The anxious coach?

21st November by George Warren

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There is a danger in our work, that if we have not done enough work on ourselves, that we bring our fear, our anxiety, our nervousness into the coaching conversation in a way that is not helpful for the person opposite us, or wider stakeholders.

If a part of us is predisposed to people pleasing, how might that be showing up in our coaching? At what cost?

Mentally and emotionally preparing for sessions

I admire the ICF for inserting ‘Mentally and emotionally prepares for sessions’ (2.7) into its competency framework. In my own journey, I took this at face value - allowing time to settle before a session. Getting some fresh air before a session. Grounding myself with some breaths before a session. Listening to a piece of music to bring me back to the present.

But I now view this much more expansively. I take it to mean really investing in my own psychological readiness. Readiness to hold the space for my client, readiness to not flinch from strong emotions that might be uncovered. Readiness to take risks, to get things wrong, to lean into courage, intuition, the illogical.

Some of the voices I respect most profoundly in the coaching world have spoken on how working with a therapist has made them a much better, safer, more effective coach. Having started to work with a therapist I can attest to the numerous benefits, personally and professionally.

What better way, for example, to clarify your own boundaries between coaching and therapy than to experience both for yourself?

And yet, therapy is but one way to, more deeply, mentally and emotionally prepare for sessions. I support the view of Clare Norman that both supervision and mentor coaching form a solid investment in the competent, confident and safely operating coach.

Anxiety —> adding value

Most coaches in their training and first few years of practice are not over-confident. While some are, the majority of coaches are keen, often anxious, to add value to their clients.

If we don’t fully value ourselves, it is natural for us to assume the person opposite us won’t fully value us too. In times of uncertainty, or discomfort, it is understandable to slip back into habits which have worked for us previously.

Perhaps you aren’t able or willing to fully trust the coaching process. Perhaps there is so much cognitive noise going on, such a keenness to ‘get it right’ that you’re forgetting or ignoring the resourcefulness in the person sitting opposite you.

Let’s say a client is stuck and says, ‘I don’t know’. It seems that, if we slow it down, some coaches would rather provide that assumed value in the moment - perhaps offering ideas, ways forward, their own experience - viewing the stuckness as a bad thing. Fearing the client might not find it useful. Slipping into a greater sense of commoditisation, worried about not being asked back for another session.

A key shift in my own journey was to shift something internally. To not fear fumbles, silences, not knowing. To not fear getting to the end of the session without a eureka moment. To sit comfortably in the uncomfortable not knowing or stuckness with my client, and to show it curiosity. If challenge has been contracted for, to explore how my client has contributed to their own stuckness. If high challenge has been contracted for, perhaps to provoke or stress-test that part of them knows exactly what to do.

Our desire to avoid rejection, a hard-wired fear of social rejection and the shame that might come along with that, can often manifest in coaches not really coaching in the moment. But consulting, leading, manipulating in coach’s clothing. More severely, this could also coaches dangerously trying to attend to a topic or client when counselling or therapy is a more appropriate form of support.

Playing with time

A metaphor I often use with coaches I work with is this.

If you or your client is really keen for you to give them a solution, your advice, and you do so it may well help them. In the short term. Like a piece of candy. Feels great at the time. Spike of energy that goes quite quickly. Ultimately, not nourishing. We need more.

A more traditional coaching approach, fostering the environment where they can think and feel for deeply and find their own solution, way forward. Harder work initially. But it’s like cooking a really nice, healthy meal. More satisfying. More nourishing.

Yes, you’re helping your client either way. But in the latter, you’re helping them more profoundly, over a longer time frame.

I also offer the theory of learned helplessness. Imagine you’ve got a client who, whether from work or wider experiences, doesn’t believe it is possible to come up with their own resolution. If you continue to act in a way that doesn’t explore their own resourcefulness you risk colluding with, deepening and perpetuating their learned helplessness.

When is anxiety good?

In our contexts today anxiety is at once both a pathologised disorder and a natural human and biological experience. When can a sense of anxiety be helpful as a coach?

I often advocate that as a coach, your body is your best coaching tool. To drop down into your experience, and notice physical, emotional - logical or not - and to, appropriately offer those back to your client that they might evoke new awareness.

If you notice a tension in your own chest, a heaviness, then it might be that your mirror neurons are picking up on something. Something your client might not be even conscious of. It can be deeply powerful to self-disclose and share something of your own experience in that moment, that it might offer either very helpful feedback or might help your client connect to their own experience at a deeper level.

What helps us know what is ‘our stuff’ and best kept out of the conversation - and what might be helpful for the client? Like so much of coaching, there is no ‘right’ answer, there is only nuance and shades of grey.

In my own journey, the greatest help with this has been the continued enquiry, reflection, curiosity into myself - doing the work on myself.

A big thank you to coach and AoEC Faculty member - George Warren. You can check out his latest reflections and articles which are shared via the Edge of Coaching and Slowing Down newsletters and tune into his informative and engaging podcast series - the Edge of Coaching here.