A Coaching Power Tool Created by Isobel Phillips
(Leadership Coach, IRELAND)
My niche is primarily working with female leaders, and a common theme emerging in my work is that of uncertainty, and the need to bring this around to confidence. One client is uncertain about their future, where they would like to go, and what they would like to achieve. They are in a position to direct their future and that of the organization they run, but they are not sure where to start or if they have the ability to do it alone. Another is in a cornerstone role in their organization but gets paralyzed by uncertainty and this lack of confidence leads to inaction. Another has experience of being undermined in previous jobs and is fearful of making decisions that impact their organization. This uncertainty is affecting their performance and their ability to progress in their role. I need to support these clients to move from this position of uncertainty to one of confidence, where they know that they have the answers in themselves and that they know they cannot make a bad choice if they are making a conscious decision to take action. Any action is a good one, they just need to have confidence in their abilities.
Uncertainty: Not knowing what to do or believe, or not able to decide about something (Cambridge Dictionary)
Uncertainty can paralyze and lead to inaction. A person stuck in uncertainty may not move forward or commit to goals, and so can miss out on opportunities. Self-doubt creeps in and procrastination takes over. Clients describe themselves as being frozen and unable to meet their goals. This can lead to a cycle of guilt, doubt, and helplessness causing the uncertainty to spiral. Coaching can enable the breaking of the cycle by supporting the client to plan actions for progress that include accountability and support, and by inviting the client to reflect on their learning and successes.
Confidence: The quality of being certain of your abilities or of having trust in people, plans, or the future. (Cambridge Dictionary)
Confidence manifests in being able to say yes or no to opportunities, knowing that the choice you make is valid, and in being able to take action. It’s knowing that you make good decisions, whatever those decisions are. Reframing uncertainty into confidence allows clients to move forward and achieve their goals without anxiety, and to take the chances needed to grow and progress.
Doing nothing is as much of a decision as deciding to do something, but when it’s turned into a conscious choice it can feel different. It becomes actively not doing something, rather than just passively letting it slide by. Reframing a lack of action as a choice the client is making can either spur a different action or allow peace with doing nothing. Making these conscious choices over and over can demonstrate to a client that they can be certain in their abilities and can make decisions.
In his book The Confidence Gap, Russ Harris outlines five main reasons for low self-esteem: excessive expectations; harsh self-judgment; preoccupation with fear; lack of experience; and lack of skills. These can be explored in coaching conversations to establish what it is that is holding the client in uncertainty, and this can then be further explored to establish a path to confidence. Excessive expectations can be challenged and reworked to be realistic and achievable, or more realistic action plans can be developed by the client with support from the coach to enable success with lofty goals. Harsh self-judgment can be explored to help the client move beyond their current thinking about themselves. Preoccupation with fear can be challenged by questions exploring potential benefits and the impact of not acting. A lack of experience and a lack of skills can be “reality tested” and if genuine, actions can be designed by the client to address these.
Being confident means being courageous, and Brene Brown and Russ Harris both explain that the root of the word “courage” is the heart and that making courageous decisions means speaking from our heart, or, translated into the language of coaching, living our lives by following and remaining true to our core values. Coaching conversations can help clients explore their values and they may then choose to use these values to guide their decisions. When faced with uncertainty, leaning into values can help guide clients to actions that feel right and true, and that they can have confidence in.
Coaching conversations to support a move from uncertainty to confidence can begin with establishing what a client believes about where they need to be. This may be part of setting the coaching agreement, in terms of looking at the outcome a client would like from a conversation, it may come as part of exploring the meaning behind the initial presenting topic, or it may be an overarching theme to longer work with a client over time.
Taking a strengths-based approach to a coaching conversation allows the client to focus on what they are capable of rather than what they are not, and keeps the outlook on the present and future rather than looking back on the past in the way that a therapeutic conversation with a counselor might. Focusing on and healing past experiences is the realm of therapy and where low self-confidence stems from the trauma that needs to be addressed, consideration should be given to referring the client to therapy in line with the ICF Code of Conduct.
