Believe me, I’m your coach!


By way of a taster for our 20 September session on the relational approach to coaching with Simon Cavicchia, here’s a case study taken from one of his published papers. Book your ticket for the session.

By Simon Cavicchia

A number of years ago I was coaching a senior HR professional in a manufacturing organisation, whom I shall call Mike. I had gone through a standard contracting process, and spent some time explaining the kind of coach I was and my ways of working. He seemed comfortable with this and we contracted to work on developing his leadership capability and presence. He said he was not confident and clear about his leadership style, and how he wanted to be with his new team, in a way that would be both supportive and developmental.

As we began to explore his current thoughts and approaches to leadership and surface areas for development, he appeared to become less engaged. His responses to my open questions became less detailed and thoughtful, and he seemed to be retreating from contact with me and the coaching process. It is significant that, in spite of noticing this, I found myself unable to think about what this might be saying about our relationship, and became more and more preoccupied with coming up with the goods, and with feeling responsible for finding a way to engage him. Yet, the harder I tried, the more distant and disconnected he became. I was feeling increasingly anxious and had started doubting myself and my ability to be of use to him.

In one session where I experienced him as particularly taciturn, I found myself working extremely hard, thinking about all the different leadership models I had come across, and feeling quite frantic as I trotted out more and more perspectives in the hope of coming up with something that might prove to be of interest. Eventually, I started to feel irritated with him and made a confronting and rather punitive interpretation that he was overwhelmed with the enormity of his challenges, and might be disengaging as a way of managing his anxiety.

He looked at me with fury in his eyes and said with disdain: “Oh that’s what’s happening is it?”!

This pulled me up short. In what felt like a split second, I realised the extent to which I had missed attending to the quality of our relationship and had failed to name what I was experiencing. I realised that, given my own vulnerability and need to feel good and competent, I had, myself, moved further away from him and an interest in his experience. My comment about his disengagement was infused with this need to save face and also, undoubtedly, a projection of my own withdrawal from relationship! I also remembered that earlier he had mentioned an experience of a coach that had not gone well for him. He described how she had insisted on telling him what he needed to do and how he had felt de-skilled in the process.

I looked at him with mock seriousness and exaggerated gravitas in response to his question. “Believe me,” I intoned firmly, “I am your coach!”

He looked confused for a moment; then broke into a smile, which built into a deep belly laugh, which I also joined in with. In that moment it felt as if a barrier had dissolved between us and we could share in my self-deprecation and the intended irony of my comment. This moment of humour relaxed something in the field of our relationship, and we were soon talking about how we had perhaps not got off to a very good start. I owned the part I had played in getting busy, and perhaps being over-zealous in my interventions. He was generous enough to disclose that his experience of the other coach had made him suspicious of me and reluctant to fully engage.

This example illustrates the often subtle, yet powerful, unconscious ways in which coaches and coachees can configure the relational field. Mike’s experience of his previous coach was in the field at the start. I failed to register the possible significance of this, suggesting that something of my own performance anxiety about doing a good job had reduced my capacity to reflect on information that implied the early stages of our contracting might need to be handled with particular care. Given my own levels of anxiety at not being “effective”, I was unable to think about Mike’s reluctance to engage and resorted to getting busier and busier, becoming, I imagined, a version of the previous coach. I shared this thought with Mike who agreed I had at times “spookily” resembled her. Out of conscious awareness, both Mike and I had conspired to re-enact something of his earlier coaching relationship. By being willing to turn our attention to the quality of our relating (and how we had missed one another!), we were able to create a new and novel encounter that eventually yielded much learning for both of us.

As coaches we can over-identify with the ideals of our profession such as being able to manage our feelings and be capable of the perfect intervention at all times. A relational perspective allows us to consider that when we fail in some way, it may not simply be as a result of our own limitations (although we need to monitor this as part of our ongoing development), but a manifestation of an aspect of the relationship with our clients.

This case study is extracted from Shame in the coaching relationship: reflections on organisational vulnerability, by Simon Cavicchia.

Book now for the session … 

The relational turn
20th September 2016, 6.30pm to 8.30pm
Space in Marylebone, 10 Daventry Street, London NW1 5NX
Members £30; Non-members £35.

Book with Eventbrite

Image courtesy Jeremy Brooks.

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