It’s been three years now since I started calling myself a coach. I’ve worked with a whole range of people. It’s been challenging, it’s been enlightening, and it’s been deeply fulfilling.
Sometimes, a client’s life has been truly transformed – issues that have blocked them for decades dissolves, and a new path opens up in front of them.
Sometimes I’ve worked with a client and we didn’t fit that well, and I think they walked away feeling grateful but a little disappointed.
Sometimes it’s not until 6 or 12 months after the coaching that my clients tell me everything has changed, and how thankful they are for the work.
I’m still very much a student of coaching, but I feel it’s time to speak to some of the principles that I’ve discovered in my work.
This is not an exhaustive list. Neither is it particularly carefully structured. It’s a bunch of ways I think about coaching, and things I try to remember every time I sit down with a client.
These are not principles of coaching.
They are principles of my coaching.
If they don’t work for you, please ignore them completely. If they do work, use them.
1) You have to coach your way
When you try to be a “good” coach, when you attempt to get it “right”, when you do your very best to fit in with what a coach is expected to do, you will strangle the mojo. Your mojo. Your way.
Coaching is simply a method of helping someone. How do you want to help them? How do you organically work with someone if you drop the ideas of best practice?
Do you want to create a safe space, listen deeply, and help them extract their own answers? Do you want to lovingly challenge the fuck out of them, express your opinions, and push them?
Do you feel more powerful when you keep the pace really slow, and explore the somatic and emotional feelings of the moment? Do you like to ignite the fireworks of ideas and dreams, and be buffeted by their explosiveness?
There’s no code. There’s no rulebook. There are no guaranteed steps to success. There are no models of perfect practice.
There’s you, your client, and the conversation that wants to occur between you. It’s an emergent mystery.
Do it your way. Find your way. Take risks to understand your way. Reflect to define your way.
It never ends. But it’s your way.
2) Surrender and desire in the face of the unknown
To coach someone is to enter into the unknown. For an hour or more, you’re going to enter a conversation, a meeting, and neither of you knows what’s going to happen.
And yet, into this unknown space, we bring things.
I bring into the conversation a desire to really get this person in front of me – who they really are. I want to feel their pain, and their desire. I want to understand what they’re being called to, and help them face it. I strive to orient them from what is most true.
My clients bring their aspirations and struggles, and the commitment they’ve made to the coaching journey. They often bring questions or specific challenges. Sometimes they come with an epiphany they’ve had since our last conversation, and a new view of their reality. They bring their fears and wounds. They bring their brilliance and natural wisdom.
And we enter unknown territory.
We surrender to what wants to emerge in the space between us. We surrender to the great mystery. And let the conversation surprise us.
We follow our desire. We create the conversation we want to have. We envision the life they want to live.
And we see what happens.
3) It’s about them
It’s not about you.
It’s not for your gratification. It’s not meant as a support for your insecurity. It’s not supposed to validate your sense of worth.
The purpose of the work is for you both to serve one of you.
The coach gets helped too in the process. But the goal is to serve the client. This is what distinguishes coaching from a friendly chat, or brainstorming, or a healing treatment, or a strategy meeting.
You’re both there to help them create something they want. It’s about them.
4) You’re not impartial
It’s about you too. How could it not be? You can’t turn off your own humanity.
Therapy mistakenly believed we could be ‘impartial’. It’s a nice idea, and a noble intention, but impossible in reality.
Don’t pretend you don’t have opinions. You do.
Don’t hide your intuitions, because you’re supposed to be objective. You’re not.
You have desires. You feel things about the relationship, and your client. It’s not a problem. It’s not something to hide.
Your job is to learn how to include yourself in the conversation such that it is in the most service of your client.
If you’re sitting there watching as they desperately scrabble around for an answer, commendably being “impartial” when you actually know exactly what they need to hear. Say it.
If you’re growing irritated by their avoidance of something, and you realize you want to go deeper. Reveal it. Tell them, and then hash it out.
Learn to feel when it’s the right time to keep quiet, and when it’s the right time to reveal your own experience.
5) The truth of language
If you’re going to play in the depths with people, you need to understand how the words we use, open or close the moment.
Sometimes I have intuitions about big decisions my clients make. I feel whether the direction will truly serve them. Sometimes I tell them.
Perhaps they’ve just been asked to take part in a big new project, and they’re thinking of doing it. But believe its resistance at play, tempting them away from the thing they actually want to be doing. I decide to tell them.
“That’s not a good idea. You shouldn’t do that.”
If I say it like this, I close the conversation. Instantly. Not because I’m being “negative”, but because I’m not being linguistically accurate.
My statement is factually untrue.
It’s not objectively a “good” or “bad” idea. There’s no universal rule that says “you shouldn’t.” These are not objective facts. And if I convey them this way, I either close down my client and they lose touch with their own centre. Or they feel unseen, or pissed off, and they throw up their guard, or withdraw.
It’s an opinion, not a fact. And more importantly it’s my opinion. So share your opinions, as opinions, and you’ll maintain a free market on “the truth”, helping both of you find more of it.
“I don’t believe that’s what you really want to do.”
Then you can have an honest conversation about it.
6) I love my clients
I love who they are, and who they become as we explore what they’re really called to.
I think about them before sessions. They pop up in my awareness from day to day. I’ll text them sometimes. I’ll forward links sometimes. I do it with ex-clients too.
I want my clients to succeed. Because if there is anything I wish for a human being, it’s that they continually discover who they are, and express themselves in the world through art and service. That they contribute, and change things.
So when I see the people I work with travelling this path it gives me enormous fulfilment and pride.
And if I ever notice myself getting wrapped up in trying to “be a good coach” or get validated by them, I pause, and I put my attention on my heart, and my love for them.
7) Challenge them, as love
And when I love them, I can begin to really challenge them. I can push them because it’s what my heart wants to do with them, for them.
“I think you’re hiding. And I think you know it too. But you’re afraid, so you’re not listening to yourself.”
Challenging my clients has been a challenge for me! I don’t want to upset people, I don’t want to offend them, make them angry so they pull away from me. I’m British. One needs to be polite. I’m also introverted. I like peace and harmony.
But when I have my heart open, my anger can flow in service of them. Not with aggression, or ill intent, but simply the fiery strength to say:
“I love you, and I think you’re holding back.”
8) Connect with faith
God. Your higher self. The universe. Whatever you want to call it, you have to stay on connection with what is larger than you. Both as the coach yourself, but also to help your client do the same.
In the midst of transformation and change, reality can look pretty weird, and feel incredibly confusing. What’s true? Do I really want to make this audacious new training program? Who am I to write about the theological nature of reality?
Without this sense of connection, the overwhelming doubt and chaos of the unknown can shut you and your client down.
Trust that God wants something from you. From them. Feel it. Connect with it. It’s what gives light in the dark times. It’s what gives strength in the midst of the existential wobble.
And it’s beautiful. And incomparably powerful.