Jaap, you have been teaching provocative coaching for many years. What is this coaching model to you?
Provocative coaching is very important to me. Well, there would be no point in teaching it otherwise, right? There is a whole bunch of different reasons why it’s important. First of all there is, of course, the client. Quite a large percentage of clients that are being coached with the traditional methods, simply do not improve. If you work as a coach, you will know what I mean. Some people, no matter how much support and appreciation and commitment and well meaning advice you give them, simply do not get better. Why? Often they do not really take responsibility for their own change. Or sometimes they have a natural resistance response. The more you tell them that they’re worthwhile and they can succeed, the louder their inner voice tells them that they are not that they will fail. So for a certain clients the traditional methods can even be counter-productive. And the beauty of provocative coaching is, that it often works wonderfully well with precisely these clients, because provocative coaching, completely leaves the responsibility with the client and the provocative coach loves the inner resistance, I just mentioned. So that’s one reason why I think provocative coaching is important. Another reason is that it is great fun. As a coach, you are using so much more of your own inner processes, your personality, your associations, your actual feelings towards the client, and so on. All these things that you are supposed to suppress as a coach in traditional coaching, suddenly become resources in provocative coaching. That’s why a lot of coaches and therapists experience provocative coaching as liberation. It makes their working life happier, funnier, more integrated.
What has it given you as a practitioner?
Provocative coaching has given me many things. I first met Frank Farrelly 25, 30 years ago, and I was immediately fascinated by his method. It was so totally different from what I was used to… so the first thing I got from it, at least when I started actually practicing it a few years later, was a whole new ability to support change in clients that I had not known how to deal with before. And that was a great experience, and it still is, to this day. Simply the joy of being able to help people from A to B. Another thing that it has given me, is a deeper contact with a lot of my clients. Like I said before, in traditional coaching and therapy, you need to suppress many aspects of yourself as a person. There are all these things that do not fit with your professional role as a coach. And being able to express these things in a productive and therapeutic way feels wonderful. Most coaches will have had this experience, where the client says: ‘I feel like I am a loser’ and your first honest, intuitive response is something like: ‘Yeah, you really look like a loser to me too’. Now, saying something like that would be absolute blasphemy in the church of traditional coaching. You are mentally knocking your head against the wall for even having a thought like that. In provocative coaching, however you welcome these kinds of thoughts and you use them. You would say something like: ‘A loser? Well, that’s putting it mildly!’ As soon as you do that, three things happen. First of all, you are expressing yourself as a person, which is generally a good thing. Second of all, the client jumps up and says: ‘Oh yeah? Well I will have you know that this suit I’m wearing right now is at least twice as expensive as yours!’ He is defending his dignity, he is expressing himself too. And he is making a positive statement about himself. And last but not least, there is a deeper connection between you, then there would normally be if you had asked the traditional question: ‘Can you tell me some more about that?’
Is it possible to merge it with other methods?
Absolutely. I combine provocative coaching with a lot of other things like symbol work, NLP, hypnosis, and so on. I believe in eclectic coaching. On the one hand, when you get stuck with one of the other methods, provocative coaching can be a great method to get things moving again. On the other hand, in provocative coaching you can run into obstacles like internal conflicts. Provocative coaching can address that, but in a pretty roundabout way. It can then be fruitful to add a bit of NLP to the mix, or Gestalt therapy or voice dialogue work. In fact, you can they provocative coaching as a coaching style. And within that style, you can use all kinds of theoretical concepts. If you are a solution focused therapist, for instance, looking for exceptions, you could provocatively claim that there can never be any exceptions. That way, some clients who normally cannot find exceptions, will suddenly be able to find them after all.
In 'Provocative coaching', you describe the provocative methodology and tools. Are these all the provocative tools or can they be used as a basis for creating some new ones?
In our institute here in Holland (the institute for eclectic psychology – IEP - in Nijmegen) we are constantly experimenting with new elements in the provocative method. To give an example, my colleague Jeffrey Wijnberg remembered that Frank Farrelly was often thinking in terms of sin. He was brought up as a good catholic boy in rural America. So recently we have been experimenting with the seven cardinal sins as a diagnostic tool in provocative coaching. We are constantly trying out things like that in our practice with clients and in our training groups.
