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Who You Are is How You Coach

March 9, 2018




How did an idea – encountered during a dialogue – move coaching beyond competencies and skills?

It was during a conversation 17 years ago that Edna Murdoch, co-founder of the Coaching Supervision Academy, happened upon an idea that Who you are is how you coach!

It’s All About The Client, Right?!

For those who were taught that the coach is never part of the picture – “It’s all about the client.” – this can be quite surprising. Who I am influences how I coach? Really?

I can easily answer who I am: I’m a Master Certified Coach (MCC), a coach educator and I’ve been coaching since at least 1990. I have a name, an address, a social security number, a degree or two; and I’m an ENFP – that’s who I am. At one level, yes.

What Edna was, and is, talking about is more complex: the nuance of how I coach is subtle stuff. It is not only my credentials, my experience, my validated competencies or what it says on my website.

Coaching is not simply a set of techniques, though techniques are important. It is not a set of preplanned transactions, though there are transactions between coach and client.

Coaching is an exchange, an interaction, a dance between two human beings who have experiences, pressures, hopes, dreams, biases, preferences, styles, personalities, patterns… The list goes on and on.

These factors shape who is interacting with the client from moment to moment and session by session throughout a coaching engagement. Who I am at a given moment is how I coach.

The Character of the Coach Matters

On a more technical basis, we can turn to research on the key factors that determine successful outcomes between coach and client. Dr. Erik DeHaan, in Relational Coaching (John Wiley and Sons Ltd, West Sussex, England, 2008), quotes studies about helping professions that conclude the character of the helper is one of four key factors which determines positive outcomes from the engagement.

In other words, once again – who you are matters.

My core self shapes how I interact with and am seen by my clients. If I am reserved, quiet, contemplative by nature, that’s likely to be how I coach. If I am energetic, fast paced, crisp, driving – that’s how I show up. Fortunately, the world is full of clients looking for the right match.

Who We Are Changes

Regardless of that core self, who I am also changes from moment to moment. In different contexts, I am a bit different, and if I know that, I am more prepared to deal with it.

In a stark example, people with whom I work in both French and English say that I’m just a bit different when I speak English and when I speak French.

When I coach a senior executive in a large health care company, I’m a bit different from when I’m working with a scientist. I’m aware that I speak differently. My pace is different.

And, here’s a key point, how I think of myself is a bit different, too. I am quite fond of scientists and, on the other hand, I’ve had both positive and negative experiences with very senior executives in health care.

Knowing this about myself helps me be effective.

Seeing Ourselves in Our Coaching

Another way of looking at who we are comes from Transactional Analysis (TA) – the ego states of parent, adult, and child.

My own supervisor helped me see that at a specific point, my coaching client and I were moving from state to state. I saw that for the briefest moment I was a rebellious child while he was a rather bossy parent. We didn’t get stuck there, but in that moment, my interaction with him and my coaching questions were coming from somewhere other than my best self, my competent MCC self.

What can we do with this notion, “Who you are is how you coach?”

Since 2009, I’ve been studying and teaching  Coaching Supervision, in which a coach strives to be awake, aware, and conscious of all that is happening in a coaching session and relationship. Supervision often comes down to generating a good sense of our core self, our triggers to the extent we can know them and, most importantly, to know what is going on for us from moment to moment.

In supervision, we ask questions such as, what am I experiencing right now? Am I reacting blindly or habitually? Am I distracted or present? Am I a competent adult right now (in the TA sense)?

The story of Alice In Wonderland (Lewis Carroll 1865) illustrates this as well as anything I know. In one passage the caterpillar asks Alice, “Who are you?”

Alice responds, “I knew who I was when I woke up this morning, but I’ve changed so many times today, I’m not sure.”

As a coach, I believe I am obligated to know, as best I can, who I am as I accompany my clients on their learning journey. During a single day, I, like Alice, have been known to change many times.

Relationship to EQ

Understanding our Emotional Intelligence is part of understanding ourselves as coaches.

Emotional Intelligence calls for us to be self-aware and to self-regulate. It explores our access to a range of feelings, positive-negative balance, balance of thoughts-wants-feelings, self-other balance, empathy and relationship strategies. What I’m calling out here is the need for self-observation in contexts.

The more aware I am of how I show up in various settings, the more capacity I have to make choices in service of my clients. If I’m on autopilot or assume I am as constant as the north star, I delude myself.

One of my great learnings I received was from the EQ Profile, an instrument that measures one’s internal experience under stress.

I learned that I have excessively high standards for myself. If I don’t watch myself, I can go to my cranky place when I’m afraid of not measuring up. It’s not a nice experience for my clients! They get confused about the different Sam who suddenly walked in the room.

Back to France for an example. I was, at a certain moment, so freaked out about speaking French in a professional context that I got all flustered and grumpy with my colleague in front of the group. None of the participants cared about my French; they were all engaged in the cool demonstration! As a French friend once told me, “Sam, tu mets le bar trop haut!” Translated, “You set the bar too high!”

Meanwhile, that old caterpillar in Alice and Wonderland? He gets it. He is at home with his own continual internal changes.


How about you? Do you know your patterns? Do you know what triggers you when coaching particular sorts of people? Do you diminish your quality when you lose your footing?

-Sam Magill, Sr., MCC




Posted in: Business of Coaching|Coaching|Emotional Intelligence|Podinar Series

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