What Makes for Truly Transformational Coaching

What Makes For Truly Transformational Coaching?

Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing 
there is a field. I will meet you there.

– Rumi


Originally from the UK, I have spent much of the past ten years training beginning and advanced coaches in Russia and at my retreat in Bali. Joining ICF and seeking ACTP certification for our programmes and personal credentialing in 2013 stimulated my interest in mentoring and supervision for coach development. And it brought into focus again the question: what makes for really extraordinary coaching?

Listening to recordings of sessions that our coaches had submitted for mentoring I wondered: why was so much of what I was hearing – while skilled and relevant to the clients’ requests – neither deep nor truly transformational? How, I asked myself, could our work have more sparkle and depth? What exactly makes for the magic? And how can more of our sessions have that extra zing, when something truly transformational happens?

Coaches often call themselves ‘transformational’, but is that an attractive marketing tag or does it correspond to anything observable? We can distinguish ‘transactional’ and ‘transformational’ leadership. Can we do the same for coaching?

I believe so, and Bateson’s distinction among orders of learning is key.[i]

Bateson’s model shows how we can understand development in terms of a logical hierarchy of types or orders of learning, in which each key level transcends and outframes the lower level.

For practical purpose three levels or orders of learning concern us here: simple first order, behavioural change; second order learning-about-learning, including the beliefs and labels we apply to ourselves as a result of our life-learning experiences; and third order learning – realizing that we are not our self-definitions, but the greater being-awareness, transcending and reflecting the one we thought ourselves to be (Figure 1).

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Transformational Coaching

Basic coaching tends to be outcome and performance oriented – first order focused in Bateson’s model. The emphasis is on clarifying the desired result and working out a pathway to its achievement through behavioural shifts and skill acquisition pertinent to success.

Transformational coaching does not invalidate such first-order work. But it implies more: we engage with the client’s second-order frames influencing the achievement of those goals – notably the beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes that predispose the client to the possibility or impossibility of succeeding.

We call such coaching ‘transformational’ because it implies a shift, not only in behaviour, but in the client’s relationship with what he or she is trying to achieve. It means not only influencing what we do, but how we have been relating to it. We are updating old learning in a way that embraces body, mind, and emotions.

This deeper second-order learning is felt in the body, as old blocks shift and dissolve, relaxing long-held tension in the muscles and tissue, freeing feeling, and expanding the subtle inner space of being.

Coaching needs to be transformational when the client wants to perform at an elusive higher level and inner blocks or resistance spoil the path to achievement.

Transformational coaching implies disrupting the usual stability points anchoring our world in place. It implies letting go in an often-disorienting transitional moment – ‘a wobble’ – as the bonds of old learning slacken and the mental-emotional maps fixing our world are updated.[ii] In that destabilizing moment, the new can at last unfold.

As Hawkins and Smith suggest, such embodied transformational shifts need to occur during the coaching session itself for there to be a lasting shift outside in the workplace or elsewhere.[iii]


Deep Transformational Coaching

Deep transformational coaching goes further. It implies loosening the whole framing holding our second order learning in place. That means third order learning.

In third order or triple loop learning, not only the meaning or truth of particular assumptions in our internal landscape – such as our value or worth, or ability to change or learn – are in question. Rather, the whole foundation on which we have constructed our world is tested. Cognitively, we are dealing, not just with assumptions about a particular ability or character trait, but the very existence of a separate self to have and hold them. The long-forgotten ways in which we have determined that there is a me, a you, and a world, and all the mental and affective ramparts, ditches, and dykes to keep the castle of self separate and safe come into question.

Deep transformational coaching happens when the bonds of division loosen, and, in a moment of direct knowing, we realize that our existence is not firstly individual and defined, and belatedly universal and transcendent, but the reverse (Figure 2).


Such a radical shift may seem far from what generally concerns the client, and not that relevant to a typical life- or executive-coaching session. However, it is fundamental to successful coaching in three ways. 


Deep Transformation in the Coach Eases Transformation in the Client

First, transcendence of self provides the perspective from which the coach can best gain insight into what the client is really requesting even in standard coaching sessions. Inner awareness beyond the self makes first order and transformational change more obvious.

The frame-shaking ‘felt shifts’ of transformational coaching as old thinking is transcended are localized examples within the client’s internal world of what can happen to the whole. The ‘wobble’ as old frames shift is a lesser example of the great upheavals accompanying growth in the totality of the psyche.

The more the coach experiences deep transformation and transcendence of the primary divide between pseudo-self and supposed non-self, the more he or she is at ease stimulating and supporting transformational shifts in the client.

Truly transformational work happens when we have experienced deep transformation and transcendence of our own ego-centred divisions – when we are at home in that reflexive dimension of knowing, embracing both you and I, me and my world.


