coaching, group coaching and facilitate an Action Learning set.

‘Brilliant way to build on coaching skills and explore ways to take them forward to benefit workplace and beyond.’

‘A great way to freshen up your coaching skills and listening skills and fab intro to Action Learning.’

To book follow this link – NB early bird prices have been extended to Friday 5th May.

We have spaces for RD1st coaches wanting supervision. We offer duo or trio supervision packages from £60 per hour, enabling costs to be shared between two or three coaches. Please contact Deb for more information about RD1st supervision.

The Art in Coaching

Image: St Matthew Passion (as Matteuspassionen) for Folkoperan, Stockholm 2014. Directed by Joshua Sofaer. Photo by Markus Gårder.
Image: St Matthew Passion (as Matteuspassionen) for Folkoperan, Stockholm 2014. Directed by Joshua Sofaer. Photo by Markus Gårder.

Claire Antrobus interviews Joshua Sofaer about how his work as coach and his work as an artist interact.

What first attracted you to train as a coach?

A large component of what I do as an artist is speaking with people and I was looking for a way in which I could become more useful when listening to other voices and creating contexts for those voices to be heard. At the same time it would be true to say that I was initially skeptical about coaching. I think that was the result of preconceptions that I had about therapeutic language, which in fact coaching avoids.

After the RD1st course, what other coach training or research have you done?

In terms of formal training, I did the Clean Coaching with Emergent Knowledge distant learning course with The Clean Language Centre. Clean Coaching with Emergent Knowledge is a highly structured approach propounded by David Grove, and is a useful tool as part of a coaching skills kit. Apart from the methodological approach, it has made me very aware of how clean (or not!) my language is.

Regular co-supervision and The Coaching Lounge are important ongoing peer learning methods; places to share and gather ideas and to ask questions.

In terms of thinking about how a coaching approach might apply to larger groups, I found Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology extremely useful. (I had been to a number of sessions advertised as being ‘open space’ but it was not until I read the whole book that I understood and could implement the process effectively.)

At the moment I’m reading Let Me Tell You a Story by Jorge Bucay, which I have found helpful in thinking about what can be achieved by having a clear symbolic or metaphorical picture of a situation.

How do you use coaching now in your work?

There are three main ways in which I use coaching in my work.

The first is a conventional coaching relationship with a client: what could be called ‘clear coaching’.

The second is as part of my long-standing practice as a facilitator and mentor, where I have found coaching invaluable as a way of enriching creative processes for artists and makers: what could be called ‘peer-to-peer coaching’.

The third is as a way of engaging with participants in my art practice. I suppose there are two different strands to this. One is about giving participants a voice in the work, and the other is as a form of art practice itself. For example, to give you an idea of how I have used coaching as a way of giving participants a voice, I directed a staged version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion for Folkoperan in Stockholm in which I replaced the biblical narrative with filmed interviews with the singers and musicians about the core themes of the Passion: forgiveness, guilt, pain, loneliness, fear, love. Coaching became a vitally important way to ‘hold the space’ for the singers and musicians who chose to share their personal stories.

To give an example of how I have used coaching as a medium in arts practice itself, in a piece called Object of Love for the Wäinö Aaltonen Museum in Finland, I created a structure where I offered 25 minute coaching sessions to members of the public in the art museum. Sessions took place in a large soundproof glass box. I wanted to see how an explicit use of a coaching in an art context might function. These conversations could be witnessed but not heard. People on the outside of the box could see the coachee undergoing some kind of change. I was interested in how levels of seeing might affect the coaching session. I wear an elaborate costume that covers my face. I wanted to become a symbol or a figure, rather than someone to whom the coachee would look for reassurance. The aim was to be an object that precipitates or moves the coachee, rather than a figure of authority, or a reassuring, validating presence.

My experience was that this structure offered permission to audience members to become coachees and to feel free to share. Some of this seems paradoxical: the public setting somehow stimulated a feeling of security. The soundproof glass box encouraged focus.

Image: Object of Love by Joshua Sofaer. Wäinö Aaltonen Museum, Turku 2013. Photo by Hannu Seppälä.
Image: Object of Love by Joshua Sofaer. Wäinö Aaltonen Museum, Turku 2013. Photo by Hannu Seppälä.

How would you describe coaching in your own words?

