Anatomy of a Coaching Conversation

horse and rider

The thing is, I broke some rules. My client told me our conversation that day was “truly transformational,” and I am deeply touched by and proud of this. I am very pleased my client experienced what they described as a real shift in thinking, but I wonder: do the ends justify the means? Were my “wrong” coaching moves actually right in this situation, or was I just lucky that my decisions coupled with my client’s self-awareness added up to their transformation? I’m going to analyze this conversation, my coaching moves, and the impact my client felt to help me uncover what factors led to this person’s profound shift.

It began with some difficult feedback my client was given. Terry, we’ll call them, and we’ll use the non-gendered pronouns, wanted my help processing this feedback and identifying first if it was true and accurate, and secondly what they should do about it. I immediately switched gears, from the casual friendly manner in which we started our session to deep listening. I readied myself to focus on the emotions, listen for what is communicated both verbally and non-verbally, and to pause before a paraphrase or question. I took a deep breath.

Terry described difficult feedback I know intimately well, feedback I too had been given over the years. Immediately, two memories flashed in my brain: the two most hurtful times when this feedback was given to me. Both times, I felt a deep sense of betrayal. This word, betrayal, seemed to fly through my mind like the banner behind a small plane, flapping inside my head as Terry spoke. And then Terry said, “But I guess I was completely naïve to think that it was a safe space, that I could just be myself and not filter my words.” I took a deep breath and nodded. “You feel betrayed,” I said.

This label had a profound effect on Terry, who nodded vigorously and blurted out, “Yes!” And in the back of my mind, I wondered, How much of my experience had informed my paraphrase, verses how much of Terry’s? I put this notion aside as Terry continued, expressing their feelings of hurt not only at what was said, but also how it had come to be shared. Terry said that the giver of this feedback had said that “other people” were talking about Terry, that “other people” felt this way.

This is a situation I think many of us know well. Perhaps we’ve been in conversations in which colleagues spoke candidly about others, about their shortcomings and areas of growth. Sometimes they are conversations focused on how to deal with a person who is challenging for others. I had been in a conversation just like that fairly recently, and though I had felt uneasy at the time, I hadn’t spoken up about my feelings that the discussion was unkind. Now I was feeling rather guilty inside. Did this sense of guilt, I wonder, skew my ability to be present with my client?

Terry, meanwhile, was still talking about how this feedback had landed with them. They were able to admit this feedback was not surprising, and was in fact something they were already trying to improve. In fact, it was this last point that informed my next move. “What’s hurtful,” I said, “is that you know this about yourself and you’ve been especially careful with most of your co-workers to monitor yourself and adjust your language. You feel as though you’ve grown.” Terry nodded as I paused. “Yet with this particular group of people, you believed you could speak more freely and authentically, and now it feels like you can’t.” Terry nodded and pursed their lips, as if biting back emotion. It seemed like Terry felt very alone and isolated.

It was at this point that I decided to share my story. There were just so many similarities between our experiences that I thought I could offer a bit of wisdom for Terry. But why? Coaching conversations are supposed to be about the client, not the coach. Was I sharing my story to let Terry know that they were not alone, that I was a trusted partner, that it was okay to be vulnerable with me because I was being vulnerable? Or was I sharing my story because I too wanted a partner with whom to process my feelings?

book glasses

I didn’t ask to share my story, I just dove right in. That was clearly breaking the rules. I let my Me Monster out of the cage without permission. “Terry, I have to tell you: I’ve received the same feedback about myself in the past.” “You have?” Terry asked, surprised. I nodded. “Yeah. I was venting to my boss, and he judged me harshly for it. I had thought of him as a trusted confidante, someone with whom I could blow off steam. But he didn’t like what I said; he said my language was unacceptable. At the time, I felt too betrayed and hurt to even have properly understood his message.” Terry nodded, understanding my feelings. “So how might you move forward from this point?” I asked, reawakening my inner coach.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” Terry responded, and continued talking. As they spoke, a new word came to mind, and I was especially wary of this word: Victimization. It seemed like an accurate label for Terry’s mindset, and yet it’s a strong and painful word. I didn’t want to use this label if it was going to cause more pain for Terry. I waited, and let Terry continue to talk. And as they spoke, the word seemed more and more to be a true reflection of Terry’s experience, and I believed I could speak to this in such a way that it would serve as a stepping stone for Terry’s journey, not a hurtful stone thrown. I proceeded cautiously, still unsure if I was doing the right thing. I repeated a couple of phrases Terry had just said, and concluded, “These are expressions of victimization.”

“Wowwwww,” Terry said. They took a long pause. “Yeah. I hear that. I’m talking like this is something that’s happening to me, right? Yeah. Like it’s happening to me and I have no control over it. Wow.” Terry paused. I paused. They started tapping their finger on the desk. “You’re feeling attacked,” I said. “Yeah,” Terry said. “Because of the judgment. Because they’re supposed to be supporting me, right? Allowing me to make mistakes and be imperfect in order to grow, but instead there’s judgment.”

