The Self-reflective Nature of Coaching

Posted by on May 21, 2012 in Blog | 1 comment

Coaches hold up a mirror for clients

In their environment at work, leaders are unable to see themselves as others see them. Even in the most open environments, direct reports are careful to protect themselves and tell the boss what they think the boss wants to hear or what the boss will find palatable. Honest and unblemished communication is rare because―as we all know― messengers do get shot, and when we work for others our instinct for self-preservation prevents us from telling the emperor that he’s wearing no clothes. Consequently, one of the benefits of executive coaching, especially when coaches are external to the organization, is that coaches have the freedom and the responsibility to be candid and forthright about what they see. Not only are coaches allowed to “tell it like it is,” but also they usually have the client’s permission to share their impressions and are expected to do so.

We often say that one of our responsibilities as coaches is to hold up a mirror for clients, to enable them to see themselves as others see them. In the bosom of this trust-based, confidential relationship, coaches have permission to do what few other people in the clients’ lives are willing to do, and, for clients, getting an unvarnished view of themselves is one of the principal benefits of coaching. But this metaphor of holding up a mirror for clients assumes that our mirror provides an accurate reflection—and this is never true.

No matter how objective we try to be, no matter how factual or unbiased, the mirror we hold up is always distorted. What we reflect back to clients is more like the image in a funhouse mirror: some parts squashed, some parts skewed, other parts elongated. We can’t give clients an accurate representation of themselves because the mirror we hold up is indelibly etched with our own image. Coaching is inherently self-reflective.

It is impossible to distinguish the observer from the observation. When we coach, we are the lens that focuses our observations. In the coaching dialogue, we can’t hear our clients’ voices without also hearing our own. Inevitably, who we are, what we know, what we feel, what we believe, what we have experienced, what we value, and what lies hidden in our subconscious shapes our interactions with clients, affecting the choices we make, the ways we frame their issues and challenges, and how we interact and engage with them. Just as you can’t separate the dancer from the dance, you can’t separate the coaching from the coach. While this point may seem self-evident, it has profound implications for what happens in coaching.

At the outset of coaching the coach’s mindset and the client’s mindset are very different. As we get to know each other and negotiate expectations, we draw those mindsets closer, but they can never converge. No matter how well we get to know our clients, we can never bring our separate mindsets into alignment. In fact, we can’t even get close because what we think we understand about our clients is always our own interpretation of their experience.

Think of it as a map. When a client tells us what’s on his mind, he is distilling his experience through the medium of language, which is at best an imperfect carrier of messages. We interpret not only his words but also his mood, demeanor, tone, vocal inflections, pauses, eye movements, gestures, body language, clothing, attitude, choices, values, and so on. Then we filter his message through the lens of our own experience, making sense of what we’ve observed by finding analogies in our own lives and in all we have seen, heard, or read about in the lives of others. Our sense making is akin to making a map of our client’s experiences and perspectives. However, as is often said, the map is not the territory. It is a set of symbols. So our understanding of clients is always imperfect and is always shaped by what makes sense to us from our mindset.

If you are an experienced coach, you bring a tremendous amount to the table. Besides your knowledge of organizations and your experience as a coach, you also bring your professionalism and your desire to do a good job. But you may also bring some baggage in the form of needs that misdirect the coaching dialogue, assumptions that distort your understanding of the client, and an approach to coaching that is as illuminating as it is confining. If you are not careful, you can fall into any of three common coaching traps:  the cliffhanger trap, the stereotyping trap, and the expertise trap.  And any of these traps can derail the engagement.


Next:  The cliffhanger trap

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