The Mystery of Coaching Mastery - Part 3

The Coaching Relationship

I told a story with the E Street Band that was, and is, bigger than I ever could have told on my own. Bruce Springsteen

As I continue my search for coaching mastery, I’ve found this definition of a professional coach to be quite useful.

A professional coach is someone who professes that she or he is a qualified/ethical practitioner consistently capable of engaging in thought-provoking and creative dialogues that inspire people to expand the limits of their thinking, being, and doing (TBD) in order to support more wonderful lives and a more wonderful world.

But to focus solely on the coach is to miss something rather important. Coaching occurs in a relationship and it may be that it is the relationship itself that holds the most promise for us as individuals and as a global society.

So what is a relationship? In most cases we think of a relationship as the way in which two or more people or things are connected. In coaching it is also important to consider the relationship individuals have with themselves. When you consider the multiple permutations of the people and things within the coaching universe there is a constellation of relationships to explore:

• How is a client related to him/herself? Whether this question is openly discussed with a client or not, coaches know that this relationship is critical to the client’s success. The relationship the client has with her/himself is a strong filter. Often the coach is engaged to deepen and expand that personal connection so that the client can experience her/himself as more worthy, more capable, and more creative.

• How is a coach related to him/herself? The connection we have with ourselves shapes the way we are able to be with a client, how we are able to listen, how free we are to speak our truth, and what we are able to ask of our clients. If our relationship with ourselves is dominated by fear, frustration, doubt, and drama, we’ll be bringing all of that to a coaching relationship. This is why I believe that self-love, the ability to embrace the entirety of our own perfectly, imperfect humanity, is the only absolute prerequisite for a professional coach.

• How are coach and client related to each other? The way we answer this question is central to our views of the profession. The clearer we are about this, the easier it is to educate incoming clients about the unique qualities of this kind of relationship. I’ll do a deeper dive into this relationship in the next section.

• How are each related to other individuals? How many coaching conversations are dedicated to challenges and opportunities that exist with bosses, co-workers, spouses, and children? A successful coaching relationship can serve as a model for the client to use to succeed in all relationships.

• How are each related to groups or even the world as a whole? My definition of coaching includes “supporting more wonderful lives and a more wonderful world” and that requires expanded TBD with others. Part of the promise of coaching is that we are able to go beyond individual problems and opportunities to see how each of us can best contribute to the kind of world we want for ourselves and for future generations.

Each of these relationships is worthy of further exploration, but for the purposes of my current investigation, I’m choosing to focus primarily on the relationship between coach and client.

Coaching Relationships from Different Perspectives

The way a coach relates to a client is one of the chief drivers of a coaching conversation. There are many possible ways for a coach to relate to a client that are ethical and effective. These relationships include, but are not limited to, servant, partner, trainer, model, champion, rug puller, activist, teacher, resource, and even leader.

• As a servant – I am here to serve my client’s agenda. This is one of the first ways we learn to relate to clients in coach training. We are taught that we are not to bring our own agenda or to lead the client in any way. This is an important step in freeing ourselves from old habits of problem solving, fixing, and advising. We want to make sure that clients are expanding and becoming more powerful in ways that are important to them.

• As a partner – We are using our combined strengths, abilities, and wisdom to pursue the same end. In a partnership both parties are clearly aligned on the same objective. Coach and client stand shoulder-to-shoulder looking at challenges and opportunities. This can be evident in a brainstorm and mastermind where either or both coach and client are empowered, and expected, to initiate and follow.

• As a champion – I am standing for the client’s ability to expand and succeed. There are times when the client’s confidence flags, when the connection she has with herself turns negative, contraction replaces expansion, and old stories of blame and explanation replace exploration of possibilities. At times the client, more than anything else, needs someone who believes in him and stands for his right to full self-expression and believes in his ability to succeed.

• As a trainer – I am teaching a specific skill set that supports the objectives of coaching. Many of my new clients have never worked with a coach before. No matter how I try to inform them with a welcome packet and other materials, they often first relate to me as some other relationship that they are familiar with: friend, therapist, manager, consultant, counselor, advisor, sounding board, teacher, or parent. They sometimes need training in how to be a successful client.

• As a rug puller – I am challenging the client’s belief systems and assumptions that are hindering expansion. I am the supportive skeptic, the devil’s advocate, the boy who asks, “Why does the emperor have no clothes?” I am not all knowing, but neither is the client. We are two blind people trying to describe an elephant from a particular perspective; with one possible exception: the coach is always aware that there are multiple perspectives and brings that awareness to the relationship.

