A topic I find very exciting and want to address in this article is how supervisors can work with and support direct communication of coaches in supervision. Right from the beginning of my business coaching studies it seemed to be the most contradictory or misunderstood area of coaching.
I come to coaching from the fields of competitive ballroom dancing and management consulting. I always found it fascinating how coaching (and supervision) relationships are compared to ‘two parties dancing together’, yet telling things to the client, sharing opinions, bringing in a new aspect or information was regarded as, and compared to consulting, and as such, something somewhat frowned upon in coaching.
I learned from sports and working with sports people that communication is action-reaction, and even leading-following cannot be interpreted without the follower leading some movements, and the leader cannot lead without following the follower.
As I completed more and more studies in the realms of individual and team coaching, and later mentoring, and as I started teaching, training and mentoring future or fellow coaches, the question only became more complex and detailed.
The more mentoring processes and workshops I completed (as mentee, mentor, participant or facilitator), the more clear it became that there are coaches who are comfortable with direct communication, and there are coaches who withdraw or refrain from using this competence, as they feel it is ‘telling the client what to do’ and a ‘coach should only ask questions since the client has all the answers’.
I started investigating where this might come from, as it was not clear whether it was a certain type or characteristic of the coaching personality, school or approach, or the previous background of the coaching professionals.
Then when I was trained to be an assessor for the ICF, I learned a lot more about this competency, and throughout the assessment of performance recordings, I experienced a broad range of interpretations of this competence. I could bring this back to my mentoring and supervision practice and I started testing my theories about how coaches interpret and apply direct communication in their coaching work, and what beliefs, hypotheses or limitations there might be in them as to why or why not to use this competency.
To explore this area of coaching I took a three-pronged approach that included;
- A deep analysis of the coaching competencies, PCC markers, and various ICF-related assessment documents.
- A reflective journey across the professional workshops and conversations I conducted over the years with fellow coaches< peers< mentors and coach trainers
- An exploration of the 1000+ mentoring, supervision, and assessment hours of experience with 200+ clients in the capacity of an ICF registered mentor since 2015< trainer, mentor, supervisor at Budapest Metropolitan University Business Coach / Business and Team Coach
The coaching stance includes concepts such as facilitating, partnering, supporting, working with, and promoting – all very active words and actions from the coach, which cannot be achieved without the direct communication of the coach.
When investigating this topic during workshops or during mentoring and supervision engagements I always ask the mentees, what they think about how to achieve this with the client? How will their work be more than a good deal of brainstorming or nodding to the client’s thinking out loud, and how will all this be turned into some kind of action, realized change or development for the client? Or, indeed, if the client is on a complete dead-end false track, is our work as coaches to witness and assist in that? (My extreme example is, let’s say, the client who hates their boss so much they want to kill them. Should we discuss this and plan when, and with what tool to kill them and what the client will do with the body? Or do we bring in the insight that they might actually end up in prison and maybe there are other ways to approach the whole situation?! To a classic ‘follower’ coach this later is giving advice and not following the agenda of the client.)
And here is exactly where I found the difference between the approach of different coaches.
The phenomenon in question is more or less the same:
How do we follow the client’s agenda, and how much do we interfere / put in content / influence the client?
But within the ‘more or less’ there are already a lot of interesting areas to explore: the difference between following the agenda / interfering / putting in content / influencing, and where this value set or interpretation of the coach’s approach comes from.
What lies behind the phenomenon is the real question here…
Supervision, the approach of the supervision – working with the ‘who’, the professional persona of the coach, how the coach is part of the coaching work – gave me a lot of insight to this question and helped me move away from the level of ‘Where do coaches bring this from? Why do they not understand there is no reaction without action first?’ – more my coach trainer hat. It also made me able to enter their world and start investigating what beliefs and concepts exist in the thinking of the coaches / coach students.
Learning to apply self-reflection and gaining insights from different lenses and aspects of supervision began to outline a path. I started to understand on a deeper level how coaches coming from different training backgrounds yet all building from the same ICF and/or EMCC coaching competencies, could interpret and work with this competency or area in so many different ways. The key was clearly to look inside and beyond how we think, function, do or job as coaches.
By reflecting deeply on all this I came to certain conclusions and suggestions as to how we might better understand the challenges around direct communication in coaching and how supervisors might work with them.
Training bias of coaching vs consulting
One of the most experienced insights from coach training / mentoring / supervision clients was: ‘This is what we were told at the training, a coach is only asking questions, and not telling the client what to do / giving advice…’
I find this rather destructive for coaches in the training programs as one of the most important tools that enables us as professionals to move the client out of their own circles or sometimes traps of their thinking is taken away from them… And for many it takes years of working on their coaching skills to shift it and be more effective coaches.