What does being treated with this method give to ordinary people, to the clients?
Well, the interesting thing is, that even though provocative coaching is maybe not the most comfortable kind of coaching for clients, it is essentially a very easy form. In the traditional approach, the client often needs to remind himself of all kinds of things and he needs to practice, he consciously needs to take certain risks, and so on. In provocative coaching the healing responses tend to happen automatically in the client. He doesn’t really need to consciously decide to start protesting, it happens as a reflex. He doesn’t need to consciously focus on eliminating this negative self talk. Because the extreme things that the coach has said in reaction to his self talk, the client automatically has difficulty taking his own negative self talk and his own limiting beliefs seriously. People start defending or accepting who they are on an identity level and a lot of positive change happens automatically from that.
How did it happen that a clinical psychologist like you got engaged in such an original model of working with people?
A colleague of mine, Rene Duba, brought an audio tape from the United States with a demonstration of provocative therapy. And I was immediately intrigued. It was almost the exact opposite of what we were doing, and yet it seemed to work. That was a shock, but it did get my attention. We were already teaching NLP, and Bandler and Grinder had already confessed to being great admirers of Frank Farrelly. Also, as a clinical psychologist working in a mental hospital, you do get your fair share of patients who do not improve on the traditional therapies. Maybe it is no coincidence that Frank Farrelly started out as a social worker, also in a mental hospital. Anyway, we invited Frank to come and teach for our institute and the rest is history.
How were these methods reacted to in Holland?
Well, at first, of course, we received a lot of criticism and resistance from the professional coaching and therapy community. Jeffrey and I were often betting whether the first participant would be running off before or after the lunch break. Actually, some people did not even make it to the lunch break… But we have been at it now for more than 15 years and these days we hardly get any criticism at all. Everybody is laughing and applauding. We have written a number of books about provocative coaching, explaining things, that helped. Anyway, provocative coaching has become a more or less accepted modality in the Netherlands, as it has, for instance, in Germany too.
There are many myths, like, for example, that the provocative coaching is hitting emotions hard. What do you think?
The biggest misunderstanding is that the provocative style is sarcastic, cynical or purely confrontational. But good provocative coaching consists of three elements. Number one: love. Number two: humour. And number three: provocation. If one of those three elements is missing, it’s not provocative coaching. And also good to remember: we never challenge people on their trauma’s directly.
Another myth is that, in provocative coaching you offend the client and use aggressive communication. What is your opinion on that?
Well, is it a myth? In provocative coaching it is not uncommon for the client to feel insulted. I am usually happy when the client feels insulted. Think about it: what is being insulted? It means that you experience a discrepancy between your own positive qualities and how you are being depicted. So there is always an element of self appreciation in being insulted, which - from a provocative point of view - is good . So insulting the client is fine, as long as it leads to the client defending himself.
When it comes to aggressive communication, that is a different matter. When there is no love, there can be no good coaching of any kind. It is as simple as that. I have come across this misunderstanding quite often. If you are irritated with the client, or if you are angry with the client, some people say: you should give them some provocative coaching! But that is totally wrong. Feeling irritated or angry is a good reason to not do provocative coaching.
You cooperate with your wife. Can you give some tips to the married couples on how to run a business together and have a successful marriage?
Yes, we have been married for more than 25 years. And we have been working together for more than 25 years too. Let me think, what would I say to married Polish couples, who run a business together? I guess I would say the same as I would to any married couple: take time to listen and defend your own territory.
What kind of negative beliefs about the provocative coaching have you met with?
Quite a few, actually. Although I have to say that in the last few years provocative coaching has become so much better known and accepted that I don’t run into these negative beliefs as often as I used to. So let me list the three main criticisms I run into.
- You are not taking the client seriously. Here is a person who finally musters the courage to admit they have a problem and now you don’t even listen to them.
