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February 2015: Standing Up to Power: Coaching Someone in a “One-Down” Position

It’s not uncommon for the individuals we coach to see themselves in a “one-down” position. They often show up helpless, depressed, frustrated, angry, or confused about how to handle an unsavory relationship with someone in power. They usually perceive that the individual in power could hurt them emotionally, or financially.

Consider these situations:

Joellen, the president of one of my client companies, has a customer whom she calls “ridiculous.” She experiences this customer as rude, demanding and wholly disinterested in win-win solutions. Despite Joellen’s patience and concessions, the customer expresses no appreciation. “When I go out of my way to be helpful to him, he asks for more,” she says. “I am reluctant to risk discussing my frustration because this customer supplies 20 percent of my company’s revenue.”

Michele, a 21-year-old in her final semester of college, feels the same uncertainty as most of her peers. She acknowledges having no clarity about what she wants to do for a career, and, despite her excellent grades, struggles with believing in herself. Her parents are frustrated about her lack of clarity. “I fear she is wasting her education,” her business-owning father told me. “By now she should have narrowed down her options, but she’s completely lost.”

At age 38, Mark’s industry knowledge and people skills won him a key position in a highly visible family-run firm. On a Las Vegas trip for high performers, Mark witnessed two of the married owners engaging in sexual behavior that shocked him. “They had strongly promoted integrity and trustworthiness in our mission statement, so their drinking and sex stunned me, and really turned me off,” he said. “I’m facing a very bright future with this company, and don’t want to jeopardize that, but I have lost respect for the owners. I’m not sure what to do.”

Common themes

These true-life situations reveal common themes:

  • Joellen, Michele and Mark working to the best of their abilities. None are under-performing.

  • Each experiences a dilemma with a person in power. Joellen’s customer knows that the money he spends gives him leverage. Michele’s dad is footing her tuition bills. Mark’s future with the firm hinges on his relationship with the owners.

  • The thought of confronting the person in power leaves each confused and “frozen” about what to do next. Each fears losing something important. If a key customer leaves, Joellen’s business could be thrust into a difficult cash flow situation. Michele’s father might withdraw his emotional and financial support. The firm owners might think “Mark’s not one of us.” As a result, they could marginalize or demote a promising young leader.

If you were coaching Joellen, Michele or Mark, what strategies would you employ to help them?

As a coach, my job is to optimize the thinking and emotional maturity of my clients. My main resources include internal calmness about their situation, the ability to think about the whole system (not just the symptom), knowledge about triangles, years of practice formulating clear “I” positions and my native fascination about how others face and overcome challenges.

Relying on those resources, there are three strategies I would avoid and three strategies I would practice, in coaching a client who’s in a “one-down” position:


  1. Focusing on the “powerful other.” It’s tempting for a coach to get very curious about the problem a coachee is talking about, in these cases, the person in power. But every minute spent describing, wondering or worrying about the person in power represents a lost minute helping the client focus on their own beliefs, options and capacities.

  2. Telling my client what to do. The main reason I wouldn’t offer solutions is because I know I don’t HAVE solutions – each situation is complex, and the best solutions come from the person being coached. I invite clients to think for themselves about what makes sense. That means I would avoid lethal language like, “You know what I think you might want to consider?” or “You need to stand up to this person!”

  3. Trying to “self-esteem up” my client. In my experience, clients don’t gain solid self or real confidence from pep talks and reassurance slogans. Coaches usually turn into cheerleaders to calm themselves down, and to convince themselves they are inspirational and helpful. Statements like, “I have a feeling this is going to work out fine,” or, “Look at all the people who trust you and believe in you!” do more to soothe the coach than to help the client get clear.


  1. Asking about facts, predictions and lessons. For example, with Joellen, a coach might ask, “What are the fact-based consequences of losing this customer?” “How realistic is the threat?” “Is there a way to communicate about the problem that minimizes the potential for the customer’s over-reaction?” “How might this play out if fear didn’t stop you?” “What business lessons are you pulling out of this situation?”

