The fourth in a monthly series of 11 posts.
When a problem or issue is brought to us as coaches, our job is to understand the problem or issue as fully as possible, and to help the coachee do the same.
On those rare occasions when the issue is unfamiliar to the coach, it’s comparatively easy for an interested coach to pay attention, explore and discover something new.
But most of the time, coaches either possess intimate familiarity with the problem or issue, or think they do. When leaders meet with staff, or when parents talk to their kids, they quickly begin thinking to themselves:
“I already understand this issue.”
“I’ve seen this problem before, and I know how to fix it.”
“I’m experienced, she’s not. I’ll do what I always do – give advice.”
It’s precisely that familiarity – sometimes real, sometimes imagined - that decreases the coach’s ability to stay curious and help a coachee grow and improve.
(Remember: the primary purpose of coaching is to help the coachee move towards greater clarity, courage and self-responsibility. We can’t help others move in that direction if we keep solving their problems).
When coaches first learn that they shouldn’t be solving problems, they often do something tricky: ask leading questions in an effort to “get” the coachee to see a strongly implied answer or solution. But the underlying message to the coachee is the same as if an outright solution is suggested: “I don’t think you are capable of thinking responsibly about this issue. You must depend on me for that wise thinking.”
Maintaining a neutral presence holds in check these counter-productive habits.
The critical importance of a neutral presence stems from our susceptibility to biases, over-reactions, strong opinions and invasiveness. Our own emotional needs begin to swamp our ability to pay attention to the coachee.
Emotional needs might include a need for approval from, or closeness with a coachee, a need to be viewed as “helpful” and smart, a need to “protect” the coachee from discomfort, or a need to shield the organization from a possible mistake at the hands of the coachee.
These needs trigger our anxiety and pull us away from our focus: the growth of the coachee.
In my personal experience as a coach, I have found five neutrality-promoting questions particularly helpful to reflect on before, during and after a coaching session:
1. Am I listening to gain understanding?
I am in good shape when I realize that I don’t understand what it’s like to be in the coachee’s shoes. That awareness sets me up to nurture a discovery mindset: “In the next 15 minutes, I want to learn as much as I can about this person, and the issue he’s discussing.”
2. Do I notice myself reacting emotionally to the coachee or the issue?
When my emotions ratchet up, I become less clear in my questions and begin to veer towards my own, often unspoken, agenda. If I’m able to over-reacting, there’s a better chance that I can reset my compass and focus on the coachee and her problem, without getting side-tracked. My reactions typically steer the conversation off-course.
3. Am I taking sides?
Often, coachees want to talk to me about a relationship problem they have with someone I know. If I’m not careful, I can allow my own relationship with that third party to roadblock my neutrality. It’s easy as pie, and quick as a bullet, to get caught in the middle between two tense or conflicting parties. To stay on my game, I self-impose a disciplined goal: “No coachee will ever be able to tell what my opinions or feelings are regarding the person they are talking about.”
4. Am I slipping into solving and fixing?
Overt or veiled “suggestions” reveal a solve-the-problem mindset. When my brain gets fixated on fixing, my interest in helping the client generate their own solutions takes a nosedive. I try to catch myself using incriminating “solution language,” such as “Have you tried…” or “What would happen if you just…” or “I’ve found that what works best in this situation is…”
5. Am I supporting the coachee’s exaggeration of the problem?
I’ve noticed that the anxiety of the coachee about their problem is often a bigger problem than the problem. Anxiety chokes the ability to see a problem in perspective, and easily leads coachees to conclude that their problem is foreboding or unresolvable. When coaches get sucked into that anxiety, they cease to be helpful.
When I can sharply distinguish between a crisis and a routine challenge, I’m bringing greater calm to an anxious moment. To move in that direction, I often use well-articulated “I statements”: "I don’t view this as insurmountable.” “I think there might be more than two options here.” “I can understand why you might believe that, I’m just not sure it’s accurate.”
Clients have enough difficulty talking about their dilemmas and trying to think more clearly.
They suffer even more when coaches cannot listen, emotionally react, take sides, focus on solutions instead of questions and exaggerate the severity of the problem.
Maintaining a neutral coaching presence enables the coachee to do more of the thinking and take responsibility for the outcome of the coaching session.
When that happens, the value of the coaching is maximized.