by Rachel Lipton   |  May 14, 2019

When we think about monitoring, learning, and evaluation (MEL), learning is becoming more prominent as a modality in the evaluator’s toolbox. Learning requires ongoing reflection and experimental action. Thinking about evaluation work from a learning lens opens up new possibilities for organizations, evaluators, and the field. When we step back from traditional notions of knowledge and embrace learning, we are able to question long-held assumptions about what types of knowledge are privileged and what counts as data.

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As leaders and organizations adapt to managing change in an ever-changing landscape, experimentation and learning is needed, and, in some cases, is more useful than formal evaluations and long-term plans. As the social sector shifts, so too must those with decision making power change their mindset about what “counts.” How do organizations and funders shift their thinking to accelerate learning and move towards more equitable ways of collecting and using data through a learning lens? Coaching can be a powerful tool to answer this question. 

Before we discuss how coaching can be a powerful tool to accelerate learning, we must understand what it is. Coaching is one of three primary modes of capacity building for individuals and organizations, along with mentoring and consulting. Let’s start with consulting. 


The consultant provides their expertise to support the client with their goals. In this mode, the client is seeking out the consultant to provide knowledge, resources, and tools to help solve a challenge, enhance effectiveness, gather data, or support the development of new systems and frameworks.


A mentor supports a mentee by providing advice, counsel, and resources, and the mentee takes that learning forward. In some cases, mentoring can be a blend of consulting and coaching, or “coachsulting.”


In coaching, the coach holds the client as the expert. The coach’s role is to magnify a client’s resources, knowledge, and skills so that they can deepen their learning and take action.

A coaching approach can evoke transformation. Imagine a time when you were involved in a conversation with a friend or colleague and they helped you “fix” a problem by offering a solution. It may have helped you move forward, but it probably didn’t feel like a powerful experience.

All three modes can benefit clients and can be utilized at different points in the relationship. However, the ways in which these modalities are used can greatly impact the process by which results are achieved.

Now imagine that you were in conversation with someone who actively listened to you, asked you powerful questions and held up a mirror to uncover your assumptions, perspectives, and ways of doing and being. Imagine that person acknowledge your gifts, helped you access the resources, knowledge, and skills you already have, and championed you so that you could move forward in a powerful, authentic way. How different would that feel than the conversation with a friend or colleague? How often does that actually happen in our personal and professional lives?

Here is a good example of an everyday conversation and how coaching conversation is different.

A typical conversation with a colleague:


A coaching conversation:


Let’s break this down. What is present in the coaching conversation that is not present in the first one? 

  • Powerful questions: short, open-ended questions that begin with “how” or “what” rather than questions that begin with “why” or set up a yes/no response. These questions allow space for the other person to reflect and share their thoughts and feelings, rather than explain or “prove” themselves. 

  • Holding the person as naturally creative, resource, and whole: Did you notice how the manager didn’t try to problem solve or have her colleague seek other’s advice in the second conversation? The manager was trusting the resourcefulness of her colleague and allowing space for her to exercise it. 

  • Articulating and championing: At the end of the conversation, the manager reflects to her colleague what she is hearing and champions her by saying that she trusts her decision making. 

A coaching relationship can be simple, and it is also radical. Because coaching creates a brave space for people to step into their power, taking a coach-like approach opens up new possibilities for clients and colleagues.

Hot tip: this approach works for family and friend relationships too! 

So how does this all tie into evaluation, organizational learning, and shifting perspectives about what counts as data?

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When we come from a place of trust, openness, and curiosity, we are able to create space for new perspectives, taking risks, and mutual understanding. Learning can be accelerated when these things are present in our interpersonal relationships and organizational culture. It also allows us to see that conventional ways of thinking are a perspective, and other perspectives are possible. Beliefs and assumptions about what constitutes data or “real learning” then be questioned. And we are able to ask questions like:

  • What do we really want to learn?

  • Will this evaluation approach get us there?

  • Who is the audience and what do they need to learn? And, how can we push their thinking about what those in power think they need in order to be satisfied of the evidence?

From a learning and evaluation standpoint, coaching can be a tool for:

  • Implementing change or a new strategy at the organizational level. The Neuroleadership Institute recently published a white paper on culture change. They shared that “Encouraging employees to develop and maintain a growth mindset can help boost change readiness by increasing their propensity to remain motivated and determined in the face of change.” Taking on a coach-like perspective goes hand-in-hand with fostering a growth mindset at work. By trusting in colleagues’ and clients’ strength and abilities, coaching allows space for growth and learning.

  • Building capacity of leaders and organizations. In my and LFA’s experience as consultants, we hear that coaching is one of the most impactful components of leadership development programs, and coaching is often provided as part of organizational development/effectiveness efforts.

  • Creating a human-centered work culture. Each individual contributes to organizational culture, but leaders have the most influence. The behaviors and actions they model shape the culture they want to see (intentionally or not). Coaching can help leaders and all staff members understand the ways in which they influence organizational culture by creating intentional space for reflection, accountability, and action.

From an equity and justice lens, coaching provides opportunities for:

When we come with a coaching mindset, more is possible for our evaluation work, our organizations, our colleagues, and ourselves.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Coaching is one way to radically shift the way we show up at work and work toward dismantling structures that contribute to inequity and lack of inclusion and build safe spaces for everyone (regardless of background, race, or professional level) to learn and grow. The more that people can actively listen to each other and acknowledge their being, the more people feel seen and heard. And while coaching is not a magic bullet solution to all DEI efforts (we have to tackle systemic inequities too) it is a powerful tool for deepening relationships across difference.

Interested in learning more about coaching in the context of learning and organizational development? Check out these resources:

Betsy Baum Block’s brief on Evaluation Coaching provides more detail about the differences between consulting, mentoring, and coaching.
Co-Active Coaching: The Proven Framework for Transformative Conversations at Work and in Life by Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl, and Laura Whitworth (Fourth Edition)

Contact Rachel Lipton at

Interested in getting one-on-one coaching or bringing coaching to your team or organization?

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Rachel Lipton is a Consultant at Learning for Action. She is passionate about coaching impact-driven professionals who are committed to progressive social change and racial equity. She is currently training at The Coaches Training Institute and looks forward to bringing coaching to individuals, teams, and organizations seeking to make a greater contribution to social justice.