Do you remember when we looked at the 5 basic coaching skills we really need to become effective coaches? We started with contracting, followed by use of some kind of structuring mechanism (with the GROW Model as an example). Listening, questioning.and non-directiveness brought up the rear…
There’s no doubt that mastering these 5 skills will go a long way to ensuring that our coaching delivers what our coachees need and expect. But is there something else we should be adding to the mix? I would say there is, and it’s non-judgementalism.
So in this post we’ll be looking at non-judgementalism and exploring 2 good reasons to build awareness of when we are or are not being non-judgemental.
What is non-judgementalism?
Think about it this way. Coaching focuses on the coachee, the coachee’s needs, and the coachee’s agenda. As coaches we strive to maintain an ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ stance in relation to our coachees, accepting that being ‘OK’ ourselves does not imply that everyone else is not ‘OK’. In our coaching sessions we strive to maintain an open, welcoming curiosity with regard to whatever coachees present, however they may present it. Only by meeting a coachee at her or his particular starting point can we facilitate the journey of self-reflection and self-revelation that will transform how she or he moves forward from that starting point with skill and wisdom.
To maintain an open, welcoming curiosity we need to be non-judgemental. Being non-judgemental means we allow ourselves to ‘be with’ the coachee, with the coachee’s thinking and experience, rather than being stuck in our own reactions to that thinking and experience. Our role is to facilitate the thinking and self-insight of our coachees, to reflect back what we have seen and heard. We ask questions to gain clarification, to open up possibility. We listen and observe to pick up the full spectrum of communication, verbal and non-verbal, which reveals realities behind the words. Realities of attitude, emotion, reluctance, anxiety, or whatever else the coachee brings to the table as we move through our coaching sessions.
What if we are judgemental? What if for some reason we depart from our stance of open, welcoming curiosity in favour of censure, disapproval and even rejection? If we are aware, we may try hard not to verbalise this shift. But we will not be able to mask entirely any subtle changes in our demeanour, facial expression, or tone of voice. The atmosphere we generate will change, and this will change the dynamic of our coaching session.
What will be the result? We will be failing to provide a safe space wherein our coachees are able to work through their issues in their own way and in their own time. We will be failing to allow them to set their own agendas. We may challenge a coachee too early, before a full, frank overall picture emerges. Judgementalism implies that there is an obvious ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, a stark ‘either/or’. The spectre of judgementalism robs a coachee of valuable space to explore, weigh up, and choose. Possibility is closed down.
2 good reasons to build awareness
All that said, coaches are only human, and human beings can all be judgemental from time to time. It’s only natural. We cannot magic away our catalogue of human foibles, but as coaches we can work hard to avoid being oblivious to when our human foibles are taking the reins of our behaviour and attitudes. We can build awareness of when we are being judgemental and when we are not, as well as what triggers these judgemental reactions. There are numerous good reasons for us to build such awareness, and here are 2 to consider.
1. Clash of values We do not go into coaching sessions with the aim of being judgemental. Why, then, might our stance of non-judgementalism change? A significant factor is often the emergence of a clash of values between ourselves and a coachee. Perhaps this becomes apparent over time, perhaps it’s a sudden realisation which triggers an immediate reaction that we can’t control. Whatever the case, we may find ourselves unable to shift this new internal reality.
How can we minimise the likelihood of this happening? And what can we do if we find ourselves falling into a judgemental frame of mind? I’ve written before about the importance of understanding the impact of our values in coaching. A key part of cultivating a reflective practice is to examine our own motivations and values so that we recognise the triggers which activate judgementalism in our reactions to particular situations and people. In becoming aware of aspects of our own psychological makeup or past experience which may contribute to such reactions, we are preparing the ground for learning to deal with them in the moment in such a way that for the most part they cease to affect our ability to coach.
We can also learn to recognise when we really aren’t able to be objective and non-judgemental despite our best efforts. If we recognise this before we enter a coaching relationship (or even at some stage whilst a coaching relationship is ongoing), we can choose not to work with a particular coachee. We can advise that we do not feel we are the right coach for the particular coachee and that it would be more fruitful for him or her to look elsewhere.
If, by contrast, we are triggered during a session but sense that a few moments’ pause would allow us to regain our composure, we can call a time out. We might explain to the coachee that something has happened for us in relation to which we need a moment or two of quiet reflection or mindfulness.
Coaching requires openness and honesty on the part of both parties in the relationship. A by-product of our being authentic in our dealings with ourselves and others can be the organic strengthening of trust in the coaching relationship on the part of coachees. Coachees may also be encouraged to be more authentic with themselves in becoming more mindful of triggers in their own mentalities, and to cultivate the curiosity to unpick those triggers, learning how to move beyond them.
Coachees deserve and need a space in which they can be open and honest with themselves, in which they can work in ways they find necessary for their progress. If we are unable to offer such a space, we ourselves should be open and honest in saying so.
2. ‘Coach knows best’ syndrome Judgementalism can arise if we find ourselves believing we ‘know’ what the real issue is or what our coachees ‘ought’ to do better than the coachees themselves – what I call ‘coach knows best’ syndrome. We may become fixated and judge coachees negatively, purely on the basis that they ‘refuse’ to come to the conclusion that we believe is obvious. We may become impatient. We may begin to ask leading questions. We may become directive, denying coachees our empathy, the space to explore, and the kind of learning experience that can lead to increased self-awareness and choice.
We may or may not be correct in our assessment of what should or should not be done. Whatever the case, it is not our place to prioritise our own sense of justification and ‘correctness’ above the coachee’s own journey of discovery. That learning journey is the coachee’s right, a key part of the process of becoming organically aware and self-aware. This should be a facilitated process of self-revelation for a coachee rather than becoming a tussle with the coach over who is right or wrong.
Ultimately the judgementalism that is at the core of ‘coach knows best’ syndrome abuses the trust of our coachees in what should be our clear focus on them and their needs rather than ourselves. It can pressurise ‘people pleasing’ individuals into providing answers and solutions that they think the coach will approve. Others may lose faith in a coaching process that is doomed to fail because it is not rooted in the emerging awareness, sense of responsibility and transformative power which comes from the wisdom which coachees uncover in themselves in respect of their own issues.
So non-judgementalism is a key ingredient of effective coaching. Cultivating awareness of when and how we become judgemental is fundamental to identifying what we need to do to ensure we offer the non-judgemental attention coachees need, as we facilitate their journeys to self-insight and learning.
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