How Deep Can You Go as a Coach?

How deep we go in as a coach may well come down to three factors:

  • how open and capable of deep exploration our client is
  • the depth of presence and skill of the coach
  • the intention of the program.

I guess as you read this there are a lot more than three factors in the bullet points just listed, but at least they lay out some interesting territory for exploration.

Let’s start with the third point: What is the real intention of our coaching work? Whom do we really work for when we coach? The simple, direct and readily acceptable answer to this question is that we work for our client and s/he gets to tell us the topic, the success criteria, the duration and pace of the coaching engagement. These are everyday bromides in our current culture of consumerism. Clients are customers, coaches are providers of services, their roles determine even before they meet what they should do – everyone knows this, everyone should abide by this because that is what it is to act in accordance with prevailing cultural values. The central tenet of the consumer world is the person who pays gets to say what will happen. But I don’t think this works in coaching, which is why I am bringing it up.

I know that besides there being commercial reasons for accepting the full lead of the client, there is also the philosophical point – the clients know themselves best – but can this possibly be true? Does anyone really know the real basis for her/his actions without reference to any one else? For me this is the quintessential example of an experiential blind spot – we cannot see where we’re standing; we can only see the view from there. We confuse people’s ability to explain for truth, and because of that (when we merely go along with the explanation) we are not much help to our client. When we take as truth a client’s explanation, we are reinforcing blindness and leaving the client no more capable, wise or fulfilled as a person.

What if the intention of coaching was to fully meet the client as a phenomenon of life – dynamic, shifting, alive, and always seeking relationship to herself/himself, others and the process of life itself? What if we worked in service of this unfoldment? Could that be our intent as coaches?

If that was the intent of coaching and it showed up in different ways each time, then to do good coaching we would have to be in deep contact with ourselves, our clients, and the living moment of our meeting. We would have to be deeply, sensitively present with a ceaseless wondering about what was happening. This is well beyond not having an agenda. It’s more of our being dedicated to finding out what life’s agenda is. We would have to be very careful not to have a pre-existing idea of human purpose that we’d bring no matter who the client was. Radical openness such as I’m describing here is like the trembling moment of an artist standing before a blank canvas, not knowing what is to be painted, yet feeling somehow that something wants to come into existence at this very time and place. Can we live in this moment of unknowing with an underlying confidence? What are we trusting at such times? You can see it’s much easier to just do as we are told by our clients, even if this often makes the client’s situation much worse.

Not every client may be up for what I’m describing here. Many too many of us are powerfully convinced that we know what we really want and that when we get it we will be happy, satisfied and peaceful. Sometimes that happens; usually not.

Clients, though, can learn to tune to themselves in a way that’s deeper than their personal history or cultural surround. All of us have done this. The real problem remains that tuning in takes time, and often when we slow we feel empty, uncomfortable, bereft of meaning, lonely, unsupported and confused. Nearly all of us will become very busy to avoid experiencing any of these things (it’s a rare person these days who does not answer the question “how are you?” with “really busy”).

Are we helping our client much when we assist them in becoming quicker at what they are doing? I don’t think so. It seems to me that the current numbness of our world is maintained primarily through our cooperation with avoidance in the form of business. And that the numbness allows for 3 billion of us to live in deep poverty, for systemic cruelty to exist widely, for the world to be consistently at war — we don’t feel all this as a culture. Coaching can lessen the numbness and unfreeze our vast potential to act. For me this is what’s missing in the world today.

Do you want to be up to this when you coach? Do you want to work at a depth that begins to shift the whole world?

This short article has presented what will it take to coach that way. Will you take it up? What do you find when you listen to your heart?

This article originally appeared in the Distinctions Newsletter in 2008. Discover for yourself how deep coaching can go in our two-day foundational workshop, Coaching To Excellence.

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