This particular client and I had been circling an issue for 40 minutes or so. I was doing my best, asking open ended questions and inviting him to say more. He was stuck. The rut was getting deeper with every question. Finally, he said “Why don’t you tell me what you see?”
This is the danger zone for a coach. The client has asked for your opinion–you probably have one–and given you permission to express it. The effectiveness of this coaching session hangs in the balance…as does your coaching presence. What’s a coach to do?
I’ve developed a couple strategies for this situation, but they all work basically the same way: I ask the client what’s holding them back, in some level of bluntness, and I offer something to see see if the client picks it up. In this particular case I said: “I see a guy who’s stuck. What are you avoiding that is keeping you stuck?”
It was bold and risky. I didn’t know for sure that there was something he was avoiding, but my intuition was telling me there was.
The client didn’t say anything for a long time. The he stammered, “Well, there is one issue that I haven’t wanted to bring up…”
He then unpacked an item that, on the surface, only seemed loosely related to what we were working on. But the longer he talked, the more directly connected it became. The client had hesitated because it was a key issue that he himself had caused.
Before too long, he was seeing another way forward that was totally different than the place where he was stuck. He had had a significant shift in what he was expecting from himself and from his situation
There is nothing better than a moment in your coaching conversations when the lightbulb goes on for you your client. All of a sudden they get it.
The lesson we can learn from this story is that often the Presenting Symptom is different that the Key Issue.
The Presenting Symptom or Issue is what appears to be going on. It’s the thing that demands the majority of the time in the early phases of the coaching relationship. We can easily get caught up in the presenting symptom and miss the thing that will really help our clients change. The presenting issue is valuable to understand, because it often points to the root cause of the situation (which points to the solution).
The Key Issue is what needs to be addressed to facilitate a lasting and meaningful change in a particular situation. It’s not always easy to see, but working on it always leads to a meaningful shift, even if you have to take more than one pass at it.
Think of the Key Issue was what’s really going on in a situation. Here’s a metaphor I like: Picture a cool, calm morning next to the ocean. You’re walking along the beach, and the water is still. The surface of the water is the presenting symptom. It seems calm and tranquil. Like there’s nothing but good things going on. (Often this is what the initial conversations of a coaching relationship are like.)
But then a scuba diver walks down the beach and dives into the water. What do you think they’re seeing? Underwater life, the coral reef, plants, fish, maybe a shipwreck and even the occasional shark or other marine predator! With this perspective, what could you work on? What conversation could you have? Picking out an area to focus your efforts on that can really make a difference is MUCH easier and more effective when you have this perspective under the surface.
The ICF coaching competency of Powerful Questioning is really what it takes to get beneath the surfacte. The conversation centers on the key question: what’s really going on? And that is among the scariest questions a coach can ask because the answer requires us to be honest with ourselves.
Why do we hesitate to be honest with ourselves? Our own hesitance is the single biggest reason why coaching relationships don’t get to the heart of the issue. Effective coaches partner with their clients to overcome that hesitation and dig through the layers of the story to what’s really going on.
Here are six reasons why going through the layers of a story can be tough to do:
1. You don’t have enough relationship established with the client. It can be scary to talk about what’s really going on in a situation with someone you know well…now imagine the fear that can take over when you are a little bit uncertain about your relationship with the other person. Building a better relationship allows you to go deeper. The most effective coaches build deep and meaningful relationships by default.
2. The client is in a hurry to see things change. Digging beneath the surface takes time. No two ways about it. A rush to outcomes can often mean that the exploration needed to really understand what’s going on can be missed. Effective coaches know how to help their clients slow down and take a second look at what is actually going on in a giving situation.
3. Human beings don’t always want to talk about areas where they need growth. This is just a fact of life. Our self image is built on the things we think we get right about ourselves. Growth means change, and it’s tempting to connect change with something that we’ve gotten wrong about ourselves. If we avoid it, we don’t have to acknowledge that maybe we’ve gotten this part of our self image wrong. Effective coaches give clients permission to explore areas where they can grow, without falling into guilt or shame.
4. The client doesn’t actually know what’s going on…yet. One of the key questions I ask myself during an intake process is “What level of self awareness does this client have?” The follow up question to this one is “How will that help/harm the coaching we’ll do?” Coaching an individual with low self awareness makes digging beneath the surface much more difficult. Effective coaches help clients understand how they are coming across to others and what the implications of their actions might be.
5. Sometimes we identify the key issues incorrectly. Nobody wants to admit this, but there are moments when we just plain diagnose the situation inaccurately. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. The world’s greatest coaches have done it. The key is what you do AFTER you’ve realized that you’ve made a mis-assessment. Effective coaches come alongside their clients to identify activity in a situation first, and then reflect on what is causing the activity. Always start with what you can see and then go beneath the surface.
6. Hard work is, well, HARD WORK. Surface level assessments are easy. They take no effort at all. Sometimes factoring in all the pieces of what’s really going on takes work. It can be hard. Time is one concern, but the effort involved can scare us off too. Effective coaches help their clients see the benefit of digging deep and how it might pay off down the road.
What has kept you and your clients from going beneath the surface? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!