Have you ever stopped to think about the attitudes and assumptions you carry with you into coaching sessions?
Let’s face it, no coach can enter a coaching session completely free from his or her own ‘baggage’. We all bear the marks of our particular backgrounds, perspectives, education, relationship history and prejudices. We’ll never get rid of our ‘baggage’ and prejudices completely, and having them is a natural state of affairs. But is it one we as coaches should sit back and accept without question?
I’d say we shouldn’t just sit back and accept this state of affairs. Why? Because if we are unaware that we carry around with us prejudices and ‘baggage’, or if we refuse to admit this is the case, those prejudices and ‘baggage’ will come back to bite us in coaching sessions, potentially damaging the quality of the service we can offer our coachees. Those prejudices and ‘baggage’ will get in the way of our ability to offer the kind of non-judgemental individually-tailored coaching our clients have every right to expect.
In this post I’ll first be looking at reasons why we’re liable to go into coaching sessions overloaded with our prejudices and ‘baggage’. I’ll then move on to suggest 3 ways we can combat this state of affairs, which increase our awareness of what we bring to the coaching table, and help us compensate for our own attitudinal foibles. We’ll then be able to consciously prepare ourselves to set aside our prejudices and ‘baggage’ as best we can, and to be as non-judgemental as is humanly possible in our coaching interactions.
Where do our prejudices and ‘baggage’ come from?
We accumulate prejudices and ‘baggage’ over a lifetime, carrying them around in our mental spaces like cobwebs in a spare room. They can affect our coaching sessions in a number of ways, so it’s useful to consider where they may have come from in order to identify what we can do about them.
- Our own personal history Many of our deeply-ingrained attitudes stem from our childhoods and subsequent life experience. They are the ‘givens’ of life, the things we don’t question. Not all of these unquestioned attitudes are necessarily ‘bad’ or negative in their wider consequences, but some may over time contribute to ‘unconscious bias’, affecting the way we judge and/or deal with particular people and situations. Our personal history for better or worse follows us into coaching sessions, and it’s an important source of the kind of ‘baggage’ that can get in the way of the non-judgementalism we strive to achieve.
- Insight into coachee context I’ve written elsewhere about the importance for coaches of having some measure of informed insight into coachee context. This has benefits but it also has drawbacks, because unless we’re careful, we can fall into framing everything that happens in a coaching session within our own understanding of what we assume the coachee is facing. Combined with our personal mental ‘baggage’ and unquestioned prejudices, this can have a powerful negative impact on our ability to be truly non-judgemental when dealing with our clients.
- Interpreting one coachee through our experiences with another Just as our own personal history can affect our perceptions in the moment, so can experience with previous coachees. The more coachees we’ve worked with, the more we can come to feel we are able to anticipate the way future coachees may behave. Whilst gut reaction is an important source of ‘information’ that helps us understand and interpret what’s going on in the moment for ourselves and for our coachees, we need to be careful that we don’t map our experiences with other coachees onto what’s happening to and for the coachee we’re dealing with in the present.
3 ways to neutralise the effects of our prejudices and ‘baggage’
Clearly, it’s well nigh impossible for us to eradicate all our prejudices, biases and unconscious personal ‘baggage’. We need to acknowledge this fact and accept it as a reality of life. However, this reality shouldn’t become an excuse for us not to take any action at all. It’s entirely possible to go a long way towards neutralising the worst effects of our ‘baggage’ in coaching sessions.
Here are my top 3 suggestions for how we can achieve this:
- Self-reflection to identify our prejudices and ‘baggage’ Cultivating a reflective practice is one of the key duties of a coach. I’ve examined the reasons for this in some detail in a previous post. Here I’d like to focus on how self-reflection helps us identify our patterns of attitude and behaviour, as well as particular ‘voices’ that ‘interfere’ during coaching conversations. These attitudes, behaviours and ‘voices’ stem from our past, representing the prejudices and ‘baggage’ we bring with us into coaching interactions. Establishing the habit of self-reflection before and after sessions can help us identify recurring patterns of thought and attitude, which facilitates our insight into the inner workings of our own mental and physical reactions to individuals and situations. Bringing these aspects into awareness enables a process of self-understanding, which in turn can inform the formulation of strategies to deal with particular reactions if and when they arise in the moment. It’s worth remembering that if we feel unable to process learning from our ‘discoveries’ sufficiently ourselves, such material is exactly the kind of subject matter to take to our coach supervision sessions. Teasing out what’s going on with the help of our supervisor is fundamental to our development and progress as a coach.
- Thinking through the consequences of our insight into coachee context As noted above, insight into coachee context is important. It’s also important to consider the ways in which that insight might predetermine our attitude and behaviour with a coachee. Thinking this through before each session and reviewing our ‘performance’ during periods of reflection afterwards are key to helping us bring the benefits of insight into coachee context into our coaching approach, whilst guarding against the negative effects which might occur if we don’t consciously make strategies to avoid them.
- Skillful listening and questioning within coaching sessions A consequence of unthinkingly approaching coachees through the lens of our own prejudices and ‘baggage’ is that we fail to really listen to what they are actually saying. We fail to be curious about how this or that particular coachee uniquely sees and experiences the world. In previous posts I’ve looked at the importance of listening in coaching, as well as the significance of effective questioning. Well-developed skillful listening and questioning skills are key to our own development as coaches, as they can help us overcome the negative effects of our prejudices and ‘baggage’ in coaching sessions. If we’ve followed the processes suggested above related to self-reflection and thinking through the consequences of our insight into coachee context, by preparing ourselves to really listen, we can focus all our attention on our coachees. We can overcome the tendency to sit back and judge proceedings through our own prejudices and past experiences. Through deep listening we can really hear what coachees are saying, feeding our curiosity to be sure we understand what they mean as opposed to what we think they mean. Through effective questioning we move beyond our own interpretations to uncover for ourselves and for our coachees what is really going on for them. At the same time we can succeed to the best of our ability in overcoming the limitations set by our own prejudices and the mental ‘baggage’ we inevitably carry around.
So these are my top 3 suggestions for how we can neutralise to the best of our ability the effects of our prejudices and ‘baggage’ in coaching sessions. Awareness is the first step towards crafting our own strategies, as well as the first step to ensuring we deliver the kind of non-judgemental coaching our clients deserve.
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