Working recently with trainee and beginner coaches, I was struck yet again by their understandable preoccupations and concerns. Chief among these was a combination of self-doubt and doubt about the coaching process. ‘How can I be sure that these apparently simple questions will help my client?’ ‘What happens if I can’t think of the next question?’ ‘Am I good enough to earn the degree of trust that I know is necessary?’ ‘What do I do if my client cries?’
It’s no surprise that new coaches feel like this. What we learn on any decent training programme is the uselessness of giving advice and the need to keep your own ego out of the way. This goes against the grain of so much that we have assumed to be true, for instance that if someone brings us a problem, they are asking us to offer a solution. Coach training invariably points out that this is not what the other person really wants, but if advice doesn’t work, then what do you do instead? Hence the lure of adding to what many coaches refer to as ‘the toolbox’: techniques, protocols, psychometrics… anything that will keep away the frightening prospect of it just being you and the client having a discussion.
Unfortunately there are many people in coaching, often positioning themselves as gurus, who appear to promise that their particular ‘tool’ or technique will deliver magical results. No experience necessary: just apply a certain remedy (this often involves walking about, drawing pictures, changing chairs, going up or down imaginary steps or into an imaginary environment with imaginary people) and all will be well. Alas, what you are likely to discover when you rely on these tools is that on their own they get the client precisely – nowhere. Or else you get a short term improvement but nothing substantial changes. The reason is that the bigger the client’s problem, the more likely it is to be deeply rooted in long-standing assumptions developed in childhood and not seen for what they are: flawed ‘rules’ which have the awesome power of superstition.
This idea can be terrifying to new coaches. This is not why they wanted to become coaches! They have been led to understand that coaching is somehow simple, that human change is easy, that all they need is empathy and a few of those ‘techniques’; now they are finding that none of this is true. As a result, once they start practising in the ‘real world’ of people who are not fellow participants on a training course, a vast number of these beginner coaches flee in dismay, deciding that coaching is not for them, and perhaps for some of them it is not.
The truth is that to be a coach you need ‘psychological-mindedness’. Part of this is to understand how and why human beings can on the one hand say how desperately we wish for change and on the other are absolute experts at self-sabotage. You need to know that our claims to rationality are misleading, that we are profoundly irrational and led by our emotions for much of the time and that much of this is at the level of unconsciousness. The more important and necessary the change, the more self-awareness we need and the more resistance we will create. Part of the coach’s role is to accept this, to show clients how it happens and to go with them without judgement on that journey into the unknown.
There are many ways to acquire this knowledge and skill, but all of them will acknowledge the importance of early life experience. For accessibility it is hard to beat Transactional Analysis (TA) and there are many other schools of psychotherapy that have much to offer coaches without in anyway encouraging us to see ourselves as therapists – a different process with a different emphasis. In my own case, over the years I have learnt much from TA and from the existential school of psychotherapists, particularly from Irvin Yalom, whose books continue to inspire me. More recently I have learnt a massive amount from my friend and colleague Julia Vaughan Smith and from her work with Professor Franz Ruppert. Julia and I are now running one-day masterclasses in London to introduce these ideas to coaches who are well past the beginner stage and are looking for new and practical ways to understand and influence the deep-rooted issues that so many clients bring. To note: our definition of trauma is not the conventional one. It encompasses the ‘imperfect love’ that so many of us experience as children.
The next event is in Central London on May 16, 2019
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