“The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there” (Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).
Coaching is a lot of “not this” and “not that”, much like zen. It can be hugely valuable but it’s intangible. It’s clarifying, but also challenging. It’s can feel therapeutic but it’s not therapy. It’s lovingly supportive, but independent. It’s empowering, but ego-destroying. It’s all care, but no responsibility.
After 10 years of coaching hundreds of business owners, including other business coaches, executive coaches and leadership coaches, this is what I’ve learnt, mostly as a business coach but also as a coachee (someone receiving coaching).
Safe to be vulnerable
The essential starting point is creating a psychologically safe place for the coachee to be vulnerable. Without this, coaching can’t happen.
It should never be in doubt that your coach holds your sessions in the strictest confidence. While you may feel somewhat self-conscious, rest assured that your coach is more likely to be impressed, than to be judging you.
We have all felt stupid, frustrated, angry, depressed, stressed, anxious, or confused at times – including your coach. A coach is not superhuman.
For coaching to work, it needs a base of mutual respect by two intelligent, consenting adults. While this should be assumed, I’ve heard enough horror stories to suggest otherwise.
Your coach should never be condescending, judgemental or patronising. As the coachee, you lead the session topics and agenda, unless your coach clearly stipulates that their one-to-one coaching is actually a structured program (my one-to-one coaching is a choose-your-own-adventure).
If you’re unclear on what you want from coaching, that’s okay too. It’s normal to be stuck on your next best step in business. Your coach is an expert in helping guide you towards clarity, excavate your desires, and turn these into tangible, trackable goals.
While your coach should never tell you what you should want, nor belittle your goals, they may lovingly challenge the parametres of your ambitions. It’s common to allow our disappointments in life to shrink our ambitions or censor our desires.
This is where coaching can be hugely helpful. Your coach can advocate for your wants and needs, and stoke the fires of your ambition so that you’re excited and motivated in their business. But it’s not your coach’s role to tell you what you should or shouldn’t want. That’s not coaching, that’s infantalising.
Oftentimes, coachees seek out coaches who have trod the path before them, so it’s not uncommon that the coach and coachees are working in the same industry – such as when I coach digital marketers, small business coaches or business trainers.
Many coaching clients have told me that other coaches have declined to coach them because they’re in competition. This is important to do when the coach is triggered by their coachee or doesn’t see how they can be open with them, as they’re in competition.
However, my approach to branding is to render our competitors irrelevant – which means embracing and amplifying our differences and getting clear on our specific ideal client group. There’s more than enough business to go around, especially when our branding works to call people out.
A coach who says “do what I do” isn’t coaching. The coach giving a shopping list of tasks to the coachee isn’t coaching. Copying or following someone else’s business strategy or marketing tactics isn’t smart, even if you’ve been instructed to. It can be unethical and it’s almost certainly ineffective.
One of the joys of coaching is uncovering the uniqueness of individuals and their businesses. Inspiring self-insight into our strengths, and creating strategies to stop our weaknesses from becoming self-sabotage works far more powerfully than playing follow the leader.
Countertransference in coaching
Countertransference in coaching is when a coach unwittingly projects their past experiences into the process of coaching. Coaching then becomes more about the coach than the client.
Clients can also do this – projecting their emotions and experiences onto their coach and drawing conclusions that aren’t real; this is referred to as transference.
As we are living, breathing skinbags of emotions carrying the weight of centuries of our conditioning, countertransference is almost impossible to avoid. The zen of coaching requires self-awareness to mitigate this.
Emotional intelligence and agility give us insight into how our past experiences might be colouring the reality of the coaching relationship, as well as what’s helpful to the coachee in the moment.
Of course, a coach’s life experience is highly valued by clients. I believe that my opinion is often valuable for my clients, though coaching purists may disagree.
Most importantly, the coach needs emotional insight, intelligence, agility, maturity and character to be able to manage their own emotional landscape as well as their clients’ and put their clients’ needs at the centre. The coach needs to be zen.
Ownership and independence
“When you counsel someone, you should appear to be reminding him of something he had forgotten, not of the light he was unable to see.”
It’s a dirty little secret in coaching that some coaches are very choosey with taking on clients so as to secure the most glowing testimonials and endorsements. Coaches may only coach business owners who are already at a certain level of success, so they may take full credit for the gains made by the coachee.
It’s important to vet people before you accept them as clients, not just in coaching. A bad-fit client can bankrupt your business and rob your peace and self-confidence.
I don’t want to take people’s money if I don’t believe that they’d benefit from working with me. Coaching isn’t magic. I can’t miraculously shift an entrenched shitty attitude, nor inspire change in someone who has too much emotional baggage or is too close-minded. They may be better suited to therapy or they may need a ‘rock bottom moment’ that can motivate them towards change.
Having said that, the wins and losses of coaching aren’t mine, or any other coach’s, to own. And while I might feel proud of my clients and keen on testimonials, I can never take credit for their successes.
Similarly, I don’t encourage my clients to coach with me for years and years. Breeding dependence on the coach isn’t ethical, nor helpful to the coachee.
The zen of coaching, in all it’s “not this, not that”, means that the coach needs to set the coachee free, to go on to amaze themselves by what they’re capable of.