Coaching, Imagination and Romanticism: Manzoni’s Lesson

Being particularly fond of coaching, and believing in its effectiveness as learning tool, brought me to deepen my knowledge of its elements to another level. I crave to better understand, day by day, how every single component of a coaching conversation, as well as many other sociological and psychological factors that play a role in the coach-coachee relationship, can maximize the value for a coaching client, that we consider such as a single person, a team or an organization.

Although there are many differences between individual and group coaching, so as between developmental and performance coaching, it is also true that some common factors exist within the practice, which can be roughly interpreted as postulates.

Such assumptions are those that define at best the coaching practice, namely differentiating it from mentoring and psychotherapy. In fact, it is not so difficult even for professionals practitioners to be confused: but if on one hand mentors and therapists make use of coaching elements as part of their professional practice, it is better to keep in mind that their different qualifications circumscribe coaching to their specific field; on the other hand, a professional coach should at least keep informed on the latest academical researches which relate to their field, in a way of normalizing their practice on an imprint which is partially empirical, partially scientific.

Grant and Cavanagh (2004) argue, not by chance, that such a task must be considered an ethical duty towards the client. In their favor, I can affirm that whereas the coachee is responsible to pursue and execute the action plan, it is undeniable that the responsibilities of a coach are many and all equally important:

  • to create a positive environment for the conversation
  • to pay attention to changes in topics, sentiments, and motivations
  • to provide regular feedback while not giving suggestions

are some of them. On these matters the related literature is broad. However, it often takes into consideration more conjectures than scientifically-proven facts.

I already debated here on the experience of the coachee in the matter of engagement and the inner obstacles he/she can encounter, especially in this Era of Changes. Meanwhile, this article wants to focus on the duties of a coach by blending sciences and literature to extrapolate at once a forgotten set of values.

In this regard, some time ago it came to my mind a very famous Italian literate that we use to study at school: Alessandro Manzoni, the promoter of Italian Romanticism. From a cultural point of view, Manzoni was a turning point for two reasons. In the first place, he refused outdated classical schemes, to him inadequate for the society of his time, because they were rich in ancient allegories that refer to obsolete moral values. For this reason, he proposed an artistic change aimed at the actualization of forms and contents. In the second place, he was also a linguistic reformer that influenced firstly our written, then spoken language: a landmark for their evolution into the modern Italian.

If we were to use a political attribute, we would say that Manzoni was a revolutionary of his genre; in less radical terms, we can consider him an agile mind, aimed at the significant improvement of communication in function of moral growth.

The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Paint by C. D. Friedrich.
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog
Painting by Caspar David Friedrich

However, the reason why Alessandro Manzoni came to my mind was slightly more technical than this historical anecdote. In fact, in his struggle against artistic conventions and the fixed mindset of Italian literates of that time, he himself succeeded in elaborating a model that explain in a very simple way his ideals. To simplify, we will refer to such model as the “Manzoni’s Triad“, which is resumed in the following points:

  1. Real as Object. No allegories, only true or probable facts
  2. Interesting as Medium. A language that is actual, understandable in its means and meanings that is able to challenge, yet entertaining
  3. Useful as Purpose. Art is leisure, and also a tool that triggers learning experiences.

Here I would gladly substitute “Art” with “Coaching” for the sake of our context so that we can observe how Manzoni’s Triad is well and alive in such practice if done correctly. Briefly, I elaborate on my theory to demonstrate how a literary model of the XIX century can transform into a fresh ethical model for the coach.

Real as Object

The subject of a coaching conversation is, clearly, the coachee (or coaching client). Consequently, it is our task as a coach not to intervene in the cognitive process with stuff that can be dysfunctional to our interlocutor while unraveling his/her skein of thoughts. Giving advice may be inviting and surely many of us will bite our tongue many times before developing the good habit of keeping quiet when appropriate; however, giving us the freedom to externalize our subjective vision of things by sharing past experiences can create a bottleneck to the thought-provoking process which we are aiming to facilitate.

Hence, it is necessary to be focused on the present, so on facts and related emotions of our client. Considering how mindfulness is a buzzword nowadays, I prefer rather not to dwell on it.

Interesting as Medium

An unpleasant conversation is also unfruitful. From time to time, a new coaching client will show up with a problem, yet demand a solution. As coaches, we are not there for that purpose, however, we should keep into consideration: (A) the coachee’s level of awareness about how the conversation will be conducted, and (B) the eventual frustration that may arise from a series of wrong questions. If we will be considering a conversation like a Socratic dialogue (in the reasonable limits offered by the relationship of the coaching dyad) then we will know that an engaging conversation is the result of “maieutic” techniques, aimed to bring up the coachee’s resolution towards his/her goal or problem.

For how interesting may be to investigate deeply the root cause, such conversation will be productive only if we will be able to move our interlocutor from resolution to action. Therefore, solution-focused questions (SQFs) are the decisive factor independently of the coaching model that one wishes to adopt.

Useful as Purpose

A conversation, or a cycle of them, has the purpose of resolving an actual problem. I have already emphasized how much is important to be focused on the present moment. That’s because having the coachee brooding over the past may create more frustrations than a series of questions can do. The conversation is meaningful if the interlocutor is motivated to undertake a journey of growth that culminates with the achievement of the goal. Therefore, the role of the coach is to remove obstacles while not giving a direct boost to the decision-making in the process. On this matter, Tomlinson (2020) theorizes that the ambiguity inherent in the SQFs is the key to triggering the imagination of the other person on the available options and his best action path.

Manzoni’s Lesson

My reading in “Romantic” key of the coaching mindset is based on the Manzoni’s Triad already described. A more complete study, founded on English Romanticism, was carried out by the above-mentioned Tomlinson. Discovering that there is a certain academic interest in this interpretation motivates me to investigate more about it, to find factual confirmations of my theory.

Alessandro Manzoni

Actually, often we talk about mindful coaching; and yet, mindfulness is a quality pertinent to the coach. On the contrary, less or nothing has been said of the cognitive process of the coachee in the unfolding of the events. I find interesting such scarce interest given to imagination as the learning device, maybe because such human intellectual power is taken for granted, or because critical thinking is a more popular buzzword right now. I agree with Metivier (2020) about the potentiality of imagery in the development of a more efficient neural network, as it is possible to have the coachee exploiting his/her own creative self to unlock an outgrowing coaching mindset, starting from the analysis of facts.


  • Grant A, Cavanagh M. “Toward a profession of coaching: Sixty-five years of progress and challenges for the future”. IJEBCM, Vol 2(1). (2014).
  • Jordan S, Kauffeld S. “A mixed method study of effects and antecedents of solution-focused questions in coaching”. IJEBCM, Vol. 18(1). (2020).
  • Manzoni, Alessandro. “Sul Romanticismo. Lettera al Marchese Cesare d’Azeglio”. (1846)
  • Metivier, Anthony. “The Victorious Mind. How to master memory, meditation and mental well-being”. (2020)
  • Tomlinson, Carl. “Using the Romantics to understand the imagination: A creative and original methodology for research into coaching.” IJEBCM, S14. (2020).

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

Published by Andrea Paviglianiti

I practice coaching, I love reading, and I work as a data scientist. I also recharge my batteries with meditation, martial arts, and video games. I perform career and skills coaching – thus I define myself as a “cognitive” coach: I help people improve their learning experience to succeed where they want. My method is based on behavioral analysis, psychology of learning, philosophy of dialogue, and classic literature. I write about how to get better at learning, the best books I read, and my personal philosophy of coaching. And I will not lie to you – I can get verbose at times! I’d be happy if you stick around and read more of what I have to share!

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