The field of coaching has much to gain from the application of theoretical knowledge to practice, including increased credibility and improved outcomes for stakeholders. This approach requires coaches to respond to the individual in front of them by integrating research evidence and personal expertise (Stober, Wildflower, & Drake, 2006), with the aim to effectively facilitate behaviour change via goal-directed self-regulation (Good, Yeganeh, & Yeganeh, 2013; Grant, 2012). Two perspectives that have clear theoretical relevance to achieving this aim are the cybernetic theory of self-regulation established by Carver and Scheier (1998) and the mindfulness theory proposed by Shapiro, Carlson, Astin and Freedman (2006). While each of these theories can be applied advantageously to coaching practice in their own right, applied together new insight can be gained into the potential value of their application to coaching.
Cybernetic Theory of Self-Regulation
Carver and Scheier (1998) conceptualise human behaviour as fundamentally goal-directed and feedback-controlled. This view has clear significance to coaching which is typically characterised as a goal-focused activity, where goals facilitate the movement from a current to more desirable state (Grant, 2012). In this context, self-regulation may be defined as the process by which a system maintains both stable and responsive functioning in order to achieve specific goals, despite environmental disturbances (Shapiro & Schwartz, 2000; Vancouver, 2000). An examination of Carver and Scheier (1998) offers insight into the process of attaining goals through elaboration of the central component of all cybernetic control systems – the feedback loop (Carver, Johnson, Joormann, & Scheier, 2015).
From this perspective, self-regulation consists of movement though a series of feedback loops that have four key elements: a reference value, an input function, a comparison process, and an output (Carver & Scheier, 2012). An example that is particularly relevant to coaching is the negative (discrepancy reducing) feedback process, which characterises the application of effort to reach a particular goal (Grant, 2012). Applied to an individual’s behaviour, this requires: knowledge (on some level) of a goal or desired state (reference value), a perception of what the current condition is (input function), the ability to evaluate whether the current condition matches the desired state or not (comparison processes), and finally, the ability to produce behaviour (output) that reduces discrepancies between current and desired state, in order to reduce the associated aversive emotion and create change in the direction of goal attainment (Carver & Scheier, 2012). This view of self-regulation offers the important insight that successful goal pursuit is not just about the ability to act, but that actions are formulated in direct response to an individual’s perception of their current conditions (input; Carver & Scheier, 2012; Powers, 1973). In the context of coaching, this understanding reveals possible sites of intervention to help facilitate behaviour change, for example, addressing distorted perceptions of current conditions by examining thinking errors and developing new thinking skills (Palmer & Szymanska, 2008).
The view of goals presented by Carver and Scheier (1998) is not monolithic, instead, goals are conceptualised as references values in the process of self-regulation that may be static or dynamic and that exist across many different dimensions (e.g. concrete-abstract). This is an important consideration in the context of coaching, because different types of goals may impact the performance and experience of coachee’s differently (Carver et al., 2015; Grant, 2012).
The mindfulness theory of Shapiro et al. (2006) was developed with the aim to illuminate the potential mechanisms that explain how mindfulness practice may effect positive change. The perhaps most commonly cited definition of mindfulness, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4), embodies the core components of mindfulness postulated in their theory: intention (“on purpose”), attention (“paying attention”) and attitude (“in a particular way”; Shapiro et al., 2006, p. 375). These three building blocks, or axioms, of mindfulness interact dynamically and occur simultaneously in the moment-to-moment process of mindfulness (Shapiro et al., 2006). Intention, or why one is practicing mindfulness, may be dynamic and evolve over time (Shapiro et al., 2006). The inclusion of intentionality as an essential feature of mindfulness is significant to coaching practice, as research suggests that an emphasis on both the goal and the processes increases the likelihood of goal attainment (Gollwitzer & Oettingen, 2013). In the context of this theory, intention emphasises the process through a focus on the purpose and direction rather than the end point (Shapiro & Schwartz, 2000).
Attention, the observation of one’s moment-to-moment experience, is at the core of mindfulness practice (Shapiro et al., 2006). Increased attentional control is hypothesised to be an important outcome of mindfulness practice (Cavanagh & Spence, 2013) and significantly, from a coaching perspective, it is hypothesised that increased attentional control in turn increases self-regulation and enhances self-efficacy (Cavanagh & Spence, 2013; Shapiro et al., 2006). The qualities that are brought to the act of paying attention constitute the final essential component of mindfulness outlined by Shapiro and colleagues: attitude. Rather than viewing mindfulness as “bare” attention (Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007), Shapiro et al. (2006) suggest that individuals may learn to attend to their experience with attitudes such as non-judgement, acceptance, compassion and patience, by making these attitudes of attention explicit.
