Not all of coaching happens with a coach. One of the most challenging parts of becoming a good coach, I find, is accepting that my clients will do the really transformative work without me. I cannot do any of this for them. If I tried to help them, that would be really unhelpful of me. ‘Shut up and go away Anna!’, I tell myself.
On the other hand, one of the most rewarding parts of being a coach is when coachees let you in on the journey you couldn’t see. It’s maybe two weeks since you saw them, and you remember that place you left them in. Sometimes it was quite a difficult place. You remember them telling you how trapped they feel, how the walls in their head are just hanging with bogeys, how even though they can tell themselves all the wise things, they can’t seem to move on. Then they walk into the room — and your eyes pop. They don’t need to say a word: their energy is beaming right at you.
I believe that all the resources my clients need to live a fulfilled life are right there inside them. My job is help them unlock these resources, and use them boldly and wisely. But do they really need me to do this? Take a look online, and there are so many more tools out there, designed precisely to help people unleash their powers! Packs of cards, exercise books, games, wheels, kanbans… Sometimes my clients bring these to me, wanting to work through them together. Or sometimes I bring them into our coaching sessions, or send clients away with a tool to use in their ‘homework’. And of course I use them myself! Some repeatedly…
Does this leave me questioning whether I really have a role to play as a coach? I know redundancy is a common anxiety, but I also acknowledge it as a real risk in our rapidly changing world — and I think this is true of every profession. There are many aspects of a coach’s role that I think a well designed tool can replicate — and likely robots will do very well soon enough. But some things a good human coach will do are crucial to your transformation, and lie beyond what you can do for yourself, with or without supporting tools.
Here are three of them. What others have you found?
1. Seeing and hearing you
The American writer Jonathan Friesen says everyone in the world has two questions on their minds: ‘Does anybody see me?’ and ‘Does anybody like what they see?’ Not only do we want to be seen and heard, but there is a profound impact when we are. I was tempted to write ‘simply seeing and hearing you’ — but no, this isn’t simple. Some of us go through most of our days without really being listened to deeply. I have worked with high school leavers, particularly in Singapore and Hong Kong, and found myself in the sadly privileged position of being the first person to ever prompt them to think about what really matters to them, the first person to give them time and space to explore this.
Even for those who are highly self-aware and articulate about their needs and aspirations, there is something very powerful in another person’s recognition. A good coach is more than a mirror. They listen, and reflect back what they are hearing and seeing: this isn’t always exactly what client says in words. Sometimes it’s what the client says in their eyes and body language, or what the client keeps avoiding. A good coach will also take what they hear, see and observe, and show the client the big picture.
Before I left my job in Singapore to go independent and move to Hong Kong, one coach said to me: “What I actually see is a little goat standing on the edge of a deep but narrow precipice, smelling the fresh green grass on the other side, and desperately wanting to jump.” Not only was she spot on, but I happen to love goats, and so the image she chose challenged me deeply.
2. Going with you
A coach is a companion to your journey. You — the client — are the one in control: you decide the destination, and you take the driving seat. But sometimes the car simply doesn’t start. Or it stays stubbornly in the garage. Or it goes round and round the carpark. Or it just sits on the motorway and follows the other cars — forgetting that you actually wanted to go to the beach, not the mall.
The coach is there, holding your map (as we did before GPS), saying — ‘Don’t you want to take that turn?’ Sometimes, when you are really holding back, the coach takes the wheel and goes down the road, and makes you get out of the car and stand there, in the scary place, seeing how it actually feels — helping you work out whether you wanted it after all.
I did this with a client last week. She badly wanted to say something, to let something out that was making her really angry and stopping her moving on. I banged my fist on the table and shouted it. She looked terrified, then laughed, then let it out: the fireball of anger, the tears, the really hurtful words. It was tough. She was really shaken and went quiet, eyes shut, head down. I felt scared. Had I gone too far? Eventually I breached her silence and asked, ‘Where are you now?’ She looked at me, very clear eyes behind those tears, and said: “I’m lying in a meadow, looking at the sky. It’s beautiful.”
3. Holding you to account
We all know what it feels like to have made a resolution and not kept it. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit to others. It’s easy to excuse to ourselves. Of course there are always reasons not to do what matters to us, but what is the cost? At best, a sorry-looking dry patch in your garden, at worst, a mountain of missed opportunities with a brightly coloured flag on top labelled ‘Your life’.
Only you are really accountable to yourself. Only you can really assess that cost. But a coach will hold you to it. I know this is powerful because sometimes my clients apologise to me. This is the start of the road for them, realising that it’s not me that they are letting down. There are different ways in which I can hold them accountable. Even the date in their diary for our next session is a useful prompt. In each session, I ask them to commit to something, the precise first step they need to take, by a deadline, with some way of showing me that it is done. I love it when my clients show me what they have done. One told me a story recently of what she had done, and I felt so proud of her I cried! But the real reward is hers.
It’s not just about what you do. It’s about what you set out to do. A good coach will hold you to the stretch targets. I’m reminded of one of my primary school teachers, who set the whole class of 10-year-olds the task of writing a novel. We all rose to it. And I know this is why I could then, in my late 20s, decide I would write and publish a book.
Getting the relationship right
So these are three of the things I’ll give you as a coach, that you can’t give yourself: I’ll see you, I’ll go with you, and I’ll hold you to your dreams. The key to this is a good relationship. It doesn’t take years to establish, it takes design. You have to be clear about what you need to feel safe, and how far you want to go. If you don’t trust your coach, you won’t go very far.