Collaborative practice: coach as conductor?

Collaborative practice: coach as conductor?

My comments in a recent blog about the role of coaches in collaborative practice elicited some discussion, so I wanted to explore this further.  In thinking about how to convey this piece visually, the image of a conductor came to mind.  Although I don’t want to stretch the analogy too far, collaborative practice coaches, like conductors, require a wide range of professional and personal skills, attributes and knowledge: needing to listen carefully, demonstrate hyper-awareness, coordinate and improvise to create a collective focus and sufficient safety for others to reach their optimum.

Evolving collaborative practice

Collaborative practice in the Australian legal context is flourishing, but still evolving.  I echo Professor Julie Macfarlane’s sentiment who, following her 2005 research into Canadian collaborative practice, cautioned against a rush to orthodoxy and getting locked into standardized ways of practicing.  Ron Ousky, American collaborative pioneer, affirms this view. He comments that there is only ‘one definitional rule’ about collaborative practice: to agree to not go to court.  Setting rules on other matters is not productive, he says, and limits the evolution and relevance of collaborative practice.

If this ‘rule’ and client focus are the guiding paradigms in collaborative practice – then many models should flourish, including about the nature and role of the professionals involved.

Interdisciplinarity is a key characteristic of current CP.  In interdisciplinary collaborative practice a coach or ‘facilitator may be appointed to manage team meetings to preclude power imbalances and manage participant interactions’, American social worker Gary Direnfeld notes. Clients may benefit from the involvement of other collaborative professionals like financial planners, child consultants and mental health professionals.

It seems that varied collaborative practice models are emerging in Australia. Some involve coaches, some don’t. Recently I heard a number of lawyers affirm the view that they wouldn’t practice collaboratively without a coach, and that the presence of a capable coach significantly enhances the likelihood of productive CP outcomes.

Collaborative coach role

So what exactly do collaborative coaches do?  Linda Solomon, an American psychotherapist and collaborative facilitator, notes that collaborative coaches play a neutral and multi-faceted role requiring ‘capacity to screen, assess, counsel, case manage, intervene in crisis, make appropriate referrals, facilitate group process, problem solve, and role model healthy communication skills’. She identifies the following coach roles:

  • Gathering information and building trust
  • Facilitating communication
  • Managing the emotional content of the process
  • Facilitating the development of healthy co-parenting skills and ability to prioritise family well being
  • Encouraging effective communication.


In North America the coach role is often played by a mental health professional. A mental health professional may possess the professional and personal attributes, experience and knowledge to acquit this role effectively, but so may many other professionals.

In Australia, family dispute resolution practitioners and mediators regularly employ these capacities in their work, as do other professionals, including lawyers. Indeed, as leaders in Australian legal education and dispute resolution Rachel Field and Laurence Boulle observe, the key challenge of contemporary legal education is to develop the broad range of abilities required by legal practice., including transactional skills and knowledge, as well as skills in communication, self-reflection and collaboration, and an ethical disposition and professional judgment.

Encourage artistry

Australian collaborative practice is still emerging. Let’s keep it vital and fluid and resist standardizing its practice. Coaching, like conducting, is artistry. Let’s acknowledge and encourage the varied skill set and breadth of experience that results in effective coaching.



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