Clients Bring Challenges Requiring Third-Order Shifts in Coaching

Second, as the coach ripens, clients tend to bring wider-reaching issues to coaching. The challenges clients face are no longer about achieving outcomes, nor overcoming deeper psycho-emotional blocks to growth, but questions touching the whole nature and meaning of personal existence.

To accompany the client in this exploration, it behoves us to be already transcending our own stories. It helps if we are increasingly present to that simple unconditioned awareness – reflecting all, judging nothing – in which solutions naturally arise.

We need to be some steps in our own unfolding further down the path than the client has trod. And when that path has brought the client to the edge of old assumptions about who and what he or she is, it helps if we are no longer enmeshed in our own story, but deeply aware of the arbitrary nature of all stories. And the key to such narrative freedom is not conceptual, but embodying spacious Being-awareness in comfortable, loving presence.


Deep Transformation Eases Working in and from the Common Ground

Third, real change does not happen primarily in the personal world of the client nor through the coach’s interventions.

Rather it arises naturally through an opening to the ground of experience, common to both coach and client. It is vital that the coach awaken to that transpersonal ground, because in this field – beyond dualities and differences coach and coachee truly meet (Figure 3).

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The more the coach is open to that awareness-field, the more he or she can hold that subtle spaciousness for the coach-client dyad. In that generous mirror, it becomes easier to allow what needs to be present, to arise, and unfold in the here-and-now.

Transformation is then neither private to the client, nor driven by the coach, but unfolding naturally in the coaching relationship itself. Transformation is an innocent outcome of the evolutionary connectedness of me and you as local expressions of a common source – an egoless ‘I’/’eye’ animating the ‘we’ implicit in our shared presence.

Transformation then happens naturally, because it is the nature of the Nature that is embodying us both in an Unfolding that, however powerful for the client, is as radical for the coach, who is nourished and transformed too.

In surrendering to the field and being-embodying it, the coach is coached by the coaching itself in how to coach beyond usual mind-separateness, both during the session, and outside, as separateness gradually releases its grip.

And that is the unasked-for side-benefit of the coaching path. Our transformational and deep transformational work is both nurtured by, and contributing to, the great awakening that third-order learning implies. The goal lies in the way.

Such claims may sound far-fetched. But all deep change and growth has roots in some loosening of the illusion of separateness and limitation in a glimpse of freedom prior to self-definition. It may seem distant, but it is never remote. Little events of life are always ready to provide a glimpse – a graced landscape, a dawn, the sea, a piece of music, a birth, death, or glance in the eyes of a loved one. Any moment can rend the veil of reasonableness in a selfless moment, replete with the lightness and emptiness of being. In coaching, as in life, as Paul Valéry put it: ‘Each atom of silence/Is the chance for a ripe fruit’ (‘Chaque atome de silence/Est la chance d’un fruit mur!’).[iv]


Knowing, Not-Knowing

How do we support development from outcome- or performance-based coaching, to transformational, and thence to deep transformational coaching?

What struck me in the coaching sessions I was mentoring was the tendency to remain in a rational realm in which few fresh surprises came to client or coach. Such coaching remained anchored in the ‘known’. For coaching to be transformational, we need to cast off from the safe shoals of what we already know into the uncertain waters of ‘not knowing’.

Not knowing presupposes a willing suspension of belief (to reverse Coleridge’s phrase) in which we release the familiar and obvious to rest in a state of quiet wondering, open to new answer and insight.[v]

We may need to nudge both ourselves and the client towards such not-knowing, allowing old certainties to soften, giving space for the new to arise. 



Knowing can provide a springboard to not-knowing. And not-knowing can yield new knowing, fresh and true. This complementary relationship flowers when both knowing and not-knowing arise and unfold within a deeper proto-awareness mystics have called ‘Unknowing’.

As Wordsworth suggests, when ‘we are laid asleep/ In body, and become a living soul’, then ‘with an eye made quiet by the power/ Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,/ We see into the life of things.’[vi] In Unknowing, powerful new knowing appears. If, in our coaching, we can follow ‘that serene and blessed mood,/ In which the affections gently lead us on,’ we, too, see into ‘the life of things’. Then not-knowing yields precious insight hitherto hidden to both coach and client (Figure 4).

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Systemic Transformational Coaching

But what of the collective? Does the relationship among outcome-focused, transformational, and deep transformational coaching also have a collective dimension?

Hawkins and Smith suggest that within an organization, individual coaching ideally dovetails with the developmental needs of that organization.[vii]

Given the key patterns needing to shift within the organization, what single shift, here and now, in the client would be transformational, for both client and organization?

The individual client both expresses and contributes to the patterns of the organization. So tapping into the point where client and organizational patterns meet can be transformational for both client and sponsoring organization.

For this to happen, the coach needs to have a systemic perspective, appreciating fully that the client both reflects the organization while shaping it.