This criticism is the most common one. I am, however, taking the client very seriously, only on a different level than the traditional therapist and even when I may nog be taking everything the say seriously. So for instance, when the client says they feel guilty about shouting at their child and I laugh at their futile attempts at feeling guilty, and I claim they are not nearly feeling guilty enough, how is that taking them seriously? First of all, I am picking up on their aggression, nonverbally. And I respond from that very serious inner association. A traditional therapist would suppress that impulse. By using it, I am in a sense more congruent and more personally involved than the classical therapist. Also, if they are mirroring me, they will be in a laughing state – to some extent – while thinking about their problem and that can have a thoroughly therapeutic effect. So I am very seriously trying to get them to change, only via a different route.
- It is just a little trick.
I admit that the principle of provocative coaching is very simple: challenge the client and in resisting you, they will find strength. But likewise, the principles of other approaches can be stated just as simply. Take Rogerian, client centered therapy, an approach that the modern coaching styles owe a lot to. Its principle can be simply stated as: give the client unconditional acceptance and they will develop self-acceptance. Or psychoanalysis: be neutral, have the patient study their past relationships and they will understand and change. However, the fact that something is based on a simple principle, does not mean that it is a trick. It takes a lot of training, practice and courage to become a good provocative coach. The fact that we have defined a long list of skills involved in provocative coaching (the Farrelly Factors) attests to that. It is also true that the provocative coach is incongruent. On one level he is saying other things than on another level. But that does not mean that he is not honest. He merely exaggerates certain aspects of this thoughts and feelings, just like the traditional therapist professionally suppresses aspects of theirs, thereby automatically exaggerating the rest.
- Once clients see through the method, it won’t work anymore.
We, my colleagues Anneke Meijer and Jeffrey Wijnberg and I, are the perfect proof that provocative coaching still works, no matter how well you understand it. By now we must be some of the top experts in provocative coaching world wide, and it still works for us. That is not to say that the relationship with the client doesn’t change over time. At first clients tend to be flabbergasted and confused, but over time they find their bearings and stand up to the coach more and more, they become more assertive and communicate more on a basis of equality.
What are the difficulties for those coaches who begin to work this way after many years of experience in traditional coaching?
The provocative method is so different from the classical style, that experienced coaches often have habits that hinder them being provocative. For instance, they often believe that they need to completely understand what the client experiences and their whole history as well. So consequently, they gather a lot of information. And usually an answer from the client triggers a new question from the coach and so on and so forth. We find that experienced colleagues, especially if they still find it a little awkward to be provocative, often seem almost addicted to information gathering, which then stands in the way of their provocative interventions. Sometimes once they start gathering information, they simply can’t stop.
Also, most coaches have a yearning for gratitude and approval from the client. ‘Oh, dearest coach, you are such a wonderful person, when I came in I was desperate and lost, but now that you have touched me with you wisdom, I am healed! Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ In provocative coaching you often don’t get that. Clients are often confused and even irritated. They sometimes they feel that sure, they have achieved a lot in a short time, but it was more in spite of you than because of you… Traditional coaches soemtimes miss the immediate gratification of the thankful client.
Can you recommend some movies and books that represent a provocative approach to life?
There is a movie called ‘Angela's ashes’. It is also a book. It gives a good picture of the Irish humor that, in some part, provocative coaching is a reflection of. We once had an Irish participant in one of our trainings, who said that talking to Frank Farrelly was quite similar to talking to his uncles.
Besides doing exercises at the workshops and working with clients, how else do you think we can develop our provocative skills?
Don't take yourself too seriously as a professional, and pay good attention to your inner processes. What are you seeing and feeling and hearing inside. When you focus on the client, or on any person for that matter? Do more with that.
We know that humor, kindness and posing challenges are the essential parts of the provocative coaching. Could you give us another "trio" - three elements that are vital here in your opinion? Because from our point of view, curiosity and mindfulness are also important factors.
Okay, I can give it a try, Number one: be in touch with your own inner processes and use those as a basis for your interventions. Number two: be aware of the larger entities that you are a part of, the traditions you stand in, tribes you belong to, the values you represent. This awareness gives you gravity. Number three: remember that helping is not always the same as being nice to some one.
