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When the Coach Undermines Coaching

December 1, 2017

I’d been working with Tom for a couple of years, when we had “the talk.” I was a relatively new coach, still figuring things out, and frankly, I hadn’t done a good job of explaining to Tom what coaching is. (This is me blaming myself, because that’s what I do. But, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.) 

Tom says, “Alison, I feel like I’m not getting much value from our work together.” Ugh! It felt like a kick in the stomach. My first experience was to feel ashamed, responsible and anxious and to think “What could I do to add value? What does this mean about me as a coach?” Seems like a natural reaction, right? Until you know the backstory.

For the prior few months, Tom had not followed through on what he’d designed to do from our coaching sessions, cancelled our sessions last minute, and regularly showed up unprepared, without anything specific he wanted to work on. Tom was getting out of the coaching just what he was putting into it. But that wasn’t anywhere on my radar when I was experiencing stress that felt like failure. 

Taking Too Much Responsibility

My taking responsibility for what was going wrong in my coaching with Tom, robbed Tom of the opportunity to examine his relationship to our coaching. My default setting of accepting responsibility for what’s not working was negatively impacting my effectiveness as a coach and my ability to help my client.

There were so many other responses that would have served Tom (and me) better. “Thank you for telling me. Can you say more? “ and/or “What is the value you are wanting to be getting from our coaching?” and/or “What are you doing to create value for yourself in our work together?” I don’t remember now exactly what I said (the kind of amnesia that sometimes accompanies stress and the passage of time), but it wasn’t any of those.

My focus was too much on myself and my responsibility for the success of the coaching. I was not focusing enough on Tom and holding him equally responsibility, equally accountable for the success of our work together. And that’s my default setting, in most any relationship under stress in the moment – to take more responsibility than is mine to take when things are going wrong.


Planning to Self Soothe

Tricia showed up to our coaching session wanting to work through a challenging situation with her boss. She was furious with her boss, feeling devalued, discriminated against, obstructed and stressed. When I asked what she hoped to get from our session, she explained that she wanted a plan for approaching her boss and having a constructive conversation that would help them resolve their conflict.

So, with clearly defined desired outcomes for the coaching, we launched into our session. We talked through what Tricia really wanted for herself (from the conversation, her job, her life) and generated a plan that she hoped would create it for her  The only problem was that at the end of the session, when Tricia had her plan, she was still furious. It was as if nothing we’d talked about mattered.

Even if you’ve only barely started on your coaching journey, you can recognize the rocky coaching mistakes I’d made. And there were many. I’d stepped over her feelings. I didn’t focus enough on her relationship to the situation, her feelings, her boss. I’d focused on the results, the plan.  I know these are pedestrian coaching mistakes, so why did I make them?

I love a good plan. When I’m under stress or in crisis, what helps me move through it is having a plan.

When I lost a pregnancy at 23 weeks, I grieved and could have become overwhelmed by it.  What lifted me out of my grief and got me moving forward was having a plan. A plan helped me create a future that was more like what I wanted, what I hoped for.

So, my default response to help Tricia was to help her create a plan that would lift her out of her distress and help move her forward.  After all, it was what she said she wanted, and I was only too happy to comply.


The Coach’s Default Setting

All of us coaches (actually all of us humans) have a default setting. Our default setting reflects how we take in and process information, the meaning we make of the information, and what we tend to do with that information when we are under stress. (And BTW, when we are coaching, we are always under some degree, no matter how small, of stress, whether it’s our own stress or our client’s stress that we take on.)  

We are largely not conscious of our default setting because it is to us like water is to a fish. Our default setting is the ubiquitous filter through which we thread all our experiences.

Two specific aspects of my default setting are to take too much responsibility and to use planning to self-soothe. I know this about myself now and wish I’d known it when I was working with Tom and Tricia.