• As an activist – I am being a catalyst to spur the client into action. I am asking them to feel the fear and do it anyway, to find the time for their highest priorities, to seek the support they need, and to go beyond their perceived limits. I am making strong requests, inviting clients to create games and objectives that they find interesting and inspiring and to build structures that make it possible for them to go beyond their own limitations.

• As a teacher – I am sharing knowledge, practices, and strategies that have been useful in the past. Although, as a coach, this is not my primary responsibility, there are times when I have knowledge and experience that are relevant to the client’s situation and to withhold access to it because “it’s not coaching” would dis-empower the honest and free nature of the relationship.

• As a resource – I am sharing resources like information, books, movies, music, web sites, applications, and connections with other people for the client to use as raw materials in their creative process. Everything anyone has ever accomplished has been through the use of resources. The coach’s life experience adds value to the relationship.

• As a leader – I am providing direction when the client is lost and has given me permission to temporarily point the way. At the beginning of coach training we are frequently reminded not to ask leading questions. That is because leading questions often include the answer, seek to point the recipient in, what we think, is the right direction or imply that there is a 'right' answer. Yes, AND, there is a distinction between the leading question asked by the lawyer in a courtroom or a salesperson who are both attempting to influence an outcome in their favor and the coach who may be asking a leading question as part of an exploration in search of expanded TBD.

• As a model – I am being the change I want to see for my client. I have a growth mindset and embrace rapid rates of change. I find ways to be deeply connected with others and myself. I live with a belief in abundance and use that mindset to address the largest challenges the world faces today. I free myself from behavioral adaptations to fear so that I can embrace authenticity in others and myself.

Most coach training that I’m aware of, focus on developing competence in only a few or even one of these kinds of relationships. This certainly makes sense when the objective of the training is to build a strong coaching foundation and to distinguish coaching from other professions. But is the master coach limited to only one kind of relationship? Or is the ability to shift the nature of relationships with clients, in order to blend with what is needed in the moment, an aspect of coaching mastery? Certainly some of the ways I’m suggesting a coach can relate to a client lay outside the ICF definition of coaching and the competencies that serve as the spine of ICF awarded credentials. But if I must choose between adhering to proscribed coaching competencies or being true to the essence of coaching, I will choose the essence every time.

So, how does a master coach know what kind of relationship is needed in the moment?

Perhaps an interesting approach to this question lies in another question.

What does it mean to know?



Remember that the egocentric predicament tells us that the knowing mind is confined to the circle of its own ideas. This is actually the sine qua non of coaching. The idea that a second voice in a dialogue can break the inherent limits of an individual mind.

The ICF definition of coaching includes the phrase:

Coaches honor the client as the expert in his or her life and work…

How can we know if this statement is true? I don’t think we can. It is not a provable fact. Like many other things we claim to know, it is a belief, not a scientific truth. That doesn’t make it a bad thing. In many ways we are what we believe in. And when we created the coaching profession we clearly believed that there was human potential beyond the hierarchical, societal, and parental belief systems that prescribed, and proscribed, who we ought to be and how we ought to act. We wanted to create a profession where nobody was telling us what to do. And so it is, that in a healthy coaching relationship, both parties are clear that the client is the one making her or his own life choices, being responsible for those choices, and living with the consequences of those choices.

But that is different from being an expert. Clients cannot be the experts in making choices in the same predictable ways that someone can be an expert auto mechanic or computer programmer. In coaching we need a different way to relate to knowing other than expertise.

Perhaps coach and client are both storytellers, expanding stories in dialogue until the client chooses one to act upon. Hopefully this is a story chosen, out of love, to create a more wonderful life and a more wonderful world. But once chosen and acted upon, there is no going back; no real way of knowing if that choice was good or bad; right or wrong.

In 1991 I hired Thomas Leonard to coach me through a difficult period in my life. I had started a business that enjoyed success for ten years, but it had begun to take a nosedive. I was married with a young son and a mortgage and was struggling just to pay my expenses. I was in such emotional pain that I had handed the reins of the business off to other people and took a small office downtown where I was attempting to build a personal management company. Thomas and I were meeting twice a week and the following are short excerpts from three successive coaching sessions.

Session #1:
Jay, I have a request. Either take back the reins of your business so I can support you in turning it around or close the business down.
Thomas, I can’t go back there. It’s too painful. And I can’t close it down, because I’d have to go bankrupt.

Session #2
Jay, I have a request. Either take back the reins of your business so I can support you in turning it around or close the business down.
Thomas, I can’t go back there. It’s too painful. And I can’t close it down, because I’d have to go bankrupt.

