Coaching Case Study By Richa Arvind
(Career Transformation Coach, TAIWAN)
The Coaching Session
The coachee Tim and the Coach that is me
Core problems and challenges
Tim approached me to coach him on a constant problem that was nagging him. He considered it a problem because he was losing sleep over it, unable to be present with his family and toddlers who demanded a lot of his attention, and in general he was constantly unhappy. His mental state was such that he was never able to be in the present. He was dealing with a dilemma of “constant fear of failure at his work” and this was creating major anxiety issues in his life.
This constant fear was affecting his productivity at work, when otherwise by nature he is a person who is excited by new and challenging opportunities, he now was facing a fear of failure every time he had to try his hands at a new experiment and this fear of failure was preventing him from moving ahead or even trying to attempt something in the direction of his work. He stated that it was a terrible feeling because he was continuously procrastinating his work with an excuse every other day so that he could avoid making the error for one more day.
This was a big issue for him because Tim is a student pursuing his Ph.D. at a very reputed institution. He is in a time-bound program, wherein his inability to complete his research work on time might result in him leaving the program without a degree and multiple years of hard work wasted. This would also have a great bearing on his family, his kids, his parents, and most importantly his self-confidence. Hence, he was seeking someone to help him come out of the constant irritation of living in fear. Although Tim has always had an issue with making mistakes as he considers it an issue of incompetence, the problem is now compounding because it is linked to his degree completion and the fear of people viewing him as a failure. He fears this might lead to disastrous consequences which might cause irreversible damages in his professional and more importantly personal life especially his relationship with his parents.
Ironically, Tim always thought he knew what his problems and his fears were, so he could deal with it by giving himself a pep talk. However, his observation was that the situation got worse every time his parents visited him and saw his peers being at a much better-assumed position in life when in comparison with him and silently showed their dissent with Tim’s performance. This tension prevented Tim from being his normal self with his family whenever his parents are around.
On further coaching him, it became evident that this problem has existed within him since his schooling days.
Tim always approached people who were very close to him (other than his parents) and tried to deal with his immediate fears & unhappiness and just let it be. His self-designed solution to this problem was to just keep silent and away whenever he senses his parents were unhappy or whenever he sensed his fears were surmounting. This, however, impacts his family life, where he does show signs of passive and pent up anger on unrelated situations and he begins to realize that there is a larger cause to his behavioral change every time his parents visit him. To make things worse, whenever his parents return to their home, Tim falls sick and gets weak and bedridden which impacts his overall health too. This is a sign he has observed over the last 3 years and he feels that the compounding negative stress in his mind, leads the otherwise very healthy Tim to a Health crash.
The observation that his physical sickness is somewhere related to his piling on mental stress was what struck him and that’s when he decided to approach a coach to work with him to deal with his complexities.
Specific coaching skills
I used Active Listening, Powerful questioning & Shifting perspectives to coach Tim.
In this coaching session, I allowed the client to take the first 10 minutes to go on explaining his current situation, the only things he kept talking were
- his fear of failure
- his experiments
- his thoughts of not being able to complete his Ph.D. on time and appearing a total failure to his family & Society.
Picking up on his cues from constant use of the sentence fear of failure,
Coach: “what is this fear doing to you?”
Tim: “ I am procrastinating the most critical experiments which would lead me to my thesis. This was a very important thing for him because he all the time visualized his 7 years would come crashing down “in his mind” if he did not successfully complete his Ph.D.
Coach: “what if you do not complete this on time”?
Tim: “I will lack behind my peers & friends”. This thought silenced him a bit because by nature he is a very competitive person and does not like to come second to anyone. And the fear that his peers would get ahead of him was coming in the way of his work.
Coach: “What would happen if your peers went ahead of you”
Tim: With the most discomforting and irritating look on his face, “My parents & I will hate myself if this happens”. All he had was tears in his eyes and a shaky voice when he mentioned his parents at this juncture. This led him to reflect some critical elements of his childhood where he only remembered being constantly compared with his peers/seniors even in situations when he thought he had outdone himself given his capabilities. His biggest disappointment was that though he fought against all odds to reach where he was today, he was still compared with people who did not have any relation to his field of work.
Silence & Pause for a long time.
The story in his mind had now shifted to Ph.D. was my passion for Ph.D. is just something I need to shut people off. This was a moment of utter disbelief for him because he had struggled hard to get this position, he had gone through many rejections, left a flourishing corporate career because this was a dream he harbored in his mind since he was a 7-year-old. His father was a scientist and he idolized him and all he could remember telling himself as a child was “I want to be a scientist”. How then did this passion turn into a feeling of anger, frustration, rebel & now more of just a process to prove his competence to the two people who mattered the most to him?
After letting him go through these emotions,
Coach: “What are you feeling now?”.
Tim: I am numb because I always thought I wanted to do this for myself and not for anyone else but today, I have made it an issue of ego, self-worth & capabilities. I always thought I would do this to enjoy the process of learning and skill development, but here, I am hating every minute and counting time to get done with this and now I realize I am only racing against time, not giving my best at my work.
Coach: What does this make you feel?
