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Coaching Clinic Lesson #9: Speaking for Self (II)

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

Most leaders I know talk too much.

Even though they have a lot to say, only rarely do they speak about themselves in any depth.

As a result, they miss many opportunities for connection and clarity.

In last month’s blog (click here) I mentioned three forms of speaking for self that offer particularly high value for leaders. The first of these – distinguishing opinions and feelings from facts – was explored at the end of that blog.

This month, I will focus on two other valuable ways to speak for self: Strategic self-disclosure and clear “I” positions.

Strategic Self-disclosure

Think about self-disclosure as an intentional strategy of “letting others in.”

Why would I want to give up privacy by disclosing something about myself to one of my children, friends or key work colleagues?

The biggest reason is connection. I self-disclose because when another gains access to my inner experience, an emotional connection organically takes place. This emotional connection enables greater ease and depth of conversation.

For example, we are now able to discuss important topics that we previously avoided. We now understand more about the other’s thought process and life experience, which provides useful context for future interactions.

Self-disclosure offers a way for two individuals whose interactions are superficial or distant to communicate with greater substance and comfort.

When I let others in, I communicate to them about me:

“This is what I’m thinking”

“This is what happened to me”

“This is what I’m experiencing”

“This is what I’m learning”

“This is what I’m noticing”

“This is what I’m hearing”

“This is what I’m feeling”

“This is what I’m wondering”

Thoughtful leaders of organizations – including parents – make their self-disclosures intentional and purposeful, rather than “blurting.”

How does a leader decide when and with whom to self-disclose? Numerous life/work relationships can gain from connection animated by self-disclosure:

  • A relationship I want to grow

  • A person with whom I have been out of contact

  • A relationship that needs repair or improvement

  • A person who sees me as arrogant, unapproachable, intimidating, or fragile

  • A person to whom I want to teach the value of connection, e.g., one whose own relationships tend to be superficial, or strained

Like all positive strategies, self-disclosure – and the connection it fosters – can go too far, leading to emotional attachment and fusion. This occurs, for example, when expectations become demands, or when one individual “gives up self” to maintain closeness.

The trick is to learn how to connect through candid self-disclosure, while maintaining enough emotional separateness. This is the dance that defines a healthy marriage, partnership and friendship: “How do I maximize the benefits of connection without permitting that connection to rule my life?”

A balance point is the aim.

Most leaders err on the side of excessive privacy and concealment. Uncomfortable issues get avoided. Lack of open communication infects the marriage. Key employees have no real understanding of their boss.

That’s why self-disclosure and connection are so important.

Clear “I” Positions

One particularly powerful form of self-disclosure deserves its own description: Clear “I” positions.

An “I” position refers to one’s achievement of internal clarity about:

“What I want”

“What I don’t want”

“What I need/require”

“What I don’t need/require

“What I will do”

“What I won’t do”

An “I” position is first and foremost, a position, not a statement, question or news sharing. It tells others what you have decided and where you stand. When well-thought out and succinctly communicated, “I” positions give parents and business leaders a powerful relationship-building tool, and an unparalleled strategy for delivering clarity.

When coaching, for example, consider the difference between A – a weak message – and B – a strong “I” position - in the pairings below:

A – “You aren’t communicating very clearly.”

B – “I want to understand what you are trying to say right now.”

A – “Our coaching sessions are too formal and task-driven.”

B – “I want to show up more relaxed and candid in our conversations.”

A – “We need a clear agenda in order for this to work.”

B – “I don’t want to coach you unless I have a clear agenda from you at least a day in advance.”

Clear “I” positions begin with self-awareness.

First, I focus on what my position is. Next I decide if it needs to be communicated, and to whom. Then I work on crafting the “I” position so that it offers no hint of blame.

Because I am clear about what I want, doesn’t mean I will always get what I want.

Because I am clear about what I will do and won’t do, doesn’t mean others will go along with it.

When taking an “I” position, I need to be prepared for both push-back and negotiation.


I’ve tried to emphasize the importance of speaking for self instead of hiding in "We," "People," "You," and "They."

I believe in the importance of self-clarity, courageous stands, and "letting others in" to one's genuine thoughts, feelings and views. These are important aspects of emotional maturity that support connection and leadership.

That said, those who represent groups, teams and organizations routinely MUST speak for others, particularly in delivering messages to the outside world - media, prospects, clients and the wider society.

The reality leaders live in is that sometimes it’s important to speak for the group, and sometimes it’s important to speak only for self.

When to speak for others and when to speak for self is the first challenge. The second challenge is to speak in a manner that is wise and skillful.

The goal is to avoid saying “I” when “We” is more accurate and to avoid saying “We” when “I” is more accurate.

Wishing you calmness and focus for the New Year!

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