We never really work with ‘just an individual’ because human beings always exist within systems of relationship. (Malcolm Parlett)
You’re not alone. Neither are your colleagues or clients. OK, you may be alone in a room together (if I can use ‘alone’ and ‘together’ in the same breath like this) for a meeting, a training workshop, a catch-up, a coaching conversation. As you focus intently on the other person or group – their goals, interests, ideas, concerns etc. – it can be as if the wider world and its noisy distractions fade out of existence, at least for a moment. There is just you…and me…and us. Our space.
It is a kind of sacred space and it can feel – spiritual. It has a person-centred quality about it. We may conceive of what we bring as the gift of our presence, attention and expertise. It can be immensely affirming for the other and it ensures they feel seen, heard, valued and understood. It can feel like offering…love. But far be it from us to use the L word in a corporate context! So we will sanitise it for now with culturally-safer words like empathy and respect. Still with me?
Now a sting in the tail. There are some important risks here. In our heartfelt desire to be client-focused, how often do we hear trainers and coaches say things like, ‘My job is to help you reach your goals’ or, in marketing-speak, ‘Your success is my success’? I get the principle but it can lead us to approach our work in a blinkered way, as if the person exists in a relational, cultural and contextual bubble. Where are the ethics in this if our sole focus is on the client or group?
Take the person whose success will undermine the success of peers in other teams or the wider strategy of the organisation. Or the person whose success will impact negatively on people and groups in the wider community, e.g. politically, economically or environmentally. Our well-meaning interventions can inadvertently collude with or even facilitate hidden or unintended consequences. So: what can we do to address this? What are we willing to take responsibility for?
‘That was hard work. Exhausting. How to keep thinking of good questions…and then even more good questions??’ I hear this time and again from coaches and from leaders who are keen to develop a coaching style. The pressure is on to create a magical experience, find a ground-breaking solution, that leaves the other person feeling totally dazzled and impressed. Or at least that they found it useful enough to warrant paying you a fee - if you’re coach or trainer in private practice(!)
But what is really going on here? Whose conversation is it? Who is responsible for any outcome that is achieved? Is it really all down to the leader, coach or trainer to make something happen? What part does the client play in enhancing their own performance and development? In my experience, these are really important questions to think though, discuss and contract around with the client. It clarifies and manages mutual expectations and forms a healthy, effective relationship.
A key principle is to build the client’s capacity to make best use of the resources, the opportunities, that are available to them through me and, by extension, in other situations. This often entails supporting and challenging them to develop their personal leadership: that is, their ownership, proactivity, resourcefulness and influence over their own learning and growth. This could involve, say, working to develop a curious, assertive stance in place of a more defended, passive one.
So, in practice, irrespective of the person’s presenting issue, we will spend time negotiating and contracting explicitly around, e.g. ‘What are we here to do?’, ‘What do you want to be different?’, ‘How shall we do this?’ and ‘What are you willing to take responsibility for?’ This reinforces what we do as a coactive process in which the client, rather than coach, takes a lead role. And, critically, it ensures that we focus our attention and approach on what the client will find most useful.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.