Forming, Storming and Debunking Teamphases for Teamcoaches

I started leading a team of 14 dedicated board members of ICF Germany as president in November 2020 we had our wonderful and inspiring initial meeting. Since we are all coaches and well steeped in the coaching-lore of our times we discussed how to form our team, and hence I stumbled once more across dear old fairy tale from the past. A large part of the “coachosphere” and many leaders who have been through leadership development training take the following model as a fact.

Teams go through 4 (or 5 if using the amended model) phases:

  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • and Performing
  • (and Adjourning).

This model was proposed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965 in his article “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups” in Psychological Bulletin, Volume 63, Number 6, Pages 384-99. If you google it, you will find a copy in the wayback machine. What emerges when you read the article is that the model is based entirely on a literature review of articles dealing mainly with therapy groups. The author writes: “Fifty articles dealing with stages of group development over time are separated by group setting, as follows: therapy-group studies, T-group studies, and natural- and laboratory-group studies” (p. 383). And (as with many other models in the coach-lore) from there it slowly made its way into the dominant story about teams. I am personally not entirely sure that this follows. A team with a common goal is different from a therapy group, especially when you look at what 1960ies therapy groups might have looked like (no research on my part, just stories I heard from my therapy friends). Tuckman’s model was not based on the observation of teams. Nope, sorry, if this is your favorite model… you might have to reconsider 🙂

Is it REALLY helpful to assume that EVERY team will go through a “storming and norming” phase before they can go to performing? My life experience is different — teams are very different depending on the environment, on the people, the leadership, etc. In my own style of team coaching or leadership, I follow a simple process (not a model) and adapt it to the situation at hand (note that it does not define what is going to happen when). So far it is working for me (and I am decidedly NOT saying that it is universal or will work for you — but you might give it a try).

  • align on what you want to achieve and include your environment: “Who will notice if we are successful in 1 year? What will they be noticing?”
  • Prioritize (e.g. effort / impact)
  • Create some options for action
  • Let people pick what they would like to do in the next sensible time (e.g. a week a month)
  • Create some overview (good job for the leader to take, maybe use a tool like Trello or Asana)
  • Track and talk regularly about what people are doing and how to push away things that are blocking

The main thing is not to think that “O, we are in a storming phase, let’s ignore the others concern, it’s just natural… ” but to listen, take people seriously when there are personal or factual roadblocks. Assume good intentions and be open for feedback, failure, fun. Learn as you go along. Life is doesn’t rhyme – models do!

If you want to learn more about team coaching — we offer regular 20 or 30 hour teamcoaching classes:

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Listening like a pro in conflict coaching

I got to teach one of my favorite classes the other day: “Solution Focused Conflict Coaching” and we were focusing a lot on how to help conflict parties to listen to one another with open ears. In conflict, most people listen in order to reply or, even worse, in order to refute the other person.

Here is a lovely facilitation techniques that helps people listen to one another that I stole from narrative therapy. You can find it under “definitional ceremonies” or “outsider witnesses”.

  1. Explain the process and ask people whether they would like to engage with it.
  2. Ask who would like to start telling their story (A) and who would like to start by listening (B) and confirm that we will switch roles later.
  3. Start by strengthening the listening of (B) by asking about a person in B’s life who is a really good listener. Ask B to describe specifically about what this person does that makes the person a good listener. Then ask B to listen like that person. If they notice that they are falling out of listening like that, they should please alert the facilitator and we can take a break to get back to listening.
  4. Then interview A about what is important. Maybe ask what has changed in the relationship between A and B — maybe something in A changed so that things that were acceptable to A previously are now no longer working. What is important to A that is now challenged in the conflict, where did they learn that this is important in their lives etc.
  5. After the interview ask B to retell A’s story: What stood out to B? What were some of the words that A used that struck a chord with B? How does the story resonate with B? What will the ripple effects of having listened to the story be in B*s life?
  6. Then interview A about B’s retelling in the same way.
  7. Switch roles (2.-6)
  8. After both interviews ask what has emerged for both — what different understanding is now present? what has become possible now?

