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A Coach’s Guide to Common Client Blindspots

August 27, 2020

As coaches, we are always creating awareness in our clients. While all the ICF Core Competencies are important, creating awareness is perhaps the most central competency to coaching. 

Our clients hire us because they want something to change, about themselves, their lives, their careers, their leadership, and/or their relationships. If they could change it themselves, they would. And often our clients can’t change what they are wanting to change because they can’t see what’s getting in their way.  

Oftentimes, what’s in their way —the obstacle lying between where, how, and who they are and where, how, and who they want to be — is some aspect of themselves.

Our clients typically can’t see what’s getting in the way of their change. The obstacle to their growth is so ingrained, so conflated with the frame and lens through which they see others, themselves and the world, that they can’t see it. It’s in their blindspot.

After thousands of coaching sessions working with hundreds of clients, I’ve learned to spot a few common blindspots that create obstacles to a client’s growth. It was only after seeing these blindspots over and over through the lens of attachment theory and relational intelligence, that I began to see some obvious patterns emerge. 

Here are three of the most common client blindspots:

Self-Orientation

What is it?

It’s not what you think it is. Self-Orientation, in this context, refers to where we look for responsibility when we are under stress. Someone who is more Self-Oriented is more likely to look to themselves for responsibility in any relationship and to take responsibility for what’s not working. 

What does it look like?

Someone who is more Self-Oriented is likely to raise their hand to help, to volunteer themselves when there’s more work than their team can do. They are likely to accept responsibility and perhaps blame when something’s gone wrong (even if it wasn’t their fault). They will tend to move toward others under stress versus turning away.  When the stuff hits the fan, they are more concerned about the possible rupture in the relationship than about how to fix the problem.

How does it form?

Self-Orientation is shaped in relationship over the course of our lives and largely in our earliest relationships. We learn self-orientation as a means of coping with stress. It can be, though isn’t always, the result of parenting that was inconsistent- at times, attuning and attentive and at times distant and disconnected.

How do you spot it?

Self-orientation can be detected from clients through the following indicators:

  • Overwhelm – The client assumes the responsibility not just for what is theirs, but for that which is others’ to do. And they won’t see themselves doing it because they cannot conceive of any other way to be. They raise their hand, catch every ball before it drops, prevent others from failing, rush to do more to help. It becomes more than they can manage and they become overwhelmed.
  • Lack of Boundaries – The client allows others to violate their boundaries but don’t perceive it as such. The client tends not to know what a boundary is perhaps because their own boundaries were violated when they were first learning about relationships. They will tend not to know the line where they stop and other people start, what is theirs, and what is someone else’s to do.
  • Loss of Voice – The client will tend to submit or defer to others under stress, choking off their own voice. They will tend to give up their own power and silence their voice and will perceive that they MUST give up their power and voice in order to stay in relationship. And they are driven to stay in relationship regardless of the pain to themselves.

While any of the individual indicators above may not indicate Self-Orientation, all three of them provide strong evidence of it. 

How to coach in response?

Coaching around Self-Orientation starts with bringing the client’s awareness to what their patterning makes it so hard to see; their overwhelm, lack of boundaries and loss of voice. They’ll tend not to see these signs because they can’t imagine another way to be. 

The coach will likely need to define what boundaries are and help the client see where they have choices that they don’t see. Because Self-Orientation can be so deeply ingrained, and relationships can be so important to the client, even their own overwhelm won’t be reason enough to stop them from raising their hand and taking on so much. 

The way to get the Self-Oriented client to see the cost of their patterned behavior is to ask about its impact on their closest relationships. Self-Orientated clients know, at some level, that the negative impact of their saying “yes” too much is born by the people they love most. The coach’s focus on the pain of the client’s loved ones can sometimes allow the client to see the need to make a change. Then the coach can work to support the client in using their voice to create healthy boundaries.

Other-Orientation

What is it?

You guessed it. Other-orientation is the opposite of Self-Orientation. And no, it doesn’t mean that the Other-Oriented are altruistic and unselfish. It means that their focus tends to be outside of themselves and they will tend to look outside of themselves for responsibility, particularly under stress and in conflict.

What does it look like?

Clients who are Other-Oriented will tend to look to others for responsibility and sometimes blame them when something goes wrong.  Also, they will tend to (unknowingly) give up their own agency. Tony Robbins says “You are controlled by what you focus on” and if you are focused outside of yourself, that’s what controls you. And that’s the orientation of these clients (however, it will likely tick them off if you say that.)

How does it form?

Like Self-Orientation, Other-Orientation forms over a lifetime and is shaped to a great degree early in life.   Other-orientation can be the result of parents who didn’t help their child learn to notice, name and trust their own experience and/or were dismissive of the internal experience of their child.  The child learned not to trust themselves (because their thinking, feeling, sensations and desires were not attended, attuned and appreciated by their caregivers).  So, they learned to look outside of themselves for information.

