Recent reflections on bad coaching have prompted some further thoughts on good coaching, and I find myself returning to the metaphor of coaching as a journey at sea, a concept I first discussed last year after the loss of Roanak Desai, one of my students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Although I'm a confirmed landlubber and don't enjoy the literal experience of being out on a small craft, it's a compelling metaphor for several reasons:
It's Not My Boat
Coaching inevitably involves helping a client reach a destination, and as a coach it can be easy to fall prey to the illusion that it's my boat, I've invited the client on board, and after we've reached our destination they'll step ashore. But that gets things exactly backwards: it's the client's boat, they've invited me on board, and after our work is done I'll go ashore while they continue on to the next leg of the voyage.
This framing helps me view both the coaching relationship and my role in it from the most useful perspective. I'm no mere passenger along for the ride, but I'm not the captain or even the navigator. I don't choose the destination or chart the course--that's up to the client. I do ask a lot of questions on those topics and occasionally offer advice and feedback, but responsibility for decision-making rests firmly in the client's hands.
Tradewinds and Currents
The tradewinds and currents that surround us make it easier to follow certain courses, and knowing where they lead allows us to make informed decisions about whether to follow or resist them. This is particularly important at sea, where there are no predetermined routes and we must ultimately select a course to make progress--unless we decide to drift along, which is also a valid option.
This dynamic exists both within a single coaching conversation and over the arc of the coaching relationship. The client and I both bring to the process a set of experiences and preferences that will influence our choices. In addition, our work is taking place within the context of our respective professional and personal lives, which will further influence our shared experience. Everything in a coaching relationship is affected by these factors, from the issues a client seeks to address to our responses in any given moment. The more we know about these factors, the better we'll be able to understand their effect on the coaching process and harness them to further our progress rather than be driven off course.
All journeys begin in the shallow confines of a safe harbor, and some are destined to skirt the coast, staying within sight of the shore and never going too far out to sea. This is fine if we don't have far to go, or if we're content to take a long time to get there. But in some cases we need to venture out over deeper waters, which ultimately requires taking some risks.
Like all relationships, coaching relationships are built on a foundation of safety and trust. A client can feel vulnerable simply sitting down with me, particularly if they haven't worked with a coach before, and this can be true even with my students at Stanford, where coaching is commonplace. As a coach I have to attune myself to the client's perspective and earn their trust, and this is a highly variable process. A certain level of trust is established within minutes, but it may take days, weeks or even months to progress to deeper levels.
While safety and trust are being established, coaching conversations will proceed in ways that involve less risk for both the client and myself, and this is both natural and desirable--we're just starting our journey together. Only after we feel a sufficient sense of safety and trust can we venture into discussions that are more emotionally intimate or touch on more challenging topics. As a coach it's important to avoid steering for these deeper waters to prove my effectiveness--that's a form of bad coaching--but it's equally important to help the client feel safe enough to travel them with me and to let them know that we can go there when and if they choose.
Photo by Jule Berlin. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.