When in doubt (the balance of humility and confidence in coaching)

Two important qualities for coaches to have are humility and confidence. They sound like two unusual companions so let me explain more. Without humility, it is very difficult to be in inquiry and tune into someone else’s world to be curious about it. Instead, we may well be working from well-formed assumptions that have served us well for a long time rather than noticing what informs the worlds of our clients. 

Acting from humility, the client and their agenda take the lead – not our coaching expertise. It enables us to be reflective and to look for answers outside of ourselves. In addition, someone with humility is engaged in a continual learning journey. Darya Funches talks of ‘transforming ourselves as we help others in the change they seek……’ As we seek ways to progress, we constantly search for ways to decrease the doubt we have in our ability.

How does confidence come into play? When I think of confidence, it is an ability to hold and trust in myself and the situation. It is also laced with courage which in a coaching situation, means that I don’t simply rush to act or intervene. Everybody in coaching faces those moments when we feel exposed, or unsure what to do. We need confidence in the process, the coaching space, our skills and the client we are sharing the moment with, to be able to hold such moments.

The combination of the two – humility and confidence – can seem contradictory but echo a comment made by Jim Collins’ on Level 5 leadership attributes – the top level. He said: “We looked at a factor we called the Window and the Mirror, noting that Level 5 executives tended to look in the mirror and blame themselves for mistakes. However, when things were good, they would look out the window and proclaim either how everyone in the company was wonderful or how factors of fortune caused success”. This seems to resonate with the best coaches I know. They are always ready to improve and sharpen their skills and learning as they see it as an honour and a privilege to coach others and to help them to grow. It is not about ego and prestige but a continuing momentum to get better at what can be achieved in coaching, from a value-led sense of responsibility towards making things work.

What follows are practical ideas which relate to those moments of difficulty and doubt during a coaching session and ways to overcome them. If you find yourself in a moment of discomfort in the coaching, pause and ask yourself what is happening and use some of the following ideas. These are not a definitive list of all doubts. You may well have others.

  1. When you feel a lack of connection to your client and the conversation seems to be going through the motions. Early on in the relationship, this could be because your client is expecting you to tell them what to do to get out of their difficult situation. That is what many people are used to – being told what to do. Coaching requires them to reflect more deeply on their own situation and access a new layer of awareness. It is always good to ask such a client at the end of the session: what is it like to be listened to in this way? As one person said to me: ‘After all this time of working in isolation, I now find myself greedy for attention’. One client who was new to coaching asked what was the purpose of coaching. I gave examples and he asked if sessions could cover softer skills. I did a leap for joy at this breakthrough moment. We were able to explore his style of leadership and where he felt it lacked impact. Coaching uses softer skills (observation, listening and questioning) to explore what can be seen as the softer, less tangible aspects of leadership. As a colleague of mine once said ‘We call them the softer skills but in reality they are the harder ones to learn’.
  2. Another situation is when the scenario under discussion is outside of your technical understanding and you are asking yourself ‘Can I do this? I don’t have the necessary expertise.’ It is at such a moment that it is good to remember that too much expertise can land you in the stickiness of detail. What you are able to do is ask questions of your client to find out: What are the priorities in this? What is the challenge in this for you? Where can you get specialist support to help you?
  3. In a similar way, we can work with people who are going round and round in circles about a situation. This may have arisen because they are working in isolation, their manager/organisation might keep changing their minds, the context is complex and the influencing factors keep changing. What you can do is to ask: what is the basic truth here now? What do you know? What do you not know but could find out? What do you need to do to access that information? What is unknowable at this given moment? How best to manage this?

When people are stressed, they tend to forget that there are some concrete data around which they can build a response, before conflating that into a general confusion of all that is not yet clear. A very practical thing to do is to ask your client to name all the things they can think of that are important, but not known. Having named them, I say then that we will return to them during our next session and move the conversation on. This action releases the power of these factors which a client cannot control. At the next session, we consider what we need to add to the list (new unknowns) and what to remove (resolved or now known). This is a way of de-mystifying the situation and showing the client where they can operate and make choices instead of slipping into patterns of powerlessness, where they are waiting for all the information before they act.

