Coaching Behaviors: Partnership

Photo by  Tom Crew

Photo by Tom Crew


The ongoing contact we have with a coach, the sessions that may last one month, or continue less sporadically over years, contribute to the creation of a partnership. Our coach is a partner in our success and personal and professional mastery of being able to: create, make progress toward, and maintain reasonable goals; manage ourselves amidst our own discomfort and that of others; increase our tolerance for reactivity; and be candid with our experiences. Because these skills are hard for everyone, mastery takes a lifetime. A coach is there for part of that journey.

We are almost certain to have some to see a coach in the first place because, in some way, partnering has become fraught with challenges. We sense the issues, but don’t quite understand the root of the problem. Maybe we try to please too many people. We gain our sense of security from their admiration, but then feel inauthentic or inwardly numb and pull back.  Perhaps we connect strongly at first with a direct, boss, or stakeholder, but then always discover a major flaw that turns us off and baits us to sabotage the relationship by avoiding contact or withholding information that will make them successful, establishing an unproductive cycle.

The relationship with our coach may have little in common with the sort of partnership we elsewhere in our life. Because therapists spend so much time in a client’s past, they remove all potential for collegial rapport. Because coaches focus so much on the present, and partner on strategies for gaining results in the present—this relationship has a bit of latitude.  Some coaches do socialize with their clients; others draw a bright line. Coaches experience a conflict when a private or personal interest appears to influence the objective of his or her official duties as a coach and a professional. When that happens, they openly disclose any such conflict and offer to remove themselves when a conflict arises.

Regardless, unavoidably and conveniently, we bring to our coaching partnership the very tendencies that emerge in our relationships with other people across our web. Here too we may be too quick to bond thinking we have found the safety of a “tribe”, only to cool, or we are too prone to idealization placing the coach upon a pedestal, then gripped by an impulse to flee.

Except that now, when we are with our coach, our tendencies will have a chance to be witnessed, slowed down, discussed, sympathetically explored and—in their more sabotaging displays— overcome. The relationship with the coach becomes a barometer of one’s behavior with people more generally and thereby allows us, on the basis of greater self-awareness, to modify and improve how we relate to ourselves, our teams and stakeholders, and the world at large.


The coaching partnership acts as a microcosm of our general ability to collaborate.


In the context of a coaching session, our biases, idiosyncrasies, beliefs, and habits are observed and can be commented on. We are not criticized, but we are held accountable. The coach notices important information about our character that we deserve to become aware of. The coach will (kindly) point out that we’re reacting as if we had been attacked, when they only asked a question. The coach might focus our attention to how we seem to want to tell them impressive things about our accomplishments for the week (yet they like us anyway). The coach might notice how we seem to rush to agree with them when they’re only exploring an idea to see if it fits our situation and one in which they themselves are not very sure. They see where we adopt attitudes or outlooks that we don’t actually have. They see how committed we seem to be in the idea that they are disappointed in us for our lack of progress or inability to perform under pressure as we might have liked. They will point out our habit of casting people in the present in roles that must derive from the past and will search with us for the origins of these attributions, which are liable to mimic what we felt towards influential caregivers and now shape what we expect from everyone.

The coaching relationship acts as a microcosm of our relationships in general. It makes a unique vehicle for learning about our less noticeable emotional and behavioral tendencies. By re-experiencing relational problems with another person who will not respond as ordinary people will, who will not shout at us, fire us, complain, say nothing or run away, we can be helped to understand what we are up to and given a chance to let new patterns of relating emerge which help us achieve the results we are after.

The partnership with the coach becomes a template for how we might collaborate with others going forward, freed from the maneuvers and background assumptions that we carried within us from childhood, and that can impede us so grievously in the present.

The coaching partnership may be for us the first properly healthy collaboration we have had. We learn to hold off from imposing our assumptions on the other and trust them enough to let them see the larger, more complex reality of who we are—we allow ourselves to be vulnerable as we learn as we manage anxiety, frustration or embarrassment. It becomes a model—earned in a highly unusual situation—that we start to apply in the more mundane aspects of our lives, with our colleagues, bosses, stakeholders, and further aspects of our web.


This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.


Photo by  Neil Thomas

Photo by Neil Thomas


Finding direction for ourselves and/or leading others, at any level, isn’t easy. It’s an invitation into an uncomfortable place filled with doubt, constraints, difficulty, and struggle. When we accept that invitation, we find within ourselves truth, strength, and resilience.

Coaches enter into an ecosystem and understand our position in that system; they do not take on the stresses of our system. They do not prescribe what we should do. They share our concerns, convey empathy with our situation, and help us think creatively about our options. When we are stuck, or performing poorly, thinking creatively is where we are most challenged. Under pressure, we develop a myopic view of what is possible, making most options impossible.

Coaches help us identify our anxieties. They help us better understand mental processes that hold us back, keep us stuck, and inhibit our ability solve problems under pressure. Here, coaches model the behavior we are looking for: to remain independent thinkers while working interdependently to confront challenges constructively.


Coaches demand our willingness to enter into a maturing process that helps increase our resiliency and effectiveness.


