What if… coaches didn’t know best?

How often in conversation with another coach do you find the subject moving to coachees who don’t do what they know they ought to do? It’s happened to me quite often. In a previous post I considered the proposition “What if… coachees were coaches?” and in some ways what I’m going to say today continues on that theme. We all know we’re supposed to believe that coachees have within themselves the answers to their problems, but somehow our keeping hold of that insight gets swamped by ‘interference’…

What do I mean?

two mannequin heads in a poolCoaching is in many ways more about how a coach deals with his or her own baggage than it is about the coachee. One function of a coach is to hold up that mirror to coachees which helps them perceive themselves in perspective. But what if the coach isn’t really holding up a mirror at all? What if the coach has unwittingly substituted his or her own image?

Coaching requires many things of its practitioners. Most significant are the abilities to stand back, look at things from other people’s points of view, listen – and abstain from judgement. If at the end of an intervention we coaches think we knew ‘the answer’ all along, then we need to hold the mirror up to ourselves! Even if we did know the answer, the point is for coachees to come to that conclusion themselves in their own way, if they do so at all. Without that journey, say goodbye to raising awareness, and goodbye to the taking of responsibility…

What are the reasons coaches fall into the ‘why-don’t-coachees-do-what-they-know-they-ought-to-do’ trap? I don’t have a definitive answer (as I’m sure you’d suspect by now!). But I do have a couple of observations which might make us think.

1. Coach personality

Coaches, like other people, have different personalities. Some are patient, others aren’t. Some find it easy to sit back and observe, others get the jitters even contemplating such a scenario. Some have been trainers, some couldn’t instruct anyone to save their lives. There’s a whole range of personalities out there, and that’s absolutely fine – except when coaches don’t have sufficient self-awareness to understand where the limitations of their personalities lie.

cartoon fish against the currentFor example, there’s nothing wrong with being a ‘can do’ optimistic kind of individual. Jumping in and sorting out a problem is great. The difficulty arises when such a ‘can do’ sort becomes a coach, and is unable to feel in her or his gut that not everyone has the same predisposition. What may seem like a coachee meandering or obfuscating or “refusing to do what she knows she needs to do” may in fact be the playing out of a different personality’s way of tackling a serious issue.

Previously I’ve looked at the MBTI. It’s in circumstances where personality differences need to be understood and catered for that thinking about MBTI types comes into its own. One of the best points of learning for coaches is to look deeply into the characteristics of someone who is their MBTI opposite. I’m sure any ISFJ out there would find it revelatory to try to walk in the shoes of an ENTP – and vice versa.

The point of this exercise is to appreciate the reality and ultimate beauty of individual difference, not to frustrate anyone. If some of the patience it requires rubs off, coming into play in coaching sessions whenever a coach is faced with a very different personality type, all well and good. “Forewarned is forearmed,” as the old saying goes. Our ‘can do’ optimist will have the insight not to jump to conclusions, and to be able to consider the coachee as the coachee really is, rather than as the coach wishes him or her to be.

2. Leaving behind assumptions

Sometimes a coachee may firm up and undertake to achieve action points which ultimately aren’t fulfilled. If this happens once, coaches can be quite understanding. If it happens twice, patience can wear thin. If it happens a third time, establishing a ‘pattern’, coaches can easily judge that coachee to be ‘beyond the pale’. Yet this might be an assumption too far.

What do I mean? Let me tell you a story…

I once had a coachee who had a very clear idea of what he ‘ought’ to do. He had a deadline by which to deliver some important work, and he wanted me to support him in seeing it through. In the first session he put together a marvellous plan with a couple of action points he was convinced he would achieve – scoring them as 9 on the famous Scale of 1-10. Man holding up sad cardboard faceImagine my surprise when I received a message the day before the next meeting oozing with panic.The action points had not been achieved, and the coachee was a waste of space – at least in his own estimation. “Come along to the session anyway,” I said.

According to the coachee, everything had gone wrong. Nothing had been done. Teasing out what had actually happened, much of what had been intended had been achieved. But the coachee hadn’t seen it that way. Encouraged, he once again put a marvellous plan together. High scores on the Scale were reached. But at the next session, the action points had still not been undertaken.

This time the coachee got a little closer to articulating the reason. But still he knew what he ought to do. “But is that what you will do?” I asked gently. “Of course,” he replied. Yes, I had my suspicions. But I put them on one side. Everything about the coachee indicated he fully meant what he said. So off he went once again.

Now we came to the fourth session. Once again those action points lay in ruins. This time I reminded the coachee of my duty to challenge, and when once more he said he knew what he ‘ought’ to do, I had the ‘evidence’ from which he couldn’t wriggle away. “What can you do? What will you do? Forget what you ‘ought’ to do. I believe you have been genuine all along. But your body is telling you via the panic that’s gathering in your chest that what your brain thinks you ought to do is impossible. What’s really going on?”

Now we got to the real issues…

I don’t need to go into those issues here, and another coach might quite validly have handled the case in a different way, given a different personality and different interpersonal chemistry. I wouldn’t suggest that my way was the only way. However, the point I’m making is this – and it’s an important one.

If I had become impatient in the second or third session, or had acted on my suspicions that nothing would be done, or had not been sensitive to all the non-verbal signals of genuineness that the coachee was giving off, I could easily have dismissed this coachee as a charlatan. And in doing so I could have deprived both him and me of a significant learning journey…

Sometimes as coaches we need patience. My coachee did indeed know what he ‘ought’ to do, and there were absolutely valid reasons why he wasn’t doing it – reasons which he himself didn’t want to face, and which (if they had not been allowed naturally to emerge into the safe coaching space) would have made him ill. It was my place to support him in his journey of discovery and acceptance, not to become impatient and dismissive of his sincerity.

So, sometimes coaches don’t know best. Sometimes they do. But in every case, the point is the learning journey of the coachee. It takes patience and a special kind of compassion to provide the kind of supportive space where a coachee can allow her or himself to fail…

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4 thoughts on “What if… coaches didn’t know best?

  1. Thanks for these observations, Neal. You’re absolutely right. Coaches also need that ‘safe space’ of non-judgemental ‘directed’ discussion that helps them think through how they do things. We’re all different, and different decisions suit different people – plus those different decisions can in many cased be differently fine! But it’s that exploration and understanding one’s own particular strong and weaker points that can bring effective development. Supervision is key.


  2. Thanks for the comment, Chris. I appreciate your view. Sometimes we need patience to let other people think things through – and to support them in the process.


  3. Good points Alison, and I think we can all relate to the ‘did I handle that in the best way I could’ question as a coach – challenging and supporting ourselves! This is where I have found coaching supervision so useful; someone who knows me well and who can ask questions of me and make observations regarding how I interacted with a situation, and what may have been going on in the situation described.


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