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.