Coaching Case Study By Michael Colson
(Executive Coach, SWITZERLAND)
The client is Jennifer, a successful manager at an industrial products firm. I have coached Jennifer periodically for about eight months, and the session in this case study was held in late November 2020, in the lead-up to the Christmas season.
The problem the client initially identified turned out to be an example of a much deeper challenge with broader implications on many areas of the client’s life. This case serves as an excellent illustration of a point often raised by our ICA instructors: The initial problem the client brings is rarely the “real” problem.
The coaching session took place on the day that Jennifer was going to be hosting friends for a holiday gathering. Jennifer was giving a great deal of thought to preparations for the evening and was reflecting on how she would handle the expectation that she would have a glass of wine or two with her friends.
Jennifer did not feel like drinking more than a glass of wine, if at all, and articulated several reasons for this: she does not enjoy it, she finds it unhealthy, and she does not like how she feels the next day. However, she recognizes that “I really struggle with gatherings where I sometimes feel I have to…I realize that I am having trouble saying, ‘You know what, I just want a glass of water.”
This problem has been a recurring one for Jennifer, and it has a significant impact. Hours before the event, she already has conflicted emotions – on the one hand, “I’m very much looking forward to this gathering,” but at the same time, “it bothers me because I’m already thinking, what kind of excuse could I use or what should I buy.”
Moreover, even while thinking about the immediate challenge of how to handle the upcoming evening, Jennifer was already placing the issue in a larger context – if she doesn’t buy alcohol, “does this make me look weird or something?”
As we began to address the immediate problem, the larger underlying issues soon rose to the surface.
The Coaching Session
Establishing the coaching agreement:
Jennifer began by setting out the topic she wanted to address during the session (how to handle social pressure around drinking during the holiday season). We then identified her goal for the session (“a shift of perspective that I can take it easier this holiday season”) and the measures to know if we have reached her goal by the end of the session (feeling “prepared” for the party she will be hosting and “some action steps or strategies that I can use for the long term to keep this momentum going”).
At this point, I asked Jennifer to clarify what she meant by “prepared” since that word can imply different things to different people, and it was important to fully understand what success would look like for her.
We then concluded establishing the coaching agreement by exploring the importance of the topic to her (“I could just focus on the excitement” of spending time with friends without having to concern herself over social pressures surrounding drinking) and identifying what Jennifer thinks she needs to address to achieve her goal for the session (being firmer in her resolve to avoid the pressure that comes from social situations and reinforcing her ability to not care about society’s overall messages about how to behave).
When Jennifer spoke about what she needs to address to meet her goal, I played back the two options she offered, encouraging her to clarify what she wanted to work on. Her reaction was a first demonstration in the session of the power of playing back to the client what they said. (“Yeah, when you say this, it’s actually the external thing…Now, when you say it, it sounds bigger.”)
Jennifer recognized that her concern was less about being firm in her resolve with herself and much more about resisting pressures that she feels come from her environment. (“I don’t want to be affected if one of my friends tonight, or in general, my colleagues or family member think that I’m boring…”)
Not only did playing back to the client her own words help clarify the nature of the challenge she wanted to address, but we also began to uncover a more underlying concern – Jennifer’s fear that she is perceived as “boring.”
Active listening: I shared an observation that Jennifer’s energy was different when she was speaking at the outset of the session about the upcoming evening with her friends compared to now when she was speaking about others thinking she is boring, and I inquired what energy she wants to be bringing to these social situations.
In retrospect, this question would have been more powerful if I had asked what is causing the difference in energy, rather than my question which implicitly assumes that there are only two kinds of energy to bring to a situation, thereby channeling the client’s thinking instead of broadening it.
Nonetheless, the client went on to say that she prefers the “high energy,” and I followed up by asking what is allowing the other energy to come in.
At this point, the client revealed something deep: “I think one of these buzzwords is ‘boring.’ Without going into too many details, I have been told that I was boring when I did not do what others did, especially when it came to alcohol. And it hurt so much. So that somehow now there are some situations that people don’t even say this to me. But just the fact that I think that they could be thinking of me as boring makes me feel bad. It’s not even necessarily true that I’m judged. It’s just, it’s my thinking.”
At this point, we are nine minutes into the session, and we have identified a deeper challenge that lies behind the initial purpose of the coaching session. While the client still wanted to prepare herself for the pressure she may feel at her party later that day, we also identified this fear that people see her as boring that underlies both her immediate challenge and has broader implications in her life.
The client and I then spent time exploring the client’s thinking and the assumptions she holds about how others may see her as boring. Once again, in playing back to the client what she is sharing about her past experiences, she comes to some important realizations. (“Your observation is straight to the point. Actually, the person who told me I’m boring is actually a person I’ve never dealt with again. (Laughter) So there is definitely a disconnect between those people that surround me and the person who actually said it. Which gives me a little peace of mind.”)
As the client’s view of her situation begins to shift, she says, “The question is now, how can I not start this vicious cycle of going into these thoughts.”
I then employed a technique that I learned from my instructor during Observed Coaching (many thanks, Lorna Poole!), and asked the client the same question which she just asked herself.
The client then spoke at length, recounting step-by-step her preparations for the evening’s party and how she was anticipating what one particular friend would say or do at the party, and how that would impact Jennifer’s behavior.
Recognizing that the client processes her thoughts by playing out a scenario in her mind, I used that learning style to advance the client’s thinking. (Coach: “So you were having a conversation in your mind with your friends, and you were playing chess four steps ahead.” Client: “Oh, yes.” Coach: “What could be a different conversation that you could have with them tonight when you open the bottle of wine?”)
This question offered the client the opportunity to imagine different ways of behaving in an upcoming situation, and it served to move the session towards action planning.
Designing action; planning and goal setting; managing process and accountability:
The client began to plan out a scenario for what she would say at the outset of the evening. I asked how she would handle one potential obstacle, and the client developed a plan for that. In developing that plan, she recognized that she could either make an excuse or, “I could actually, for the first time, say, ‘No, I’m not in the mood for that,’ which would be for me a very brave step. So, I’d rather choose this one.”
The client went on to reflect that choosing the “brave way and not using an excuse tonight is exciting me.” I asked what was exciting about it, and this led the client to a major realization:
It’s exciting because it’s something that I want to do for so long. But I always…I realized I always came up with an excuse. I said, “Well, I’m the driver” or “I don’t drink in front of my kid.” Which is true. But I realized there was never a single moment that I said, “No, I don’t want to.” Never. Not one single moment. And it’s exciting because it would be the time that I step up for me and my decision and not for the circumstances.
The client and I went on to explore how this realization impacts the client and, most importantly, how it can be carried over to other areas of the client’s life.
The client responded that “It’s actually…it’s a very first step tonight, but it’s a huge, huge step. When it comes to my bigger goal because I don’t want to justify it all the time. It’s energy-draining to justify what I’m doing, just to explain to everybody why and to get this acceptance. It’s so energy-draining. So, the impact is actually, it is quite high. I will learn from it.”
On several occasions, the client recognized the broader implications of what she was learning about the assumptions she had been laboring under for so long. (“I am following the absolute same pattern in every area of my life, where I feel the need of justifying myself.” “It’s such a big awareness for me that I want to go the brave way today because that’s actually how I want to be.”)
I took a moment to acknowledge the client’s work in the coaching process and reflected on the progress being made. As we were nearing the end of the session (about seven minutes remaining), I brought the client back to the actions she would take that evening and how they could be consistent with her self-realization. (Coach: “What else can you do to prepare for tonight so that you can address it with bravery?”)
The client described, step-by-step, how she would prepare for the evening, from food and drink shopping to set up the table for when her guests arrived. During this exchange, I used the word “brave” regularly in my questions, which I thought would reinforce the client’s learning and encourage her in the progress she made. We also covered potential obstacles (Coach: “What might somebody do tonight that would challenge your commitment to being brave?”) and I inquired if there was anybody that could support the client in her decision for how she was going to behave that evening.
Once the client had planned out her action steps and I had inquired about obstacles, accountability, and support structures, we returned to broader applications of what the client had achieved during the session.
“I think to start with, in general, is with my family. Communication with my family. Especially WhatsApp messages. Start to just write what I want and need, and not justify. I think this could be the next step. Also, one thing I really want to do after tonight is to reflect on how it went. Because of this, and what I hope and expect, go successfully, then I want to have a little bit of this feeling…get this feeling again and remember, remind myself of this feeling that I can apply it to other areas too.”
After exploring a bit more what the client wanted to do to have bravery as a tool in other situations moving forward, we concluded the session.
I assess that this was a successful application of coaching principles. The client and I had a clear agreement on what the client wanted to accomplish; we checked in on progress towards her goals during the session; and the client came out of the session with concrete steps she could take, having considered potential obstacles and what systems of support she could rely upon.
At the same time, allowing the client to have the space to reflect on her immediate goals and, as the coach, remaining unattached to any particular diagnosis of the problem, allowed the client to surface a deeper root problem (the worry that she is perceived as boring) and to identify a much different and more positive way of interacting with the people in her world (with greater “bravery” and by stopping her habit of justifying herself when she articulates what she needs or wants)
Coming out of the session, the client had gained a new perspective with which to consider her interactions with a host of different people and a new word – brave – that she felt comfortable applying to herself.
In reading a transcript of this session I recognize that I need to refine further my questioning skills. There are still occasions when I stack my questions or when my choice of words implicitly structures the way the client will answer the question. (See for instance the example I provide in the “Active listening” subsection of part 3 above.)
Jennifer seemed pleased to identify her course of behavior as “brave,” and I used that word in my questioning to reinforce that sense. But I think we could have further developed what bravery means to Jennifer. Why it is important to her. How she would like to manifest greater bravery in more situations. Etc.
Finally, although we were very close to the end of the session, I managed to ask, “What do you need to do with your reflections so that you have that as a tool in other situations moving forward?” Nonetheless, I would have liked to have devoted a bit more time to explore how Jennifer might apply her learning to other situations, and perhaps to have had her identify one or two concrete actions she would undertake before our next session. This would have perhaps helped expand the impact of the session into situations beyond the imminent gathering with friends.
I learned that that the coaching process works. While Jennifer is an eminently coachable client, it was clear from the way that the session unfolded that the coaching competencies identify a set of coaching behaviors that, if respected, allow for great depth. It is not only the coach’s questions that encourage the client to explore why they chose a certain word, what meaning can be found behind certain reactions, and how they want to shape their actions in a given situation. But the power of coaching comes from those questions being posed in the context of the space that the coach and client create – where trust, nonjudgement, and genuine openness to what the client is saying and thinking allow for the exploration of the previously unstated, and where the courage to change can be born.
Secondly, it is so true that, as we have been taught, the first issue the client brings to the coaching session is rarely the deeper issue that is affecting them. This requires that the coach operate simultaneously on two frequencies. First, the coach needs to attend to the stated topic and goal of the client. But at the same time, the coach needs to keep all senses open to be able to identify when the client starts hinting at an unstated problem. The client may do so through their choice of words, their inflection, or some other behavior or shift in energy. The coach needs to be perceptive enough to spot those indicators and to explore them without losing sight of what the client stated they want to get out of the session.
Thirdly, there is tremendous power in playing back to the client what they said. On at least two occasions during Jennifer’s session, I repeated back to her what she was saying, and this consistently helped her arrive at significant realizations. I sense that hearing her thoughts expressed by someone else made certain choices obvious to Jennifer. Perhaps we become so accustomed to our internal dialogue that we no longer question whether it is accurate or helpful. Simply hearing what we have been saying to ourselves articulated by someone else provides a distance with which we can assess our own thinking more objectively, and as demonstrated in this session, that can have a powerful positive impact.