One of the great premises in professional coaching lies in trusting in the client’s potential of achieving new and greater results for themselves. Whether that potential is known or unknown to the client, the coach stands as a true partner in helping that potential come to life. To that end, professional coaches have several tools at their disposal. One of the most important ones is the ability to ask powerful and insightful questions under the assumption that there are no right or wrong, true or false answers where curiosity and intuition pave the way. It is in this exercise to learn more about my clients and help them reach their true potential that I have been fortunate as an executive coach to be part of very significant experiences full of learning and new understanding, not only for my clients but for myself.
One of them was with a young executive in the IT industry who had recently been promoted to a position of greater responsibility leading a team. As a result, he felt the need to be the ultimate solution provider and be the one who can always provide the right answers at the right time. Feeling the pressure of having to excel from the very beginning at guiding his team, he quickly started to show some perfectionist traits, trying to control every scenario and interaction, thus becoming inadequate at dealing with uncertainty. Suddenly he was feeling really uncomfortable and worried about not knowing how to properly respond to a situation or a query. There was no more room for not knowing, as it became a synonym for failure. The pressure was on. He felt compelled to always know how to handle difficult situations and respond to questions from his team. The bar was set really high, especially for someone that young (mid-30s). It became so demanding and stressful to him that the only way to keep up was to delay his responses and interventions, which of course started to have a negative impact, not only on the overall quality of the work, but also on his mood, emotional stability, and overall confidence.
Through an in-depth executive coaching process, the client was able to realise how self-imposed this demand truly was and how much added pressure he was undertaking. He also started to unravel the reasoning behind this longing of being always on top of things and unwillingness to show any weaknesses or make mistakes, which ultimately came down to his own insecurities in the new role, inability to ask for help when needed, and fear of other people’s opinions.
For him the very notion of responding to something with ‘I don’t know’ would unveil how ill-prepared he felt for the role. It would reveal him as a fraud. By gradually accepting this, he realised how his inability to ask for help was leading him to feel alone and isolated. We were able to discover that saying ‘I don’t know’ not only opens him up to ask for help but also has the potential to enable contributions from others, thus paving the way for more creativity and collaboration amongst his people. And this collaboration would ultimately result in an improved method of finding solutions and setting a learning path for himself.
One of his key takeaways was how his unwillingness to recognise his lack of sapiency in certain topics was hindering his learning ability. Therefore, we managed to re-signify the definition of ‘I don’t know’ from a limiting to an empowering one, as a synonym for growth and expansion of possibilities, not only for himself but for his team as well. It is with this new deep level of understanding evoked by his willingness to explore his habits, fears, and limiting beliefs that he was able to comprehend where his true potential really lies. Realising that he can re-signify a statement as simple, albeit profound, as ‘I don’t know’ was what ultimately allowed him to stretch the limits of his comfort zone and realise his own potential for growth and ability to change.
This experience helped me as a coach to reconnect with the notion that within the confines of a coaching conversation, there is a vastly fertile space for personal growth, both for the coachee and the coach. I grew not only as a professional coach, but also as an individual who shares and recognises in himself some of the client’s insecurities. This is another example of how symbiotic the coaching relationship can be, where the coachee acts as a reflection of our own misdealings.
Experiences like this speak to the high potential for growth of a coaching relationship for both parties where the non-directive approach comes in full play, as it holds the key for unlocking that true potential. A non-directive approach guides the conversation to a place of autonomy, creativity, and empowerment in both directions. The coachee is empowered as the reflections are self-managed, and the coach is also empowered as they are freed from the pressures of feeling the need to be the bearer of answers and solutions. This is how a coaching relationship nurtures and leverages the potential of both the coach and the coachee. And this is how, ultimately, the bond between coach and coachee strengthens.