When and how can a coach offer insights or thinking without it turning into advice giving? Or without using their expertise?
Here we will explore the concept of the coach demonstrating vulnerability—which often comes from being able to be comfortable with the idea of ‘not knowing’, especially, when offering insights and comments, not assuming them to be ‘the truth’.
First, let’s look at some of the sub-competencies that I feel speak to this concept:
ICF Core Competency 2: Embodies a Coaching Mindset
- 2.1 Acknowledges that clients are responsible for their own choices
- 2.5 Uses awareness of self and one’s intuition to benefit clients
ICF Core Competency 3: Establishes and Maintains Agreements
- 3.7 Partners with the client to define what the client believes they need to address or resolve to achieve what they want to accomplish in the session.
- 3.10 Continues coaching in the direction of the clients desired outcome unless the client indicates otherwise.
ICF Core Competency 4: Cultivates Trust & Safety
- 4.6 Demonstrates openness and transparency as a way to display vulnerability and build trust with the client.
ICF Core Competency 5: Maintains Presence
- 5.5 Is comfortable working in a space of not knowing
ICF Core Competency 7: Evokes awareness
- 7.11 Shares observations, insights, and feelings, without attachment, that have the potential to create new learning for the client.
There are likely other sub competencies, however I will draw upon those above to explore this concept of ‘To know or not to know?’.
Why is this important?
Throughout my coaching career, I have experienced, and know that many other coaches will have to, being chosen because of my past expertise. My CV will speak to a client in that they may believe that, if we have similar backgrounds, it will be more helpful for them. This in itself can be challenging. We know that coaching is about our expertise in coaching, not our previous background, skills, and experience. What can happen is that, because we want to work with those clients, we may not completely and clearly disabuse them of the fact that we are not offering our previous expertise. That speaks to us not fully evidencing CC 4.6 – within Trust and Safety and indeed would not be considered good ethical practice (CC 1.1). What happens then, when the time comes that the client asks our advice or to share an opinion? Once the Pandora’s Box of advice giving or sharing our past expertise, is open, it’s very difficult to close.
What I notice as a Mentor Coach, is that fairly early day coaches can sometimes that their previous experience may get in their way of them being in a place of total openness and curiosity and therefore be in that space of ‘not knowing’ (5.5). How that might show up is by the coach assuming, (something we have explored in a previous blog), when establishing what the client wants to work on, what the outcome is (3,7) and even how the client wants to get there (3.10). They may also assume what needs to be addressed (3.7). This can most easily be seen when coaches come from a background of, for example, offering career development programmes or even leadership programmes, where their role has been one of advice and knowledge transfer. By not getting clear on what the client sees as the areas to be addressed and what the client wants as outcomes, can often leave the coach feeling the need to take the lead and direct the coaching conversation rather than the client. The coach effectively is the one working hard!
What about the competency of sharing insights, observations and feelings (CC 7.11)? How is that different and how does ‘not knowing’ link to the concept of using one’s ‘intuition’, or using ‘oneself as a tool’ and indeed offering a ‘comment or observation’ in service of the client possibly getting some new insight, clarity or learning?
First let’s look at a definition of intuition. One is ‘A thing that one knows or considers likely from an instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning’.
Conscious reasoning may imply expertise or knowledge, whereas intuition is just that, an instinct or ‘gut feel. What does it mean therefore, to use one’s intuition or using oneself as a tool as a coach? And how do we do it? What we need to be is truly present with our client and really listen beyond just their words. If we are that present, it may allow us to tune in to our own body and access our other senses. It might be a feeling that we notice in ourselves, or it might be a simple thought that crosses our mind in response to what the client is saying and what they want. We might offer that feeling or thought, simply and succinctly, without any explanation, it’s just an offering. Not only are we tuned into our client, but we are also tuned into ourselves when truly present. What we must remember is that our intuition, comments, thoughts or feeling which, we may offer, are not ‘the truth’, they are simply an offering to our client and ‘without attachment’ (7.11). In doing this, our intention and hope is that it may unlock or evoke new thinking in the client. It is not to give them new thinking or ideas.
Whose thinking is important?
If we stay in the place of thinking we ‘know’ then it’s unlikely we are giving full attention to our client, being fully present with them in their ‘story’ and therefore will not access our intuition in service of the client. It also may mean we inadvertently start driving the direction of the coaching conversation. The client may get somewhere and get something, and yet whose thinking and ideas got them to an end result in the conversation? Will there be full commitment to actions and change?
Which also brings me to a very crucial sub competency – that of the client being responsible for their own choices (2.1) and an important word which is sprinkled throughout the competencies, Partnership. The concept of partnership links very closely to the power and importance of choice. If we assume we ‘know’ what our client ‘should’ do, we have the potential to take away their choice to come to their own conclusions and decisions, and this puts us in the position of Expert, not Partner. If we can demonstrate our own vulnerability by not knowing, and we have created that safe space, it may allow our client to become more vulnerable in their not knowing and then together we can partner in support of them coming to the place where they do know what to do and will act on it. It’s their thinking, their choice, and their commitment to take action.
In summary, and to return to the question ‘To know or not to know’? My view is that it is both. We get to ‘know’ who our client is by being fully present and listening very deeply. This allows us to ask questions that potentially evoke their own insights and learning, and, at the same time, we listen to our own insights and share those when they might be useful. What we don’t know are the answers that may resolve or address what the client wants to find answers to. That’s for them to ‘know’ and for us to partner with them to find out…
Hilary Oliver is a Master Certified Coach (MCC) with the International Coaching Federation (ICF). She is also a trained Coaching Supervisor and Mentor Coach. Hilary trains coaches and works with managers and leaders to develop their coaching capability. She works as an International Corporate Executive and Board Level Coach, a leadership development designer and facilitator working with a wide range of organisations. Hilary also specialises in working with organisations to support them develop coaching culture. She has been the President of the UK ICF Chapter and is a Past Chair of the ICF Global Board.
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