Beware of coaches bearing assumptions

Coaching is about change. You get coached (whether in sport, work or elsewhere) to change performance, perception, or relationships. And, in my experience, the most effective change occurs as a result of the client’s self discovery; self-discovering her need for change, identifying her goals and developing the strengths and skills to achieve those goals.

And what is the greatest danger to self discovered change? Judgements. Assumptions. First you’ll get the judgements of the client about himself and about the coaching process. This could vary from ‘I’m just not a good manager’ to ‘I’m being coached as punishment; they’re telling me I’m not good enough’.

Then you’ll get the judgements and assumptions of the coach. These could range from: ‘ this guy’s not a good manager’ to ‘ my psychology training tells me that he’s depressed; until I know better I’m going to have to assume that’s the case’.

And the trouble with assumptions and judgements is that they are a mechanism to stop change – not enable it. We make assumptions as a short cut. An assumption is a tool which says ‘as a result of my experience, I am concluding (without further enquiry) that this person is Label A or is acting according to Label B’. We conclude that this person is a snap shot of our past experience.

In assuming judgement we are saying(at best) " you’re likely to behave in this way" or (more likely) "you should behave in a way that I think you should".
When we judge in this way we’re actually making the following statements: "a) I know what you should be doing, you do not; b) I therefore know you better than you know yourself; c) Until you do what I ‘suggest’ you will be ‘in deficit’; d) Because I know what to do and you do not, and because I know you better than you know yourself, we should also assume that I have a better idea of how to do it than you do".
And, until the client does what the coach thinks, they will be in conflict; consciously or not. If, on the other hand, the client does follow the coach’s ‘advice’ she may be acting entirely at odds with the way she sees the world and therefore with the way she manages the world.

My only role as coach is to help you to a) understand your relationship with your world; b) find out how you want to manage or change that relationship and c) uncover and hone your own skills and strengths to achieve that change. If I do anything to inhibit you, as my client, from achieving those ends, I’m not doing my job. And making assumptions about you is a sure fire way to do just that; because it’s my relationship with my world that I’m ‘helping you understand’ – not yours.
Does that mean that coaches should not take any (moral, ethical) position? Of course we should. But we should be taking an ethical stand when we decide whether or not we work with(or continue to work with) a particular client. The job of a coach is to enable not convert. If it’s morally abhorrent to you as a coach to enable a client’s self discovery, then it’s time to end that relationship.
Now, so far, you’ll probably find most coaches agreeing with me in a "so what" kind of way. The problem is that we’re not always aware that we’re working according to an assumption.

I was a CEO for a decade before I became a coach. The other day I found myself saying to a client "Your experience may be different to mine, but I found -when I was a CEO – it was a good idea to act in this way…"

Despite the caveat, the message my client may have received was: "This guy was a CEO for a long time – I haven’t even got there yet – if he says it’s a good idea, then odds are, it is". What did I do that made him think that?After all I used all the right language, didn’t I? I assumed that my experience was’ superior’ to his; that he was less capable than I of finding a solution – and, like it or not, I told him so. In short: with the best will in the world, I judged that my way of seeing the world was ‘better’ than his.

It gets even more insidious than that. A coach can make assumptions and judgements based on her values. And I don’t mean only ‘moral values’ but values in the sense of priorities and world view. That means that if that coach was trained as a psychotherapist, unless she is very, very aware she could well approach each coaching session with the assumption that she is there to enable therapy: a cure; a restoration to health. That, then presupposes another assumption: that there is something wrong with the client; that the coach/therapist is there to cure with her superior knowledge. Can there be anything more inhibiting to your growth and development than an assumption that you’re ill?

Similarly, my training and experience as a professional manager came from directive, hierarchical media organisations steeped in the newsroom/production floor ethos that the editor’s word is final. Sure, there may be discussion before hand but the final vision is held by the boss. So, with that ethos in mind, I need to guard against falling back into the old rhythm of gathering all the ideas and thoughts and packaging them into an action plan for the client. But what’s wrong with that if I do it ‘with the client’s permission’? It’s a pretty democratic and even creative way of managing, isn’t it? It may be a creative way of managing but it isn’t a creative way of coaching. Instead of enabling my client to make the linkages to her own experience (so that she can learn and carry on learning), I’ve – once again – imposed my experience.

Are there any prompts that can help alert both coach and client to the danger of an assumption lurking in the room?
The most obvious one is: ‘What’s your assumption here?’ Otherwise known as ‘Where did that question come from?"

Both coach and client’s antennae could start quivering when the coach uses words like ‘I suggest’, ‘in my experience’, ‘why don’t you?’ ‘you need to’or even ‘did you not think it would be better if you…?" Statements like ‘in my experience’ are not necessarily loaded with assumption, although ‘In my experience, when I was a CEO" are.
Intuitively (as coach or client) if you sense this relationship is simply not feeling equal , then the chances are one person is imposing an assumption on the other; somebody is being inhibited or shut down. And if you feel that, say so clearly. And keep on saying it until all the assumptions are crystal clear.

Leave a reply

*