  1. Alternatively, you may be working with someone who is overwhelmed by the amount of information in their head and they want to share all the details with you. You wonder where you can possibly start. When I find myself hearing more and more detail I will intervene and say that I don’t need to hear it all, just the most pertinent facts. After a deluge of information, it can be good to ask: If you had to summarise this in two sentences what would you say? I would then ask what patterns there are in what they have been saying and if that feels too difficult because they are too close to it, then I would offer patterns that I am noticing. This helps then to have a conversation about which patterns the client wants to amplify as being most connected to the outcome they want.
  2. When you are working with someone who seems to become more overwhelmed as they talk about their issue, I may well feel a sense of heaviness too. This is harder to notice if you are working remotely but if you begin to feel that your questioning has become an interrogation then I would normally suggest doing something completely different, such as a technique to get them out of their heads or to take a break to unfreeze the current situation. I felt dreadful recently when a client of mine mentioned a developing headache by the end of the coaching. We did not have the camera on and I presumed that all was OK until it came to light that she needed to take a break at the end of the session before returning to work. What have I learned? When you are talking about deep stuff, it is good to keep checking in with the client. ‘How are you as you talk about this?’ or any other such questions which is tuning into the impact of the coaching. Our clients are polite and may not ask for space, unless they feel they have permission. The next time I worked with this client, we spoke about the experience and how to manage it if the same happened again. We also established how she wanted to feel by the end of that session and showed how we can achieve this by pacing and managing the weight of our thoughts and feelings.
  3. If you work with someone whose answers are all based on probable actions and you don’t get a sense of commitment to the problem or resolution, you can ask a more direct question such as: how much does this matter? What is the urgency here? How significant will this be in 6 months, 1 year, 5 years (whichever period feels most relevant?) This brings some focus to the conversation. You need this for traction to find where change can come in.
  4. Sometimes it feels that you are hearing a conversation that has been repeated several times to others. I don’t mind this if it is a developing conversation which brings clarity. The problem comes when their beliefs become more intransigent, the more they speak with others. In this situation, I will ask: how can we talk about this in the coaching to bring you to a different place? How can I help you in my role as coach? If the situation is one where they have to come to terms with a decision that they don’t agree with, but that is out of their control, then I would ask questions such as: what would be the perspective from the other person/party? where is there agreement or common ground? Where is the source of tension? What are your options given the situation? What do you want if the situation stays the same?

Finally, two responses that work, if you feel your client is stuck, is firstly to change the level at which they explore the issue – make it broader if they are only considering the perspective of the individual. What about the perspective of the team, the organisation, the sector? Or vice versa, if they are too broad in their thinking: what is your part in this? How do you contribute to these behaviours? Secondly, relate what you are hearing back to the goal for the coaching session. How does this relate to what you wanted to be the focus for this call? What is the relevance for you?

The best coaches have the humility to notice that things are not going smoothly within a conversation, rather than being caught up in the process or performance. What notes have you made about what you are learning in your coaching, about the inner inquiry you conduct during the course of your coaching?

As a client, have you asked your coach what they are learning about their practice during their coaching of you? This is all about the concern and passion to continue to develop ones craft. Everyone I work with is unique and so my coaching experiences give me rich seams to learn from.

Can you identify what gets you through the difficult moments of coaching in the best service of your client? At its root will be the confidence that everything you need is right in front of you (David Drake and principles of narrative coaching) and find a way through.

Confidence without humility will lead to coaching someone down a path you feel secure about. But your client is not you.

Humility without confidence will make it harder for the coaching session to be purposeful and will become more like counselling.

Confidence and humility will enable a conversation to happen that your client will not have easily elsewhere and you will witness the transformation as a result.