The Coach Affects The Coaching

Of course, the coach affects the coaching. We all know this, in general. But, do we know SPECIFICALLY how our own nonconscious biases are impacting (and potentially negatively affecting) our coaching and our clients?

I don’t get soapboxy about many things. I feel I don’t have the right. So instead, I’ll position this the way my buddy, Simon Sinek does, by stating what I believe.

I believe that every coach has the responsibility to know and understand the impact of their default settings on their coaching.

We coaches have a responsibility to know how our nonconscious biases, when they remain outside of our conscious awareness, affect our coaching and our clients (oh, and of course, us).

When we are aware of our default settings, our filters, our biases, we can stay out of the way of the coaching, ensuring the agenda is always the client’s agenda, unfiltered through our own unconscious agenda. And until we know SPECIFICALLY what our default settings are, we can’t do that.


Seeing the Filter Through Which We See Ourselves, Others and the World

How do we learn our default settings? How do we see our filters? How do we know what our unconscious biases are? I know there is not a single answer to this question, as much as I wish there were. Here are some ideas of places to look:

1) Examining Relationship Patterns

We can get a pretty good hint of our biases / filters / default settings by looking at our patterns, particularly our patterns in relationships. The relationships we attract, are attracted to, how our relationships play out.

For example, early on in my coaching, I noticed that I wasn’t enjoying working with older women. I didn’t feel the same connection as I did with men, or even younger women.

I quickly realized a pattern of thinking and feeling that was way too reminiscent of my early relationship with my mother. (Sorry if that’s too psychological, too uncomfortable, too woo woo. It’s my truth, and an example). Once I was aware of, and conscious of, the pattern, I could mitigate the biases that came up, and work with my older female clients the way I would anyone else.


2) Stream of Conscious Conflict Journaling

Conflicts trigger our default settings. By journaling about our internal experience in conflict, we can detect patterns that are unique to us.

Do we focus outside of ourselves and on what everyone else wants or needs, do we blame ourselves for what’s gone wrong, do we lose trust in the other, do we move to act too quickly, do we hear the same kinds of things about us from different people?

Journaling helps us tease these things out of ourselves. I’ve learned through journaling that I’m not as sensitive to the feelings of others as I’d like to be. (I tend to be direct, which some people find insensitive. That reminder allows me to be extra careful in the relationships that are most important to me.


3) Visualizing Our Internal Experience Under Stress Using the EQ Profile

Yes, this is a shameless plug for The EQ Profile. I’m shameless about it because it’s been transformative to me personally, to me as a coach and to my coaching.

What is the EQ Profile? The EQ Profile is an instrument that measures our internal experience under stress in relationship. It reveals our default settings, our unconscious biases, our patterns of thinking, feeling, wanting, and of being, when challenged.

Knowing my inner landscape as revealed to me by the EQ Profile helps me be aware of my biases and be on the lookout for them to show up in my coaching. When I coach my next Tom or Tricia, I’ll be able to detect my own biases. I’ll recognize the tendency for me to take more responsibility than is mine, or to focus more on planning or acting than on feeling.

Maybe you are more other-oriented,and my experience with Tom wouldn’t happen with you. Maybe you focus more on feelings, and my experience with Tricia wouldn’t happen with you. Consider that you have all different biases affecting your coaching, and that you likely have yet to see your own biases.


It Starts with Us Coaches

As coaches, our work is never really done. There is no end to what we’ll do to help our clients. Our ability to do more with, and for, our clients is directly related to our ability and willingness to do more with, and for, ourselves.

If we want to help our clients see how they are getting in their own way, we have to be willing and able to see how we are getting in ours.

We can’t take our clients anywhere we haven’t gone.

OK, maybe that is a little soapboxy. ☺

Alison Whitmire
President | Learning In Action

P.S. Our 2018 EQ Profile Certification course calendar is now set! Check out the entire course catalog or click on the link below.

Posted in: Coaching|Emotional Intelligence|EQ Assessment

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