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Could a human be coached by a chatbot?


February 14, 2018

With questions about Artificial Intelligence (AI) being so high on the current agenda for learning and development specialists, my thinking turned to the influence of ‘chatbots’ on the practices of Executive Coaching. “Could a human be coached by a chatbot?” I ask myself.

I’m not an AI expert so I might not be aware of all the emergent capabilities in this technical field. However, I’m a qualified, supervised, (human!) Executive Coach with many hours of experience, practice and learning. So I researched and compared chatbot capabilities with some of the core – and advanced – competencies that effective coaches use in order to try to answer my own question. I came up with two perspectives:

Perspective One: Yes, a chatbot has some useful coaching skills!

I linked how chatbots work with the skills a coach uses and identified two positive ways a chatbot could coach.

  1. Using real-time data: Chatbots use data from the human’s phrases and facial expressions in order to formulate and transmit a response. Thus they can become a ‘conversational partner’*. Technology is developing so that Chatbots are now able to tune into the emotions present in a conversation with a human. Emotional Chatting Machines (ECMs) can be programmed to respond from a range of emotions – for example happiness, sadness, disgust, anger and liking. ¬†These are vital skills for coaching. The ability to take in real-time sensory and emotional information being transmitted (or inferred) by the client (the person being coached) and use it to reflect it, respond empathically or to identify the next question lies at the heart of the coaching conversation.
  2. Asking powerful questions: Even if the chatbot’s capability to tune into human emotions remains limited, this could be a benefit in a coaching conversation. AI could be programmed with a range of ‘generic’ coaching questions which the chatbot could – using its logical ‘intelligence’ – choose from. These neutral questions, based on a straight-forward, rational approach, could turn into powerful, non-judgmentental, un-loaded keys to unlock the client’s potential to find solutions. For example, the rational question might be “And what would have to happen next for this solution to work?” ¬†Coaches need to work hard to avoid getting caught up in the storylines their clients are describing and, without diminishing the power of kindness and empathy, will need to ask a question that might be blunt or very challenging for the client’s ultimate benefit.

Perspective Two: No, a human coach will be more effective than a chatbot!

Although there are some ways a chatbot might coach, here are 3 ways in which I believe that, currently, a human coach will be more effective:

  1. Too much information! In human-to-human interactions there is a vast quantity of data available – some we notice and use, some we notice and don’t use, some that our brains filter out without us noticing. And all that happens so quickly! An effective coach will be really tuned into this happening and will be alert to the micro, macro and meta elements at play. I’m not sure how AI could be programmed to take in all this, prioritise it and choose a response or question at a speed that maintains the pace and flow of the conversation. This pace and flow add to the ‘rapport’ between humans which builds trust and generates an energy to solve problems collaboratively.
  2. Making connections: a coach uses their creative thinking and intuition to link the seemingly unconnected thoughts, events, opinions or actions that the client has described and to put a question, challenge or hypothesis into the conversation to bring clarity. This might use information retrieved from previous meetings or feedback from others, such as the client’s manager. Our chatbot coach would require an incredible degree of programming in order to have such a capability. I am ignorant as to the possibility of this but it seems an enormous challenge!
  3. Keeping on track: a coach’s role is to work with the client to achieve the goals they identify as important to them (the client). Conversations can go off at tangents, new goals can emerge, clients get caught up in the technical detail of their situation and some will use distraction or avoidance tactics to remain comfortable. A chatbot coach would need sophisticated programmes to know when to allow the client to carry on, when to respectfully interrupt, when to challenge the digression and when to check the relevance of the statements the client is making.

I’ve found the current focus on AI to be a really useful prompt for reflecting on the skills that effective coaches use and, as a result, how I go about my role as a coach. I marvel at the capabilities that AI can bring – along with the many benefits for an improved world. On the other hand, as I write this in 2018, I’m massively reassured that coaching will be most effective when it employs the sophistication of THI – Total Human Intelligence.

* See this article from The Guardian for more about chatbots developing conversational ability here

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