The Lesson I Just Learned About Coaching

I'm not a newcomer to coaching. I've been coaching storytellers since the 1980s and literally "wrote the book" on storytelling coaching. So I was not expecting to be taught a fundamental lesson about coaching. But I should know better!

Helping Out a Client of Mine

I recently was a guest instructor at a 4-day intensive for those learning to be "Professional Coaches" (coaches who help clients maximize their professional successes). I agreed to participate because I have gained great respect for the intensive’s leader, Sharon Livingston, in the four years that I have coached her on storytelling and her creative process.

At the same time, I felt concerned: what if this workshop isn’t as good as I thought? What if the clients aren’t, after all, in good hands? Would I wish I had never agreed to be part of this training?

As it turned out, the workshop was even better than I had hoped. Not only were the clients helped, I learned a lesson myself about coaching.

Coaching Lily 

During the first day, Sharon talked about the importance of learning what motivates a client - and what demotivates them. Then she asked for a volunteer to be coached briefly in front of the group. A young woman I’ll call “Lily" volunteered.

As Lily described what motivated her as a child, she talked about her mother. Her mother had told her just what to do, and Lily always strove to do what her mother said. As Lily talked, though, it became obvious that, whenever Lily failed to meet her mother’s expectations, her mother criticized Lily harshly.

I made a mental note to myself: anyone coaching Lily should be careful not to criticize her and not to tell her what to do.

But as she coached Lily, Sharon surprised me. To be sure, she was highly appreciative of Lily, praising her and expressing confidence in her abilities. But then she said, “I want you to write things down every day.”

Lily replied, “Every day?”

Sharon said, “Yes, you must write things down every day.”

I was surprised at Sharon’s words. Why was she being bossy to someone who had been bossed around her whole life?

But I was even more surprised at what came next. Lily seemed to perk up a bit, then said, “Well, what should I write down?” Her tone showed interest, not resentment.

Sharon replied, “What do you think would be helpful for you to write down?”

Lily smiled, paused a moment, then replied, “I think it would be helpful for me to write down everything I did well during the day.”

Why Was I Surprised?

I had expected Lily to resist the firm instructions to write something down every day. But in fact, she seemed to enjoy it.

During a debrief after the coaching session, Sharon said, 

“I noticed that Lily felt supported by being given assignments. In other words, her mother’s criticism was debilitating, but her mother’s instructions made Lily feel, in part, like there was someone helping her. Her mother’s instructions made her feel less alone in a difficult world.”

Sharon went on to say, 

“So I found a way to give her the supportive component of her mother’s instructions—insisting that she do some writing every day—but also gave her the freedom to choose for herself what to write.”

When I told Sharon how surprising that had been to me, Sharon said, 

“Yes, you and I would not like to be told what to do. But Lily associated being told what to do with being supported. So I had to find a way to give her the direction she wanted without denying her the freedom to think for herself.

“What matters isn’t how I would like to be treated. Rather, my job was to discover how Lily liked to be treated—and then find a creative way to give the direct instructions she wanted in a form that would be helpful to her.”

Once Again, It’s About What the Client Needs!

I left this workshop reminded, once again, that the job of the coach is not to act in a way that is comfortable for the coach, but in a way that meets the needs of the client.

I was humbled by my assumption that Lily would respond as I would to being given firm, explicit instructions. Sharon helped me notice that Lily’s needs were very different from mine—and that I had failed to notice how I had been blinded to Lily’s preferences by assuming that hers and mine were the same.

I left the workshop feeling that I had been in the presence of a very wise coach, indeed.