A Coaching Case Study By Xiuyu Feng, Executive Coach, UNITED STATES
Introducing Jason From Self-Doubt to Self-Acceptance
My client Jason is a professional UX designer in his early 30s working in a big tech firm in the Bay Area. He has been a designer throughout his professional life and has worked as a freelancer for over 11 years before switching to his current job to work for a tech company as a full-time employee. He is gifted in many ways with art and is extremely passionate about it. He also loves everything creative such as video making, music composing, sound designing, and drawing, and is a huge fan of traveling and language learning.
Although he is now holding a senior position with a stable tech company and is appreciated by his colleagues as the core member of their team, he would from time to time suffer from serious self-doubt which has constantly limited him from trying on new things or taking on new opportunities.
Later on in the session, he revealed that his feeling of self-doubt mainly stemmed from his past experiences while working as a freelancer. During the past decade or so, he has been in the freelancer business and worked for himself. While this job gave him flexible working schedules, the unstable contract flows made his income condition extremely volatile. For an extended period, he was living on minimum income and sometimes even debts. The experience severely affected his confidence level and led to serious self-doubt. This was manifested during his job-hunting process as well when facing multiple rejections as he was switching from freelancer life to being employed full-time. Although right now he has a very stable job with decent compensation, the self-doubt has never gone away.
Around mid of this year, he found himself not very fulfilling working at his current job and wanted to try some new opportunities. However, his self-doubt limited him from taking any actions to realize his goal. He thus engaged me as a coach to help him better manage the self-doubt and find solutions to move him into action.
The Coaching Journey From Self-Doubt to Self-Acceptance
1) Discovery Session: Explain What Is Coaching and Set the Coaching Agreement
Jason was referred to me by one of my previous coaching clients. Although he has heard about coaching before but has never formally engaged with a coach before coming to me. So in our first discovery session, I took 30 mins explaining to him what coaching is and what coaching is not, how coaching differs from psychotherapies or consultants, and how a typical coaching session works. I allowed him time to ask me questions freely and made sure he expected the right thing from the coaching experience.
In the second half of the session, we explored his broader goals for the whole coaching engagement and proposed the coaching schedule as well as other logistic items such as billing, etc., all of which were included in a final written contract and shared & signed after the session.
The whole coaching contract included 12 sessions on a biweekly basis with the general goal laid out as below:
- Help the client to better manage self-doubt, make progress in professional development and experience expanded fulfillment, creativity, confidence, connection, and freedom of choice both personally and professionally
- Professional development: bring structure and accountability to the design portfolio building and the side projects the clients is currently pursuing and overcome self-doubt around them
- Personal development: improve self-confidence and self-discipline in achieving goals; be more confident in heart and committed to action taking
- Relationship: gain clarity on self-awareness and self-image; improve interpersonal skills to build deep connections (friendships, romantic relationships, etc.)
2) Session 1: Understand the Reality
Throughout the coaching process, I employed the GROW coaching model and weaved it by checking the alignment of the three centers of intelligence – head, heart, and body, to make sure he was fully aligned with whatever action he said he would commit to.
In the first session, we agreed that it’s important to check the reality to gain clarity on where he is standing now and what is preventing him from moving forward. Only by understanding the gap between reality and the goal, then solutions can be properly explored to bridge the gap.
With the trust built in the discovery session, he started to open up and described some of his past experiences that have led to his self-doubt in making changes in his professional life today (refer to the client profile intro). Throughout the process, I listened very carefully and acknowledged his feelings of sadness, disappointment, and frustration while struggling with financial situations working as a freelancer. He appreciated my understanding and opened up to talk more about his fear of failure and the potential judgment from others if he fails again. I noticed him saying multiple times during the conversation – “what if this doesn’t work….” “what if the video viewers don’t like my vlog…” “what if I fail again…” – all the fears and the anticipated negative outcomes that seem to have stiffened him and restricted him from making any movement.
To help him to shift his mind from the negative spiral to a more balanced one and see more possibilities, I asked him reality-checking questions such as “Is it true?” “How do you behave when you believe that thought?” “Who would you be without that thought?” I also tried to get a different perspective imagining the role of someone else and some extreme cases, such as “If you were your best friend, what would your reaction be?” “What’s the worst thing that can happen if you take that step?” With all those thought-provoking questions, he came to realize that a lot of the fears that he thought were so obvious were very fragile and cannot stand a second check with reality. He also realized that Jason today is no longer the same person in the past and he now possesses more power and capability to make a better living through his skills and talents. After some rounds of thought, a smile gradually came to his face and I asked “How do you feel right now?” His answer was “Oh, really liberating!”
I caught the chance of this “aha” moment for him, and asked a follow-up question “So what are you learning through this exploration?” He happily shared his thoughts and expressed he was very energetic now to move forward. I continued to ask him to imagine how he would look like getting in action. He described the pictures with lights glaring in his eyes, from which I saw hope and motivation.
