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Transition State

If I said that as a coach ‘I am a catalyst to your thinking’ you’re hardly likely to have that ‘hold the front page’ moment as you stare at me, dumbstruck by my creative metaphor! You will almost definitely have heard and used the language yourself. John Heron talked about a catalytic approach as being one of his facilitative intervention styles. He first described these in the mid 1970s and since then they have become ubiquitous in leadership and communication skills courses.

Having been beaten to the metaphor by nearly 50 years I cannot claim invention, yet I do have an interest in how the detail behind what a catalyst is, and what it does, have something to say about coaching. That’s what I am going to describe here, with apologies for chemists for inappropriate generalisations about our science, and to coaches for inappropriate generalisations about our profession!

To start then, a working definition of what a catalyst is from the chemistry standpoint. A catalyst is a substance that facilitates the conversion of reactants to products, yet which is not consumed in the process.

In principle, a catalyst is ‘a gift that keeps on giving’. It is the phrase ‘not consumed in the process’ that connects with Heron’s styles. He proposes that a catalytic intervention is characterised as one in which one person facilitates another by ‘asking questions to encourage fresh thinking; encouraging them to generate new ideas and options; listening………..and then listening some more’. Unspoken in these words is that the facilitator does not impose their thinking at any stage in the conversation, and at the end walks away unchanged while the beneficiary takes away new ideas and actions to work with.

For me being a catalyst to someone else’s thinking is a central part of my coaching approach. Its speaks not only of my communication style but also of the truth that as a coach I cannot carry the burden of responsibility on behalf of my client. In the catalyst metaphor this is the part about the catalyst not being consumed in the transformation it is facilitating. In fact, the story is more complex in both chemistry and coaching in that neither remain completely unconsumed/ unchanged in the transformation that they facilitate. More on that later!

Let’s get a little more into the science for a mo. Check out the Figure depicting a graph of a chemical process transforming reactants to products, with and without a catalyst. Drawing this took me back to my academic days! In any non-spontaneous chemical transformation of reactants to products there is an energy barrier to overcome. This barrier is called the activation energy and has the symbol EA. If the activation energy cannot be reached the transformation will not occur. Simple!

Let’s relate the chemistry transformation of reactants to products to something more akin to a coaching scenario, be it professional or personal. Instead of reactants and products there are present situation and future situation, or ‘where I am’ and ‘where I want to be’. The activation energy EA in chemistry is representative of the barrier to change in the coaching scenario. In coaching, EA includes a combination of the client’s (and possibly coach’s, but that’s another story!) bias, beliefs, peer pressure, skills, habits, values and much more besides. Whatever EA represents in the coaching metaphor, it has to be overcome, just as EA needs to be reached before reactants are transformed to products in chemistry.

You can get energy into a chemical system in a number of ways, for example heating or pressurising, yet these always have a risk of damaging the reactants. This part of the metaphor is a cautionary tale for coaches. If we are seeking to support our client on their favoured journey we need to explore with them what their activation energy is. Having done so we need to support them to reach it, yet need to be careful not to put too much of our own energy into the process for fear of damaging ‘the reactants’. Pushing the pace, not following the client’s agenda, using an approach without a client’s permission, or telling them what to do will all inject energy. However, such actions come at too high a risk of damaging your client’s resolve, and your ability to partner with them.

Another piece of chemical terminology to introduce to you is ‘transition state’, the title of this blog. Just the words ‘transition state’ excites me as it conjures up a sense of being willing and able to change. To all intents and purposes that’s what it means in chemistry. It is the label given to the chemical entity that exists when the EA is reached. It is the chemical species, neither the reactant or the product, that exists at the top of the energy curve. In a coaching sense it is the place where you arrive where you can still ‘see’ where you started, yet can now see, for the first time, the place you are aiming towards. I find myself smiling as I conjure the sense of being in that place! In the spirit of expanding your horizons I can tell you that symbol representing the transition state is the double dagger ‘‡’.

After all that scene setting what does a catalyst actually do to facilitate a chemical reaction? As you will see in the graph it achieves its purpose by lowering the activation energy between the reactants and the products. That i