This blog is intended for coaches and trainee coaches looking to deepen their capability and confidence in coaching. Each month we take a question, examine why it is important in coaching, some challenges we may face answering it plus pragmatic ways to engage with it.
Last month we explored different types of coaching. This month we explore why and how to steer clear of advising our clients.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
Our clients bring issues they want to address, area in which they feel stuck or goals they wish to achieve and it can be tempting to offer well-meaning advice - indeed sometimes they outright ask for it. Why is it important to resist?
Firstly, from the perspective of the ICF, although advising is not considered unethical per se, it may give rise to 'dual roles' which are tricky to navigate. Imagine your client follows advice and suffers some type of loss. The possibility of liability and lawsuits is something coaching bodies rightly want to help us avoid, both for our own sake and the industry as a whole.
Secondly, offering solutions risks robbing our client of insights and building more agency and capability in their lives. If a 'solution' to what ails them seems so obvious to us, a valuable question to ask ourselves is 'what about the client's way of seeing the world means that it is not obvious to them?' This line of enquiry may help a client better see more of their own 'operating system'.
A client who wouldn't dream of asking for help or information from others, for example, presents us with an opportunity to unpack stories and assumptions about making requests, what it means to be supported, their relationships with others etc. Ultimately our aim in developmental coaching is increasing a client's self knowledge and ability to see new possibilities throughout their lives, not just find specific solutions, even good ones, for the issue of the day.
Thirdly, we may rely on advice-giving as a 'crutch' that constrains our development as coaches. Going for the quick fix can be a temptation to avoid being with clients in deeper explorations that may require more subtlety, skill and emotional capacity from us.
Finally, the more we offer advice and solutions, the more we may unconsciously accrue power in the relationship, specifically 'expert power'. This undermines our goal of developing the mutual trust, mutual respect and mutual freedom of expression on which a coaching relationship relies and instead may create a sense of dependency in our client rather than growing their sense of co-creativity and capacity.
WHAT GETS IN THE WAY?
External factors that may draw us into advising are clients who don't differentiate between mentoring and coaching and actively ask for our advice. Even if they do not ask, since problem-solving is the default mode for many types of workplace and other conversations, it can be tempting for coaches to get into solution-ing with a client and from there down a slippery slope into a relationship in which consulting, mentoring or one-to-one training is the norm.
Especially when your client knows that you have been around the organisation for a while, or been in their position before, they may well ask what you have seen succeed to solve the issue that has them stuck. When asked for advice, it is useful to have some strategies to hand.
One strategy I use is to provide a range of answers to be clear that there is not 'one' solution. Another is to say that I have some ideas that I would be happy to share but would first like to know what the clients ideas are and explore them.
If they are asking for advice on specific issues I would also explore what resources they have to get it. As an ex-lawyer, for example, I sometimes have clients wanting to get my take on a legal issue and I will suggest that they may want to consult a lawyer of a particular type. If I have particular referrals for experts I will also offer them. When I hear a client asking for advice I might say "sounds like you are seeking some advice on this...? what input do you think you need and who do you think would be best placed to give it to you?"
Internal factors that may get in the way include a deep desire to help and a story in our heads that the best way we can add value is though giving a 'solution'. We get the ego boost of feeling like we added value rather than developing our coaching skills and capacity. We may also be avoiding the discomfort of being in the 'not knowing' with a client.
WHAT ARE SOME USEFUL DISTINCTIONS?
By 'giving advice', we mean prescribing what a client should do in a particular situation or offering 'solutions' to an issue that a client has brought.
This is distinct from offering resources that might lead a client to greater insight themselves. This may include one-off exercises or ongoing self-observation to generate greater insight and self-awareness or practices that build a client's capability.
Indeed it can be very useful as coach to be a curator of resources, whether that be books, videos, or other professionals who can help clients in a particular domain and why it can be great to be part of a community of practice that shares resources. The expertise we can usefully seek to cultivate and express in coaching is that of developing others, rather than being 'problem solver general' or 'leader by proxy'.
A HELPFUL METAPHOR?
On management coach training programmes, it is common for the old proverb 'give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime' to be used about the difference between advising/problem solving for someone and coaching someone into finding their own solutions in the way we might in performance or goal-based coaching where the 'fish' is clear.
A better metaphor for developmental coaching, which distinguishes between learning (acquiring specific skills) and development (growing into someone with new capability) is something less outcome-focused. Depending on what might resonate with a client and the issues they are bringing, we can distinguish what we will do together from other activities such as mentoring or advising with a metaphor that a) puts them in the 'driver's seat' b) puts us in a role not leading the way or choosing direction but accompanying and c) describes the journey and outcomes in terms of specific greater capabilities rather than (only) achieving goals/outcomes.
WHERE DOES INTEGRAL COACHING FIT IN?
Most coaches offer resources such as books and exercises to provoke insight. Many use assessments aimed at discovering preferences, personality traits. Others still might suggest journalling, mindfulness, gratitude practices etc. These resources may be generic (eg wheel of life/write your obituary) or specialised instruments they may be trained and licensed to provide ( eg MBTI/ Hogan). None of this is advising, even though consultants and trainers may also use these tools. However arguably offering resources is more central to integral coaching than some other forms and so we need to pay attention to how we invite clients to try things and why, to avoid the power dynamic I wrote of earlier.
Whilst 'guru syndrome' is not limited to integral coaches- coaches of any stripe can get caught in this- the philosophical and spiritual wells from which Integral coaching draws its resources can seem esoteric to some, providing a cloak of mystique to hide behind, which ultimately damages the relationship. We borrow practices that have proved themselves over time that we might think of them as 'fundamental but forgotten' and are in fact pragmatic ways to regenerate in us what modern life has eroded.
Integral coaches may be akin to personal trainers in this way. We try to understand how a client is approaching an issue and then offer resources and exercises designed to help clients increase their capacity to address this and other issues in their life. A good personal trainer doesn't care whether you do 30 reps or 50, lift 50 pounds or 70 on any given day, but helps you find exercises that challenge you enough to improve your overall ability to live with greater ease. Similarly, our aim in offering self-observation exercises and practices to a client is to give them a feedback loop of learning between sessions and increase their ability to continue to develop through these and other new habits after coaching has finished.
EXERCISES AND PRACTICES TO TAKE AWAY?
- Here's an article from the ICF website exploring possible downsides of advising clients
- The European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) has been working on new definitions of coaching and mentoring to help update the understanding of these terms which you can read about here
- You could use the infographic above to help clients distinguish between coaching, mentoring, consulting, psychotherapy and training or work on developing a metaphor about the way in which you work with clients
- Join a supervision group or engage a supervisor/mentor to help you reflect on your practice and how you continue to develop the practice of coaching, including when you find yourself falling into advice giving or solutioning