Working with your coach

How to work with a coach, part 7

By Martin Vogel

How should the working relationship with your coach develop? It’s worth thinking about this if you want to get the most out of your coaching. Clients sometimes take a while to realise that it’s not the best strategy to sit back and let coaching happen to them. Coaching is a two-way street and it pays to lean into it.

Martha Stark, a psychotherapist, has described how there are implicitly three possible models at work in professional helping relationships. Which do you imagine yourself to be in as a coachee?

There is the one-person model where the conceit is that the coach is an objective observer of the client. In this model, the coach’s disposition is as an expert bringing knowledge and interpretation. Coaching is done on the client and there’s barely a recognition of a relationship between coach and client.

Then there is the one-and-a-half person model, which acknowledges that the coach is in the room with the client and has some impact on how the client shows up. The focus of the coach is on the client: enquiring into their subjective experience; providing empathy such that the client feels met and held. Coaching is offered to the client. But the relationship is really only one way.

Finally, there is the two-person model, which recognises that both coach and client bring their subjective experiences to the conversation. It is the interplay between these that determines the shape of what takes place in the session. Coaching is co-created by both parties to the conversation.

In reality, these models are not easily separated. They probably all come into play at different points in a coaching relationship. But, in my view, regardless of which model a coach and client think they are operating in, it is inescapable that there are two independent human beings in the room, each with their own agency and experience of the conversation. The coach’s impact on the client and the client’s impact on the coach cannot be easily bracketed out. The process is inherently an exercise in collaborative meaning-making. As a client, you bring stuff that influences how the conversation will unfold – your back story, your mental models, your assumptions about what is going on in coaching – and so does your coach. What happens in coaching is not just some objective process which is done to you. The course it takes is influenced at every moment by how you and your coach engage with it.

In coaching, we often speak of the coach maintaining a non-directive stance. But this doesn’t mean that the coach’s subjectivity is not in the room. A coach may offer a perspective or stand back and simply ask questions to elicit the client’s insights. But the questions are always coming from a place informed by the coach’s experience.

As Michael Cavanagh puts it (in a chapter in The Evidence Based Coaching Handbook:

“Effective coaches often do tell. They educate their clients. They share their mental models, and tell them things when the answer eludes the client. They also spend a lot of time asking. But the questions they ask are not atheoretical … they are informed by their hypotheses about what is going on for the client. These hypotheses are built on the foundation of the coach’s understandings about what it means to be human, or in relationship, or in business, or healthy, or whatever else the coaching is about. Their domain-specific knowledge is constantly in play, but never overpowering the client. The coach’s telling is timely, the questions genuinely curious.”

By the same token, everything you are – the person who comes to coaching – is material to how the coaching unfolds. Not just what you bring to discuss but how you bring it and how you respond to what the coach contributes all have a significant impact on how the process will unfold and what value you can derive from it. The key point to remember as a client is that you are a collaborator in the process. What the coach contributes to your conversation is in the service of your meaning-making. It is offered for you to consider, to evaluate against your own worldview, working it up a bit in dialogue with your coach: perhaps synthesising it with your prior experience, perhaps modifying it, perhaps rejecting it.

The best outcomes in coaching come when the client engages with the conversation in an interactive way. Learning in coaching is not like learning in training or teaching. You don’t bring a blank slate which you fill up with new content. You bring all your prior experience and hone it in conversation.

And not just conversation. There may be role play, experiential exercises, drawing, imaginative work. How easily you throw yourself into this will influence what you get out of it.

There will be discomfort, for sure. Your highly-defended ways of making sense of things might be questioned. But a skilful coach will create an emotionally supportive environment in which you should feel safe to accept the challenge and kick it around. Discomfort, carefully orchestrated, is part of the deal. As the developmental psychologist Robert Kegan says, in his book In Over Our Heads:

“People grow best where they continuously experience an ingenious blend of support and challenge; the rest is commentary.”

It can pay to come to your sessions with a bit of an agenda. But also to be open to what shows up when you get stuck in. Clients sometimes want to leave the session with a bit of a strategy for dealing with what they’ve brought. This might happen. But it’s not the only outcome that can arise.

Sometimes coach and client can collude in designing a cunning plan which looks sensible and elegant in the circumstances of a rational conversation in a calm environment. But beware of the promise of such schemes. In reality, any change you want to make will be a function of many factors of which your contribution will be just a part. Any action you take might as easily be met by reaction to counter it as support to further your intent. As much as it feels satisfying to make plans, your time in coaching could sometimes be spent just as productively by simply thinking through what are the influences on the systems in which you operate. Any plans you make will inevitably take unforeseen turns in their encounter with your complex reality. It’s a good idea to anticipate the possible pitfalls before strategising.

Your coach might be seen as a guide who helps you navigate the path between intent and frustrated outcomes as you iteratively change course to keep moving forward. Designing new approaches in one session, testing them in the real world between sessions and reflecting on the outcomes in your next session is the very cycle of learning that coaching offers. Understanding your part in this will optimise the value you realise in coaching. It will help you master the art of balancing serious pursuit of your aspirations with not being too hard on yourself. And that will take you far in the long run.

Other posts in the series, How to work with a coach:

  1. Why use a coach?
  2. What do you want from coaching?
  3. How do you find a coach?
  4. Meeting a prospective coach
  5. Agreeing terms with your coach
  6. Your first session with a coach
  7. Working with your coach
  8. Your work between coaching sessions
  9. If your coaching isn’t going well
  10. When it’s time to finish coaching

Image courtesy Guillaume Andreux.