Summary of Challenging Coaching by John Blakey and Ian Day

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Challenging Coaching by John Blakey and Ian Day

Coaching has become a normal thing in the business world for employees and leaders to experience. Having been developed from psychotherapy counselling, it first gained popularity about 40 years ago. This was when the economy became more knowledge-based and companies hired coaches to enable their staff to reach their full potential. 

The approach to coaching was non-directive and helped people find their own solutions. As much as this would be beneficial for people in need of counselling and psychotherapy, it is not the best option for companies. This is because traditional coaching lacked honest feedback. Coaches were more focused on helping clients achieve their personal goals but did not allow them to focus on areas like accountability and seeing the bigger picture. If leaders only see how they can personally thrive, what does it mean for the rest of the company? Challenging Coaching will show you why traditional coaching is not the answer.

In this summary, readers will discover:

  • Where traditional coaching gained its origins
  • The three core principles of traditional coaching and why they are limiting
  • How FACTS based coaching differs
  • The concepts of FACTS based coaching

Key lesson one: Where traditional coaching gained its origins

When coaching emerged in the 1980s, counselling and psychotherapy provided the foundation. This is why clients receive unconditional positive backing with this approach – it was firmly built on support-orientated counselling. 

But instead of employing a method of active listening and strong questioning to understand the client’s needs, traditional coaching took a people-centred approach. People-centred therapy was developed by Carl Rogers. It took a non-directive approach and believed that the client already has the resources they need for their development. The coach’s role in this instance is to guide the client to find their own solutions using the resources they already possess. 

Most traditional coaching models follow this pattern. Coaches use empathy to create a space of safety and are non-judgmental when providing positive considerations. 

Key lesson two: The three core principles of traditional coaching and why they are limiting

Traditional coaching has three core support-orientated principles. These are the non-directive approach, respecting the client’s agenda and building rapport.

The non-directive approach assumes that the client is the expert of their own situation. The coach is not the expert but is simply there to guide the client to find the solutions which they already possess. Therefore the coach listens, reflects and gives support to the client without advising or problem-solving for the client.

Respecting the client’s agenda means that the coach cannot direct the client’s agenda in any way. The client decides what they want to work on and the topics they want to focus on. The coach cannot even suggest changing the agenda if they think it would be more beneficial to the client.

Building rapport between client and coach is needed in order to facilitate an environment of safety and growth. For this to happen empathy must exist between coach and client. Once this happens, trust between the two will inevitably follow. 

These three core principles, however, are flawed. For starters, the non-directive approach never occurs. A coach will always direct their client- especially if the client is stuck. To be truly helpful, a coach must use their knowledge to make suggestions to a client. The same is true regarding the client’s agenda. Clients will have a tendency to avoid difficult topics. If a coach is able to go beyond the agenda put forth by the client, they will be able to tackle these topics. Lastly, building rapport hinders clients from going beyond their areas of comfort and being the best that they can be. 

Traditional coaching remains limited because of these principles. It also leads inevitably to collusion, irrelevance and self-obsession. The coach ends up colluding with the client and his views by not offering a different perspective. Coaching sessions could end up being totally irrelevant because of the client’s warped agenda and the client inevitably becomes self-obsessed from focusing solely on their situation. Too much self-focus means that clients forget the bigger picture and this could have a negative impact on companies as a whole.

Key lesson three: How FACTS based coaching differs

Unlike traditional coaching, FACTS-based coaching is focused on finding the right balance between supporting the client and challenging them. The absence of challenge in traditional coaching means there is a lack of meaningful action and thus, mediocre results as there is nothing challenging to accomplish. The only way a client can grow is if they are given challenges to rise to and the support to achieve them. 

FACTS based coaching involves challenging clients to leave their comfort zones. They entail coaching conversations in the ZONE of Uncomfortable Debate or ZOUD. One of the key elements of FACTS based coaching is to enter this ZOUD without breaking the coach-client relationship. To achieve this coaches must be challenging yet still remain respectful,  empathetic and growth orientated.

Key lesson four: The concepts of FACTS based coaching

FACTS based coaching is based on feedback, accountability, courageous goals, tension and system awareness. 


Traditional coaching does not provide honest feedback for three reasons. Firstly, because it may come across as judgmental to the client. Secondly, the coach is not confident enough in their feedback skills and lastly, the coach feels like they do not have the client’s permission for feedback. Immediately, you can once again recognise the flaws with traditional feedback and how it is too biased towards the client. 

