A Linguistic Take on Coaching
Dr. Eva-Maria Graf has recently launched an exciting research project on “Questioning Sequences in Coaching”. In this interview, she told us about her new research project, how she found her passion in coaching, and how linguistics can change the world.
You are working on an exciting research project about questioning sequences in coaching at the moment. Tell us a little bit about the project.
Coaching is relatively recent – more recent than psychotherapy or doctor-patient interaction. The research citation compared to psychotherapy is still pretty poor. There are no nation-wide accepted professional standards or education and training settings that people have to go through when people want to work as a coach. In order to standardize coaching or to professionalize coaching, we not only need to know that it works, but we also need to very much know how it works. A central research question is about the process. What really happens between coach and client in conversations? We consider coaching to be a particular type of professional interaction that applies various linguistic or discursive practices in order to support the client in finding the right solutions. In this new research project, we examine questioning sequences in coaching, questions that coaches pose and the reactions that clients show, and then the third position, which is what our research particularly focusses on: What does the coach then do with the client’s response? So, this is sort of the origin of our project to look into questioning practices and questioning sequences, which are established as the most decisive and most prominent intervention in coaching. We find out about the linguistic context and also how these questioning sequences develop throughout the coaching process. This is the linguistic part. But it is also interesting to find out what kind of questioning practices we find in coaching, and we will be working here with knowledge and linguistic insight we have gained in, for example, psychotherapy and doctor-patient interaction. This is one part, and, of course, this is where psychology now comes into play, given that we are doing an interdisciplinary project, we not only want to find out about what kind of questioning sequences there are and how they develop throughout the coaching process, but we also want to know, do they really contribute to clients’ change and, if so, how.
What is the duration of the project?
The project is scheduled for 3 years, so 36 months.
What methodologies are you and your team using?
The big challenge will be to get authentic data because we’re not working with staged coaching processes for research purposes, but we are looking for coaches and clients who are willing to video- and audio-record their processes; their data will be 100% anonymized and linguistically transcribed. Then we developed a typology of questioning sequences. This then needs to be condensed into codes because our colleagues from psychology will then code the data again with the help of these pre-established codes. This is where linguistics and psychology again meet.
You’re working with researchers from Germany and Switzerland. How did this collaboration develop and who are your fellow researchers?
We are working in 3 different teams. There is a team here in Austria at the University of Klagenfurt, there’s a team at the Leibnitz Institut für deutsche Sprache in Mannheim, and there’s a team working at the Züricher Hochschule für angewandte Wissenschaften. That is where our colleagues from psychology are located. My colleague from Switzerland, Hansjörg Künzli, and I are both members of the Deutsche Bundesverband für Coaching, a board of professional coaches, and this is where we met. In 2015, he and I, together with another colleague from Germany, launched an open-access, double-blind, peer-reviewed journal of interdisciplinary coaching research, that’s now up and running with Springer Nature. I met my colleague in Germany, Thomas Spranz-Fogasy, via a colleague from Vienna. He’s about to retire, but he’ll be working on the project nevertheless. He’s been working for years in doctor-patient interaction and in psychotherapeutic interaction, so it’s me bringing the coaching expertise and it’s him bringing his expertise on the questioning sequences in these other formats. And out of these contacts and out of these insights we had, we realised that neither psychology nor linguistics alone can really answer this question, i.e., how do questioning sequences function? We got together and then for quite some time worked on this idea for this project, and this is how we got there.
A couple of students will be employed here in pre-doc positions to work on the project. How will their work support the overall research aims?
In Klagenfurt there will be two doctoral students and two student assistants working on this project. Given that I am both the leader of the Austrian team here in Klagenfurt and also the overall project leader, which means there will be a lot of project management necessary, one of the student assistants will be in charge only of project management and internal and external communication. The other student will be participating in the transcription. They will also be participating in data management, so transcribing, anonymising the data, one of the PhD students’ dissertation will be focussing on the second position – clients’ responses. And the other dissertation will be focussing on the development of these sequences across the entire coaching processes, and we’ll interpret these findings more from a coaching theoretical perspective.
What are you hoping to achieve with this project? How will your research inform the future of coaching practices?
We’re carrying out basic research, which means that we’ll contribute profoundly to the evidence base of coaching as a professional format. We’ll also contribute to linguistic knowledge or linguistic research in the context of professional communication or helping professions adding to the existing knowledge about psychotherapy, doctor-patient interaction, counselling, and other formats. This will add relevant insights into coaching, which has become one of the most widely practiced developmental formats, and then what’s very, very important for us is to work very closely with the coaching practice. We also want to feed our insights back into a very concrete feedback tool we are currently developing. This development has already started in Switzerland from a purely psychological perspective. Now we’ll elaborate on that feedback tool on the basis of the insights we’ll hopefully have gained as regards to questioning practices.
