What if… terrible coaching sessions weren’t really that terrible?

Have you ever left a coaching session groaning, “Can things really get any worse? Is my coaching really so dire? I’m an idiot!”? Whilst this can be a common reaction amongst coaches in training, don’t be fooled into thinking it doesn’t happen to more seasoned coaches from time to time too.

Man holding unhappy red squarePossibly the reaction is accurate. The coaching session was that dire, and you really are an idiot. I’d hazard a guess, though, that if you’re a qualified experienced coach (or even a newbie in most cases), the more likely story is that something’s been triggered in you which has retrospectively coloured your memory of the experience of the whole session. It’s part of a reflective coach’s duty to try to get to the bottom of such things rather than brush them under a convenient carpet to be tripped over at a later date.

Here I’m going to touch on the kinds of circumstances that might cause such an extreme reaction in a coach, and suggest  3  simple processes we can build into our planning which can help put the experience into perspective. These  3  processes are things we should be incorporating into our thinking anyway, but here we’re looking at them as being helpful when we really need to find a different perspective.

Reasons we might think a coaching session was dire

There can be many reasons our remembered experience of a situation can be unpleasant. Some are external, such as circumstances beyond our control which adversely affect proceedings. Some are internal.

overturned coffee cupThe externally-originated ones don’t need to be particularly major. They could just be relatively unimportant things we couldn’t have foreseen despite our best plans, which went on to play havoc with our sense of equilibrium. At the time we may have believed we’d got our frustration, annoyance, panic or disorientation under control sufficiently to engage with our coachee. Nevertheless, we are left with those unpleasant feelings permeating how we think about the session as a whole.

Or maybe something happens or is said during a meeting which triggers for us a powerful internal reaction. Maybe it’s something related to our values, or the coachee discusses a negative experience we’ve lived through ourselves. Whatever it is, we’re left trying to deal with the internal reaction even as we try to focus on the coachee. Again, at the time we may have believed we had the resulting feelings and bodily sensations under control, but in retrospect those same feelings and sensations have become associated with our memories of the whole meeting.

What can we do?

Clearly, if we felt able to continue, our difficulties were not so severe that we felt the session needed to be ended. Even so, the problem we’re left with is that the imprint of those powerful feelings leads us to catastrophise about all aspects of our coaching session. It’s as if we’re viewing it in monochrome from a perspective that only perceives failure.

Of course, we should ideally examine the whole experience in detail with our coach supervisor at our next meeting, for there may be much learning from teasing out what exactly occurred. But there are also measures we can take ourselves to help deal with such events if and when they arise. If we can regain the ability to change our perspective and recognise the multiplicity of colours associated with our actual rather than remembered experience, we’re well on the way to understanding more about what happened and becoming more realistic about how the coaching session really went.

Factoring the following  3  simple processes into our planning can help us avoid the worst excesses of a bout of self-doubt and negativity.

1. Thinking about sessions beforehand

Hand making notesBy this, I don’t mean hammering out in detail every last thing we want to do in an upcoming session. Coaching is about being ‘with’ the coachee and the coachee’s own solution-finding, not about dictating directions for a session through preconceived coach-originated plans. What I’m suggesting is reflecting on what kinds of things we might be looking out for in a session, issues which might have previously been left unresolved to keep at the back of our minds, possible approaches which might be useful, questions we think might be relevant. We may or may not use these. But if we note them down, they form a kind of sketch map we can refer to later when we reflect on what actually occurred.

Why might this help if we’ve left a session feeling like the biggest failure in the world? Because each point takes us back to before the session, and in thinking each point through we can find ourselves shifting perspective on how we remember the interactions with the coachee actually unfolding. We begin to think about why we decided not to implement that particular point, or why we did. Ideally, this process can help us move beyond our negative feelings to recognise why things unfolded as they did, as well as the wisdom behind much of what may have occurred.

2. Include coachee feedback in contracting

Coachee feedback is an essential element in enabling a coach to know how effective sessions are and whether the coaching approach needs to be modified. But there’s more to it than that. Coachee feedback can be extremely helpful in the kind of circumstances I’m discussing here because when we’re ruminating negatively about a particular session, it can help free us from the downward spiral of our own thoughts.

How so? Well, coachee feedback has the power to take us out of our own heads by providing another person’s view of the coaching meeting. As it happens, that other person is the individual who’s reaction we might be obsessing about if we believe the coaching session ‘went wrong’. Receiving her or his considered views in a timely manner can give us real information to think about rather than the fleeting shadows proliferating in our own minds.

By ensuring that coachee feedback after every session is a clear part of our contract (and insisting on receiving it), we give ourselves the opportunity to have a reality check on whether we’re perceiving the coaching session in an accurate light. The requirement can be included in the written contract or briefing sheet, along with areas for feedback that are particularly important to us.

Remember, though, that to receive reliable feedback we need to have built good rapport and a relationship of openness, honesty and respect with the coachee. Only then will feedback be worth receiving. More often than not, the coachee will have found the session incredibly helpful and be pleased with most if not all of the content. However, we need to be prepared for the feedback to confirm the negative impression of the session we’re grappling with. If that’s the case, we need to be able to deal with the input in a constructive manner.

3. Establish a mindfulness practice

A coach can reflect on a session in a different ways, tapping a variety of verbal and non-verbal types of ‘wisdom’. Mindfulness is a useful reflective practice because it cultivates the ability to stand back and observe thoughts and feelings rather than being absorbed in them. Over time, mindfulness can free the mind from rumination and establish a calmer mental space which allows disturbing thoughts and feelings to express themselves without incurring our judgement, then pass.

How can this help when something has been triggered for us in a coaching session, or we’re overcome with the feeling that a session was dire and we ourselves are hopeless? It can loosen the hold of these thoughts and feelings, whilst allowing us to observe them, let them be, and then let them go. From a ‘wiser’ and more self-compassionate position, we can begin to perceive the ‘terrible coaching session’ with more equanimity and more accuracy.

So, there are the  3  simple processes I think will be helpful whenever we’re engulfed in negativity or feel a coaching session went particularly badly. They can help us regain our self-compassion, composure and sense of what actually happened. We may find that the coaching session which upset us wasn’t really as terrible as we thought after all…

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