The Cliffhanger Trap

Posted by on Jul 12, 2012 in Blog | 0 comments

This article follows “The Self-Reflective Nature of Coaching.” 

We have often reminded readers that coaching is about the client’s journey. But it’s the coach’s journey, too. Coaching is not done in the abstract. You are there, flesh and bones, hands, heart, head, and hope. Coaching is a commitment of your time and talents. It may be your only avocation. But even if it is not, you are investing considerably in the outcome. You want the coaching to succeed, and as much as you may be devoted to helping others, this commitment of your time is not a selfless act. Your self is heavily invested.

For you, it may only be a matter of pride in doing the job well or the satisfaction of seeing your client benefit from the experience you crafted, but that alone is a substantial investment. If you regularly coach people, you have even more at stake. Beyond just doing something well, there is professional pride and the desire to feel that you are growing in your profession, that in applying your skills you are also developing as a coaching practitioner. Furthermore, there is the fulfillment you experience not only from making a difference in the lives of those you coach but also from improving the performance of the organizations they serve. Whether or not you consciously think about these things, they are part of the mindset you bring to a coaching relationship.

Why does this matter? Because your mindset influences what happens during the coaching dialogue, as the following conversation illustrates. This conversation took place between an external coach and her own supervisor.

Coach: I became aware during my last meeting with Janis that I wanted the session to end on a high note.

Supervisor: High note? What do you mean by that?

Coach: You know, some key learning. Some insight. Something Janis would realize that she hadn’t realized before. Something new.

Supervisor: It was important to you that the session ended that way.

Coach: Yes.

Supervisor: Why?

Coach: Because I wanted her to think the coaching had been worthwhile. Then I realized that that’s how I want all my coaching sessions to end.

Supervisor: Like a cliffhanger.

Coach: Exactly. So they’ll look forward to the next session.

Supervisor: And this troubles you?

Coach: Yes. Because I think I am artificially structuring the sessions. I’m not consciously doing that, but I think I’m afraid that if my clients don’t learn something new about themselves in every session, if they don’t have a key takeaway, they’ll decide that the coaching has run its course. And last time with Janis I became anxious because . . . we had about ten minutes left . . . and I didn’t sense that a big insight was coming.

Supervisor: Hmm. What if the coaching had run its course?

Coaches can unconsciously steer the dialogue in a direction that meets their needs, not the client’s

Coach: Then it would end. You know, the engagement would be done, and we haven’t finished our work yet. Janis needs more help, and I’m worried that if we end the coaching prematurely I won’t be able to help her as much as I could.

Supervisor: Are you more concerned about Janis or about doing a good job?

Coach: Well, both. We haven’t achieved her goals yet. Not all of them. We have more work to do. And I would feel bad if we stopped at this point.

Supervisor: Has she said or done anything to suggest that she’s unhappy with her progress—or with you?

Coach: No. I’m probably just projecting my own anxiety onto the situation.

Supervisor: Could be. But let’s go back for a moment to this idea that you might be artificially structuring the sessions so there is a cliffhanger at the end. What effect does that have on the coaching?

Coach: (pause) I’m not letting our conversations run their course. I start pushing harder if I think she’s on the verge of understanding something but she’s not quite there and we’re running out of time.

Supervisor: What else?

Coach: I start driving the process harder. I think I switch from asking and listening and start telling more.

Supervisor: You become more directive?

Coach: Right. And the problem is that I might be putting thoughts in her head. I’m not sure whether she’s reaching her conclusions or mine.

Supervisor: And it sounds like what becomes more important is your agenda, not hers.

The “cliffhanger trap” shown here is not uncommon. It can occur when a coach’s well-intentioned desire to do a good job leads her to push her clients to achieve progress faster than each client’s normal pace. Sometimes, the insights gained come more from the coach’s perspective than the client’s—and that’s not necessarily wrong. Sometimes, clients are incapable of having those insights, which is one reason they want to work with a coach. The danger is driving your own agenda so hard that the results you achieve, while gratifying to you, do not resonate with clients because they’ve been imposed from the outside rather than developing naturally from the inside.

Whenever your ego needs as a coach begin to steer the dialogue in a particular direction, you run the risk of coaching for your own sake instead of the client’s. It is easy for us to lose sight of the fact that this is the client’s journey.

We become excited about an insight the client has had or a transformation we believe the client is beginning to experience—and we imagine where it will lead. We imagine the end point, are delighted the client will probably get there, and begin driving toward that consummation because we empathize with the client, we feel the rush of his journey toward greater understanding, and we also feel the growing satisfaction of our own ego―the satisfaction in having done a good job of coaching, of having helped this person in what we believe are meaningful ways.

We need to remember that we are never impartial participants in a coaching engagement. We have something important at stake, which is why the mirror we hold up for clients is always distorted.


Next:  The Stereotyping Trap

Whispering ear photo © Lukovic

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