Is there anything we should particularly watch out for while using provocative methods with the client? Are there any situations in which you would recommend being cautious?
I would hesitate to do anything provocative, with somebody who has recently been traumatized.
Could you tell us some story about a case in which using provocative methods gave you some extremely surprising results?
I had this one client who was a business person with a large printing factory. He had come in, with some relational problems. Using the standard provocative approach, we had been able to completely solve his relational problems in the first session. So in the second session, we didn't really have much to do. I think I have described this case, in one of my books. Anyway, in the second session, he mentioned that he also had a business problem, and was it okay to discuss that with me? Why is that. sure, I will be happy to comment on that, even though I know nothing about paper factories. It turned out that his partners wanted to sell the factory and that he wanted to hang on to it. So my standard provocative reaction was: ‘Okay, they want to sell and you want to stay, but how is that a problem? I don't see why that should be a problem! Your shares are your shares, no matter who owns the rest of the shares, right?’ So he starts explaining about how his partners will have difficulty selling the plant if he doesn't sell this shares too. And that the new owner may not be happy with him as a director, and so on and so forth. And I keep saying: ’But how is that a problem?’ ‘ Why should that bother you?’ And after a few iterations of that, he looks at me and he says: ‘You’re right. Why should that be a problem for me? If they are the ones who want to sell, why should I solve all these problems?’ And that was my big surprise. Their complex business problems that he had been struggling with for more than a year, could be solved in 10 minutes, using the simplest provocative intervention there is. By way, don't get me wrong, I am not claiming that it is always this easy, but I have had several experiences like this with provocative coaching.
Before provocative coaching became popular, the provocative style was used in therapy. Why is it that this kind of therapy can be used in coaching?
Ah yes, the Holy Distinction between coaching and therapy. Well, basically, the distinction between coaching and therapy is content oriented. A coach is supposed to look at the present and the future. That is not a process distinction, but a content distinction. A coach is supposed to focus on work relationships, rather than private relationships. Again, a content distinction. And provocative therapy and provocative coaching are mostly styles of working. There is some content, for instance the emphasis on the power aspects of relationships, but with a few exceptions the whole approach is process oriented. It is all about how you work, and not about what you say. At least, that is the case in the method as we have developed so far. So give them that distinction between coaching and therapy is content oriented, and given that the provocative style consists mostly of process, there is absolutely no problem in doing coaching in a provocative style.
What is the coach provoking in the session?
If you look it up in the dictionary, ‘to provoke’ means: to make something happen. So what does the provocative coach want to make happen? Pretty much the same things that any coach wants to have happen: self esteem, acceptance of your identity , embracing the shadow, social skills, self expression, acceptance of others and so on and so forth.
What is the key to a successful session?
Combining love, humor and provocation.
When reading reports , one sometimes gets the feeling that the coach is making fun of the client, while they came to the them with a problem. Can you give us your thoughts on that?
Yes, I have heard this question at least a 100 times. Is the provocative coach taking the client seriously? We actually have an exercise in our certification training, where people practice five different responses to this question. Well, the provocative coach is always taking the client very seriously. My esteemed wife and colleague Anneke has said that provocative coaching focuses almost completely on the identity level. But does the provocative coach always take the problem seriously? Absolutely not. The client has to defend his problem like a lion, to even get the coach to admit that it is a problem.
What about the client's sense of security?
Being careful with clients does not make them more secure. Being careful with clients, gives them the meta message that they are weak and fragile.
Is it possible to harm a client with this kind of coaching?
It is possible to harm a client with any kind of therapy or coaching, even though the chances of that happening are small. Provocative coaching is no exception.
I came across a statement, that provocative coaching works faster than other kinds of coaching, and that it is the next stage of working with a client, when everything else has already failed. What do you think about it?
I would not say that it always works faster. We don't really know. There are so many different kinds of coaching out there, and there are so many different kinds of clients, so I am not ready to support broad generalizations like this. And I have seen wonderful results of a whole host of other types of coaching. What I can say, however, is that when those other approaches are not working, then, provocative coaching is an attractive alternative, especially since it might work very well for the precise same reasons why the other approaches are not working. So my answers to these questions are: maybe and yes.
