Executive coaches bring many skills with them into a coaching engagement: an ability to facilitate adult development and change, a knowledge of systems, keen observation and powerful questioning are among a few. But, one of the most impactful capabilities of a coach is also one that is often overlooked in the shadow of more tangible skills. This skill is the ability to create a safe environment in which the coachee can take a clear look at him or herself and begin the process of true, deep and sustainable change. The place where true change happens is often scary and hidden so it is only in relationship and in a psychologically safe environment that individuals have the courage to take a glimpse at their true selves and begin to address deep-seated barriers to change they are working to make.
Perhaps no one understood the importance of this skill better than Carl Rogers, a psychologist and creator of the person-centered approach to therapy. The three tenets of his approach are:
- Authenticity – Acting and speaking in a way that is genuine
- Empathy – Imagining what the experience of the client is like
- Unconditional positive regard – Withholding judgement and appreciating the client for who they are in that moment
His approach is based on the belief that personal growth is most likely to occur in a non-judgmental, supportive environment where the individual enhances their self-awareness and thus finds their true positive potential. When Carl Rogers created this approach in the 1940’s, it was an unorthodox contrast to the traditional “therapist know best” directive approach used in counseling at that time
Rogers’ belief in the importance of unconditional positive regard is the most instrumental in creating a safe environment for the coaching engagement. Unconditional positive regard is the optimistic, non-judgmental view that a person is valuable, worthy of respect, and has the ability to figure out how to overcome their obstacles in order to fulfill their potential. When therapists and coaches practice unconditional positive regard, it creates a safe, trusting and non-judgmental environment where a person is able to lower their defenses in order to see issues that might be inhibiting them from making their desired changes. In essence, unconditional positive regard means entering the coaching engagement with the intention of change but affirming the individual’s value and personhood as they are that day.
As coaches, it is important to reflect on the environment we create for clients. Spending time getting grounded in these assumptions prior to a coaching session is a great place to start. Additionally, reflecting on our tone and non-verbal signals in a client session can be helpful in assessing the type of relational and emotional environment we are creating for our clients, whether we mean to or not. This is also one of the reasons it is important for coaches to “do our own work” as part of coach training so we know the issues or personalities that trigger us and make it more difficult to create a non-judgmental environment. After all, all the change theory and skill in the world, won’t bring about true change if clients are not affirmed, supported and appreciated for who they are today.