To learn more about really interesting techniques like this, you might want to explore the writings of Michael White and David Epston or even come to our 30 hour training on narrative coaching:

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The 4 stupidest coaching questions

Do I detect a little bit of “Schadenfreude” in your face as you clicked on this link? Well, I am experiencing some as it it always fun to think of “what NOT to do” (and more fun to then ask “what instead”). See me typing this with a little air of superiority and a slight smile on my face 🙂 because OF COURSE, I would NEVER ask stupid questions *ha* (ok, not true, but I am sure I fooled you for a bit).

The idea for this blogpost came from a great discussion in one of our “free coaching meetup and exchanges” (book here: Kerstin asked about client’s “AHA” moments and how we can cultivate awareness and growth in our coaching conversations. I thought — well, it’s easy when you take it from the opposite end. What are the questions that are probably NOT going to lead to a difference in viewing or doing things for the client?

Here is a small collection from my experience:

Questions about irrelevant information

  • What shoes were you wearing when you had this problem?
  • When did you start working for this company?
  • Was this last year or this year?
  • (of course… sometimes this information might be relevant, but you know what I mean)

Questions about explanations of the problem

People do experience an “AHA!” sometimes when they discover an alternate explanation for the problem: “AHA, I have never explained the problem THIS way”. However, this usually does not help them move forward. Question might be:

  • How did your family handle this?
  • When did you first discover that you are too shy to present?
  • Who told you that you cannot …?

Questions that ask the client to defend themselves

  • Why have you not done your field work?
  • I think you are hiding behind this wall of resentment — what is REALLY happening?
  • What is getting in your way and why are you letting it get in your way?
  • But you just said you were ready — what keeps you from starting?

Questions that imply that the coach knows and the client doesn’t

  • AHA — this is finally the REAL issue. What do you want to do with it?
  • Client is talking about wanting to be more assertive. Coach: So you want more self-confidence? (without the client having mentioned the word)
  • Close your eyes. Now tell me exactly… (without having asked the client for permission to go into a visualization exercise)

So – what instead:

  • Ask questions that you do not know the answer to
  • Ask questions that work with the language material that your client brings
  • When you change direction or introduce new language: partner with your client
  • Assume that the client has good reasons for doing or not doing things
  • Ask questions about future growth and past resources (progress not explanations)
  • Assume that the client knows the details and will give you the relevant ones — you usually don’t need more than the client supplies

Do come and join us for more discussions in our free meetups – they are open for everybody!

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Coaching the Uncoachable: 4 Tips

I did a quick search — and apparently there are “uncoachable” clients:

  1. They have a “fixed” mindset rather than a “growth” mindset — so they believe that performance is innate or the expression of a trait rather than something developed by effort. These would be the clients that tell you: “but I can’t change because I have always been (insert favorite adjective).”
  2. They blame other people — someone else is responsible for their problem, so they cannot do anything about it.
  3. They are pessimistic or negative — they don’t have hope anything can change and therefor they don’t.
  4. They don’t react well to criticism — they become defensive when they are asked to change anything.

Ok, so let’s look at the coach who is making the judgement of “coachability” or “uncoachability”. They see a client and think:

  1. That they cannot do anything because the person has a fixed mindset and that won’t change.
  2. That they cannot do anything because the client is responsible for change and not they.
  3. They diagnose the client as uncoachable, therefore there is no hope that anything can change.
  4. The coaching isn’t working and therefore the blame is on the client.

You see what I am getting at? Who is the “uncoachable” here — the coach or the client? Labelling clients as “uncoachable” is maybe a nice and face-saving way to react to coaching processes which are not going well, but it is really the coach waving a white flag of defeat. Before I tell you what you might explore doing before labelling a client “uncoachable”, let me give you number one reason why someone can really be “uncoachable”:


They could need another coach, they might not need coaching but help from another profession (medical, psychological, financial, …), they don’t have anything that they want to be coached on. Sometimes clients simply have very good reasons not to want to be coached. Then shrug your shoulders, say: “I am sorry that I am not the right person to help you here” or “Great that you got this on your own!” and rest assured that you did all that you can.

