Coaching is transforming lives and people. More than a process in itself, it is a “way of being”.
Through coaching, we learn to accept one another despite our differences, to be non-judgmental, to actively listen, to put ourselves in the other’s shoes, to be in the service of another person and to offer our support in people’s way to success. If everybody in this world had these skills, our life on this planet would be much better.
But what makes coaching successful?
Apart from a set of skills and ethics that the coach should have and put in practice, is it the client that should commit and cooperate? Or is it about something else…
Studies in the field are discussing about the coaching relationship as being the critical success factor in developing others.
There is no other relationship like coaching. How does that happen? Well, compared with other helping professions, like therapy, we observe that the therapist is the expert, the one that has the knowledge and expertise to help his patient by offering advice and knowing what is right for him, while the patient is often the one that needs to be fixed/healed. Also, if we compare it to mentoring, the mentor is the expert, the one that has mastery over one particular field and the mentee is the one that needs to learn and grow, looking up to his mentor as a role model.
The coaching relationship is meant to be a powerful one characterized by rapport, trust and support that makes the client feel safe enough to take the risks necessary to grow and change. Unlike other professions, the coaching relationship is based on an equal partnership, with the central assumption that the client is the expert “each person is unique and whole and has all the resources and answers inside”. Acceptance, empathy and respect are some key ingredients for any coaching relationship to work and succeed to “unstuck the stuck”. These elements were introduced in therapy and counseling by Carl Rogers (1961), once with the humanistic thinking and person-centered approach, and are considered core competences for coaches as well in establishing effective working relationships with their clients.
In this respect, research evidence indicates that the relationship is a critical success factor. For instance, in both therapy and executive coaching, the quality of the relationship explains around 30% of the change (Peter Bluckert, 2005).
Another example to evaluate the quality of a coaching relationship is coming from Transactional Analysis. Frank Ernst developed the OK matrix, also known as ‘life positions’. As you will observe, there is an ideal position which is desirable to take especially in a coaching relationship, but also in other interpersonal situations.
“I’m ok, you are ok” principle sets the ground for collaboration and open communication. It means that we are two unique and complete persons, healthy and sound, and we accept each other exactly the way we are. Nobody needs to be fixed or rescued.
“I’m not ok, you are ok” could appear in the moments when in front of a certain person we feel inferior in our competence as a coach. The other might have reached a level in his/her career that we have never done, or his/her intelligence and competences are so strong that it makes us think “I’m not good enough for this”. This is not a healthy position in coaching, because apart from making us show up with low self-esteem, we will transmit perhaps unconsciously that the other is superior to us, and the relationship will be imbalanced.
“I’m ok, you are not ok” is also a very dangerous position in my view, because it makes us deviate from important coaching ethics. When I see the other as being “not Ok” there is a high risk to see him inferior, incomplete, needing to be fixed or even worse, your ego gets elevated and you as a coach lapse into the sin of judging him and his life decisions because you feel superior.
“I’m not ok, you are not ok” is basically explained that we both need to be fixed, neither of us really trust oneself or this relationship.
I used to rely a lot on this matrix, usually to take care of myself as a coach when I evaluate my performance and my value. Because we have to admit, there are times when we ask ourselves, am I good enough for this client? Am I able to provide any value in this session? Will I be able to work with an executive? Sometimes in our self-talk we respond automatically negative to these questions and then we start to blame ourselves and feel inadequate for the role, or even worse we develop the impostor syndrome.
But once we remember this principle, I’m ok – you are ok, the courage comes back to us, and we realize we are all human beings. Also, actively keeping this principle in my mind helps me very much in my first sessions with a client. The first meeting, when you don’t really know what to expect, you rely on “I’m ok – you are ok” whatever would happen. This usually sets a healthy ground for your relationship to grow further. The client feels accepted and respected and from there you can start building trust. He feels you provide the same acceptance and respect for yourself as well and he gets inspired to do the same.
Based on my experience as a coach, I could say that the relationship has a crucial role in the coaching effectiveness.
I am a young coach and let’s admit, this is usually seen as a disadvantage. I had my first executive coaching sessions at around 28 years old. Even though I saw it as a great achievement in my career that I was enthusiastic about, I have to admit that I had big concerns knowing that I would meet managers at 50 plus years old, with 15 plus years of working experience. When I found out who my first client was, my first thought was “Oh, this person is a ‘dinosaur’. He is so brilliant and has so much more work experience than I do. He needs a more experienced coach”. Looking at the OK Matrix, practically my thoughts were “You are ok, I’m not ok”. Because I studied psychology and coaching a lot, I knew that this type of thinking is not going to work. So I started to cultivate a positive self-talk in order to reframe “I’m not ok” into “I’m ok”. I remembered that coaching is not about who is the most intelligent or has more life experience in the room (even though it seemed hard to believe even in myself). It is about putting my coaching skills in the service of another who can benefit from the process that I’m able to initiate and guide.
So, how I prepared myself for these meetings was exactly in this way, remembering the principle “I’m ok, you are ok” and get on with it. I know my skills, I’m a professional coach and I trust my practice. You are a manager, you have your own skills (different than mine) and you are the expert of your life. I’m here to offer you my support, to help you to become better in what you do. Let’s see how we can make this work.
So, I embodied this attitude and walked my self-talk, being careful to be authentic in the coaching relationship and having in mind that the relationship might be the key ingredient for our coaching success, and indeed it was.
Finally, I think there are lot of implications of this for our practice as coaches. Because what a client will remember of a great coach, would be less about the techniques and psychological approaches he used, but about who was the coach as a person, the warmth and the feeling that he transmitted. So, next time when we coach let’s ask ourselves: ‘‘Have I really been OK with this client?’’, ‘‘Have I put him above or below me? Have I hidden myself yet expected him or her to be authentic?’’, ‘‘What attitude did I show up’’? Of course this model helps us in any inter-personal relationship.