As important as self-awareness is, coaches are not there simply for understanding and insights. They demand our willingness to enter into a maturing process that helps increase our resiliency and effectiveness. They require us to take action, learn from our experiences, and set new goals for action that lead to a stronger sense of our leadership presence. The stronger and more robust our presence is—our ability to sit with our own discomfort and the discomfort of others—the easier it will be to integrate practicing the ability to identify reasonable goals, manage ourselves amidst our own discomfort and that of others, increase our tolerance for reactivity, and be candid with our experiences. Mastery of these practices is a lifelong commitment.

In perceiving and reacting to our performance, those around us may be sporadically annoyed, frustrated, jealous, bored, vindictive, keen to prove a point or distracted by their own set of concerns. Coaches bring a focused, generous attention to our situation. They create a safe, no-consequences conversational space, separate from day-to-day pressures. They are genuinely sorry if we have lost political capital on a project for which we bled. They understand that it must have been worrying to get a new boss right before they were promised a promotion, enraging to be overlooked after delivering a key project, or exciting to have acquired a new team. They know what it feels like to be stuck without a sense of direction. They recognize we didn’t do whatever it is we are there to discuss on purpose and assume some logic on our part if we did. They do not flatter us, but they do strive to enter into our experience, shoulder to shoulder, and help us make sense of our experience so that we can see a broader set of choices than the one we originally picked. They look at reality through our eyes so as to start offering an alternative point of view and become an effective sounding board for future decision making.

Such support allows us to exhale and breathe a sigh of relief. Day to day survival in corporate politics (and everywhere else) requires that we constantly weigh the impact of our words and actions on others. We have to consider their priorities, take a genuine interest in their lives, and make room for their concerns.

With a coach, there is little inquiry into their personal experience. The coach inquires what is top of mind for us, not the other way around. The relationship is as one-sided as the parent-advocate who doesn’t expect the child to worry about their sleep, but who provides ground rules to live by.


Leading others, at any level, isn’t easy. It’s an invitation into an uncomfortable place filled with doubt, constraints, difficulty, and struggle. When we accept that invitation we find within ourselves truth, strength, and resilience.


However, the coach does not sacrifice equality in the relationship. They’ll show us understanding while holding us accountable to our goals. They give us tough feedback so we can see reality with greater clarity. They are fully present to help us find what is best for us, understood on our terms.

Support is not just pleasant. Support is structured, and essential to us tapping into our own reserves. Knowing that we have someone in our corner is designed to lend us the courage to face up to experiences we normally avoid. In a sufficiently calm, reassuring and attentive environment, we can look at areas of vulnerability we otherwise lack the courage to tackle. We need to learn to confront our managers unproductive interventions that derail project priorities. We need to make key leadership decisions resulting in team restructuring and strategy shifts. We have to be able to deal with toxic team members in a way that doesn’t blow back on us. Above all, we must know where we are headed on our own life path, and why. With a supportive advocate in our corner, we can summon the vulnerability needed to reflect on our own decisions and behavior—that perhaps we were wrong correcting someone in front of the team, or that we made a hasty career decision that cost us, or that we have been angry with a peer for long enough, that it might be best to outgrow our justifications.

The support of another person gives us the emotional safety needed shine light in a constructive way at our crafty, mysterious, evasive minds.


This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.

Coaching Behaviors: Proximity

Photo by  Markus Spiske

Photo by Markus Spiske


Coaches know a lot about the unembellished truths of human nature and have a broader view of what it means to be normal. They have close-up experience, proximity, working with people who have experienced serious traumas—harassment, layoffs, discrimination—as well as the smaller pains and paradoxes: a grudge provoked by a side look at a person in a meeting that took up the better part of three years; an otherwise amiable person who punched a wall in frustration after a meeting; a smart, capable manager who is no longer performing well or feels stuck; a senior director in midlife at the same level for ten years and getting anxious about retirement; a general manager dealing with self-sabotage and severe reputational damage; a corporate vice president incapable to confrontation.

Because of their orientation, coaches grounded in psychology know that inside every adult there are feelings of confusion, anger, frustration, anxiety and longing to have their say and their reality recognized. Coaches appreciate that we need to know what we know and feel what we feel in order to really know ourselves again. They know we will want to be heard, perhaps through tears or the clenched jaw of frustration, which might be at odds with the surface maturity and self-management normally associated with executives and high performing managers.

Coaches understand what people are like, and how they operate. Therefore, they do not to need to censor or deliver judgments. This experience does not come from theory or books, but by being courageous about knowing their own nature. Coaches may not share our fantasies and anxieties exactly, but they accept that their own are as colorful and as complex as ours. They are just as well acquainted with the powerful and peculiar fears that hold us all hostage.


Coaches have a broader view of what it means to be normal.


Coaches can start to help us because they have a much broader view of what is actually normal versus what we insist on pretending is normal. They have perspective at a time when we probably do not. They don’t require us to be any particular way to protect their fragile sense of self or of reality. Their only requirement is that we admit, without too much defensiveness, to some of what is going on inside us. They ask us to feel what we might have been avoiding or know what we might have been lying to ourselves about in the pursuit of greater self-awareness. Greater self-awareness leads to deeper insights. Deeper insights leads to clearer thinking. When we think more clearly, we can start to take meaningful action.


This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.