Coaching is a process through which an individual or group is supported to achieve personal or professional goals. It is centred in the objectives that are brought by the coachee. It is future and action focussed.

What have you found most challenging about coaching?

Despite having become aware of how spoken and non-verbal language is so full of bias and has the capacity to lead others, I still find it challenging to keep my own communications as clean and bias-free as I would want.

What have you found most useful about coaching?

Coaching has made me much more mindful of how I listen and elicit responses from others. As a dialogic tool it has influenced my personal relationships as well as my professional relationships.

What has surprised you about coaching?

I think what surprised me at first was that to be a productive coach you do not need to have disciplinary expertise or subject specific knowledge in the coachee’s area. The process does the work.

Are there any new or more ways you want to use coaching in the future?

It is important for me to continue with all strands of my coaching practice: ‘clear coaching’, ‘peer-to-peer coaching’, and coaching in my art practice. Most immediately I am working on a UK tour of a piece called Opera Helps. Members of the public apply for a ticket with a problem. Opera singers then go to their house and listen to the problem.

Sofaer_Opera Helps
Image: Opera Helps (as Operahjälpen) by Joshua Sofaer for Folkoperan, Stockholm 2012. Photo by Markus Gårder

When the problem is in the air, the singer selects an aria from the classical 19th Century repertoire and sings it directly in the person’s house with a pre-recorded professional backing track. When you are in the audience of an opera you bring your own life. You are hoping that some magic will happen on the stage and that you will leave somehow better for the experience. By locating the interaction in people’s homes and making the problem the reason for meeting, paradoxically, people listen to the music more acutely. It’s very interesting to work on active listening skills with opera singers, who have trained for so many years honing their singing voice; and extremely humbling to experience up close the power of their song.


Understanding motivation

Do you ever struggle with motivating others? Do you wonder why some people you work with are very motivated, whereas others seem less so? What motivates different people can be puzzling, but as Daniel Pink’s book Drive outlines there’s a lot of research available that can make it more of a science than an art. In fact, according to Pink there are 3 simple components to movitation: purpose, mastery and autonomy.

I’ll sumarise Pink’s argument below – and if you want more than these headlines then by all means get a copy of his highly readable book or watch this great, short and animated RSA video of him talking about the themes. In his book Pink outlines a great range of tools and examples about how to put these ideas into practice – but I’m going to focus in this post on coaching tools and why I think coaching is brilliant for building motivation.

Pink argues that we have tended to think about motivation in terms of carrots (incentives or rewards) and sticks (consequences or threats). He suggests that research shows that for some basic tasks incentives do encourage people and lead to better results – for example, on a production line people work faster if they get a reward. However, research shows that for more complex tasks requiring creative thinking incentives play no positive role, and in fact they can often have a negative impact. That might sound surprising to some, especially given the private sector’s use of bonuses to reward performance. But I think many of us working in the cultural sector or mission-led organisations already know that our colleagues are not usually motivated primarily by money. Money, Pink explains, mainly matters when people feel under-valued, or are low-paid.

Instead, Pink makes the case that what improves motivation, and ultimately performance, is feeling what you are doing is important (purpose), knowing that you are doing your job well (mastery) and having the ability to do your job in a way that suits you (autonomy).

Pink’s book is full of references to convincing research and case studies – but frankly I didn’t take a lot of convincing as these three factors really resonated with me in terms of what I have seen work in practice and what I know motivates me.

For example, a few years ago I did an evaluation project for a group of museums. Like many freelance jobs I agreed a fixed rate up front, premised on completing the project within a fixed number of days. Also, like many freelance jobs, the brief was a bit vague and once I started the project and scoped it out in greater detail it was clear that it’d probably require twice a much time to do it well as I had envisaged. As a freelancer, in these circumstances you are faced with a choice of:

  1. Doing the best job you can within the original budget (ie not the best job you’d perhaps like to do).
  2. Asking for additional resources (usually not possible).
  3. Doing a really good job, and putting in a lot more time than you’re actually paid to do (which means losing income and/or working all hours days and night).