Tim: I feel very guilty because I put my career at stake, took this chance with unquestionable support from my wife who sacrificed her very successful career to be with me here during this time of mine only so that I could follow my passion with all my heart. To be honest, she never questioned me even once on my progress, all she asked me was to enjoy the process because this time would never come back again. But now, I feel I completely messed up the last few years in fear of failure & incompetence, trying to prove a point to myself which really doesn’t hold any significance
Coach: “What point were you trying to prove to yourself”?
Tim: That this would be the ultimate destination of my career ambitions and this would make my parents feel extremely proud of me. I tried to set unrealistic milestones in my mind regarding my completion and the only thing I focused on was the milestone of time but not the milestone of learning which should have been the one I should have measured in reality
Coach: You mentioned unrealistic milestones, what is happening to you as you think about these unrealistic milestones
Tim: (a bit shaky in his voice) I lost out a lot of time & opportunity trying to only focus on the completion time. I could have used this time to get better at my work, think of new projects, develop better skills, and also work towards completing my project with greater rigor.
Pause due to silence
I now realize that I have always set unrealistic expectations with myself since I was a kid to prove myself as a star in the eyes of my parents. However, I realize now that this process has harmed me and only extended the envelope of their expectations. They never stop comparing me to the one better person than me who they can find and I can never stop pushing myself from matching up to their expectations. The only thing that runs on my mind is how can I make them happy, what can I do for them to feel proud of me, what can be that one situation when they don’t compare me with anyone else and just say “we are proud of what you achieved” without a condition around it. I feel suffocated every minute that this is a never-ending loop and I am getting strangled in it.
Coach: “What are you feeling now Tim”?
Tim: Strangely, I am feeling very light right now, because I figured out that I have been chasing something with shifting milestones. I saw them changing milestones when they compared me and I subconsciously started doing this with myself. The only thing I got in return was pain, anxiety & a never-ending feeling of incompetence. But now, my mind feels very light and I seem to realize that I am trying to carry the burden of their milestones which in my opinion will never end and I need to take a stand to end it now.
Coach: Tim, you brought about a very powerful self-awareness and took a decision to end the burden now. What will you do to end it?
Tim: While talking to you, I realized that over the years, I completely forgot the core of why I enrolled in this program. Actually, nobody asked me to. Not my parents, not my bosses, no one. It was I who wanted to do this out of my own interest because I love science, it is my passion and I love what I am doing. There was only one reason I took up this program “To better Myself” and I had completely sidelined this most important reason in the chase to meet milestones of others’ expectations. So, as I can think now, I will change my course of work by just focusing on enjoying the process and not the outcome which brings the fear of failure
Coach: That was significant. How are you going to bring about this change?
Tim: I realized that I was either living in the past or pondering about the mistakes I committed in the past or was too focused on thinking about the outcome which is the future. Not for once, did I focus on what am I doing to make my present better? How can I enjoy the moment, learn at the moment, and maximize the time to capitalize on my potential? From now, my focus is only going to be to focus on the present and not get stressed too much about the past or the future. If I make a mistake, I will take it as learning & undo or redo things as needed without fretting about time.
Coach: What support would you need from me to let you achieve this state?
Tim: I will maintain a journal. Every time I see an experiment failed due to my worry about the outcome of a nagging fear due to a past failure, I will note it down. I would need your support in seeing this journal and talking to me wherever I slipped back into the past/future. This would definitely take some time, but I am hopeful I am focused on making this change very positively
I had a few follow-up coaching sessions with Tim & he appeared to be more positive towards his completion. He was more focused on spending time learning & was making a very conscious effort in trying to be present with his family. He mentioned that one of the direct impacts he sees is very less irritability and higher tolerance he has developed towards his daughter’s mistakes. He feels he is overcoming the feeling of failure is bad slowly and is confident he won’t burden his kids with his negativities.
Tim’s boss sees a change in his approach towards work and also appreciated his proactivity in having his first draft of a research paper out before time.
These outcomes shared by Tim do indicate that he is making progress. There definitely are times when he gets back to the past & becomes bitter but we are working towards solving that behavior in separate sessions.
This makes me feel that coaching has been effective so far.
If I approach the problem again, I would like to directly deal with the discussions on the fear aspect. I feel that would have opened up a lot more discussions and internal conflicts he has in his mind. This might have helped him come to terms with some aspects of his past better and resulted in fewer relapses into the past to blame some of his current situations.
- The importance of active listening – Since Tim was talking breathlessly and continuously most times, I needed to pick cues from some of his words, body language, expressions, and voice shifts. It was a bit challenging given that he wasn’t allowing me too much time to talk in the beginning, but active listening skills did help me a lot
- How to keep bringing back the client to the core issue. Tim kept drifting away from the core issue and kept going back to his past, on his stories of being compared and how it impacted him. However, this was not helping in many discussions. At the cost of not making him lose the flow, I needed to keep drifting him back to the main topic and this was a key learning for me
- Following up on the client’s progress – Tim did slip a couple of times after the first few weeks and kept having his lows and highs. Maintaining a steady state of accountability and bringing back accountability on him helped him work on some of the issues with better focus and it helps me learn the art of accountability from a coach’s perspective as well.