It is one of the most deceptive moments in coaching or mentoring. You have listened to the other person’s story, trying to understand the situation. Eventually, there comes a moment, when it all seems to fall into place. We relax our listening and start thinking about what we can do to help them manage the issue they have raised.

But wait. All we have done at this point is make sense of the situation in the context of our own experience and the patterns we recognise from our own mental associations. Yet what really matters at this point is the sense the client is making – or wants to make – of his or her narrative. When we prioritise our own sense-making, we devalue theirs. So, the moment we think we understand is when we need to concentrate even harder on helping them articulate the patterns and insights that they see. To do that, we need to park our own insights, labelling them in our minds as “interesting, but premature”.

What tends to happen, especially with coaches, who have a strong need to bring the client to a solution, is that we delude ourselves into thinking we are being non-directive, when in reality, the questions we ask are based on our own interpretations and sense-making. So we lead the client into solutions that seem rational and relevant to us. The trust that exists between coach-mentor and client is such that the client abandons their own exploration of the issue and their own attempts at sense-making, deferring to what they perceive as our greater wisdom.

So how can we overcome this instinctive tendency? Some practical ways include:

  • When our instincts tell us to say more, say less. We don’t have to share our own thoughts right away. Indeed, it is better to let our subconscious develop further links and associations that enrich the picture we have allowed to emerge.
  • Be curious about how they are making sense of what they are saying. Use questions, such as:
    • Who or what matters and is not in the picture?
    • What patterns are emerging for you?
    • What do you notice about yourself in giving this account?
    • What’s the most liberating thought you could have right now?
    • What’s unique in the way you are experiencing this situation?
    • What would be different in how you explain this, if you were being totally honest with yourself?

(Notice that these questions contain nothing that relates to your own understanding of the situation.)

  • Use tools, such as getting them to draw the situation, which will capture their dominant metaphors. Encourage them to take different positions in viewing each of the players (people or things) in their metaphor. If you also find that the drawing reinforces your own sense-making of the issue, be curious. Ask yourself, “What is it about me and my experience that draws me to see this pattern?”

Having gone through these steps, you may well find that your initial interpretation of the issue and its context was quite accurate and very similar to the perspective the client has worked their way towards. But this is now their discovery, not yours and likely to have much higher impact on them as a result.

Finally, in your subsequent reflections on the coaching session, consider:

  • What did I learn about the client?
  • What did I learn about myself?

© David Clutterbuck, 2019

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