3) Session 2-11: Explore Options & Action Plans
After the mental block was removed, it became much easier to move him into action. During the subsequent sessions, we explored his goals in more detail with each session focusing on a specific goal and designing execution plans against them. Since we met on a bi-weekly basis, there was enough time to see how the plan was carried out and leave room for making adjustments in subsequent sessions.
However, I do realize it’s not easy to forgo a thought that you have maintained for multiple years in just a few weeks. From time to time, the self-doubt would come up again and bothered him. For him to be able to break out of some vicious negative thinking cycles, I encouraged him to explore different metaphors and triggers to help remind him when this happens. He created several questions for himself which he later described had been very helpful – “Is this true?” “How does this thinking serve me at this moment?” “What does it take for me to feel good enough about myself?”
What’s worth mentioning is an episode that came up during the plan execution process which taught both of us a lesson. At the very early stage of the plan creation, Jason was so pumped about the possibilities laid in front of him that he made a very detailed plan timeboxing every hour of his free time in his calendar with a “purpose-related” task such as taking a class, going to the gym, learning languages, etc. Even though I checked with him briefly about the execution feasibility of the plan by the time he made it, I was shadowed by his enthusiasm and decided to let him continue. Without leaving enough time for recharging and rest, he soon burned out and came back the next session feeling exhausted. In the subsequent sessions, we adjusted the plan with more consideration about feasibility accordingly and things moved smoothly ever after.
With a hybrid coaching approach, I also recommended several books to him when asked for recommendations, and these include Carol Dweck’s Mindset as well as Byron Katie’s Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, which he said has greatly helped me with building a stronger mind and higher confidence level.
4) Session 12: Coaching Goal Revisiting & Summary
During the last coaching session, we reviewed the initial goals set at the beginning of the coaching journey and graded the progress against each one. It turned out that the majority of the goals were a hundred percent reached with the remaining ones ongoing with good supporting infrastructure in place.
One of the homework for the second to the last session was to write down a summary of the lessons he has learned along the coaching journey and wrote me a letter to share his feedback. He shared his learnings during the last session with me as well, expressing how grateful he was for having the coaching journey with me.
I was thrilled to see him shift from someone self-doubting a lot to someone with high self-acceptance and confidence level. What’s more joyful was to see him find his toolkit to fix his self-doubt problems once they hit again.
Coaching Session Reflection From Self-Doubt to Self-Acceptance
1) What’s the Core Problem or Main Challenge?
The main challenge for my client, in this case, is to better manage the self-doubt and find solutions to move him into action. This process involves awareness building, reality checking, emotion recognizing, perspective-shifting, plan to create, action-taking, and learning reinforcing to make sure the client moves forward.
2) What Specific Coaching Skills Did You Use in This Case?
First, I created a safe environment for my client to be able to freely share his feelings and thoughts throughout the coaching process. I tried my best to free myself from any judgment and viewed him as a complete and whole being.
During each session, I listened actively to understand the implications of his expressions, trying to catch the information through things beyond literal words such as his tone, his facial expression, his body gestures, etc. I gave him my full attention during the session and gave him enough space to express, think and reflect. I also used powerful questioning and observation sharing to provoke his thoughts, help him expand his perspective set, and encourage him to come up with more possibilities.
Throughout the whole coaching journey, I was present with the client, gave him support, and challenged him when needed.
Last but not least, I was committed to coaching the whole person of my client, not just the situation. I constantly checked with him about his feelings, explored his values and needs, and made sure the alignment was achieved.
3) What Are the Results of the Coaching Process?
The client explored the coaching journey with joy and fulfillment and “graduated” from the program feeling empowered.
4) If You Could Approach This Case Again, What Would You Do Differently?
First, I would wear the “challenging” hat more frequently and share more direct feedback with my client during the plan creation stage. At that stage, the foundation of his confidence was already built, challenging him more when necessary would help him to come up with a more effective plan much faster.
Second, I would encourage him to keep a diary of his learnings along the coaching journey (although I created a shared doc with coaching notes from each session) and learn about his changes along the way. He might be surprised to see how far he has made it!
5) What Are the Key Learnings From This Coaching Experience?
First, building trust with the client is key for any successful coaching journey. My client was only more open about sharing his thoughts and feelings after we chatted for the first session. He also admitted that since I was referred to him by a friend of his, his trust level with me was high, to begin with.
Second, maintaining a structure/framework is critical to more efficient coaching sessions. Sometimes the client can lead the conversation in any direction and spend much time talking about the details that are not so helpful. It is critical at this moment for the coach to keep the structure and bring the client back on route.
Last but not least, coaching the “who” of the client not only the situation. Behind each situation or / behavior/choice, there is always something associated with the underlying beliefs, needs, or values. Further exploration of the “who” of the client not only helps the client to gain more clarity but also helps the coaching process to be more holistic and effective.