Honest feedback is essential to a client’s growth. It can uncover blindspots by offering a different perspective, help clients tackle the ‘no-go’ areas which they avoid and help prevent bad decisions. Business leaders often need honest feedback from coaches as employees are often too scared to provide negative feedback. Coaches, therefore, have to be prepared to sometimes be the bearer of bad feedback. In order to do this, they have to also not fear providing the client with honest feedback. This can be achieved by following three simple rules.

  1. Ensure that feedback is non-judgmental. Coaches must critique the client’s behaviour and not their personality.
  2. Follow a process model you are comfortable with. There are many available for coaches to adopt. For example, observe facts, judge impact, communicate your observations with the clients and determine future actions together.  
  3. Ask your client if they are open to feedback. By doing so, you will know where you stand with your client.


Business leaders often lack someone to hold them accountable for their actions. This was largely seen in BP’s CEO Tony Hayward during the oil spill in Louisiana. He completely separated himself from the ‘company’s mistakes’ and angered the public. Major decisions at BP were not documented and the chain-of-command not recorded either. The lack of names left no one immediately accountable for the crisis. This led to a demand for transparency and accountability on both government and economic levels.

Coaches need to bring accountability to the fore. More importantly, they need to ensure that their clients know that they are accountable for their company’s commitments. This can be achieved in the form of mission statements and corporate values.

Courageous goals

Traditional goal-setting follow the specific, measurable, agreed, realistic and timed (SMART) or personal, realistic, interesting, specific and measurable (PRISM) guidelines. These focus on rational and realistic goals, avoiding any risks. However reliable these types of goals are, they still are limiting. They prevent making courageous goals that will cause clients to reach further, sparking innovation and growth.

In an ever-changing economy, courageous goals, therefore, play an integral part in bringing about the necessary transformation that is needed to stay ahead. Businesses need to be flexible and clients need to be courageous and creative enough to tackle large goals. Just look at companies like Apple Facebook and Amazon. They did not set traditional goals of increasing sales in the next quarter. They were instead courageous. Steve Jobs aimed to ‘put a ding in the Universe’, Facebook was determined to get the world connected and Amazon is trying to sell everything to everyone! These are the types of courageous goals clients should aim for.


For the best possible performance, FACTS based coaching believes that tension is necessary. In contrast, traditional coaching tries to alleviate any stress or tensions that a client may experience. The former FACTS based coaching belief is actually backed by research psychology. Multiple studies have found that there are optimal levels of anxiety and comfort which contribute to peak performance. This is something that athletes can attest to. There is a particular level of adrenalin needed to bring out their best performance.

FACTS based coaching achieves this level of adrenalin in clients by pushing them to their limits. An important thing for coaches to remember though is that high-achieving clients operate optimally at higher levels of tension. Thus, this has to be taken into consideration during coaching sessions, with coaches tailoring levels of tension to the clients and not themselves. 

System awareness

When clients focus too closely on their personal goals, they tend to lose system awareness. FACTS based coaching remedies this by bringing the client’s awareness back to the whole system. This means that the client stops focussing on their own actions and instead focuses on how their actions impact their surroundings. The coach does this by asking the clients questions about the implications of their actions but does so without offering an opinion. 

This is done because FACTS based coaching aims to promote intelligent growth – the client needs to develop system awareness, not chastised for not having it.

These five principles form the foundation of FACTS based coaching. It involves more work than traditional coaching but the results are worth it. Clients are able to achieve their goals whilst still having their eyes on the bigger picture. This is all accomplished with the aid of a supportive coach. 

The key takeaway from Challenging Coaching is:

Coaching aims to get clients to reach their potential. Support orientated methods can only help to a certain extent. There has to be a challenge involved as well. Traditional coaching does not allow the client to grow like FACTS based coaching does. By not be able to effectively give feedback, raise awareness, correct agendas and advise, coaches cannot truly help clients achieve their goals successfully. 

How can I implement the lessons learned from Challenging Coaching:

As a coach, you have to realise that traditional coaching methods are not feasible in today’s business world. If clients are inclined to bring their own agenda, don’t forget to question them to establish if it is relevant. You cannot afford to waste coaching lessons working on issues that are not relevant. Be prepared to give honest feedback to the client and provide them with challenges that will create the level of tension that they need to perform at the best. The optimal levels of challenge and support for each client are therefore important for you to establish.

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