Are you feeling wobbly in your role as a coach? How to be reassuring when you don't feel like you can

Dispelling conventional wisdom about how you 'should' be with your clients

In response to my recent article about wobbly coaching clients, I received a question from Amelia* about feeling wobbly as a coach. It’s a great one that I thought might help others, so thanks Amelia for giving me permission to answer it publicly.

Hi Andrea,

I feel like MY state is up and down [these days]. I'm being as reassuring as I can be [with clients] but I'm aware that while I have a longer term optimism about the situation at hand, my take is that this is a very hard situation for us all to be in, and that it's affecting our ability to concentrate on our work.

In other words, I'd LIKE to be more reassuring than I feel I can realistically be. Any recommendations for that?  

This is a scenario that happens a lot actually. Had a fight with your significant other and have coaching calls in the morning? Maybe you’re getting over feeling sick. Or, right, the Coronavirus has put your plans for the year in the garbage bin.

Sometimes, the best thing to do will be to compassionately draw a boundary and request to reschedule. Most times though, it pays to have a process that you as a coach go through to get yourself in the good coaching headspace where you can deliver powerfully anyway.

In the big picture

For now, two big picture thoughts to set the scene for the more tangible suggestions below. I find it really useful in real-life coaching scenarios to look at (1) the assumptions we’re making, if any (which are the good assumptions and which not so much) and then (2) the expectations that are in play (from us, and expectations the clients may be hanging onto as well.) Here in your question Amelia, I can see a couple:

(1) Is ‘being more reassuring’ the only way to go here? How might being up and down be really okay?

(2) Similarly, how could it be okay that your clients aren’t able to concentrate right now? Is it possible to let ‘we need to concentrate’ go, and add value in another way, like, provide coaching support to this phase of being chaotic? How might this contribute to the outcome you’re supporting them in?

I’d love to hear from you if you relate to Amelia’s question and can see any other assumptions that you could loosen. Just post in the comments.

Some specifics: language, scenarios and possibilities

Now to some specifics. But not without a promise from you first, to take what works for you, and to throw the rest of my comments out. I just feel better about asking that explicitly. You good? Okay. Here we go then with three specific ideas, which I hope can be immediately implemented:

1. Tell the truth about it. (Be human.)

In simple terms, what would make it possible for to say a version of the question to me above, but directly to your client/s? Might this be a case of - as with bugs in software - dropping any pretence, and being transparent about your concern?

"Something I'd love to share with you today as context: this is a very hard situation we're in, and it’s 100% going to impact our ability to concentrate, and get stuff done.

I'm optimistic about the longer term, but if I'm feeling like MY state is up and down, I'm sure you’re going to feel that at some point too. In other words, you're not alone, and you're not doing anything wrong. In fact, you’re doing great under the circumstances! I'd love to be even more reassuring than that, but does that at least give you a sigh of relief that we're in this together?"

Hopefully it’s becoming obvious - I have a beef with the idea that a coach (or parent, or leader of any kind) is supposed to be a perfect neutral clean slate at all times. In fact, I think this expectation can be harmful (1) to the coach for the inevitable crushing failure because this is an unreasonable goal, and (2) to the client because a saintly coach only makes normal emotionality seem less-than. No client wants a coach who makes them feel less-than, right?

Pandemic or no, consider this: occasionally griping about things, expressing your frustration, and letting your more heated emotion out can be helpful.

2. Increase your own support. (Even more than that.)

One of my favourite questions to ask, and to receive when I’m in the client seat, is "what kind of support do you need to ______" where the blank denotes any size or shape desire or goal. So...

"What kind of support do you need in order to stop being passive aggressive to that person?"

"Where are you at with thinker longer term about things, in addition to being tactical? Do you feel a lack of support in any way?"

"Where might we get you more support, Amelia, so you can feel more capacity to reassure your clients?"

Non-fiction anecdote: for clients who are overachievers and stiff-upper-lippers, this question can be all that's needed for the emotions to come up. You hear it I'm sure, in the sample questions. We're asking the question in a way that presumes support is available, that there is an abundance of choice about how it can be delivered, and that it is being actively offered. This expectational tone indicates help is available and can be very tender. But good news: that tenderness is the start of getting unstuck at a deeper-than-usual level.

3. Try the opposite of conventional wisdom. (Be a coach that is ahead of the curve.)

Here's where we challenge common expectations. What are those?

"I'm a coach - my job is to be positive and dispel fear." Check.

"As a coach I need to support people by providing stability, sustaining normality." Okay, I’ll go with that for a moment.

"Coaches are supposed to be better than, or somehow less flawed than regular humans." Lol. Okay, I'm exaggerating a little, but you get the point.

Every great coach draws deeply from the heart to support their clients. It would be unnatural for us to not want to be better versions of ourselves for clients. However sometimes we can be the best versions of ourselves when we look beyond conventional expectations. Specifically, this can show up in internal dialog along the lines of:

"Maybe I don't need to be reassuring at all. Maybe I can give myself the job of being another adjective instead. Maybe I can show up as open and surrendered. Or I can decide to bring humour to the table instead. Perhaps I can channel the personality of someone who relishes things falling completely apart! How many ugh sounds, and groans, and bah humbugs can I use when I talk to my client today? How can I invite clients to do the same?"

