One of my favourite writers in the talking professions is the existential psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom. I’ve read all his works and loved them all.
Often, whilst reading his case studies, I would think to myself, “this is essentially coaching” (or maybe coaching is essentially existential psychotherapy) but then suddenly there will be a moment where he draws a conclusion based on everything he has been hearing. He will ask the client for their own sense of what might be going on (his favourite phrase being the beautifully simple “what’s your hunch?”) but at some point, almost inevitably, he offers a form of existential diagnosis – “aha! this is a fear of death!” you can almost hear through his sentences. And at each moment, I think, “ah! There’s that difference between Yalom’s therapy and coaching!”
I am in no way generalising from this about all therapy and the level of diagnosis in general but what it brought home to me time and again is the very clear position coaching takes on this.
We do not diagnose. We do not tell the client what’s what.
Or, at least…the position of the profession is that we do not diagnose.
Coaches are human though and can fall foul of the need to know, to make sense of, to define, to describe, to get clear, to pin down or otherwise to bring order to confusion by stepping into the expert role.
I recall a coach sharing with me that whenever she had a client with a complex issue, she would go off and read all the literature she could get her hands on to understand what might be causing the it and what the solution might be. Whilst this may indeed be useful and it might provide a greater understanding of where to shine the light, the risk is that the coach becomes the diagnostic expert and the solutions provider.
This is more frequent that one might think and comes up a great deal in supervision.
The coach shares something that makes the supervisor’s ears prick up and the “diagnosis-warning” radar ping!
How is diagnosis problematic in coaching?
At one level, we could say that diagnosis – ie. the coach owning the process of labelling or naming what is going on and telling the client their interpretation as though it were a fact – is simply not coaching.
Coaching is an epistemological position that sees awareness and knowledge as relational and self-situated. So when the coach becomes the source of diagnosis and solution. they are no longer coaching in the truest sense (at least, in relation to current professional norms).
However, we don’t not diagnose simply because it’s against the rules of coaching (see my blog article here on that old chestnut) – we choose not to diagnose, if we’re a coach, because we truly believe in the importance of the client finding their own answers and we recognise our own inherent limitations and biases that make such diagnoses on our part speculative at best and plain wrong at worst.
So, let’s look at how this might be explored in supervision.
The supervisory function
A useful starting point is to understand what the diagnostic approach is a response to and thus the nature of the supervision required.
In other words, what is leading the coach to work in a diagnostic manner?
Is it a lack of knowledge and understanding that diagnosis is not typically part of coaching? If so, this might require a normative discussion.
Or perhaps there is a lack of confidence on the part of the coach resulting from their perception of poor outcomes from their coaching. If so, this might need a more restorative first step.
Or is there a lack of skill or competence in how to be facilitate a client to their own solutions? If so, this might lead to a formative discussion.
Each of these will direct the conversation down a different pathway – though perhaps the paths will converge further on.
Rushing headlong down the “wrong” pathway may prove counterproductive. A coach whose diagnostic tendency is being prompted by a battered self-confidence might find their confidence dented further if the conversation took an immediately normative rather than restorative or formative direction.
Do the coach and supervisor even agree that this is a problem to be discussed?
Before any of this happens though the coach and supervisor need to be on the same page as to whether this is even something to be explored.
If the coach is oblivious to their diagnosing tendency or sees it as wholly unproblematic then it would be a fruitless discussion to try to immediately explore how it might change.
If the coach hasn’t raised their diagnostic habit themselves, the supervisor might share what they are noticing and offer it for discussion:
“I notice you’ve mentioned how you explain to the client what’s at the root of their challenge and I’m wondering if you often find yourself being the expert and diagnosing the issue?”
A reflection such as this will bring the issue to the surface and allow it to be addressed. Of course, there are many directions this could then go in including curiosity, deflection, agreement, justification, and so and each will lead to a different supervisory conversation.
The coach who is fully aware of what they are doing but sees it as an unproblematic part of their role might be invited to explore this as a normative issue if the supervisor feels it presents a risk to the client, the coach, the wider system or the professional norms.
What’s at the root of the diagnostic approach?
Assuming that the coach and supervisor have agreed that this is a useful inquiry then it would be beneficial to explore what’s at the heart of their tendency to diagnose. The supervisor might ask questions like:
- What do you feel is behind this tendency to diagnose? – This will open up the conversation in a way that allows the coach to share whatever comes up.
- How do you feel when offering or presenting your diagnosis? – This might surface the shadow benefits to the coach such as feeling like an expert or feeling useful.
- How do you see this sitting within the coaching framework you operate within? – This will help establish the norms and understanding that the coach has of what is expected of them.
- What’s your belief around the idea that the client can find their own answers? – This can give the coach a chance to be honest and open about some of the assumptions that sit within coaching.
These are just possibilities of course but the key is that we focus first not on how to no diagnose but what’e behind the behaviour in the first place.
From here, there are a myriad questions which could be explored depending on what starts to emerge.
Is it a competency issue?
You could explore how they might help the client find their own answers without diagnosing. You might explore where they get stuck and why being stuck feels problematic. You could support them to be OK with stuckness and to share that with the client, or to find ways to ask questions that come from curiosity rather than a needing clarity on the right question. You might explore the role of silence and presence over questions or you might explore non-linguistic approaches.
Is it a normative issue?
You might build on the conversation of how the coach perceives coaching and what professional norms they abide by. You might ask if it’s worth reviewing the competencies and refreshing their understanding. You might explore the impact of diagnosis on the client? You might even check the nature of their insurance which might be predicated on a non-advisory approach.
Is it a restorative issue?
You might allow the coach to share their frustrations with themselves or the limitations they feel about coaching allowing a catharsis of emotion before moving to a formative approach. You might help the coach remember the times they’ve been effective or to recognise they are on a developmental journey.
It it relational (Eye 3)? Is it systemic (Eye 7)?
Is their diagnostic pattern particular to certain clients or certain systems in which the coach feels compelled to be the expert who diagnoses the issue and saves the day? How might the coach remain true to their principles in the face of those relationships? And how might the coach draw attention to their felt need to be the expert as a reflection of the relationship of system?
Is it simply the coach’s habit and modus operandi for life in general (Eye 4)?
Is this the coach’s default position in life – to be the expert who knows what’s what and are they willing to reflect, to think about the role of a coach, to learn and change? Do they find it hard to not in-the-know and not in control? Are they used to being the one that sorts stuff out?
As with all supervisory conversations, there is never one path.
It is tempting to think that when a coach presents such and such an issue, we press a particular button and off we go! But supervision, like coaching, is so much more complex, rich and intriguing than that.
One of my common refrains is that when diagnosis starts, coaching stops. Coaching is a place of unknowing, of relational grappling with sense-making but once a coach says, “this is what is going on” then the sense-making stops (or at least, changes to something else).
However, our role as supervisors is not to tell coaches not to do it from a place of authority but to bring awareness to their behaviour, explore what lies behind it and co-create a sense of what it means and what needs to change should they want to change.