A Bold Solution: The Coaching Circle

Antoinette Klatzky
Field of the Future Blog
6 min readJan 21, 2021

How often is the advice you get actually helpful? When someone is sharing something, most often, it’s what they themselves need to hear. That doesn’t mean that hearing from someone else who has more experience on the subject or learning from someone else isn’t important. Sitting with teachers, mentors, and friends can be valuable spaces to process, vent, and clarify. Yet, one of the most transformative spaces I’ve experienced, has been inside a coaching circle.

Coaching. One can get hundreds of coaching certifications to become a really good advice giver, but what’s the key to supporting someone in their time of need? Listening. It may sound hoak-ey but one of my favorite quotes is “listen her to her greatness.” No, that’s not a typo. Purely by listening to each other, we can give one another the support we need to get to our next level of personal success. A coaching circle is not about having a personal coach sit with you and walk through your problems one-by-one, but a circle that acts almost as an alchemical crucible in applying deep listening to the case giver.

During our recent Feminine Leadership program with Imago Global Grassroots supporting the organizations in Levers for Change’s Bold Solutions Network, we shared a variation on the Presencing Institute’s Coaching Circles. It’s a simple technique. We sit together in small groups and listen to the case giver, each participant becoming a coach. The invitation is to share a current challenge within which the person sharing is the protagonist (we’re not sharing about a problem someone else is going through). In the description of the challenge, the case giver shares a current challenge, what their highest hope for the situation is, a perspective of the stakeholders in the challenge, and where they see a learning edge for themselves. As the case giver shares their story, the coaches (other participants) drop into a deeper level of listening. This is not just listening for facts or to be able to repeat back the information we just heard. The listener tunes into the highest potential of the person facing this challenge.

Levels of Listening

I often say, listen beyond the words. In reality, 93% of what we communicate is non-verbal. Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT and Founder/President of Presencing Institute, describes four levels of listening:

Breaking that down a bit more:

Downloading — looking for reconfirming data, judgements based on old information and patterns. I also think of this as traditional school — downloading information to regurgitate it back on the test.

Factual — looking for disconfirming data. Finding new data that actually breaks down old patterns. In the image by Kelvy Bird above, we see Factual as going to the window of the edge of the circle. You are still rooted in your own experience, but are able to see outside of your own bubble.

Empathic — seeing, hearing, and understanding through another person’s eyes. Often we talk about this one as stepping into another person’s shoes. We may never know exactly what a person has gone through, but we are stepping out of our own experience and connecting more emotionally.

Generative — listening to the emerging future. This is the level of listening that shifts the listener and the speaker. I call this giving the gift of listening or generous listening. Otto describes this as “connecting to an emerging future whole; shift in identity and self.”

The listening we apply in coaching circles is often incorporating all four levels, but the magic happens after we hear the case giver. The next step is to sit for a couple of minutes in stillness, attending to the images, thoughts, and gestures that might arise within us. For me, if I’ve dropped in the generative listening, unexpected images and clear gestures often appear. Following the two minutes of stillness, each of the coaches shares what came up for them in a process we call mirroring. The mirroring is not a guide to what the case giver should do, it is providing a perspective or a lens on the situation. The group has become a multi-faceted gem in which alchemy can occur.

The effects of the coaching circle are not just for the case giver. In every coaching circle session within which I have taken part, I have experienced a learning. Even if it is not a challenge I am currently in the throes of, the listening I am applying invites me into a space of deep learning and transformation, giving me an opportunity to gain new understandings about myself and my own situation.

Krista Tippet describes this experience in a dialogue with the poet Jericho Brown. She says, “Well, that’s that strange thing, that the more authentically and deeply we can speak from our particular experience, we speak to the particular experience of others.” She says, “It’s not quite logical that it should work that way … but we say universal things, and they don’t speak to the particular experience of others.”

When it has been time for me to share my own case, rather than being supported by one coach giving me their own ‘expert’ opinion, I have five or six coaches who are each deeply listening in to a deep place of possibility and seeing my pure potential. When I am being listened to in this way, I find that I share from a place that is more authentic and true to the lived reality. In my own life, it has been a truly rare and precious moment that has helped me evolve and grow tremendously.

Coaching Circles Are Needed Now

What we need now in the world is transformation, not the ‘same-old’ systems. While we sit in a moment of a global pandemic, we have been upending our ways of working together and ways of being on the Earth. We are seeing quite clearly that we won’t have healthy people on an unhealthy planet. So, what will we do? Scharmer often shares that we have the resources we need, and we have the solutions, we just don’t know how to bring them to life.

Transformation is about actually shifting the ways in which we operate on a day-to-day basis (individually and in our social systems). Gemma Jiang, PhD, Founding Director of the Innovation Lab of University of Pittsburgh, published an article recently on coaching circles as ‘The Third Place,’ describing them as a space outside of home and work in which we can have social connection. She says,

“If you ever wonder what is going on with a person underneath the glamours, come to a coaching circle. Here you have an opportunity to bear witness to the true humanity residing within each of us.”

She compares this type of ‘bearing witness to the true humanity residing within each of us’ to general social engagements and tells a story of someone baring her soul in a coaching circle in juxtaposition to the Christmas party happening on the building floor below. Our typical social engagements are often vapid and filled with meaningless interaction.

We look outside ourselves for global social and ecological systems solutions — technology, innovation in business, the next academic or government solution. Those are important too. And yet, the solutions lie within us. Those solutions will mean nothing if we don’t shift our ways of operating — our mindset, our heartset, our ‘action confidence’ (as described by Otto Scharmer and Eva Pomeroy). Imago Global Grassroots used coaching circles as a means for social interaction as a Bold Solution, because that’s exactly what it is -- a solution we all have access to and will need to muster up the courage to do.

A dear friend and colleague, Rachel Hentsch, shares a powerful visual practice from her recent coaching circle experience. It encapsulates the power of this type of listening and mirrors it back in a series of images and words.

Created by Rachel Hentsch

For Coaching Circle Resources: