Coaching Case Study By Photinee Thomson
(Executive Coach, UNITED STATES)
During the early stages of my coaching practice, I was engaged by a State Owned Enterprise to coach 2 executives that had been identified for promotion. Both were very senior in status. My niche was Executive Coaching.
This case study is about Mike, one of the two executives I was contracted to coach.
Mike entered the meeting room the first time we met with body language that bordered on being rude. He sat down and with arms crossed he asked, “What qualifies you to coach me?” Naturally I was rather alarmed and asked if he knew anything about coaching. Like many others, even all these years later, he didn’t. He assumed that his CEO thought that there was something missing and ‘wrong’ with him and that he had been told he has to have coaching to ‘fix’ the problem. I explained that it was in fact a privilege to be selected for coaching and that only individuals with potential to grow in the organisation were selected for this significant investment in coaching.
Thirty five minutes later, after sharing some of my experiences in corporate leadership and exposing some of my vulnerabilities, he finally relaxed his arms and started to look more interested. I knew I had a difficult client on my hands and instinctively sensed that there were some deep issues that needed to be surfaced if I was going to be of value to Mike and to the organisation that had mandated me to coach him.
By the end of the 90 minute session I knew I had broken through to Mike. I always have a 90 minute session with executives because I find they need to relax and share what has happened since the previous session and then focus on the issue that they bring to the current session.
Whilst I was satisfied from Mike’s body language that he felt at ease with me, I knew it would take a lot more for him to trust me. I could feel that he was cautious and apprehensive about the conversation. I was excited to see how this would unfold in the months to come. I had a 6 month contract and would meet with Mike every fortnight for 90 minutes.
Nothing could have prepared me for what was to follow.
In the first two sessions, no matter how I tried to identify what he wanted to discuss in the session, he would bring in a new issue. I would listen carefully as listening is a skill I am gifted at – but, he would veer off at a tangent with something new and complex each time I wanted to focus him on the agreement we had established. I would do all I could to be curious and responsive but he could not focus on one direction or one conversation. I’d re-frame his issues and ask questions that he either wouldn’t answer or would answer and then move straight onto another issue. I mirrored his body language. I mirrored his word choice and pitch and pace – nothing helped even though he had actually told me that he ‘felt safe’ with me.
Before the third session with Mike, I had decided I would try one more time to get him to focus on the issues he brought to the session one at a time – and if he didn’t, I would go to his CEO and explain that I needed to terminate the contract because I felt that Mike needed a therapist and I do not have the expertise he needed.
About 10 minutes before the end of the third session which I had hoped was going to be our last session, I asked Mike if he thought our coaching was of any value. His response shocked me. He said, “Definitely. I actually want to ask you something that is very difficult for me to ask…”
I have never battled so much ever to ‘hold the space’ for my client. I was nervous and had no idea what he was going to say. He blurted out, “I have information that could bury 3 of the board members here, what do I do?”
I wish to explain to the reader of this case study, that 3 years prior to this session with Mike, I had been a whistle blower and had almost lost my life in the process. I had to have a body guard for 3 months, I couldn’t work for fear of being attacked or killed and I had to sell my house to cover the legal fees. A long story short, I would do it all again to see justice served.
Mike’s words triggered emotions in me which were not ideal given the circumstances.
I was able to compose myself and explain to Mike that as a coach I cannot tell him what to do. He pleaded with me and said, “I have done my homework on your career and I know why fate brought us together. I know you are a whistle-blower! Please help me.”
I responded by echoing his words back to him with empathy. I told him that his change of pitch, pace, tone and energy demonstrated his urgency. I thanked him for trusting me with this highly confidential information. I asked him if I could make an observation and he said I could – I told him I could hear anxiety and even fear in his voice. He affirmed my observation. We were nearing the end of the session and I told him that I would certainly be there the following session to listen to and guide him. Using the word “guide” caused me endless struggles because he interpreted it that I would tell him what to do. Lesson learnt!
Naturally I did not end the contract but continued with the sessions, listening attentively and sharing my observations. I have to admit that I made the huge mistake of getting too involved in the story and it triggered a tremendous amount of anger in me. I was professional enough not to show my feelings to Mike, but I suffered after every session. It took me hours to de-brief.
