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Let Me Take Off My Coaching Hat

Updated: Jun 10

An effective way to simultaneously discount clients, our coaching skills, and the field of coaching is to state, “Let me take off my coaching hat for a moment.” This seemingly innocuous statement puts our credibility and integrity on the line when we feel both are most needed. Something is said, not said, or occurs to trigger us to ditch our coaching hat for our come-to-save-the-day cape, signaling to our client, “You can’t figure this out on your own; my coaching skills won’t do, and right now, expert wisdom trumps inner-wisdom.” While our intentions are well-meaning: to save the person, the situation, or our own skin, at what cost?


Some time ago, I had a conversation with a coach who, at the time, held significant influence within the coaching field. I’ll call her Mindy. Our discussion centered on the crucial aspect of maintaining a coaching presence with every client. Mindy adamantly agreed that the client should drive the agenda, approach, and desired perspective if they are to continually strengthen their sense of agency and collect evidence that no matter the circumstances, they can affect their fate. This principle, she believed, was the cornerstone of effective coaching. Yet, halfway through our conversation, Mindy unwittingly contradicted her self-proclaimed convictions and provided further evidence of the importance of maintaining a coaching presence. 


Mindy shared that she had a client who was recently passed over for a promotion. The woman was highly qualified for the position and received years of positive feedback from peers and leadership. However, for unknown reasons, a man from outside the company was chosen instead. Despite feeling frustrated about missing out on the promotion, the client decided to focus her energy and coaching sessions on preparing for future opportunities within the organization.


In Mindy’s story, she emphasized the importance of knowing when to take off the coaching hat. Her gut feeling told her the client wasn't seeing the whole picture. Mindy used to work for a similar company where women were consistently passed up for promotions, and she strongly believed that was also the case with her client. Mindy felt that she would prolong her client's suffering if she didn't step in and say something. So, she offered some insight in the form of a question. Mindy asked, “What if it’s not about your skills but about you being a woman?”


That simple question (a form of sneaky solving or advice in disguise) triggered a new awareness in the client, according to Mindy. The client started reflecting on conversations, people, and situations that didn’t go as smoothly as she’d hoped and questioned if all of it was due to her gender. Her client concluded that there was no point in working on finding alternate internal options and instead focused her energy and coaching externally. Mindy wrapped up the story, sharing that her client finally found a company that appreciates and rewards all she brings. She exclaimed that the transformation in the client's perspective and her subsequent success is a testament to the power of coaching.


After Mindy finished, I couldn't help but ask, "What if your conclusion about your client not getting the promotion because she’s a woman was wrong?" Her reaction made it clear that my question was the only thing she thought was wrong. She abruptly ended the conversation. I thanked her for her time, and I haven't seen or talked to her since.


But Wait, There’s More


I seem to have a knack for somehow and in some way being redeemed for things that, at the time, cause me to “get all up in my feelings” and shrink back when I know I should stand my ground. Unfortunately, those redemption moments never happen at the time.  Instead, they tend to happen much later when no one else is around, or those who happen to be present don’t know the backstory, so my redemption moments feel a bit ho-hum. The day I ran into the manager in Mindy’s story is one of those times.


The manager and I showed up at the same coffee shop about a year after my conversation with Mindy, and we started chatting. (I am not a super sleuth, but due to some of the details shared within the client’s story, I could decipher who the company and the leader were.) To my surprise, as we were catching up, the manager mentioned that he had lost one of his best employees and was having trouble coming to terms with it. When she was leaving, she expressed disappointment in him for not appreciating her contributions. At the time, a new role at his level was being established for her, but the official notice wasn't complete, so he couldn't say anything. All he could do was reiterate his belief in her and acknowledge her contributions to the team and organization. He could see it wasn't enough. She left, not believing his words and dismissing the accolades earned from him and others throughout the years.


 Many of us go into coaching because, at our core, we are helpers. We are preprogrammed to divert danger and ease discomfort. Yet, when we take on the responsibility of showing someone “the way,” we increase their chances of getting lost and never finding their way. ICF Competency #5: Maintains Presence asks us to be comfortable in working in a space of not knowing. We can earn and display all the degrees and certifications to establish ourselves as curious creatures. However, if we don’t continue to develop and practice methods for maintaining presence, our instinctual nature will take over and drive the process in a direction no one intended.


To recalibrate when I feel the internal call for a wardrobe change—hat to cape—I run through my go-to “maintains presence” questions. I first ask myself, “What am I assuming or concluding?” Followed up with, “What if I’m wrong?” From there, I turn to my client and inquire what they see and what is informing their view of the situation. About 100% of the time, their answers apprise me of what is important to them and worth fighting for, releasing me from feeling the urge to save them while also reminding me they didn’t hire a hero. They hired a coach.


Our role is to assist our clients in becoming the heroes of their own stories. This means we must stand at the edge of their narratives as they independently determine what they see, what it all means, what is worth exploring, and what is worth ignoring. The more we do so, it will become evident that what we may see and experience as edges are often other people’s ledges, and where we tend to stumble and fall, others are able to lift off and soar.

Seeking more? Join us at Learning Journeys for Level 2 ICF-accredited education. We are committed to helping people learn and skillfully provide transformational coaching to their employees, clients, patients, and more.

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