“Let’s talk about that, about that sense of judgment and its consequences,” I offered. As Terry ruminated on their feeling of being judged, a powerful idea from a book I was reading came to mind, and I felt it was particularly applicable to Terry’s emotional journey. The book is called Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. Kegan and Lahey’s premise is that what blocks people from achieving the changes or goals they desire are hidden competing commitments—deep structure values or beliefs that are secretly blocking their visible desires. Basically, I explained to Terry, we have our stated Goals, and along with these goals are the things we are Doing or Not Doing that work against our stated Goals. But, beneath the surface of these stated Goals and Actions/Non-actions are the hidden Competing Commitments—those values or beliefs we hold that secretly block us from change. I gave a weight loss example to explain it. Say I want to lose weight, for example, because I feel uncomfortable and dumpy, and this is eating away at my self-confidence. But, because I believe that if I’m thinner, then I’ll be more attractive, this causes a problem. It interferes with another belief, a secret deep down inside hidden belief in me that being an attractive woman necessarily means I won’t be taken seriously at work. So, my weight loss goals fail because I haven’t addressed my hidden competing commitment of needing to be respected as a professional.
After explaining this to Terry, I asked, “What might be some values or beliefs you hold that are blocking you from making more visible progress around this feedback?” We spent more time on this idea of judgment and its repercussions, of where their fear of judgment came from, and how it really felt inside to feel judged. Terry continued to process their pain, and began to identify trends and patterns in their history, language, and behavior that seem to impact how others perceive them. We were also able to identify people who had given Terry feedback that was quite the opposite of what they’d just heard—feedback from different groups of Terry’s colleagues who had positive feedback for Terry on their performance and disposition—a helpful reminder that some data is not all data, that it is important to keep things in perspective.

What we didn’t do is find a solution. We didn’t create action steps or a plan to fix things. We didn’t decide what Terry’s got to change, or how to apply this new learning about themselves. Yet by the end, by their own admission, Terry’s heart felt less strained, Terry’s emotions felt more calm, and Terry felt empowered again. “This has been truly transformational,” Terry told me. “Thank you so much.” And I was filled with gratitude that I had been of use.

In my car after that coaching session, I noted the many contending feelings I was experiencing. I was deeply honored to have been able to help Terry, and I marked that it was only one of a handful of times a client had told me our conversation was “transformational.” So I was proud of this, and also a little ashamed that more of my coaching sessions didn’t feel this way. Because this is what I aspire to—for my clients to feel a shift in themselves and their thoughts or feelings, that they come to deeper awareness of themselves, greater perspective on their experiences, or understand something they hadn’t before. What was the magic sauce that created this transformation, I wondered? What had I done or not done, or was it even about me? What if this transformation was all on Terry, and it was simply kismet that put me in front of them for that conversation?

This dance we’re in as coaches is nuanced and intricate. Layered onto this dance, like the different outfits we wear, are our multi-faceted identities. How much are we ourselves as coaches, and how much are we conduits for another? On the one hand, we are facilitators of another’s thinking, carrying our partner along a thought journey the way a horse carries its rider to arrive at a destination intended only for them. We are thus guided by our partner, by their thoughts and feelings, so our moves are responsive to their needs. On the other hand, we are human ourselves, with our own identities, thoughts, and feelings that impact what we see, hear, and understand. As a coach, I am trained to keep as much of myself out of coaching conversations as possible, showing up for my client as their mirror in which to see themselves more clearly, or as a window through which to frame other possibilities or perspectives. In connecting Terry’s experience with my own, did I change the nature of this dance, or did I help enlighten their experience of their own thoughts and feelings? By offering paraphrases or questions informed by my own experiences, was I overstepping my bounds and inserting my identity into their processing, or was I acting more like a social mirror, reflecting for them a universal experience in order to help them feel less isolated and alone?

It’s been a while since I had this session with Terry, and I’ve come to some peace around it, accepting that I did the best I could at the time to be who Terry needed. I may not have done what another coach would have. I may have made many mistakes. These concerns keep circling in my brain, and continue to inform my practice. Yet there are a couple of places where I can say that the coaching moves of pausing and paraphrasing helped shift Terry’s thinking and feeling. In particular, the labels I used during paraphrases were quite powerful. Also, Terry later told me how helpful the question about and subsequent investigation into their hidden competing commitments was to “unblock” them.

Is that really it, then? The 3Ps—the standard coaching moves of pausing, paraphrasing, and posing questions—really work?

I recently heard an interview with Gladys McGeary, pioneer of allopathic and holistic medicine, who’s written a book titled, The Well-Lived Life: A 102-Year Old Doctor’s Six Secrets to Health and Happiness at Any Age. She spoke of the gradual shift in her thinking about the role of doctors in healing and childbirth. She used to say, like almost every other doctor, that she had “delivered” so many babies, but now she’s mindful about saying she “helps mothers birth their babies.” It’s a profound difference in meaning, and a recognition of where the power actually lies—not in the doctor, but in the mother: she who has created, incubated, and now births her baby into the world. She births the baby; the doctor and nurses are there to support. 
This reminder about the power of language to reframe our thoughts and feelings resonated with me very much. A coach doesn’t make moves to cause a transformative shift in another person; a coach facilitates that person’s own work, that person’s own journey, and acts more like a horse carrying a person along their own trail of deepening awareness. As I think about the coaching role more as a thought partner for another, I think about some moves that might help remind me when I’m in session to be a facilitating partner for my client. My mentor told me about some moves that she makes towards this end, so following in my mentor’s footsteps, I am starting to set intentions at the beginning of a session with a client. I’m also starting to collaboratively develop norms with my clients, norms that we revisit each time at the start, to be more mindful during sessions.  

What might help you in your coaching practice be mindful and conscious of your positionality and role as a facilitator for another’s internal processing?