On this occasion I took Option C and did probably three times as much work as I’d been paid to do, without complaint. The reason I gladly did this was threefold:

  • I felt a real connection with the aims of the project and felt like the evaluation report would be useful and well-used by the client. They were keen to improve what they did and wanted to know how to do it. Therefore I had a strong sense of purpose.
  • The client was very ‘hands off’. They let me get on with it and change the approach we’d originally agreed when I suggested that there was a better way to do it. In other words, they allowed me a high degree of autonomy.
  • Finally, I felt like I was doing a really good job. I took a few risks and tried new ways of working, I applied some new ways of doing things which turned out really well. In other words, I was able to do a very good job – in Pink’s terms that was ‘mastery’, although of course I’m too modest to say that myself!

With all three key factors in place, I felt I was really motoring and the client got a great deal – a piece of work that was high quality and beyond the scope of their original brief, but still within their budget. I could offer many other examples where getting those three key ingredients right has made work a joy for me, and a few where when just one is missing when it’s felt like pushing water uphill!

So, what practical lessons can we take from Pink if we want to motivate others? The simple answer is we need to make sure all three of these factors are in place, and try and increase any we can. In my experience coaching approaches can be very helpful in developing all three factors.

Let’s look at each of the factor in turn:


Goal-setting is a key part of coaching. Enabling people to identify goals that excite and stretch themselves is key to raising motivation (as other research on goals such as Edwin Locke’s work on Goal Theory suggests). Ensuring goals are specific and measurable means we can see when we’ve achieved them, allowing a sense of accomplishment that in turn fuels our motivation. It’s that wonderful feeling of being able to cross a task completed off the list.

For the coaching manager wanting to help motivate her team, that means ensuring each individual has clear, specific goals and that these goals have been set together so that the team member ‘owns’ their goals. It helps create a sense of purpose when these goals clearly link to the team’s wider goals so everyone can see how their work is contributing to the bigger picture. Even if your job is answering enquiries, if the team’s goal is supporting people with financial problems, you can feel a sense of purpose when you see how answering the phones promptly and handling enquiries effectively makes a difference to the clients you are working with. The other key tool to consider for building purpose is feedback. Letting people know what works and what the impact of their effort has been is essential in helping people feel like what they do is worthwhile.


Coaching is a great way to help people improve how well they do things, by encouraging reflection on performance and developing better awareness of what works.

How can a coaching manager encourage mastery? Encouraging employees to reflect on what went well and why, as well as what could be better next time, is important as is offering feedback on performance. Another way the coaching manager can support mastery is by ensuring their colleagues have access to any resources or support they need to do they job well; whether that’s about time, training, advice. A manager I know re-structured a team after a cut in funding, and she improved team motivation and performance in one feel swoop by reducing workload to enable all the team to have 10% of their time for reflection and professional development.


Coaching is essentially non-directive, which means the coachee has total automony in deciding what they do and how. Having established a clear goal for activity and awareness of the situation, the coach creates the space and framework for the coachee to determine how best to tackle their goal, only intervening to encourage the coachee to ensure their plans are realistic and the right approach for them.

The coaching manager is unlikely to be able to offer total autonomy in the workplace, but enabling as much flexibility as possible in terms of how work is approached, organized and delivered will ensure maximum motivation. Simply by shifting to asking a colleague be responsible for achieving something, rather than describing what you want in terms of tasks to be done can have a dramatic effect. Would you rather be asked to ‘take responsibility for the event logistics and ensure the speakers have everything they need’ or be given a long list of specific tasks to do? Telling someone exactly how to do it is more likely to annoy them than get the best from them (and it takes a lot longer for the manager too). Research shows that employees value highly their freedom to determine what hours they work, with most employees choosing a job with flexi-time (flexible starting and finishing times) which pays up to 10% lower than a job with fixed-hours.

So, according to Pink, there are three strategies if we want to increase motivation: clarifying or increasing our sense of purpose; creating the conditions for doing the job to the best of our abilities and having the freedom to work in a way that suits our style or preferences. Coaching skills and approaches are ideal for all three of these factors and therefore offer those in leadership and management roles an unparalleled toolkit for motivating others, as well as for ensuring their work is aligned with organizational goals and of the highest possible quality.

What is a coaching culture?

“I arrive at work feeling good about the day ahead, clear about what needs to be achieved and a little nervous about whether I’ll manage to make it all happen – because we’re launching a new event tonight for local press and community stakeholders. Walking through the open plan office on the way to my desk I hear the happy buzz of purposeful conversation between colleagues who are excited about tonight and getting on with preparations.

