Tuesday, July 11, 2023

The Revolution of AI in Coaching. There’s nothing artificial about it

We are pleased to share an article entitled The Revolution of AI in Coaching. There’s nothing artificial about it written by Jonathan Reitz.


During a recent scan, approximately every third LinkedIn post connected technology and coaching or leadership development. ChatGPT, GPT-4 and other tools promise great results with minimal human effort.

As technology grows more available and effective, coaches seem resistant. Karl Van Hoey, an MCC in Belgium, says, “I use the metaphor of the ‘smartphonification’ of coaching: a smart app able to listen and ask questions. But I am far from optimistic about AI – I refer to Stephen Hawking’s caution that AI could destroy civilization. Computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it. As Hawking said: ‘Success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We just don’t know.'”

But multiple tech startups aim squarely at coaches and their clients. “With every major technological advancement in the last 200 years, there has always been initial fear. Look at the steam engine, electricity, mobile phones, etc.

We are at the cusp of such a change with the democratization of AI in language applications,” said Alex Haitoglou, co-founder of Ovida (ovida.org), an AI tool designed to improve communication, including coaching. (Full disclosure: I am a coach augmentation advisor to Ovida).

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) has convened an AI Work Group focusing on human coaches’ relationship with technology. Joel DiGirolamo, vice president of research and data science at the ICF, holds an optimistic view. “I think coaches will become comfortable with AI coaching platforms as an adjunct to their human coaching. In between the human-human coaching sessions, the client may interact with the AI coaching platforms and get some level of work done. That can help speed up the human-human coaching process when it happens.”

Using a chatbot or other artificial intelligence source, a coach offers a client benefits that would not be possible without technology. Large language models – like the core algorithm behind ChatGPT and GPT-4 – offer statistically plausible suggestions or conversational prompts that frame a coaching conversation. Coaches might use these tools to prepare for a coaching session by developing a list of potential questions or evaluating their word choices afterward. Automating coach-client interaction between sessions may build accountability, and a results focus. Enter the term “coach augmentation.”

Current research shows that chat based coaching tools are already delivering meaningful client results.

  • Nicky Terblanche, PhD (University of Stellenbosch in South Africa), has conducted research showing that AI-driven coaching bots can be as effective as human coaches in essential goal attainment-focused Coaching.
  • Kevin Kruse (CEO of LEADx) tells a story about LEADx’s “Coach Amanda” chatbot product. The tool sends one or more nudges each week personalized to the personality, goals and activity of the user/ coachee. Once, a nudge acknowledged a trucking terminal manager’s low “negative emotion” score (a Big Five personality trait), commenting that his managers appreciated his steady demeanor in times of crisis. The coachee responded with a lengthy message about how hard a week it had been, what he was going through as a leader, and how grateful he was that the chatbot acknowledged his resilience.

More consistent and meaningful client outcomes appear to be the most compelling reason coaches explore augmenting their practices with AI tools, but other exciting opportunities loom on the technological horizon. In a survey of coach practitioners for this article, the following list of options came up consistently:

  • Improved assessment and diagnostics: Coaches will have enhanced abilities to identify client strengths and areas for improvement, including analyzing communication patterns and emotional intelligence.
  • Personalized and data-driven coaching: Imagine tailored coaching strategies to individual needs and better progress tracking based on data insights.
  • Improved coach training: Cutting- edge training organizations already use AI and virtual reality to help coach training students to practice vital skills such as open-ended questioning, active listening, and developing meaningful agreements. These tools provide intentional repetition and fast feedback for development.

But how close is AI to doing what talented coaches do? Lori Neiswander, a PCC executive coach in Cleveland, Ohio, echoes the most common question coaches are asking: “I believe we can teach a computer to ask good questions, but I’m still not convinced that AI can skillfully dance through what is being said – and not being said– by a client.”

Perhaps a different question would be more helpful. What if the question shifts to: “How can AI provide or enhance a meaningful client experience?” How likely is it that an AI bot could produce a coaching experience that mirrors what a PCC or MCC-level coach does in a coaching situation?

Playing out this scenario starts with the work of Terblanche, Kruse and others, which demonstrates that a coaching bot can deliver open-ended questions with and without prompts. Machine learning equips a bot to know when to summarize and when to ask the client to summarize progress in the conversation. Rules inform the chatbot when to do what.

Action steps could be developed/discovered based on summarizing and machine-based listening. Default responses could take the conversation a long way. Coaching presence might vary based on client preference. Individual coaching styles or models evolve through machine learning. All of this is possible with the developing AI technology and the current pace of research.

Jim Smith, PCC, who positions himself as “The Executive Happiness Coach,” offers this advice for coaches considering an AI tool: “I’m advising other coaches to experiment in these AI-assisted spaces and places and platforms. If that is where innovations in coaching are emerging, coaches have a responsibility to understand those experiences. Clients need to feel safe, and so do coaches, and knowing ‘how it works’ will help increase comfort for all.”

But what about the coaching ethics of this kind of coach augmentation? The ICF AI Work Group has begun to explore the marriage between coaching ethics and technology. Any prospective AI tool must consider data privacy and security questions, including compliance with data protection regulations and security measures to protect sensitive client information.

AI tools must operate with transparency and explainability, meaning that the AI reveals when it’s functioning and when a human is behind the interaction. There should also be clarity around the rationale behind any AI contribution to the coaching conversation and a commitment to avoid biased or unfair outcomes.

If you’re considering an AI tool to augment your coaching, start with evaluating the types of data sources required. Look at an app’s track record and search for case studies celebrating success stories from other executive coaches and demonstrating impact on clients and organizations. It’s a plus if there is validation by industry experts and peers, including endorsements from trusted professional associations like the ICF or EMCC. Reviews and testimonials from fellow coaches help ensure a complete picture of the tool. Compatibility with popular coaching software and applications may also be a part of the picture.

As with any change to your coaching practice, testing the AI tool with a select group of clients and asking for input should be a part of the process, including the impact on progress and outcomes. User experience and satisfaction will point to the right tool. And, of course, regularly reviewing and updating the AI tool selection for long-term fit is best practice.

AI tools are here to stay; coaches must make peace with them. Rebecca Rutschmann, co-founder and chief product officer at Evoach and Coaching Tech Enthusiast, expects a life-like coaching experience in the not-too-distant future. “It’s not going to happen in the next couple of months. But in the next year or two, as technology evolves? The AI tools are improving at a blazingly fast pace, and technology is not going away. The question is, how and what influence do we have on it? I would love to have a little part in creating these things and ensuring they’re done right.”

Tell us what you think about this article.

Let’s continue the conversation by connecting with your colleagues on our Facebook page