I sought the support of my Mentor who knew all about my whistle-blowing and who pointed me to book called The EQ Edge by Steven J Stein and Howard E Book. The book was beneficial to me in many ways but particularly The ABCDEs***: a system for altering one’s perceptions, attitudes and behaviours. The system was pioneered by Dr Albert Ellis recognised as the father of Rational Emotive Behaviour Theory and Therapy. I used The ABCDEs for myself, in private, as a way of defusing my triggers when Mike spoke of his intent to blow the whistle on his board members. Using the ABCDEs after each coaching session, I was able to continue the sessions professionally.
Mike’s issue lasted for four more sessions before he reached the decision to take action. My questions enabled him to craft a way to blow the whistle without endangering himself and his family. His decision took time because he had a lot of fear. I understood this well and together we unpacked his feelings and his fears. He also used The ABCDEs several times whenever his fear surfaced. He managed to identify the triggers and would diligently come to the session with pen and paper and ask to go through the process with me saying, “Please be devil’s advocate and ask me questions to diffuse the doubt and fear.”
I role-played various scenarios with Mike. The role-play encouraged him to stay focused on his mission to blow the whistle. The role-play was particularly difficult for me but when I look back it also healed me. Of course Mike never knew my feelings. When I heard his voice change and I knew he was getting anxious, I would take him through visualisation exercises. I would tell him to imagine his future to calm him down and to allow him to feel how gratifying it was to know he did the right thing. At times it would take only a few minutes before he would get very emotional and fearful of not having a job once he blew the whistle. And so the cycle of determination followed by doubt would continue. However, I noticed that each time he would come back stronger and more resolute to carry through his whistle blowing.
During the seventh and final session I had with him, (I could not continue after he blew the whistle), I asked Mike a question that evoked unwavering grit in him: “Mike, what will happen if you do not carry through what you plan to do?” It was as if I opened the flood gates! He bravely said, “I could never live with myself.” We continued to discuss his beliefs and values as we had done previously but now there was absolute clarity in his word choice and his tone of voice had a confidence I had not heard previously. I knew that was the final step. I had confidence in the fact that his plan was a good one. I had assured him of my on-going support and he had agreed to allow me to keep him accountable.
Mike did blow the whistle. He did lose his job. His family did suffer. His wife left him. His eldest son had to leave University because Mike couldn’t continue to pay the fees.
Two years later, Mike had his dream job as well as his self-respect. His estranged wife returned to him and his son finished his degree.
My coaching was effective for Mike – it freed him. He has shared that since then he is much more courageous and decisive.
My coaching Mike did not serve me well. I would certainly do things differently if ever I am faced with similar circumstances. If I got into an agreement that addressed an issue as serious and as close to my reality as Mike’s was, I will recuse myself immediately. Or, I would take my coaching hat off and switch to blended coaching and deal with the situation. But pure coaching with such sensitive triggers? Never again.
The top 3 things I learnt from this experience?
- Not to get into the story; Not to get emotionally involved;
- To watch my choice of words – using the word “guide” cause me endless problems;
- I learned about the effectiveness of the coaching process – prior to this I was often not convinced but now I trust the process 100%.
The ABCDE’s summarized briefly in my own way and how I use Dr Albert Ellis’s system:
Draw 5 columns:
1. Think of an upsetting situation you have experienced recently and then in the C column, (Consequence), write down what your unpleasant feelings were and what behaviours accompanied them. e.g.: I feel sad, worried, upset, and pessimistic. I have become withdrawn.
2. In the A column, (Activating event) – write down the activating event that triggered this upsetting situation.
3. The key aspect is now to capture your B column, (Beliefs):
That almost imperceptible, easily overlooked self-talk triggered by the activating event. See if you can pin point what went on in your mind right after the activating event.
4. Your next task is to actively Debate, Dispute and Discard (D column) these maladaptive, self-defeating beliefs that give rise to your C column. Submit every element of your internal monologue to rigorous examination by asking yourself the following key questions and writing down the answers in column D:
- Where is the proof?
- Are there alternative, more logical explanations to explain the activating event?
- If someone asked me for advice about this scenario, what might I say that could help alter his/her perspective?
- How would someone whose opinion I respect respond if I told him/her I had this belief?
- Have I ever been in a similar situation before, held a similar belief, only to find out that it was wrong?
- If so, did I learn anything from that outcome, and can I apply that knowledge to this situation?
5. Finally, column E (Effect) – write down the effects of filling in column D – how debating, disputing and discarding have shifted your understanding and beliefs about the activating event, and, consequently your feelings and behaviours.
The power of ABCDE’s is that diffusing illogical, maladaptive beliefs allows more rational and adaptive beliefs to emerge, and shifts your C’s to more effective, adaptive feelings and behaviours.