  2. Helping the client focus on her own responses, not on the “problem person per se.”For example, in Michele’s case, a coach might say: “I don’t hear anything about your own plan for getting more clear.” Or, “Have you asked your father how he has handled confusion in his own life?” Or, “Do you think of career decisions as ‘once and for all,’ or ‘one step at a time?’” Or, “If you had to come up with ten people to talk to about jobs that interest you, whose names would be on that list?”

  3. Challenge the client’s victim-based beliefs, goals and motives. For example, with Mark, a coach might say, “When I listen to you describe the situation, it sounds like you are a hostage – does that match reality?” Or, “How would you talk to the owners about this if the goal was to do it respectfully?” Or, “Do you see this as your only career option?” Or, “I would like to see a list of your realistic options for how to handle something like this.”

Coachees in a one-down position function differently when they are able to pull up their maturity, confidence and initiative. To help that process, a seasoned coach permits the client to do most of the thinking and all of the deciding.

6 Responses to “February 2015: Standing Up to Power: Coaching Someone in a “One-Down” Position”

  1. February 01, 2015 at 1:14 pm, Andrea Schara said:

John –

Thanks for this reminder of the clarity of self focus to figure out the system around those who are “pinched” in a relationship process.

The ancient system benefits from the “pinching” of one or two.

This makes it difficult to rise above the systems traps.

Your question begins to clarify some of what is hidden. – “Have you asked your father how he has handled confusion in his own life?” Perceiving the situation differently leads to altering ones participation in it, and this kind of action can give people hand out of the traps.

Andrea Schara http://www.YourMindful

  1. February 01, 2015 at 9:37 pm, Nessa Kiely said:

John, Each month I look forward to your Case Study-like approach to the typical conundrums we all face. I find myself wondering how I would approach these challenges and then so enjoy reading about the options you provide. Always worth the read! Thanks John.

  1. February 03, 2015 at 1:55 am, John Cammack said:


This is pure gold. We all invariably find ourselves in one-down positions. This essay is a reminder that we the going gets tough, each situation is an opportunity to think for ourselves, which if pursued, often revels options we did not initially see.

John Cammack

  1. February 06, 2015 at 1:17 pm, Juan C. Penhos said:

As a parent, these are useful ideas for my kids. It takes a long time and growth to get out of their one down position in relation to parents. Applying Bowen Theory has helped me in this regard. After all, I do not want the one up position when it comes to parenting!

  1. February 08, 2015 at 4:59 pm, corey hogan said:

The practice of typicaly younger members of a group going to their elders for advise and support has to a large extent withstood the test of both time and common sense. There is likely some truth to the perception that with age and experience comes both perspective and perhaps wisdom.

Ithink that is why i have been frustrated with John’s apparent unwillingness to provide some explicit direction and thoughts to legitimate questions. That could certainly include words to the effect of are you looking at your own part in this current dilemna.

Looking at these three examples as posed by John I now find that perhaps I have been missing the point all along. With that perspective I now see John telling these three acolytes that it is hard to change others and may be a waste of time focusing on that.

However with Joellen the suggestion is to determine just how big a deal it would be to dump this customer, is there a diplomatic way to get this person to behave less like a jerk, and is it a good idea to have 20% of your business tied up into any one customer. That is in my book good advice no matter how you package it.

With Michele he is suggesting that she ought to think about getting some thoughts of her future in place, why not turn the tables on your father and ask for his advice, what you might commit to today doesn’t need to be for the rest of your life, and why not go talk to some people that are working in areas that offer some appeal to you. They all sound like good advice to me.

The same litany would hold true for Mark.

So John thanks for the good advice you have been disguising as questions over the years. I certainly agree trying to jam an idea down someone’s throat is not effective. And showing that person how to fish rather than turning over a platter of prepared fish is in the long run better for all concerned. However, to not acknowledge that we as humans have “progressed” primarily because of our ability to pass along to successive generations what we have learned from our predecessors and then improved upon, would put us back into the trees with our fellow apes.

Take care and I hope all is well with Heidi, Stan and yourself.

  1. February 18, 2015 at 11:34 pm, Jenny Brown said:

Very clear helpful post – relevant for clinical work as well as business coaching. have just posted this on our Facebook page.

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