I did a coaching demonstration in front of a group of experienced mentors this weekend. In feedback afterwards, one person asked how I managed to (a) engage enough with the person to ensure they felt heard and understood and yet (b) remain disengaged enough to avoid being drawn too far into their situation with them. Another participant posed a similar question: how do I empathise and convey empathy to a person whilst holding a retaining a healthy and useful degree of detachment?
These are great and important questions for leaders, coaches and facilitators. Earlier in my career, I was working as an internal OD consultant and one of my client groups said they thought it would be helpful if I could know more about their work and become more embedded with them. I felt a bit concerned at hearing this (‘Are they saying I don’t understand them and, therefore, I’m not able to add enough value?') so spoke with my supervisor. He responded wisely: ‘Don’t play into that game.’
He was right. I order to add optimal value in that situation, I needed to understand and feel just enough of the client’s situation and experience to give them confidence that I was with them and, at the same time, to remain sufficiently detached to be able to bring fresh insight, perspective and challenge. The risk of being ‘embedded’ is that we become too immersed in the same institutional influences, agendas, cultural dynamics and personal circumstances that the client already is and feels stuck in.
So how to engage yet disengage? How to hold that creative tension without snapping in one direction or the other? Here are some ideas: 1. Be clear about your role in that situation – what it is you are there to be and do. 2. Pay attention to what you see, hear and feel when you are with the client, team or organisation – key headlines, themes, metaphors, intuitions and emotions. 3. Offer your insights as process observations - ‘What I’m noticing is…X…what I’m aware of is…Y’ How about you?