Within coaching conversations, however, negative thoughts can be recognized and the client questioned or challenged about what is happening. For example, asking “What’s true about that” can help to challenge negative self-talk, and inviting a client to consider and share different perspectives can expand their thinking. Where a client brings up past issues, the focus can be kept on the present and future with questions like “What impact is that having now?”, or “What do you need to look at to move forward?”
A supportive network can help confidence grow, and encouraging clients to identify the support they can access, and to establish plans for doing so, helps clients access and listen to this support network. In Dare to Lead, Brene Brown explains that we need to be selective with the feedback that we focus on. Being vulnerable and open to feedback allows us to act with courage and is necessary, but we need to be mindful about which feedback we listen to and which we discard. This doesn’t mean discarding any negative feedback, but instead, it’s about giving appropriate weight to it. Does it come from someone whose views matter to us? If yes, let’s listen, learn, and move forward. If no, discard. This can be drawn out in coaching conversations, by questioning feedback, who it has come from, and how much weight the client feels is appropriate to give it versus how much weight they are giving to it.
Reflecting on and acknowledging achievements and successes can help the client’s confidence to grow. Coaches can enable this by giving time and attention to their successes, both reaffirming ones that they’ve received external recognition for and giving voice to their internal recognition. This can be achieved without judgment through the use of reflection followed by exploratory questions such as “What is it like for you to hear that?” or “What comes to mind when you hear that?” If appropriate, positive self-talk may be encouraged to enable a client to acknowledge their successes.
Confidence develops through practice, and coaching conversations support the client in taking action, with realistic and achievable plans that include accountability and support. Clearly defining success allows reflection to take place to reinforce positive outcomes, which leads to less indecision and increased confidence. Where indecision arises from a lack of skill or a lack of experience, mastery aids confidence, and the cycle of learn-do-reflect can support long term changes.
Where setbacks happen, coaching conversations can support a client by drawing out their learning from these setbacks and helping to limit regression into indecision. Relapse is a normal part of behavior change and a coach can help a client to remain motivated to achieve their goals through supportive questioning.
Understanding what wellness looks like and what burnout looks like can help a coach to support their client to confidence. Burnout can cause a person to become stuck in indecision, and unable to move forward with confidence. Emily and Amelia Nagoski describe wellness as a state of action, rather than being, where a person can move fluidly through the experience of being human, which involves both giving support and accepting support. By engaging in coaching conversations, clients are allowing themselves to receive support, the first step in self-care. Self-care and self-compassion can be hard but are where growth and confidence lie. The response to burnout and the move to wellness is through people caring for each other, and connecting with other people, and taking the self-care step of engaging in coaching is a great place to start.
The path from uncertainty to confidence will be different for everyone, but there are areas of similarity to help guide questions or direction for clients who present as wishing to make this journey. This also provides a framework for coaches who may be stuck in uncertainty about the direction of their coaching practice, or about their skills and abilities.
For self-reflection, as with a coaching conversation, begin with an agreement. Where do you want to be? What is the goal of the reflection? Where do you want to get to? Knowing yourself is the next step. Who are you? What are your strengths? What are your values? Is what you are trying to achieve in line with these strengths and values? If not, is it the direction that you want to take? What needs to change?
Once you have explored who you are and where you want to be, it’s time to reflect on the path. What do you need to do to get to where you want to be? What’s stopped you from taking these actions so far, and what do you need to do to move beyond that? Who can support you in achieving these goals? What’s a realistic time frame for these actions, and what’s the first step you need to take? How are you going to celebrate completing that first step?
Confidence develops over time and takes practice. Changing the mindset from uncertainty to confidence and overcoming imposter syndrome doesn’t happen overnight or in one coaching session. There will be relapses and setbacks, but by repeating the cycle of learn-do-reflect, and by keeping the momentum going, the moments of uncertainty will decrease and a more confident approach will emerge.
Brown, B. (2018) Dare to Lead, Vermilion, London.
Harris, R. (2010) The Confidence Gap, Robinson, London
Nagoski, A &Nagoski, E (2019) Burnout, Vermilion, London