Last year, a few months after finishing a coaching program, one of my clients emailed me saying:
“Hi John, It’s incredible how much more productive I’m being since we stopped the coaching. I’m not sure what it is, but I’m on fire!”
Sitting upright on the bench in the cafe, I raised my gaze over the top of my screen and thought, ‘Shit! My coaching sucks. My clients are better off without me!’
My stomach turned and my breathing went shallow. Noticing this, I relaxed my back against the wall and breathed deeper into my belly. As the fear settled and I found stillness again, a bigger picture came into view. A small smile crept across my face.
‘He finally stopped waiting for me,’ I thought.
Coaching Can Be the Obstacle
It’s not uncommon for a coaching relationship to become the primary obstacle in a person’s growth.
Some years ago, I had finished a private coaching program with my own coach and was waiting for a group coaching program with him to start. About halfway through this period, I realized there were a number of things I was waiting to act on until I had a coach again.
‘Once I get some coaching on this, then I’ll do it.’
Seeing this, I realized how much I was disempowering myself. I’d taken the experience of accessing more of my capacity through coaching and turned it into a prerequisite for stretching myself.
Once I acknowledged this, I created a structure to encourage action. I decided that I wouldn’t hire another coach until I had done the things I had been waiting to do.
In thinking about the emergence of disempowering coaching dynamics, I asked myself how this could be avoided with my clients.
One of the simplest ways I discovered was to oscillate my support on and off within a coaching program.
For example, in my year-long Apprenticeship, the next of which begins this Spring, I have week-long ‘coaching blackout’ periods every month. During these periods, my Apprentices do not have a coach. Not only are they on their own without my support, they aren’t allowed to have coaching from anyone else either. During this time, they are unable to depend on me for support.
Another way I help my clients to remember they do not need me is by how quickly I respond to them. Sometimes I respond to their emails immediately and at other times, I’ll wait days. In fact, one of the situations in which I am likely to wait days is when I feel my client reaching out in a sense of desperation.
When I read emails with sub communication like, ‘I need you! I can’t do this without you!’, I close my eyes, feel the pull to reach out and save them and then I just sit with that feeling. I take a breath and ask myself, ‘Do they really need me?’ Deep down, I know any answer other than ‘No’ is a lie. So I just sit with it and breath and see what comes. Eventually I receive a thought like, ‘Nope…they don’t need you. Best to just let them discover that on their own.’
Other ways in which I ensure my clients cannot depend on me is to change up the way that I coach. Sometimes I respond to their emails with long and detailed text, sharing perspectives and insights and asking questions. Other times, I’ll just respond with one or two words. Sometimes I’ll make suggestions or give advice and other times I’ll just ask questions. Whenever I see patterns, habits or routines in my way of coaching – or when I see clients becoming dependent on my way of being – I interrupt it by doing or being something different.
Essentially, my intention is to be as inconsistent as possible – both in my availability and in the ways that I coach.
The Power of Inconsistency
Katanas, the swords of Samurai warriors, are supposedly the strongest and most powerful swords on earth. To produce them, one must heat the steel, hammer it down flat, fold the steel back onto itself, and then hammer it down again. The swordsmith keeps repeating this process, and each time they do, the steel gets stronger and stronger.
In this same way, I learned that bringing inconsistency to my coaching folds the steel of our relationship. Each time I fold it (by being unavailable or by changing how I coach) and hammer it down (by being there or by coaching in a new way), not only does the coaching become stronger, but the client is reminded that they do NOT need me.
Paradoxically, being undependable as a coach actually empowers my clients. Through my inconsistent support, my coaching relationships become stronger and my clients become more self-reliant.
There are a couple of other ways I’ve discovered that inconsistency serves my clients.
Be The Fool
By being inconsistent, I am often irrational in my requests, challenges or suggestions. Most people are so surrounded by rationality and sensibility, that there is nothing in their world to shake them up enough to consider things differently. In the Middle Ages, Kings used to have someone close to them whose job was to act ridiculous and irrational so that unconsidered perspectives would come up. (For more on ‘Perspectives’, see article #4 in this series.) Common names for this person were ‘The Fool’, the ‘Court Jester’ or ‘The Joker’.
By being inconsistent in the way of The Fool, I am able to take my clients places they would otherwise never go. From these places, they are able to see things they would otherwise never see. Also, by being willing to go to these places in dialogue, in a way, I am creating the permission for my client to actually go there in their life.
Another way I have found inconsistency to serve my clients is by being enigmatic and ungraspable. By speaking in zen koans and short phrases that fail to deliver clear, explicit instructions, I leave it up to my clients to make sense of what I am saying. One of my favorite ideas to share lately is:
‘Your vision is the path.’
There is so much richness in this idea. I could spend over an hour expanding on it with explanation and example. However, I find that by sharing just those five words and allowing my clients to work out what it might mean for them, actually has them develop deeper and more impactful insight. They have more ownership over it than if I were to explain it myself.
This kind of work is like watching your kid in the pool flapping his arms because he’s afraid he’s going to drown. You know he’s in the low-end of the pool and that he can just stand up, but it still hurts to see him struggling and afraid. At times, it can be difficult to stomach being inconsistent with clients.
Just this week, it was very difficult for me to not reach out and support one of my Apprentices who was in a funk and practically begging me for help. It was very difficult for me to NOT say ‘yes’ to his request to speak with me, but deep down I knew that doing so would encourage the scarcity and self-interested mindset he was reaching out in desperation from. It was hard, but I breathed deep and acted from my truth by saying a bold ‘NO’ to his request.
To be inconsistent in your coaching requires a willingness to watch your clients struggle. It requires courage.
The way I create this courage to Be Undependable, to Be The Fool and to Be Mysterious, is to remember the true impact these ways of being have. By showing up in these ways, intentionally and from a place of love, I am helping my clients to be more self-reliant, to consider completely new possibilities and to create insights that are deeply powerful for them.
When I really need a boost of courage, I remember Ralph Waldo Emerson’s immortal words:
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
Coaching Questions to Ask Yourself
– What action do I know I could be taking, but which, if I’m honest, I am waiting to take until I ‘get some coaching’ around it?
– Where am I being always dependable for my clients? Where could being Undependable serve them in becoming more self-reliant?
– Where have I been coaching habitually in the same way? How could I change this up? What would be the opposite approach?
– Where am I being wholly rational and sensible in my coaching? How could I be more irrational and play The Fool?
– Where am I explaining too much or giving too much detail in my coaching? How could I adopt a more enigmatic approach, say less and require my client to do more work in making sense of what I’m saying or asking?