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Scientific Wisdom for Coaches

Updated: May 15

The Coaching in Leadership and Healthcare conference is the signature event of the Institute of Coaching (IOC), which it organizes with McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Held on May 3-4, 2024, the conference featured the scientific work of both eminent and emerging scholars whose research informs coaching practice.

So what did coaches who attended this conference hear?  And what might it mean for coaching in organizations? Below I summarize ideas I found most provocative from our esteemed speakers.

“The good life gets defined for us, not by us” said Dr. Robert Waldinger, Director of Harvard Study of Adult Development, offered insights into what makes a good life. Spoiler alert, their 85-year study has found that what makes for a good life is the quality (not quantity) of our relationships. In contrast, a recent survey found the major life goals of people in their 20’s were wealth, fame, and hard work. Waldinger suggested that one driver of this disconnect between these life goals and what actually leads to happiness, is confusing messages from marketing and social media that encourage us to “compare our insides to others’ outsides.”  This faulty comparison inevitably leads to a sense of inadequacy, loneliness, and dissatisfaction with life. What does this mean for coaches? It points to the importance of helping individuals or teams self-author their true aspirations that will lead to fulfilled lives. It also points to the important role coaches can play in deepening the quality of one’s relationships. 

AI-braided Coaching. Dr. Marty Seligman demonstrated a new ‘Ask Martin’ artificial intelligence (AI) tool that responds to questions with audio advice for enhancing individual vitality based on his years of research. Specifically, the AI draws on his research on PERMA (pleasant emotions, engagement/flow, relationships, meaning/mattering, and accomplishment), which has been empirically linked to desirable outcomes such as health and longevity, better social relationships, work productivity, virtuous behavior, creativity, and resilience. What does this mean for coaches?  The future of coaching will likely entail the interweaving of human-to-human coaching with AI interventions.

Constructive Communication. Dr. John-Paul Stephens introduced the concept of ‘constructive communication’ whereby individuals – even on different sides of a polarizing issue – co-create meaning in a dialogue supported by mutual attunement to “we” not just “me”. To achieve constructive communication, he recommended setting an intention for the conversation. And not just any intention. An intention for high-quality connection, wherein the relationship can sustain emotional highs and lows (thereby expanding its emotional carrying capacity). He also recommended preparing carefully for the conversation by considering the others’ wants and needs as well as one’s own. This might involve clarifying how we want the conversation to go and where we’d like to end up. Coaches can use these techniques when they find themselves in difficult conversations and can offer them to those they coach as a way to avoid disconnection.

Intelligent failure. Dr. Amy Edmondson shared insights from her new book, Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well. She described three types of failure: basic, complex, and intelligent. Basic failures have a single cause that occurs in familiar territory (usually arises from a mistake). Complex failures involve a confluence of factors in a variable context (multiple mistakes). Intelligent failure is an undesired result in unfamiliar territory and, despite sound reasoning and preparation, they are largely unavoidable. Intelligent failures are foundational to innovation and navigating uncertainty. Individuals, teams, and organizations can learn from intelligent failures if the climate is safe to raise concerns/errors and time is taken to examine what when wrong and what can be done differently in the future. Coaches can use this information to help clients add nuance to what it means to “fail” and to have courage to take grounded risks that may lead to break-throughs (or intelligent failures).


Ripple effects of coaching. Dr. Anne de Pagter received the Anthony Grant Excellence in Coaching Research Award. In her subsequent talk, she described a research program examining nation-wide coaching programs for physicians, nurses, and medical students in the Netherlands. Various studies find that these programs increase engagement, autonomy, reflection, proactivity, psychological capital, and self-compassion among those who are coached. With funding from an IOC-ICF coaching research grant, she is currently working on a project to examine the ‘ripple effects’ of coaching. In other words, they are curious to know if the co-workers of nurses who are coached experience vicarious effects of wellbeing and enhanced relational coordination. We await with anticipation their results!

If you are a scholar interested in conducting coaching-specific research, please consider the IOC-ICF coaching research grant program for funding opportunities.

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