Assuming that the coach is a professional, does the provocative method work every time and with everyone?
No. Nothing in human communication works always for everybody, no matter how wise or educated or professional you are.
Which situations would you not advise using this method in?
If what you are doing already, presuming that that is not provocative, has great results, then there is no reason to use provocative coaching. There is a saying in NLP, taken from the law of requisite variety, stating: if what you are doing is not working, do something else. You can also turn that around and say: if what you're doing is working great and you are having fun with it, why do something else?
What were the difficulties you met at the beginning of your provocative work?
In therapy and coaching there were no difficulties, really. At least not once I actually started doing a provocative session. Sometimes I had some start-up problems. I would get stuck in my old ‘nodding and humming’ and gathering information habits, that I developed as behavior therapist and from hypnotherapy and NLP. Sometimes I needed to sort of kick myself out of my old customs and really set it as my goal to be provocative. Once I did that, I was usually pretty happy with the results. Although, now that I think about is, sometimes I would get completely lost. On those moments I had absolutely no idea how to continue. I just couldn’t think of anything to say anymore. I guess today I would actually appreciate moments like that, and I would certainly do something provocative with them. But at the time I didn’t know how to handle that.
One problem I did run into in the beginning, was being provocative in too many social interactions. A matter of youthful enthusiasm, I guess. Maybe because these moments were missing the surrounding frame and some the build-up of warmth and humor, colleagues and friends would sometimes be shocked or even insulted. I remember one friend whose aged husband had had a fling with another woman. I spontaneously and jokingly said “Shouldn’t you be happy the he still has it in him to do a thing like that, at his age?” She was furious. Also in the trainings we would respond provocatively to anything, also when a participant was asking a serious question. In the end we could not have any serious communication anymore… That got to be tiring and complicated. From these experiences I learned to not be provocative much outside the sessions. I still make the occasional provocative joke, but outside the sessions I will generally communicate congruently.
How many therapists currently use provocative methods in Holland?
Even though I have no exact registration, from knowing the field from the beginning I would estimate about 200 who are well trained and about 3000 who have done some training or other
What are the risks of using the provocative method?
Provocative coaching is a combination of warmth, humor and provocation. A risk is losing one or both of the first two elements. Without warmth and humor it becomes sarcasm or even cynicism.
How not to get carried away with your own creativity while working provocatively with a client?
Regularly check whether you still have enough warmth and humor. And carefully observe the client’s nonverbal responses. Are they still with you? When they seem to distance themselves, which will happen when you get carried away with your own creativity, focus on that process and work with provocatively with that. You can work provocatively with almost anything that happens in the session. Provocative coaching is not only about content, it is also about relationship.
What is the biggest challenge for the provocative coaches?
First of all: keeping the three balls in the air: warmth, humor and provocation. And second of all: staying in touch with your inner associations and transforming them into good provocative interventions.
Frank Farrelly (the founder of provocative therapy) used to say that you don't have to be perfect in the provocative method. Why do you think it is?
I absolutely agree. In our trainings we have focused a lot on the exact attitudes and states and skills that you need to do provocative coaching. But it is just as important, maybe even more so, to focus in the provocative response in the client. Which basically can be any inner process that leads to clear resistance or clear acceptance. Once you do that, you also realize that it doesn’t really matter how many mistakes you make. As long as you elicit that provocative response. These days we say: if you do nine things wrong and you do one thing right, and that one thing evokes the provocative response, you have done a good session.
How to look for the positives, something beautiful in the client, when we have trouble finding it?
The famous photographer Robert Capa has said ‘If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough.’ To rephrase Capa, I could say: ‘I you can’t find anything beautiful, you are not looking deep enough’. And if you still don’t see it? Simply refer the client to another coach. Not all methods are suitable for all clients, and neither are all coaches. And these days, there is a coach on every street corner with a sign ‘Will work or love’.