If good coaching feels like a trip in a tandem kayak, or a belay on a tough climb or even a trapeze catch--all meaningful experiences shared with a trusted partner--then bad coaching feels like hammering screws--a solo effort on the part of the coach that can make a lot of noise but accomplishes very little.
As a coach it's been my privilege to take plenty of kayak rides with my clients and students, but over the years I've done my share of hammering screws as well, and I've realized that bad coaching typically results from underlying needs of my own, particularly a need for the client to experience progress or to achieve some sense of closure. This may sound paradoxical. Don't coaches want our clients to experience progress? Isn't closure a desirable outcome of the coaching process? Generally, yes...but there are some important caveats.
My interest in my clients' progress is usually aligned with my desire to an effective coach. And my interest in achieving closure--whether that means resolving a particular issue or ultimately concluding the coaching relationship--usually supports both my clients' progress and, more importantly, their independence and self-sufficiency. To be clear, while these interests primarily serve my clients' needs, they also allow me to feel a sense of fulfillment and efficacy, and I believe that having this personal stake in the coaching process actually makes me a better coach because I'm not a disinterested bystander--I care deeply about my clients, and I'm invested in their success.
But it's important for me to monitor these interests and to gauge their intensity; if I'm feeling a sense of urgency around them, it may be that my need to be seen as effective or another personal motive has kicked into overdrive, and it's masquerading as support for my client. The telltale evidence that this dynamic is at play is my client sensing that I'm pushing a solution on them, relying on a single framework or strategy in my approach, or simply rushing toward closure before they're ready to move on.
It's worth noting that bad coaching can happen within the context of a good coaching relationship--or even in the middle of an otherwise good coaching conversation. I've been privileged to work with people who trust me enough to tell me when we've gotten off-track, when our coaching relationship no longer feels like a true partnership. This feedback has been essential in allowing me to understand these dynamics and to see how my legitimate needs as a person usually support my effectiveness as a coach--and occasionally get in the way of my client's needs and the coaching process. I haven't mastered any of this (and don't expect to anytime soon), but I'm grateful for the many opportunities I've had to keep working on it.
Photo by Justin Baeder. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.