Now to the 4 signs of “uncoachability” (sorry… the more I am writing about this, the more irritated I become with the term… we need a different one, maybe “lack of coaching skills on the part of the coach”? — ok that’s too long…)

The client has a “fixed” mindset.

So, for example, they are telling you that they cannot network because they hate small talk and they are just not a “people person” (I have had these discussions with German engineers). How about exploring together what difference better networking skills would make for the client, is it something they do want to learn or not? If not, that MUST be fine for the coach — the client set the agenda. Always. If they do, start looking at the differences in how the client behaves in different circumstances — do they enjoy chatting with some people? What are they doing when they enjoy it? Thereby, you slowly soften the self-assessment of “I am not a people person”.

They blame other people.

Of course! Other people are horrible, sometimes. Acknowledge the client’s perception of “it is difficult”, for example: “My boss is such a micromanager, he says that he wants to empower us, but then he demands ad-hoc reports and solutions to HIS minuscule issues within seconds”. You might reply: “Wow, I understand how this kind of behavior is difficult for you — how are you coping?” and once the conversation has turned toward what the client is already doing to make their situation better, you might come to a coaching agreement around “coping with the situation as it is”.

They are pessimistic.

BUT — they did come to the coaching session. Be very gentle and ask them what, if anything, gives them hope that the coaching can be useful. Maybe there is good reason to be pessimistic and there is little hope for changes. If that is the case, you can always work on ways for the client to cope.

They don’t react well to criticism.

If your client becomes defensive in a coaching situation, you as coach have at some time broken rapport. The client perceives you as attacking them — so they become defensive. So…. don’t attack your client :-). If your client seems hurt or upset by a question you asked or a comment you make, apologize! Then ask about the client’s perception and stress that their perception is the one that matters. Even better – learn to phrase your comments in gentle, appreciative and understanding ways.

It feels like I have been ranting a bit today — but really, I do feel very passionately about holding our clients in positive regard. Diagnosing them as “uncoachable” when I am not doing my job just feels so wrong to me. Let’s not do that and let’s partner with our clients instead.

Rant over….

Do get in touch if you would like to learn more about ways to coach in full partnership with our clients. We offer regular meetups where we discuss cases, offer information on programs, ponder coaching situations etc. Register here:

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The depth of a coaching conversation: babies and bathwater

Solution Focused (SF) Practice stays “on the surface” and shies away from explanations and instead concentrates on clients’ descriptions of positive change in their past, present and future. The approach is firmly rooted in post-structural, postmodern, social constructionist philosophies in which meaning is assumed to be created between people. It is about “what’s between the noses and not about what’s between the ears” as Mark McKergow says. Therefore, no “deep”, underlying reality needs to be explored in order to help clients make progress toward their preferred future. SF theory and practice has been my home for around 20 years now.

Over the last few years, I have become increasingly involved with the International Coaching Federation (ICF) after having been awarded the credential of “Master Certified Coach”. The ICF  developed core competencies that every good coach, irrespective of their approach or foundational philosophy, demonstrates when they are coaching. An important part of these core competencies is about “depth” of the conversation, the partnership with the client and about “coaching the who” and not only “coaching the what”.

You can imagine how surprised I was that “going deep” was deemed to be a criterion of all good coaching. I showed a video Steve de Shazer (“I want to want to”) to my then mentor coach and she was appalled: no depth of the conversation, no partnering, no deep connection between therapist and client. And yet I experienced the same video as one with great “depth”.