Seeing a pattern here?

Session #3
Jay, I have a request. Either take back the reins of your business so I can support you in turning it around or close it down.
Thomas, I can’t go back there. It’s too painful. And I can’t close it down, because I’d have to go bankrupt.
Jay, you are bankrupt!

That one message, “you are bankrupt,” may seem harsh in print, but I experienced it as a loving, laser message that left me with expanded TBD. The next day I took the necessary steps to close the business and declare personal bankruptcy. It was the beginning of a personal renewal that has given me a more wonderful life and, I hope, has helped to create a more wonderful world.

From that one coaching session I made the choice to embrace bankruptcy in all its manifestations: financial, energetic, emotional, and spiritual? Was this choice based on personal expertise? No. It was in an area where I had no experience at all. Was it based on the expertise of the coach? No. In fact, months later, when I was beginning to regain some personal strength, Thomas shared that, from his perspective, he had known what I should do and that making those requests of me were, for him, acts of courage. Where was the expertise in this coaching exchange? Did I make the right choice? How would things have transpired if I had made another choice? There is no way to know. And since there was, and is, no way to know with certainty, this was not a matter of expertise.
If neither Thomas nor I were an expert then, in this particular coaching relationship, what was our relationship to knowing?

Although neither of us had access to any absolute knowing, both of us were engaged in a dialogue of possible knowing. He didn’t have “the answer” and I certainly did not have “the answer.” It wasn’t even that I was granting power to the coach or that he was granting power to me; I rather believe that we were granting power to the conversation; to the relationship.

The fact that nobody is an expert in a coaching relationship is one of its foundational strengths. Paradoxically the less we know (expertise) and the more we are able to share possible knowing (wonder), with absolutely no attachment to being right, the more powerful the coaching relationship can become. If love and wonder are present, “who” knows “what” becomes irrelevant.

Coaching Essence Update

I need to pause from this through-line for a moment to note that as I retold this story I saw the need to add one more aspect to my essence of coaching statement:

Coaching is love and wonder that leads to effective action.

It is this action step that completes the essential cycle of the coaching relationship.

Coaching Superstitions

I'm considering just about anything we know and believe, no matter how mundane, no matter how profane, no matter how sacred, has the potential ultimately to harden into, to congeal into, to endarken into, to devolve into a blind rote concept no longer alive with any light of inquiry ... in other words, into a superstition.

Without ongoingly inquiring into what we know to be true, without holding up to the light beliefs, which will, without inquiry, inevitably crystalize into blind, rote concepts, we inexorably become superstitious. That's when the trouble begins. That's when we get righteous and positional, both of which are evidence of superstitions not recognized as superstitions driving the machinery.
...Laurence Platt

To a great degree the coaching profession is based on the assumption that the individual, and not relationship, is the source of possibility and fulfillment. Is that assumption the most powerful way to approach coaching or is it an illusion that keeps us mired in a limited paradigm? Has the belief that a client is the expert in his own life become a coaching superstition?

Thomas Leonard once suggested that what he and I were trying to do together, as coach and client, was to discover how to have a powerful relationship and have that relationship be a model we could take with us into the world. Those who knew Thomas recognized him to be a person with tremendous intellectual bandwidth. And when I first met him, by his own admission, he didn’t know how to have successful relationships. From his perspective, for us to survive and thrive in the world we didn’t just need more brilliant, accomplished individuals; we needed people who were able to have great relationships.

We all experience ourselves as individual beings. We share a long history of telling and retelling stories of the victories, achievements, and creations of singular heroes (or villains). We struggle with existential questions of our personal place in the universe and long to know that our footprint on the planet has made a difference. So it makes sense that the focus of coaching is on the individual. And to that end, we have developed wonderful skills and tools that are aligned with that focus.

But perhaps the coaching profession holds another promise as well: the promise that we are a profession that focuses, not only, on individual achievement and fulfillment; but that we, with our clients, can create relationship models of how to be in the world. Ways of being that may be able to effectively deal with the largest challenges facing us today. If we are to do this, we may be required to discard some of the superstitions we cling to about the nature of the individual and the mythology of individual achievement.

At this point in my exploration I am left with more questions than answers:

Is the master coach limited to only one kind of relationship? Or is the ability to shift the nature of relationships with clients, in order to blend with what is needed in the moment, an aspect of coaching mastery? Is a coach’s focus on individual growth and achievement rife with superstitions? Are there other superstitions that are guiding the coaching industry? Can freeing ourselves from superstition reveal a path to mastery?

Let’s continue to wonder.

Next – The Wonder of Coaching Mastery