I used to dread walking into the office as a colleague was always ready to pounce and would need me to make a decision about something urgent that I’d not yet had time to think through. These days people just seem to get on with things much more, and need my input far less.

Last time we had an event like this I was worried for weeks before. Would enough people turn up? Would anything go wrong? We had frequent problems with the caterers and so I always had to clear my diary on the day on an event to check-in with front-of-house staff and be on hand to sort things out at the last minute. No-one else seemed to keep on top of things and unless I inspected things myself I couldn’t be sure the standard would be good enough. It took a lot of my time checking-up on people and making sure things were right, even when I’d given really clear instructions people still seemed not to follow them.

We also had this perennial problem with local press turning up and not being treated well. The press officer used to get really frustrated because he’d arrange press interviews and check everyone’s diaries in advance but then on the day itself the exhibition curator was always too busy installing work to spend time being interviewed. I lose track of the number of times I was pulled into arguments about whose fault it was.

Tonight’s event though was the idea of the exhibitions team. They were keen to create a specific welcome event for local press and key stakeholders and the press and marketing team have been happy to work with them. It’s the first time we’ve done anything like this; we have got a few things wrong but we’ll know how to do it even better next time. What has impressed me most is the willingness of everyone to try a new idea and make it happen – people have really given it 110% this time.

Now I trust everything is going to plan and if there’s a problem that I need to resolve I can rely on my colleagues to let me know. Most of the time if there’s a problem my colleagues sort it out amongst themselves anyway, without my help. To be honest they are closer to the action and often know better than me what’s the best way to resolve things. I can concentrate instead on the meeting I have later this morning with a potential new patron. It used to be hard to find time to get out of the office and explore new opportunities, but I am doing a lot more now I have less fire-fighting and checking-up to do. It’s beginning to result in some new funding relationships and partnerships that could have a real impact on the organisation in the longer-term.”

Sounds great doesn’t it? This is the kind of story I often hear described when I’m talking to senior staff and ask them to describe the work context they are hoping to create, or when I’m working as a organisational development consultant with cultural organisations. The picture is surprisingly consistent both in terms of the culture people want to work in, but also the culture they currently find themselves inhabiting.

Far too often I hear about workplaces where people are demotivated by overly-prescriptive and critical managers and unnecessary hierarchies. Managers and senior staff frequently feel over-whelmed by their responsibilities and unable to ‘get their heads above the water’ to engage in the more strategic, important aspects of their role. Too often they feel they are fire-fighting and being drawn into decisions that should be taken closer-to-the-ground. When compounded with the tendency of non-profits to over-stretch themselves, people begin to demand for clearer priorities (or more resources).

Instead, most people aspire to working with colleagues who are highly motivated, independent and good at what they do. Line-managers want to work with staff who can be trusted to get on with things. Most line-managers want staff to come up with ideas and solutions too. Staff want to feel trusted to make things happen without having the check-in and to be able to trial new things without fear of making a mistake.

These are all features of a ‘coaching culture’. A coaching culture is an approach based on the values of coaching and the skills that underpin it, such as highly developed communication skills. Coaching values include:

  • Delivering results – striving to improve
  • Empowering – encouraging people to take responsibility for themselves and being non-directive – respecting individuals’ autonomy and diversity.
  • Increasing awareness of your impact/ performance

So what does an organisation with a coaching culture look like in action?

An organization with a coaching culture supports individual and organizational learning. Having a clear training strategy and investing in training is important, but so is valuing internal reflection which is more about making time to review than finding money for courses. Managers use coaching approaches with their teams, encouraging people to generate ideas and solutions and to take ownership of what they do. This means staff tend to be both highly-motivated, clear about the propose of their role and where the fit into the organisation’s plans and they also feel their time and talents are being well-used. Staff surveys would be one indicator of this high level of engagement, but low staff turnover, happy staff wanting to go the extra mile are easy to spot in any organization. In a coaching culture lots of ideas are generated at every level of the organization.

An organization with a coaching culture is ambitious, and aware of the impact it achieves, what it does well and where it can improve. Being clear about goals enables staff to know when they’ve done well, which means they feel proud and motivated to do more. Conversations about what is working and could be better happen frequently and easily at all levels of the organization, including with external partners and audiences.

Sounds like a great place to work to me! And given that coaching enables organisations to deliver better results, it’s not surprising that across the commercial, public, and non-profits sectors many organisations are developing coaching cultures.