A year ago, I found myself on a short list of coaches who had been invited to have a chemistry meeting with an executive (let’s call her “Jane”) who was particular about whom she would work with. The company Jane worked for had started grooming several individuals for very senior leadership positions by hiring a well-known coach to work with these executives, who were on the fast track for senior leadership positions. They ran into problems when Jane who, after having two coaching sessions, decided she wanted to have a different coach. The company suggested 3 other coaches to choose from—and I was on the list.
I met with the Jane for a 1-hour coaching session to see if there was chemistry to build a productive relationship. At the end of our meeting, I asked her to let me know as soon as possible if she wanted to work with me. She replied right away that she did not need time to think about it. Jane wanted to work with me—if I thought that I could work with her.
I was a little surprised at such a quick decision. I knew she was “choosy,” and I did not think so highly of myself to simply assume she would naturally love to work with me. So out of curiosity I asked her how she made the decision so quickly. Jane said it was clear to her that I would not tell her what to do.
In a culture and society that rewards specialization, it can be easy to get stuck in a rut of becoming an expert in a specific type of verbal and nonverbal behavior. In coaching the expert approach can potentially lead to the client not being listened to, feeling that their issue of concern is being ignored by the coach and consequently experience no shift or change in the status quo or issue that prompted the coachee to seek coaching. The expert focuses more on what they think the client needs to do to resolve the issue. Coaching is relational and as such it is time consuming and cannot be hurried. A tendency and temptation is for a coach who overuses their expertise to tell a client what they need to do in an attempt to get them to move faster in resolving their situation. Therefore, the coach can get into a loop of seeing the same pattern in issues so that for each client, the same things are paid attention to and responded to. But, this choice limits awareness of many other behaviors that also carry meaning and potentially rewarding avenues of exploration in the coaching engagement are left unattended. So, awareness of the choices that are made in “noticing behavior”—that is, the behavior of noticing, rather than the noticing of behavior—are essential competencies for a coach to develop.
We all like to have choices. The ability to choose is a key component of what we may call the human experience. When there is no choice, there is no autonomy, no empowerment. And when these things are lacking, people perceive there is a fundamental loss of quality of life. But engaging in conscious, reflective choice comes at a pretty hefty cognitive cost, and it is unreasonable to believe that absolute freedom of choice for every potential action within the universe of possibilities in our daily existence would result in anything but a crippling paralysis. This is one reason why we build organization—routines, rituals, hierarchies, and traditions—into our lives. We all need a break from choosing. Instead of dedicating precious energy to decision making, we can use that energy for enjoyment. Sometimes we don’t want to choose…and that, itself, is a choice.
Each choice is accompanied by a universe of extinguished possibilities—of choices not made. Choosing something is essentially rejecting something else, and for some this may be accompanied by regret for the road not traveled, while for others it may become a sort of freedom because it simplifies the world and gives a sense of direction and focus.
So what does all this have to do with coaching? In the story I told at the beginning of this article, the well-known coach had met with Jane for two sessions and had decided very quickly what he thought she required. Then he proceeded to tell her what she needed to do. As I worked with the client, I later learned that the coach I replaced had actually suggested—rather than told—her what to do. However, what she heard at the time was that she was being ‘told’ what to do. The well-known coach may have had the right intervention, but he definitely had the wrong timing—and timing can be everything. He had not yet established enough trust, as far as this client was concerned, in the two sessions for his client to agree to his direction. It can be tempting to jump into the work a coach thinks is important, but if an adequate amount of trust has not been established, the attempt is likely to fail.
After 4 or 5 sessions I suggested some homework for her to do, waited, and watched for her response. Jane smiled, and I asked her what her smile was about. She said the other coach had suggested a similar homework, but she noticed that she felt more willing to cooperate with me than she was with him. She said she did not know him so how could he tell her what to do? She happily went on to do the homework I had given her and we discussed her experience of doing the work and what she learned from it.
A fundamental ethic of professional coaching is that the client chooses the focus of the work and the conversations that will take place. It is such an important ethic that it is part of the International Coach Federation’s definition of coaching. This choice is made both verbally and nonverbally by a client, while the coach must be able to maintain flexibility to respond to client choices, to make observations and to offer insights and feedback. To engage with the client is to be “present and flexible during the coaching process, dancing in the moment.” The client may set the course, but the coach has equally important choices to make with regard to what to observe and what to share. When the flow is right between client and coach, the coach speaks and acts with a free and elegant savoir faire, being in the moment and fully present.
So what does the coach choose to focus on and give meaning to? This is not an easy or straightforward question to answer. What can be said is that it benefits the coach greatly to cultivate a healthy openness to experience. It also helps to realize that everything a client says and does—as well as does not say or not do—is rife with meaning as long as the coach has the awareness and ability to support the client to unlock that meaning, drawing on breadth of experience and engaging in conscious and mindful empathy and compassion.
The 20th century existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre believed that people were absolutely free, and because we are free, we are responsible for all our actions—all our choices. Freedom, in Sartre’s view, meant that each of us chooses the entire world within which we live, and that all we become and do stems from the choices we make. Sometimes we can benefit from guidance in making those critical choices—but they are still our choices. That is where coaching can help in making informed choices following an extensive, and deeper exploration of what is relevant and what is possible within the context of what is important to the client.