I began coaching in 2005 and within a year I had I left my last leadership position to commit myself to a full-time coaching practice. I feel privileged to do this work—for me it’s a calling, not a job--and one of its rewards is the fact that there will always be more to learn. Twelve years (and thousands of hours) since I first started down this path, I’ve identified three paradoxes that are central to the experience of coaching and which I’m constantly trying to understand at a deeper level:
1. Supportive Challenge
A client once told me, "It feels like you're always in my corner, but you never hesitate to challenge me." It was some of the most gratifying feedback I ever got because it precisely describes my intended approach to the process.
My clients need to feel supported by me in a number of ways. They need to feel a sense of trust in my good intentions, my judgment, and my confidentiality. They need to feel sufficiently safe to be vulnerable--a process that begins the very first time we talk, because it can be a vulnerable experience for a leader who’s enjoyed great success in life to even express an interest in coaching. And they need to feel that I truly care about them as an individual.
My clients also need to know that my support will not prevent me from challenging them. They need to know that I’ll offer an alternative perspective and not simply ratify their feelings and agree with their point of view. They need to know that I’ll be candid when I’m concerned or disagree with them or simply feel that something isn’t right. They need to know that I’ll speak up when I sense that they’re not being candid in return--that I’ll call them on their bullshit, just as my coach does for me. (She’s had a lot of practice.)
2. Intimate Distance
Meaningful coaching is always an emotionally intimate experience, no matter what’s being discussed. In part this is a function of the context: two people talking directly to each other with no distractions. We're not multi-tasking or sub-dividing our attention in any way. The person I'm coaching is completely focused on the issue at hand, and I'm completely focused on them. Such concentrated attention--a rare experience for most of us--inevitably creates a close personal connection.
Intimacy in a coaching relationship also results from a willingness to “make the private public”—to share with another person the thoughts and feelings that we usually keep to ourselves. Most of my clients are CEOs or in other senior leadership roles, and a dilemma they face is that they can’t always speak openly with their employees or investors, and yet their family and friends aren’t necessarily helpful discussion partners. A strong coaching relationship is one that creates an environment in which emotional intimacy is possible because both the client and I feel comfortable and willing to “make the private public” and express ourselves more fully.
And yet an essential factor that makes such intimacy possible is a clear set of boundaries defining the relationship, which create an inevitable and necessary sense of distance. Coaching conversations aren’t spontaneous events—my clients and I meet and talk for a predetermined length of time in a specific location. The relationships I have with my clients are warm and friendly ones, and yet it would be inaccurate to say that we’re friends—they need me to be their coach, not their friend, and we do the relationship a disservice if we confuse the two. And while I’m deeply invested in my clients and not in the least indifferent, I’m not attached to any particular outcome for them, a stance that requires a degree of distance that’s not possible in most personal and professional relationships.
3. Confident Humility
This is how I view myself and my role in a coaching relationship. I have a strong sense of confidence in my ability as a coach, which is rooted not only in my professional experience, but also in my ongoing commitment to challenge myself and to continue to my development as a person. I’ve reached the point in this process where I feel some “comfort with discomfort”—it’s not that I have confidence in every situation, but I can sense its absence at the limits of my comfort zone, and I’m generally able to find a way to make progress even under those circumstances. I’ve learned that courage isn't confidence.
At the same time, I feel a sense of humility as a coach. My clients are in the driver’s seat, and I’m merely helping them navigate. I don’t withhold my opinion when I believe it’s relevant, but ultimate I add more value by asking questions and reflecting my clients’ own views back to them, not by virtue of my own expertise. And while I would never describe myself as a humble person, I’m humbled on a regular basis by an awareness of my limitations (which fuels the drive to challenge myself) and by embracing mortality, which I view as one of the primary tasks of adulthood.
There’s a delicate balance to maintain in each of these dimensions. It’s all too easy to err on one side or another: to over-emphasize support for a client and fail to challenge them, to embrace the emotional intimacy of a coaching relationship and neglect the necessary boundaries, to feel the flush of confidence and forget the humility that’s essential to the role (and, in each case, vice versa). And the difficulty of this work is one reason why I have my own coach (and why I believe every coach should).
This is a companion piece to In Defense of Normal (A Coaching Manifesto).
Photo by Brett Jordan. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.