After an online coaching demonstration, one of the observers asked the client, “The coach kept asking you the same question: ‘Is that what you really want to resolve?’ How did that make you feel?”
The client answered, “Annoyed. And it was exactly what I needed.”
After sharing a laugh, the client added, “It didn’t feel good, but I never doubted she was doing this for me. It also didn’t feel good that she kept me focused, each time looking deeper into what was really creating the thoughts swirling in my head. No matter how I squirmed, she stayed solid. I went with it, because I knew she cared.”
Good Coaching Is Uncomfortable
The goal of coaching isn’t to make someone feel good. The goal is to break through a person’s guise of knowing. Human beings are master rationalizers in an effort to protect themselves from feeling challenged and embarrassed. In his book “Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain,” neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga says we become stuck in our automatic thought-processing and fool ourselves into thinking we are acting consciously and willfully.
To assess what is possible and what is best to do next, coaches should first focus on expanding what people think they know instead of jumping to solve external problems. The success of awareness-focused coaching depends on the coach’s ability to quickly make others feel safe enough to partner in this exploration.
Awareness-focused coaches provoke critical thinking in ways humans don’t — and (as Daniel Kahneman points out in “Thinking, Fast and Slow”) often can’t — do on their own. When it’s done well, people doubt what they thought they knew, so they are open to expansive learning. Coaches help clients clear the fog in their brains to see a clear way forward.
Coaching people to expand their awareness is often uncomfortable. The reaction to bringing outdated beliefs and fear-based speculations to light will register somewhere between slight discomfort and an emotional outpour. The truth can hurt, or at least surprise, them before it sets them free.
It can be a good sign when someone expresses emotions in coaching. When confronting rationalizations or seeing blind spots, for a moment, the brain does not know what to think. It is this moment of uncertainty that opens up the possibility of learning. The brain then quickly restructures thoughts, creating a new awareness, and a clearer and broader understanding of the situation can emerge.
Giving coachees a safe, judgment-free space to observe their thinking is critical to their progress. In other words, good coaching requires psychologically safe partnering.
The Power of Psychological Safety
For any conversation to yield successful results, people must feel safe enough to say what is on their minds. They must feel they won’t be judged for what they share. In coaching, the person must trust that the intention of the interaction is their development, not to say what’s expected.
The effectiveness of coaching, then, depends more on the quality of the coach’s presence than on his or her perfection of skills. The energy coaches create with their emotions has substance. The relational field between them and the person they are coaching is palpable and powerful.
When coaches foster a caring and judgment-free presence, the need to protect and defend oneself is regulated down in both client and coach, creating optimal conditions for exploration and change. The coach’s presence creates a neuro-physiological state of trust and safety. The coachee feels seen, heard and valued, no matter how he or she shows up.
Mindfulness Enhances Coaching
Coaches will have judgments and think they know what is best for others, but they can maintain a coaching mindset by quickly noticing and detaching from their opinions and their urge to give advice so the discovery process can unfold. It’s important for them to manage their inner space to ensure that their external space is engaging and comfortable.
The practice of coaching presence has been compared to mindfulness, where we are aware of what is going on inside and outside of our mind and body. Being fully present while coaching requires coaches to develop the habits of noticing shifts in their feelings and thoughts and of being attentive to others. Developing mindfulness will help coaches notice when thoughts and physical sensations occur so that they can allow them to pass through them.
When coaching, they should notice their thoughts and reactions, breathe, and come back to being present to the person they are with. In this way, they choose to be curious instead of knowing what the person needs, patient instead of eager to find solutions and quiet instead of leaping to help.
Coaches don’t need to worry about their posture; their emotions establish psychological safety more than the placement of their arms, and the time they spend thinking about their arms, legs and posture is time that they are not present. If they sense disconnection, it’s important to make sure they still feel curious, care and respect for the human in front of them. That person wants the coach to be present, not perfect.
Using Coaching to Create a Psychologically Safe Work Culture
Using a coaching approach to your work conversations enables you to connect and inspire the people who work for and with you. Coaching gives people a safe space to be themselves, as I write in my new book, “Coach the Person, Not the Problem.” If coaching is widespread, they will have a connected culture with a high level of service, improved morale and the courage to be creative. When you help build cultures that foster the safety for employees to fully express themselves in conversations, you bring out the best in people and in yourself.