This is what sparked me to embark on a search for the different meanings “depth” and “surface” can have. I wanted to find out how to have a conversation with clients that stays true to the assumption that there is no hidden or underlying problem to be discovered and that focuses on “the surface” of what is said in interactional terms. At the same time, I wanted to find ways to have a conversation that can demonstrate “depth” to bodies like the ICF. I had a hunch that narrative practitioners (who share the philosophical foundations of SF) know more about this than SF practitioners and therefore enrolled in a one-year class at the Dulwich Center in Adelaide learning about narrative therapy.

The following reflections are my findings thus far. Here’s what I know at this point about how to have a conversation that stays “on the surface” but isn’t superficial.

Change and Insight

In a conversation in 2014, Alex Molnar told me and Guy Shennan that Steve de Shazer was “allergic to insight”. While this was a side remark, it stayed with me to this day. I don’t know exactly what he meant, but what I made of it is that SF practice is looking for change rather than understanding. This is similar to Mark McKergow’s quadrant (Dierolf 2014 p. 31) in which draws a line between progress oriented and explanation oriented approaches. Here, SF is situated in the upper right corner of being “progress oriented” with a focus on resources.

  Explanation Orientation Progress Orientation
Resource Focus Positive Psychology


Appreciative Inquiry

Deficit Focus Psychoanalysis


Psychodynamic therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy


In Solution Focused practice, it is assumed that people come to coaching or therapy because they want change. Practitioner and client need to find ways of cooperating so that the desired change can come about. The sign for the practitioner that what they are doing in collaboration with the client is working is that the client is talking about change: change that they desire and signs of that change in past, present, and future.

In my experience, which is entirely of coaching and not therapy, at least in some cases my clients’ objectives for the coaching are not about a change that they would like to make in how they do things. Instead, they come for exploration and reflection. Executives and corporations have little opportunity to reflect and talk about their work: they don’t necessarily want to talk to their families because they want to leave work at work, and they cannot talk inside their company because there is always another agenda and play. Many of my coaching clients come for a time to reflect, make sense, find out what it is that they really want. In short, they want to have a meaningful and intelligent conversation. You could argue that this is also a change in viewing and not in doing – but these conversations are about insights and not about “doing something differently”.

Some of these conversations even begin with the client saying something like: “I really want to find out why….” The traditional SF way of responding would be to ask: “Suppose you did know why… What would be better?” The topic of the conversation would then be around that “better” and not about the topic the client initially brought to the session — in fact, turning a conversation from a search for an explanation or insight into a conversation around desired change. Here is an example:

Conversation A:

Client: I would like to explore why I get so angry when Peter interrupts me in meetings.
Practitioner: Ok, sure – what would be better when you know?
Client: Well, I would be able to react much calmer then
Practitioner: So you are looking for a way to react calmer when Peter interrupts you?
Client: Yes
Practitioner: Have there been times when you ….


Conversation B:

Client: I would like to explore why I get so angry when Peter interrupts me in meetings.
Practitioner: Can you tell me a little bit more about this?
Client: Whenever I want to talk longer maybe than a couple of sentences, Peter interrupts me and meetings. Just yesterday I wanted to explain why we needed more time on the project and he simply jumped in and said that he didn’t really want to talk about the roadblocks. It’s just so frustrating that he doesn’t want to listen.
Practitioner: I’m sorry to hear that, that sounds tough. So, what’s important to you in this situation?
Client: The one hand this is a content issue — I really want to make my point and I want to get my information across. On the other hand, I think it’s completely unfair that some people feel entitled to interrupt others, it just makes me so mad!
Practitioner: Hm – is “making your point, getting your information across” related to “the unfairness and feeling mad” or are these two different topics?
Client: I think they are different topics
Practitioner: Which one would you like to start with today?
Client: I would like to look at the unfairness and feeling mad about it, I need more help there, I think.
Practitioner: Ok, so how would you like to start thinking about this?
Client: Hm – I don’t know
Practitioner: Can I just ask you a few questions around this?
Client: Sure
Practitioner: Might it make sense to look at what you would like to be feeling instead?
Client: Yes – I’d like to be relaxed, calm and have a really constructive way to react when Peter interrupts me. Actually, that might even be the link to the “getting my point across”


The ICF would recognize Conversation B as the “deeper” conversation: more exploration and more partnership. In SF terms, the invitation to exploration “can you tell me a little bit more about this” could be labelled an invitation to “problem talk”. Quests for the construction or post-hoc confabulation of explanations, “why”-questions, are to be avoided.