What got you interested in coaching as a research field in the first place?
That was quite a while ago. I worked in Munich and I did my PhD there in a totally different area. When I finished my PhD, my contract in Munich also expired, and it wasn’t clear how I would like to go on. A friend of mine got me interested in coaching and said that it would be a professional career that I could pursue, not from an academic perspective. So, I was looking around, and I decided on a particular coach training programme close to Munich which lasted for about two years. We had a lot of therapeutic or theoretical and psychological input, but I did not stop being a linguist and, right from the beginning, I thought that if we constantly claim that therapy and coaching are two different formats, then that also has to show on the conversational level because I cannot claim something to be different and carry out the entirely same conversation with the person. I started becoming interested in that and talked to my coach trainer, who was extremely interested in research. He supported me right from the beginning because it’s very challenging to convince coaches and clients to record their sessions. Given that he was so interested and enthusiastic about the project, he was able to convince all his clients, and we’re talking about really top-level executives, to participate in this first study and to have their sessions recorded. This is where my data came from. I was interested in what turns a conversation into coaching in comparison or in contrast with these other formats. He collected the data for two years and during my coach training I had my job interview in Klagenfurt. And this is how my interest in coaching developed and how I have continued my academic career in Klagenfurt.
Do you include this topic in your teaching or are you planning on doing so? If yes, how do you engage your students in your research? How do you incorporate your research into your teaching?
Absolutely. I’ve been teaching on helping professions or helping discourses for quite some time. I’ve always focussed more on the practical perspective when it comes to linguistics and also a broader one, so not so much the formal level but always more the discourse level. There’s a course I teach in the current summer semester on helping professions because this is something which touches upon our everyday life. This new project will definitely be included not only with the upcoming results, which might take some time to be available, but I will also use this concrete project to show students how empirical research is done, how it needs to be thought about, and how a research is designed and developed. The basics of doing linguistic research is always part of my teaching.
The work you’ve done and continue to do is ground-breaking in terms of the impact of your research on this nascent field. Could you reflect on how you have navigated your career?
I’m very much motivated by my own interests. I’ve never pursued a master plan in the sense that I took strategic decisions about what to research because that might be more relevant for a future career than anything else. I have always been of the conviction that what interests you most will also allow you to pursue the appropriate career. That might be a bit naïve, but it worked out in my case. I particularly like working in different fields. I mean, on the one hand, it has always been challenging for me because I have never been a hardcore linguist, I’m more of a discourse person. I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore academic because I’m also a professional and I always try to establish bridges between or connections between these areas. People often take my classes without knowing what the journey will be like and in the end, they tell me: I didn’t think that was linguistics. I think that linguistics has a lot of responsibility because when we look at what happened in the United States, we can see that language and discourse mould the way we think. And we can, with the help of linguistic research, with the help of understanding how language and discourse are manipulative and are manipulated, really contribute to, ideally, making this world a better place. I taught Eco-linguistics last semester where we see how various discourses, or stories we live by, are actually beneficial but a lot more often destructive when it comes to our environment. And to uncarve these destructive but also beneficial discourses with the help of core linguistic strategies and to teach students to also pass this knowledge on I think is an extremely important mission, and this is where my heart is.
As a linguist interested in language and gender, do you see research potential in analysing how gendered language is used in coaching sessions?
Yes, there are two papers out by now, which is definitely not enough. One was just a very theoretical, very general paper because it only addresses gender and coaching or gendered coaching in a broad sense. The topic of gender is also discussed from a practitioner’s perspective but so far only in the sense that: Is it a male coach or is it a female coach? Is it a female client or a male client? And there is so much more to that. It’s very much about what gender stereotypes coaches and also clients bring into the coaching conversation and how do we deal with that. Particularly in this type of coaching that I’m currently analysing, the leadership coaching, where leadership is still stereotypically conceptualized as a male and as a masculine domain, a lot of female leaders struggle with an identity crisis in the sense that if they behave according to female norms, they are attacked because they are not considered appropriate leaders and if they act according to male or masculine leadership norms, they are attacked for being bossy. In one of the papers I looked into one coaching process between a female coach and a female client to find out how these two deal with such gender stereotypes.
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Eva-Maria Graf teaches at the Department of English at the Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt. Her research focus lies, among others, on discourse analysis, discourses of gender and sexuality, helping professions with a special focus on coaching, as well as the language and discourses of football. She wrote her Habilitation on the discourses of executive coaching and has worked as a professional business coach since 2009. Since 2015 Eva Graf has been the editor-in-chief of the magazine “Coaching – Theorie & Praxis.” In March 2021, she began her research project “Questioning Sequences in Coaching.” If you want to know more about Dr. Graf’s current research, visit the website dedicated to this project: https://questions-in-coaching.aau.at