Together, these three core components of mindfulness form an overarching mechanism of mindfulness: a significant shift in perspective as a result of disidentification with the contents of one’s thoughts, which engenders greater clarity and objectivity in moment-to-moment experience – a process termed reperceiving (Shapiro et al., 2006). This increased capacity to view one’s experiences with greater objectivity is arguably not only the hallmark of mindfulness, but also a fundamental aspect of the process of development (Kegan, 1982).
Applications to Coaching Practice
The major contribution of Carver and Scheier (1998) from the perspective of coaching, is a conceptualisation of the way self-regulation directly impacts goal attainment. The centrality of this understanding to coaching practice is well established (Cavanagh & Spence, 2013). Rather than examining the mindfulness theory of Shapiro et al. (2006) as an alternative perspective, perhaps the greatest value can be gained by examining how these theoretical approaches might be applied together in coaching practice. Specifically, by examining how mindfulness theory may be used to enhance the application of the cybernetic theory of self-regulation in the coaching context.
First, Carver and Scheier (1998) offer the insight that to successfully facilitate goal attainment, the coach’s time would be well spent developing the coachee’s ability to monitor and compare their current behavioural patterns to their desired state, as well as facilitating the modification of action plans or goals, where necessary (Grant, 2012). However, the theory seems to assume behaviour change occurs ‘automatically’ in response to discrepancies, without exploration of the need for deliberate attentional control to sustain goal focus in the face of outside disturbances that impact goal attainment – a significant concern given the increasing distractions present in modern life (Cavanagh & Spence, 2013). If a coachee struggles with the process of self-regulation, no specific insight is offered by Carver and Scheier (1998) as to how this may be improved. Mindfulness practice is one tool which may be used to improve the coachee’s capacity to access the material contained within the negative feedback loop through non-judgemental attention (Shapiro et al., 2006). In this way, mindfulness actually enhances the self-regulation process. This includes access to aspects of experience that may have been previously avoided by the coachee due to negative emotion (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002). Therefore, the application of mindfulness as a part of the movement towards goal attainment might be particularly significant for coachee’s experiencing negative affective states, such as anxiety (Cavanagh & Spence, 2013).
In addition, through the process of mindfulness, the mechanism of reperceiving may also help the coachee clarify their values, such that they are able to select more self-concordant (autonomous) goals (Cavanagh & Spence, 2013; Shapiro et al., 2006). Research would suggest that this in turn improves goal striving, wellbeing and ultimately goal attainment (Deci & Ryan, 2001). Thus, where the cybernetic approach of Carver and Scheier (1998) offers the coach insight into the structure of effective self-regulated goal-oriented behaviour change that can be applied to direct a coachee’s goal attainment, the mindfulness approach of Shapiro et al. (2006) provides the coach with a potential mechanism for developing the content of those goals.
Third, the cybernetic approach of Carver and Scheier (1998) can be applied neatly to performance coaching, but by combining this approach with mindfulness practice, the coach may better support the developmental aspirations of a coachee, through the mechanism of reperceiving (Shapiro et al., 2006), while working to facilitate change at a performance level.
Finally, as the coach uses their theoretical knowledge of Carver and Scheier (1998) to effectively facilitate behaviour change through goal-directed self-regulation, how they go about doing this may be enhanced by their own participation in mindfulness practice. For example, by using mindfulness practice to create appropriate mental space prior to coaching, maintain focus and presence during coaching, and enhance self-monitoring of their own emotional state throughout (Passmore, 2017).
While the two theoretical perspectives outlined here are clearly significant in the context of coaching, neither one offers a panacea. While the focus in the section above has been on how a mindfulness approach may be used to enhance the application of the cybernetic theory of self-regulation in the coaching context, the mindfulness theory of Shapiro et al. (2006), is not without limitation itself. For example, their proposed mechanisms of mindfulness are yet to be systematically tested. Further research is needed in order to empirically validate these hypotheses. Based on the literature it seems evident that both theories have considerable applicability to coaching practice, yet while there are a number of outcome studies examining the effect of self-regulation on goal attainment in the coaching context (Grant, 2012), mindfulness has rarely been examined in the coaching context (Passmore, 2017). More mindfulness-based coaching outcome studies are needed which contain a clear definition of mindfulness, including its underlying mechanisms (Cavanagh & Spence, 2013).