How to spot it?

Other-orientation can be detected in clients through the following indicators:

  • Victimhood – Though they will tend to bristle at the notion, Other-Oriented clients will tend to present narratives in which they are the victim. In their stories, they are being “done unto” – cheated, violated, threatened, judged, mistreated. The client unknowingly gives their power away through their focus on “the other” and/or what’s outside themselves.
  • Disconnection from Self –  It’s not uncommon for Other-Oriented clients to spend much of their coaching session talking about everyone and everything other than themselves, even when asked about their own experience. When, after hearing about everything external to the client, the coach asks the simple question, “What do you want?”, the client doesn’t have an answer.  Their focus has been so outside of themselves, they haven’t turned inward enough even to ask themselves what they want.
  • Disconnection from Others – You might expect that someone who is Other-Oriented would be more connected with others. However, it turns out, our connection with others is directly related to our connection with self. And when we are disconnected from ourselves, we are disconnected from others. Especially in times of stress, Other-Oriented people will tend to focus on the problem over the relationship and will see interpersonal conflict as something to fix versus a relationship to mend.

How to coach in response?

Again, the coach must first bring the client’s awareness to their blindspot. The coach can mirror the client’s language, and observe the power the client is giving others over their internal experience.  Also, the coach can continually work to connect the client to their own experience.  When the client persists in focusing outside of themselves, even when asked about themselves, the coach can continually redirect the client back to their own experience asking questions like “What do you feel?”  “What do you think?”  “What do you want?”.

Empty Joy Bucket

What is it?

Perhaps the single most important aspect of our internal experience is our joy bucket.   It impacts every other aspect of how we experience our lives.  Our joy bucket is a measure of the extent to which we vitality engage emotionally in our lives and is filled through self-nurturing and self-care.   When our joy bucket is low, it affects all aspects of our lives; how we perceive ourselves and others, our ability to remain buoyant and resilient under stress, our ability to stay in relationship with others. 

What does it look like?

When clients have a low or empty joy bucket, they tend to show up emotionally depleted and reactive.  They have difficulty seeing the good in their experience. They may be physically energetic, still working long hours and driven to do so. They may smile and laugh. And inside, they are emotionally toast, exhausted and burnout.

How does it form?

A low joy bucket can result from a variety of causes; depression, physical or emotional exhaustion, compassion fatigue, burnout, trauma and/or inadequate self-care and nurturing.

How to spot it?

A low or empty joy bucket can be detected through the following indicators?

  • Reactivity – A minimal amount of stress can result in a significant trigger reaction in the client, a disproportionate response to any given stimulus. Clients can tend to ping pong from one negative event to another, not slowing down to reflect.
  • Lack of Collaboration – Collaboration requires a significant amount of emotional energy. Our joy bucket is like an emotional bank account. When our joy bucket is low, we don’t have the emotional energy to bear the thousand tiny paper cuts of interdependent relationships. A low joy bucket makes collaboration exhausting.
  • Risk Orientation – Clients with a low joy bucket will tend to focus on risk over possibility. In any given challenge, they’ll tend to focus on how to minimize the risk or what could go wrong, versus the opportunity the challenge presents.

How to coach it?

Again, the key to coach any blindspot is bringing our client’s awareness to it. When our clients are reactive, they often don’t realize they are being reactive or uncollaborative or pessimistic. They don’t have the objectivity to see it. Their patterns are blinding them to what is.

The ideal stance of the coach is a compassionate one. Clients with a low joy bucket are suffering. Sometimes expressing empathy can help the client feel their experience enough to connect with how low their joy bucket has become.

Once the client’s awareness of their low joy is raised, the coach can work with the client to fill their joy bucket. How the client fills their joy bucket is unique to the client.  What fills the joy bucket of one client will deplete the joy bucket of another.  So the work of the coach is to explore with the client what gives them joy. 

It’s not uncommon for clients to have forgotten what gives them joy. And the coach can ask the client to recall what they did as a child that gave them joy, what they’d do if they had all of the time and money in the world, or what they were doing the last time they remember being in the contented and in the flow of life.   Remembering and engaging in what gives us joy is a vital part of our emotional lives.

Summary

One of the most essential, often unvoiced expectations of our clients is that we’ll help them see what they can’t, their blindspots. And when we are able to detect our client’s blindspots and bring their awareness to them, we provide them more choice over their lives.  

We are assisting them in moving from a conditioned, default experience that was imprinted in the past, to a place of choice that gives them greater agency over their lives.  

When we help bring awareness and choice to our client’s blindspots, we allow them to live a life more of their own design.

 


P.S. Discover How to Uncover Your and Your Client’s Hidden Patterns, Deepen Your Relationships, and Help Your Clients Achieve Their Goals Faster

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