Your mileage will always vary with these snippets and examples of potential dialog. But they can be an interesting place to start. How about these suggestions for ways to talk to clients, whether individually or in any group programs:

"I'd love to reassure you better/more, and, I know you trust me to be honest with you. That trust is super important to me. So today I'm not going to reassure you, and lose credibility with you if I do that - because it's hard to reassure when there are only questions right now. Saying everything is going to be okay would be a lie, so instead, I want to invite us to tell the truth... together. Maybe that will wind up beoing reassuring, but that isn't the point. Could we as a group in this coaching call today, each share a word that feels the closest to the truth and why we pick that word?"

"Oh my goodness, just for two minutes before we dive into our call, can I take my coaching hat off, and put my human hat on? Has the (situation) ever been out of this world painful/angering/depressing, eh? Absolutely. It's just one of those overwhelming moments that go beyond words, beyond our known experience. I feel up and down about it, honestly. It's very challenging, for sure. How are you faring? <insert space for a two-minute ‘human to human’ check in> Thank you so much for that couple of minutes to connect, it just didn’t feel right to not acknowledge the context we’re in. What I want to add is that I feel very lucky to get to be here today for you, and I’d love to move to that, so coaching hat back on, what would you like to work on today?"

The upshot: it’s all about the ‘Yes, and.’ You can feel up and down AND be reassuring. You can feel unable to reassure AND support the client. You can feel unable to support the client AND communicate that well. You can need more support for yourself AND still be fit to deliver a great coaching session. Your heart can be breaking with grief AND you can bring value to your sessions.


Critical Thinking and Unconventional Coaching

With some tactics and suggested language under our belts, here are just a final few thoughts on getting yourself ready to coach when you feel like you can’t. This is about busting out of conventional thinking, which in turn leads to increased creativity when in stuck places with clients. It’s a fairly simple idea, though it can take practice, and it is to:

* Lean into fear *

Make a list of the many fears you have, go far and wide to search them out inside you in a kind of impudent tallying of the horrors. This is serious, yes. But what's more serious is denied fear, hidden, sunken, repressed fear. Underground fear, like mould or rot, is more deal with-able when brought to the light and looked at. So lean into it. Unearth it. Fill your journal with it. Make a game out of it. And watch fear get right sized.

Amelia, you still with me? If your clients are having difficulty concentrating or getting focused? Provide permission to be totally unfocused for a spell. Go with it. And maybe get them to lean into their fear of what happens if they aren’t getting their work done, goals reached. Bring the monsters into the light.

A final word...

Doing the opposite will get you out of many of society's thinking ruts, and hopefully allow you to see, that no, you don't have to be a stable, reassuring coach, at least not all the time. In fact I’ll leave you with a final few overt questions:

Would you be open to exploring not being reassuring for your clients? I’m not saying you shouldn’t be, just wondering if exploring that would help you in some way. :-)

Increasing your own support a little or a lot will hopefully open a door to critical shoring up of your own infrastructure. Where are you going to vent off the extra steam? Whose calm ear is for you alone? What spaces are safe to let all your hair down?

The added benefit of telling the truth about things is that you are also being a role model. Our clients are watching us for clues for how to be. Would you have them tough it out, burying their difficulty deep, for ages, and potentially exploding in harmful ways as a result, or would you prefer to help them simply tell the truth? I know, that's a stupid question. #justsaying

TL;DR - In summary

As coaches, it's critically essential that we allow ourselves to be human. When you as a coach are wobbling a little or a lot, I'll wager that it's because you're setting an unattainable, unnecessary high bar for yourself and resetting will give you the space to find your center. Do that, and your energy will naturally become much more reassuring even if cognitively you feel like your honesty makes you vulnerable.

Wobble on, vulnerable, honest, and compassionate, and coach on! Because oh gosh, we need you flexible (not stiff), soft (versus hardened), open (versus controlling or closed). We need that so much, in order to get to the new places we're going in all of this.


Before signing off for today, just one final thing regarding the new newsletter format and website

While I loved our ‘pearl in the oyster’ look from years past, you may have noticed a slightly different format, and platform, for this newsletter this month. I’ve been publishing in various forms since back in the day (2003/2004!?) and am now shifting to the new name “How to be human.” (If you received this in your email inbox, you’re already subscribed - we just changed the name we’re publishing under. Oh, and fyi the missing diagrams from the last issue were my gaffe, you can see them now here.)

Thank you for your amazing support whether you’ve just started reading, or have been around for years.
I hope you enjoy the new writings each week where I’ll be sharing more personally and in more depth than I have previously. Please comment like, share, comment directly on any of the posts so I know what’s useful to you these days.

And if you’re interested in supporting the new format further, this is an early sneak peek: there’s now a paid subscription version available with some fun benefits, including getting your questions answered, like above with Amelia. More details to come, but for those of you who’re ready to jump in - I’d be honoured.


*Amelia is a pseudonym.

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