Coaching Behaviors: A Self-Differentiated Witness

Photo by  Dawn Kim

Photo by Dawn Kim


One of the most important skills a coach has, and they undergo significant training for this, is the ability to maintain their own experience in the presence of others’ anxiety. Self-differentiation sits squarely in the middle of taking a firm stand on our own point of view (our judgment, our decision, or a boundary we set), and remaining connected and attuned to those with whom we take a stand.


It’s sort of like a gyroscope, where all the parts tilt, move and roll, but the center remains firm. Applying this metaphor to our relationships, we maintain an interactional equilibrium: the ability to maintain yourself and your relationships in the face of forces like fear, conflict, judgment, and anxiety.

Coaching without a high degree of self-differentiation can lead to a high degree of reactivity where the coach and the client can lose their balance, responding in automatic, nonconstructive and ineffective ways.

The power of the witness

It’s easy to look at someone else’s decisions and pass judgement. Coaches with a grounding in psychology get trained not to judge and to remain separate yet connected as they intervene with a client on a challenge. Curiosity, genuine nonjudgmental interest, is a quality that needs to be constantly cultivated and practiced.

The witness sees the good, the bad, the terrible, and the mundane. Witnessing a family member, friend, partner or associate’s experience gives it meaning. How we witness one another’s experience makes that experience constructive and positive, or devastating and painful.

In our families and at our work, we hide most of who we really are. There is more than enough judgment to go around and we can almost feel our knuckles being rapped when we play outside the lines. We know how quickly we’d be kicked from the campfire if people could read a ticker-tape of our mind.

Much of our inner monologue might seem foolish: how we felt a strange impulse to burst into tears during a touching commercial of family re-connection; how often we wish we could travel back in time and correct the missed opportunities of our youth, or even just take back what we said to a colleague in our last meeting. Using a harsh lens, some of what is inside can be pretty pitiful: how worried we are about asking a stupid question; how needy we feel for the attention of someone in our group; how much we worry about our appearance. There is also a part of our mind designated for the illegal. This is where the death wishes hang out—our fantasies about a work colleague, or our very plain plans for what we would like to do to a bad boss. But some of what have to contend with is substantial, as we reckon with the vulnerability we feel in undertaking scope with which we have little experience or initial understanding, like leading a team, a division, or a whole company.

When we are under stress, our thinking becomes myopic. We return to what we know works and that knowledge turns into our most powerful hammer. The problem is, not every challenge requires a hammer and our coach can help us acquire a broader perspective so that we can see and learn to develop new tools for the problems that confront us.

Not everyone knows when they need a helping hand. When our world becomes small, we are often counseled to reach out to friends and colleagues (and sometimes coaches!). But we know, deep down, that the social contract in our relationships dictates that we do not burden them with more than a mere fraction of our insanity. There is only so much, we think, we should tell a friend, colleague, or boss before we appear weak, damaged, or put ourselves at risk for being sidelined. All this contributes to our sense of feeling like an imposter, a fraud, or generally undeserving of what we have genuinely earned.

As a safety measure, we filter ourselves. In every interaction, we ensure that there remains a wall between what we say to people and what is truly going on inside our minds.

An exception lies with coaching. Here, remarkably, we can say pretty much anything we want—and expect it to remain confidential. We don’t have to impress the coach or reassure them of our sanity in a particular situation or confirm the insanity in which we operate. We need to be up front, candid, and tell them what is going on. There is no need to stop them thinking we are not completely qualified to do what we do, not worthy of our roles, or just plain terrified. We can gingerly hint that we have some qualities we wish to work on, those shadows in the dark corners of our minds. And, we will find that the coach is not horrified, offended or surprised—only calmly curious. We will learn that we are not frauds, imposters, or undeserving of success. Eventually, we arrive at the opposite of isolation.

A good witness, someone grounded in a science of inquiry, is a model to us on how to become our own advocate.


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