Research Paper By Pranav S. Ramanathan
(Executive Coach, UNITED STATES)
A series of pro bono career-led sessions over an 8-week period during which my role was to coach. To maintain confidentiality as contracted; I have left out specifics and restated facts to be parallel but not specific to the coaching situation.
An entrepreneur with a business concept in the professional services realm considering a new market-entry in a relatively unseasoned yet competitive vertical.
The client was confident in their skills, aptitude and abilities as a professional in this particular capacity. However, of their own admission, they lacked the business acumen and subsequently the wherewithal to execute the concept. This perceived shortcoming caused them to create self-imposed roadblocks to execution beyond a conceptual state. It also caused an irrational reliance on singular but trite business planning methods, irrelevant to the establishment of the business at hand.
In short, this awareness frustrated and disheartened the client personally and professionally. Such dissent in its protracted form brought raw emotion to the coaching conversation, often in an abrasive manner.
My typical coaching routine involves an 8-session timeline to which the client agreed. We spent the first 2 sessions in a discovery phase during which nuanced details of the clients personality and life were unearthed. A frequent occurrence was a tendency toward inaction if a given scenario (career, relationship, education, tasks) required approval from personal stakeholders, or was beyond the client’s skill set.
Upon completion of the delayering process, I attempted to reframe the client’s steadfast need for prescribed business techniques to satiate the judgment of others and not as a means to the desired outcome.
To address this mindset, I suggested that we run through relevant career tools to understand their career goals in broad and specific terms, and apply them to a project roadmap for accountability.
The client agreed to this suggestion and I proceeded to explain the tools conceptually and then lead them through the process. As with any self-analytical project, the tools required a reasonable amount of thought and reflection to be of any value. It became quickly apparent through verbal cues (tone, sighs, yawns) that the client was not only disinterested in the project but became increasingly frustrated. At one point, they asked if other clients had bothered to answer these same questions in real time.
Anticipating this reaction, I offered a couple of options: (1) to take the questions, reflect and respond them as convenient for a revisit at our next session; (2) to abort the exercise and move on to topics they deemed more pertinent. The client accepted the first option.
We completed the session but with an inadequate sense of fulfillment on both the clients’ and my part. The client did explain her annoyance stemmed from the need to consider high-level, strategic inputs when she was mostly concerned with working on the details.
The following dis-empowering perspectives (McKay, Davis, and Fanning) were noted:
- Filtering: Focusing on the negative details of a situation and filtering out all positive aspects.
- Polarized Thinking: Seeing a situation as, good or bad, right or wrong, perfect or a complete failure.
- Mind Reading: Making assumptions about what people are feeling, why they are acting as they are, and how they feel about you
- Catastrophizing: Assuming that the worst possible outcome will happen.
- Personalization: Thinking that everything people do or say is a reaction to you.
- Heaven’s Reward Fallacy: Feeling bitter when the rewards do not come that you think you deserve after working hard.
To challenge presumptions and create awareness, the following contrasting empowering perspectives (McKay, Davis, and Fanning) were brought to the client’s attention:
- Even the worst situations offer opportunities to learn and grow.
- Most experiences in life have a mixture of good and bad in them and I choose to focus on the good.
- I have my journey. Other people have theirs.
- Today is going to be a good day if I choose to make it one.
- Living in alignment with my values is the most important thing. Relationships with others flow out of this.
- Virtue is its own reward.
As the session ended with the exercise partially completed, I had to consider the goal of the following session: the continuation of a discussion not valued by the client or a pivot to areas more relevant. I chose the latter as the inherent goal of coaching it to flow with the client’s needs. In doing so, I had to essentially abandon my structure and figuratively abandon the work put toward constructing the associated tools and customizing them for the client as a sunk cost.
We completed the coaching engagement by working through areas where the client’s was experiencing more topical issues. The client did offer feedback upon completion that certain tools I used resonated better with them than others.
Given the client did not understand the intent of the exercise fully, I intent to prime future clients with a clear explanation of the necessary inputs and time commitment.
The sub optimality of the session made it apparent the adage, ‘one size fits all’ does not hold true. Coaching requires constant, active listening for subtle emotional tells that cue us to change the direction of conversation or flow of questioning. Flexibility is key.
Being this was my first ‘unsuccessful’ session, I took time to reflect on the conversation and my handling of the pushback. I acknowledge myself for not outwardly showing any dissatisfaction and remaining calm, despite an impatience toward the audible signs of a disinterested listener.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit the experience imparted a mild disapproval of the client – clearly a judgment unbecoming of coaching ethics. Prior acquaintance with the client, the non-transactional nature of the sessions, and their unprofessional manner did contribute to this sentiment.
Suppressing de facto judgment is a learned skill and will take practice to master. I mention this to convey the added challenge of continuing the coaching relationship while re-channeling the negativity to fulfill the coaching objective.
A related excerpt from one of my ICA forum posts titled, ‘Affirmation vs. Confrontation:
Transactional coaching strives to make the client feel better. Transformational coaching deals with the client’s pain to help them ‘transform’. Legacy techniques profess non-confrontational, affirmation-heavy coaching. In the litigious society that we occupy, this seems safer but is it better for the client? Self-awareness and actionable change are likelier to occur when sensitive issues are brought to the forefront and confronted. This forms the basis of transformational coaching.
In my opinion, constructive confrontation offers a more effective coaching space.
Source: ICA – Reframing Perspectives.