There are a few reasons that are traditionally given for shying away from explanations. One is practical: by focusing on the desired change directly, clients and practitioners need less time to achieve the change. Descriptions and explanations of the problem seem like unnecessary detours in that process. Practitioners aim to keep the involvement with their clients brief because on the one hand, there are limited resources in the therapy field, and the briefer the involvement with each client, the more clients each therapist can see. On the other hand, therapists want to minimize the risk of the client becoming dependent on the therapist. Both arguments don’t necessarily apply to a coaching context where resources are not scarce, and the coach is more like a service provider or a luxury than a lifeline. In my opinion, the risk of an executive becoming dependent on their coach is much lower than that of the therapy client becoming dependent on the therapist.

The other reason why practitioners might shy away from “why” conversations is philosophical: in a complex world root causes for human behavior cannot be ascertained. Many modernist psychological explanations for human behavior look at a human being as an individual whose inner mechanisms can be analyzed and changed accordingly. They are looking for “explanations” of why something is wrong in order to find out what to do differently. For example, one might analyze a faulty thought pattern and help the client develop a healthier one. This reasoning does not apply when you are working from post-structural, postmodern and social constructionist assumptions. In these approaches looking at a person as an individual entity, outside of their context, separating inner and outer world of a human being simply does not make sense.

The baby and the bathwater

In the following I would like to make the case for Solution Focused conversations that cater to the need of those clients who don’t necessarily come to talk about change but come to have a “deep” conversation.

As a starting point, I looked at how the word “depth” is used in the descriptions of ICF. Here, some conversations are described as “deep” and others might be described as “shallow” or “superficial”. In the terms of the ICF, a “deep” conversation is preferred. However, as long as we are not talking about conversations taking place either in the Mariana Trench or on top of the Mount Everest, we are probably using the word “deep” or “depth” as a metaphor.

The tricky thing with metaphors is that they can contain a whole field of meanings which are subsumed in the metaphor and given the semblance of “a thing”. A coaching conversation is said to “have depth” — as if a conversation could own anything and as if “depth” was something that could be owned.

In order to gain some clarity as to what is generally described by the International Coach Federation as “depth” of a masterful coaching conversation, I have taken the “Minimum Skills Requirement” description from the website of the International Coach Federation for the credential of “Master Certified Coach” and analyzed the usages of “deep” and “depth” and the various contexts. Here are my results:

Depth is mentioned as:

  • Scope of topics
  • Scope of measures of success
  • Level of partnership with the client around agenda, topic, how the coaching conversation is conducted
  • Variety of topics:
  • thinking, feeling, learning
  • who the client is, the client’s way of being
  • how the client learns and creates
  • what the client has to teach the coach,
  • client’s abilities, greatness and gifts, strengths, hidden powers, gifts
  • new growth, growth in relation to the client stated objectives and the future the client is trying to create, client’s agenda and stated objectives
  • limiting beliefs and patterns
  • Significance of topics:
  • “more significant” thoughts, learnings and discovery related to present challenges and agendas and the creation of the client’s future
  • the coach allows the client time to think, learn and discover in relation to significant topics.
  • Quality of learning:
  • the client’s learning shows more understanding or is more sustainable than superficial learning
  • Scope of actions:
  • the client’s actions include thinking, feeling and learning, and presumably not only thinking, or learning, or feeling.
  • Length of time remembered by the coach:
  • the coach demonstrates that he or she remembered things from previous sessions or from earlier in the session and brings the topic back into the conversation

