Several theories have had a deep influence on the ideas that form the foundation of coaching. Drawing from pieces of humanistic psychology, from Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the pursuit of meaning and self-actualization, to Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset, the number of theories and conceptualizations of human decision making and goal achievement is vast. These elements offer a strong foundation for the efficacy of coaching.
The model also aligns neatly with the Learn-Be-Do categorization of questions that has been a key concept Coach Training EDU has woven throughout its coach training courses for the past decade.
C.R. Snyder offers the following definition of Hope Theory: “Hope is a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed energy), and (b) pathways (planning to meet goals),” (p. 287). He split motivation into four different aspects: agency, pathways, goals, and obstacles.
The first aspect includes the assumptions you have about who you are and what you can learn. In terms of Hope Theory, this aspect is called agency. One of the characteristics that distinguishes a seasoned coach from an inexperienced coach is the degree to which the coach uses challenges and setbacks as opportunities to explore what the client is learning about themself, as well as what character traits the challenge is addressing. In other words, an experienced coach asks about a client’s agency.
In Hope Theory, agency is defined as one’s belief in their ability to learn the required knowledge and use or gain the required skills to achieve a goal. Many life coaching exercises, from the Future Self to the Inner Critic, apply tools to help clients take different approaches to and develop a deeper sense of agency.
The second aspect is what action plan you think is worth the effort to achieve the goal. In Hope Theory, this aspect is termed pathways. Pathways are the routes you map to reach your goals. Time is the landscape on which you map your pathways. Snyder explains that time is a continuum of past, present, and future, and we tend to think about time as a line. To construct a pathway, someone links sequential actions from their present toward their cognitive construction of a future goal. People who are very hopeful tend to be very confident in their pathways, and their pathways tend to be well-articulated. If one pathway doesn’t work, hopeful people can construct another one to reach their goal.
On the other hand, people with low hope levels struggle to identify clear pathways. Because the pathways aren’t clear, it is hard to commit to them fully, and if they don’t work, it’s easy to throw in the towel.
The next element of Hope Theory is goals. This includes three different stages. The first stage is the preliminary decision-making process of which goals to consider, and the value of the possible outcomes. This stage includes the learning, assumptions, and experiences of the past mixed with hopes, dreams, and fears of the future. The next stage occurs during the action steps themselves, when you are immersed in the process of working toward a goal. During this stage, we measure our actions by the degree to which they achieve our desired results. This leads us either to stay engaged or even increase our engagement, choose to take a break, or decide to disengage.
The final stage is reflection and learning. It is marked by the absorption of experiences that happen when the results tumble in. This final stage feeds back into ideas and assumptions about agency and possible pathways, completing the cycle and starting it anew.
Goals can range from lofty (such as introducing and cultivating coaching concepts in the way we learn, work, and live) to simple (such as completely cleaning the office desktop). We can consider goals through agency, pathways, and the value of the outcomes over the course of decades or in the blink of an eye.
The final element of Hope Theory is the obstacle. Borrowing from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory, obstacles are necessary for the process of optimal experience. Without some kind of challenge, one can’t slip into the optimal experience (“flow”), where one’s skill set matches the challenge at hand, envelops awareness, and is intensely satisfying. When obstacles confront us, Hope Theory helps us look at how ideas and emotions about our agency and pathways interplay to either increase or decrease our engagement.
Hope Theory as a Unified Theory of Coaching
The magic begins when you consider the interplay between agency and pathway in all stages of motivation and the elements of coaching. Coaching excels at helping clients make better decisions and improve the quality of the decisions they consider. During coaching sessions, clients explore their ideas and assumptions about their own expectations, perspectives, skills, limiting beliefs, and mindsets. They mindfully craft action steps and accountability. When working with a skilled coach, a client learns to address their empowered assumptions about agency, and to clarify options and insights about possible pathways to reach their goals.
Over the past decade, Coach Training EDU has adopted a Learn-Be-Do model of categorizing questions, giving coaches-in-training a framework for the kinds of questions that are useful while coaching. This framework aligns well with the aspects of Hope Theory. Indeed, each framework gains depth when combined with the others.