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Coaching Clinic Lesson #8: Speaking for Self (I)

The eighth in a monthly series of 11 posts presenting my thinking and experience on the topic of coaching.

Assuming you want to make a difference as a leader and coach, here’s a question for you:

When you look at your own communication habits, do you tend more towards speaking for others (“We, you, they”) or are you more likely to speak for self (I, me, my”)?

I consider it a leadership weakness to assume that one can speak for others. Leadership communication reflects greater clarity and accuracy when one is speaking only for self.

So why don’t more leaders practice this?


I’ve observed three impediments to speaking on behalf of self.

First, couples, parents, business leaders and global diplomats who represent their respective twosomes, families, companies or nations often see it as their job to speak for others. Do they speak accurately when they speak for others? Consider these examples:

1. A spouse says: “We have a really good marriage.”

His partner responds to a third party:“My husband thinks we have a great marriage, but I think we could do a lot better.A lot of the time, I find myself wanting better communication.”

2. A family patriarch says: “We are a Catholic family; we believe in following the Church’s teachings.”

His oldest daughter responds to a third party: “The claim that our family is Catholic reflects my father’s wishful thinking. It’s true that my siblings and I were all raised Catholic, and attended Catholic schools, but I don’t consider myself a practicing Catholic today, nor do I pay much attention to the Church’s teachings.”

3. A business owner thanks his staff, saying: “I’m delighted that you have really bought in to our culture of accountability.”

A long-time employee responds to a third party:“What the owner calls ‘buy-in’ I call appeasement.I go along with it because it’s expected, not because I believe in it.Until those at the top become accountable, culture improvement is just window-dressing.”

4. A high-ranking American diplomat says: “We (The United States) don’t support Israel’s expansions in the West Bank.”

A respected pollster responds: “The current administration’s opposition to West Bank settlements does not reflect the diversity of opinions held by US citizens, especially American Jews, about expansion in the West Bank. The reality of public opinion is much more mixed and nuanced.”

Speaking for others almost always risks inaccuracy.Those who speak for others tend to over-generalize, or erroneously attribute their personal views to others.

We-Focused Slogans

A second impediment to speaking for self is that many leaders have been trained not to.If you listen to popular opinion, what you hear is we-focused slogans:

“There’s no ‘I’ in T-E-A-M!”

“All for one and one for all!”

“It’s not about me, it’s about us.”

“Marriage means the two become one…”

Deluged by such superficial slogans, leaders and lovers often hesitate to speak for self because they fear being labelled “selfish.”

But it’s speaking for others that’s selfish and controlling, not speaking for self.Note the difference:

Speaking for self:“I want to get some time with you to discuss a path forward for the firm.”

Speaking for others:“We need to discuss a path forward for the firm.”

Reactive Blame

A third impediment to speaking for self is the widespread impulse towards blame displacement:Instead of looking at my own part in a problem or issue, I reactively blame someone else:

“If Hanna wasn’t so talkative, our staff meetings would move along faster.”

“You have this annoying tendency to interrupt me whenever I discipline the kids.”

”They don’t care about their employees.”

“Mark my words, somehow, some way, Obama is behind the climate change scam…”

If speaking for others is a leadership weakness, I consider speaking skillfully on behalf of self an exquisite leadership skill, one which carries the power to transform coaching interactions at work, heighten intimacy among couples, and increase parenting prowess for parents.

Three Forms of Speaking for Self

Three forms of speaking for self offer particularly high value for leaders:(1) Distinguishing one’s opinions and feelings from facts; (2) Strategically disclosing personal data about self; and (3) Taking clear “I” positions.

I’ll address the first of these forms now, and take up the other two in my Jan. 1 blog.

When making assertions, leaders lose credibility when they fail to distinguish between their own view and the “right” view, and between feelings and facts.

In the following pairs of statements, observe the difference between A and B:

A. “He’s the worst team leader the company has ever had.”

B. “In my opinion, he’s the worst team leader the company has ever had.”

A. “Christmas has become a joke. It’s all about consumer frenzy.”

B. “I have become discouraged about Christmas. Others might enjoy it, but for my taste, it’s too materialistic.”

A. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

B. “It’s difficult for me to accept wholesale what you’re saying without firm evidence.”

Notice how the “A” responses feature conjectures, and personal opinions stated as facts.

The “B” responses, on the other hand, reveal one person’s opinion or experience, owned as such, and stated clearly.

The brilliantly clever psychiatrist, Dr. Murray Bowen, remarked:

“There’s the way you see it, there’s the way I see it, and there’s the way it is.”

I try to carry that wisdom in the front pocket of my brain during every coaching interaction.

Next month, I will discuss two other forms of speaking for self: strategic self-disclosures and clear “I” positions.Stay tuned!

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