None of these criteria necessarily implies the aforementioned modernist, individualistic and mechanical model of explanation, except maybe “limiting beliefs and patterns”. However, even “limiting beliefs and patterns” do not necessarily presume the necessity of the discovery of an inner mechanism and its fixing by the practitioner. People believe things about themselves and about the world and they can change what they believe about themselves and the world. For example, I used to believe that meditation is boring and a waste of time and now I believe that it is soothing and helpful. The same goes for “patterns”. A “pattern” doesn’t have to be something that needs to be analyzed as if it was existing outside human interactions. You can see it as something that people observe (like a rule in a Wittgensteinian sense) in interaction. For example, I used to get into fights with my husband because I tend to wake up and be wide-awake and he tends to take longer time to be fully awake. I would get annoyed at his sleepiness — he would get annoyed at my bright-eyed and bushy-tailed cheer. Recognizing this “pattern” allowed us to do something different.

Many of the words associated with “depth”, “insight”, “reflection” (and I know I’m being extremely fuzzy here) can be salvaged in a similar way: If a client wants to have a conversation about “values”, we can talk about what the client values and what is important to him or her. “Emotions” can be talked about including their context, in interactional terms so that the conversation doesn’t become about analyzing the emotion as if it was situated inside.

On the surface but not superficial

There are already many “moves” in SF practice where practitioner and client display something that would be recognized as “deep”, for example asking what difference it will make for the client if they reach goal for the session (which does not necessarily have to be a change in doing). Asking this question several times can lead to the client discovering what they want most and what their intentions are. When we follow up by asking who might notice, we are inviting the client to think in interactional terms. This is a conversation about “who the client is” and about the “creation of the client’s future”, the same as the miracle question in one of its many versions.

In my training in narrative therapy, I discovered more ways of having a conversation that “stays on the surface but isn’t superficial” which seem suited to more explorational conversations where the client does not necessarily need a “solution” or “a way to do something differently” (White, 2015).

Listening to the absent but implicit

In the context of executive coaching, where I have a set number of sessions with a client (10 sessions of 90 minutes seems what many people expect) who does not have a pressing problem, I often leave the client more time to tell me his or her thoughts about the issue that he or she wants to talk about. As usual in SF practice, I listen with an ear for what the client wants, what he or she is already able to do, perceive, feel. I add the narrative element of listening for what is important to the client and what are evocative words or phrases until the client agrees we have explored enough and can define a topic for the session based on our exploration.

Landscape of identity

Based on the “absent but implicit”, sometimes an image of a future self of the client appears. In the above example, it seems like “fairness”, “calm” and “constructive” are adjectives that the client would like to be able to use about him or herself. I might invite the client to describe this fair, calm and constructive version of him or herself and where this version has already shown up in the past. All of this would happen in very interactional terms: what were they noticing, what were others noticing about them and so on. The client might then be interested to explore what the situation in the meeting would look like if this version of the client showed up (in principle like the miracle question), who would notice etc.

Capturing learning and results

When the client and I have explored enough, I have started to ask not only about signs of progress (or signs of the other version showing up) but also about what the client is learning about themselves and about how they are exploring usefully.


It has been my experience with ICF mentor coaches, assessors, clients and coaching students that they recognize the above described way of inviting clients to a conversation as “deep”. SF practitioners might see that these conversations also do not search for an inner mechanism or interpretation.

I hope my reflections have invited you to further exploration – I am intrigued by the possibility of salvaging “deep” conversations around things that are traditionally labelled as “inner-psychic” or “systemic” in interactional terms. I have no idea whether these conversations are as “useful” as traditional SF conversation, but then, “useful” is not always the measure.


References: last accessed July, 7 2019

White, Michael (2015): Maps of narrative practice. Auckland, N.Z: Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind.

Dierolf, Kirsten (2014): Solution-Focused Team Coaching. Bad Homburg v d Höhe: Solutions Academy Verlag.