Supervision work and resolution:
Discussing the interpretation of direct communications, playing with what to do and what the potential outcomes can be a great eye opener and later gives the foundations or safe space to look into how the coach themselves is with direct communication – making an impact, interacting with the client, entering and moving together in the client’s world. The concept of the Seven-eyed-model is most useful in this work.
The fear and insecurity of coaches to interfere and make an impact
A second area I encounter is a fear or insecurity of the coach to make an impact that can be attributed directly to them.
To work with people, enter their world, learn about their questions, insecurities, problems and often secrets is central to coaching work. It can also be attractive and tempting to be such a trusted person.
Yet at the same time this brings with it the responsibility and often the heavy burden of keeping confidentiality, not being allowed to talk about, or share what we have been told. Furthermore, there is the even greater responsibility that whatever intervention we make with our clients (even just listening and not doing anything more is huge as clients might have never ever before talked or thought about the given topic ever before) is making an impact, and every impact has consequences that the client must live with.
This in my experience is often reflected in a form of balancing between coach and client. It is a power-game, as everything we do as coach or as client results in an action and reaction, yet this power or energy is necessary to create impetus or movement, development, steps ahead. I deliberately used the expression of power-game as insecure coaches experience this energy as a power (with a more negative added tone to it).
Supervision work and resolution:
One of the ways to resolve this is to work on the competencies of the coach, how the competencies can be understood, relearned, or recalibrated and applied differently to result in the coach holding the tool in their hands and using them as needed instead of having a tool that they are scared of to use.
Using more prescriptive and informative interventions during the supervision work also gives a first-hand experience on how these interventions can be used to create clarity rather than lead the client.
Another aspect of resolution could be the OK Corral of TA to use and learn insights how that is represented in the coaching relationship with the client.
Motivation for the helping profession
Very much connected to the same area discussed above, yet coming from a different source (although nicely connected/contradicted to the insecurity) is the motivation of the coach.
The motivation or drive to be useful or be of help for the client. The wanting to help, to make a difference, to support can result in very many biases in our coaching work.
One of the most dangerous ones is when a coach wants to help the client see they have the answer to the detriment of the client’s experience. The coach might insist the client has all the answers with statements such as ‘You have the answers to your questions, it is all there in you, I am only here to provide a safe space for you.’
I won’t go deeper into the realms of this bias, but it is not uncommon in our profession, and serves the satisfaction of the coach, rather than the development of the client.
Supervision work and resolution:
The cases where I have encountered this issue typically involved an unconscious drive on the part of the practitioner and was resolved once shedding light on this phenomenon and gaining awareness of it.
Ways of shedding light on it could be using the OK Corral and the Drama / Winner Triangle of TA and the Seven-Eyed-Model for exploring the wider context and effects.
Blind Spots vs Resistance
A fourth area I found led to a lack of direct communication was where coaches struggle with not seeing the difference between working with blind spots and working with resistance in the client.
As helping professionals, we are very aware of ‘resistance to change’ and it is widely discussed in training programs and tutorials. When starting our work as coaching professionals, both in individual and group/team coaching we stretch ourselves to challenge the client to move outside their comfort zone, which typically creates some tension and risk. If and when things don’t work out as we hoped or planned, the answer is seemingly simple: the client is resisting us.
However, whilst this may be the case, often it is simply that the client has a blind spot. In such a case, we cannot necessarily simply work with the assumption that the client has the answer – they don’t. The coach’s conviction that the client is responding from a place of resistance rather than unknowing can lead them to fail to communicate directly what they are seeing.
Supervision work and resolution:
Here the supervisor might use an informative intervention to share the possibility that the client has a blind spot and needs more from the coach, helping the coach reflect on how this can be tackled in the coaching and even pointing out the potential parallel process to have a first- hand experience above blind spots and resistance.
Besides the suggestions above the ultimate conclusion for me distilled to:
How can we want to do something without actually doing something?
What use are we as coaches (or any helping professional) if we skip one of the three core things we can support our clients with: listen actively/ask powerful questions /communicate directly?
All three are vital in order to provide the full scale of our competencies and be there for our clients.
And what better way to address Direct Communication than to use the competency itself: address the topic in supervision when it feels it is somehow missing, invite the supervisee to reflect, explore and gain insights about it and let them see if there are any further things to with it.
And be daring to communicate directly as supervisor and support coaches to step out there where they would not go alone.