Recently, one of my mentees asked me to review a session with a member of senior management in a company where he (coach) also had a consultant role.

His client was complaining about her co-workers and the difficulty of dealing with their emotional needs. Her relational difficulties reflected a company tendency to be task-driven, neglecting relationship.

For her to become sensitive to her own feelings and open up relationally was an important step for her development and for the transformation of the company’s relationships, both internally and with customers.

A skilled transformational coach aligns individual and corporate needs like this.


Systemic Deep Transformational Coaching

Does deep transformational coaching also have a collective dimension? Logically, this means third order or triple loop learning organizationally, reflected and facilitated through such learning in the individual client.

It may be difficult to imagine, but the implications are radical, even revolutionary, fulfilling Ghandi’s injunction to ‘be the change’ we want to create.

Triple-loop learning organizationally is rare. It presumes a radical realignment of the whole organization. We are not just dealing with an adjustment of a particular organizational belief, value, standard, or behaviour. Nor with a realigning of corporate identity. Rather we are envisaging a collective realignment of the whole framework of separation and connectedness underpinning the organization’s existence.

Full third-order learning means the organization refocusing as a localized expression of the unifying source of the greater whole.

If third-order learning involves a transcending of individual self-boundaries, organizationally it means an embodied realization that all parts of the organization are interlocking expressions of one Being and that being is not separate or distinct from the natural, commercial, human, and cosmic environment it permeates.

Such an organization does not pay lip-service to ecology. Its very existence is predicated on mutual interdependence within a field expressing itself in each and all. Such an organization is sensitive to the total ecology of its own unfolding within the greater unfolding.

An organization like this is intrinsically wise, constantly using its sensitivity to collective awareness to fine-tune its sense of direction within that unfolding.

The periodic councils of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, the conclaves for selecting a new pope, and Quaker meetings provide some examples of attempts to draw on a deeper collective intelligence.

But till now, we have few, if any, organizations consistently operating with that level of wisdom. And that is an astonishing lack. It is a major factor in the collective challenges we face as we continue to fracture wholeness with our divided selves.

However, this does not mean there is no place yet for systemic deep transformational coaching. Just as third-order perspectives facilitate transformational work in coaching, so third-order perspectives can facilitate transformational shifts in organizations.

From a systemic deep transformational perspective, we are particularly interested in the deeper organizational tendencies that express its basic epistemological premises as to its own nature – how it conceives itself as an organization, how it separates itself, and how it views its relationship with what it takes to be not-self or ‘outside’ self.

For consultant or coach, the key question is: how does this organization conceive itself in its separateness and connectedness to its context? All its beliefs, values, and practices ultimately come from this and hold it in place.

For the coach to work with the individual client from this perspective, the question is: how are the deep patterns and assumptions of my client in his sense of self-in-the-world an expression of those in the company? And how might the unfolding of our coaching conversation engender a radical shift in the client’s embodied sense of self in a way that profoundly stirs the field of which he is part? 

To work like that, the coach needs to have experienced and integrated some measure of third-order learning. He can rest in that simple Unknowing awareness reflecting all aspects of his personal life – thoughts, feelings, habits. He is at home in that simple awareness beyond differences and distinctions.

His work with a client becomes a context for a kind of transmission from coach to client field, in which their co-identity is felt in the body too.

Every direct realization then in the coaching crucible creates a frisson in the corporate or organizational field. And every individual instant of connected awareness enlivens the collective field in remarkable ways. Then miracles happen.

And our work moves in this direction, the more we allow it to undo and transform us in the process – as our deep commitment and complete surrender to what is unfolding grow and converge.



Peter Wrycza, PhD, PCC

Deep Transformational Coach, Certified Coach Supervisor, Mentor Coach
Founder of Nirarta Centre for Living Awareness in Bali

Founder of the International Academy for Deep Transformation, offering two ICF ACTP diplomas in Transformational and Deep Transformation Coaching and training in mentor coaching.


Note: This article, originally published in Coaching Today in July 2014; 11: 11-15, was revised in August 2015



[i]  The Logical Categories of Learning and Communication. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York, Ballantine Books,1972: 279-306

[ii] Crawford, E. Making and Mistaking Reality: What Is Emotional Education? Interchange: A Quarterly Review of Education. 2005; 36 (1-2): 49-72.

[iii] Coaching, Mentoring, and Organizational Consultancy. McGraw-Hill, London; 2006: 33

[iv] Valéry, P. Palme. In Oeuvres I. Paris, Pléiade; 1957: 155

[v] Coleridge, S. T. Biographia Literaria – Or Biographical Sketches Of My Literary Life And Opinions Vol. II. London, R. Fenner; 1817: 2

[vi] Wordsworth, W. Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey. In Poetical Works, Oxford, London; 1950: 164

[vii] See 3 above, p. 31