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Plain and Simple: Powerful Guidelines for Coaching in Troubled Times

By David Noer

A long-term client, whom I thought I knew well, surprised me by breaking down during a recent session. The tears and emotional anguish were in polar opposition to the conservative culture of his firm and his past rational, controlled behavioral pattern. We had previously worked on issues such as his interactions with his board, relationships with his subordinate vice presidents and a post-merger strategy. Now, as a result of the economic meltdown, his business was facing massive layoffs, his personal wealth had significantly eroded, the viability of his firm was uncertain and his past leadership was being openly questioned. The context of our coaching relationship had precipitously changed from "traditional" business issues to dealing with his sense of relevance, purpose and societal contribution. This wasn't an isolated incident. As the financial crisis deepens, I'm finding that the context of more and more of my coaching interactions is moving in this direction. Since many of my colleagues are also facing this change, I'll share four guidelines that have helped me help my clients in these troubled times.

1. Help is defined by the helpee, not the helper.

I learned this deceptively simple phrase from the late Pat Williams, (founder of the Pepperdine MSOD program) and, over the years, have increasingly come to appreciate its relevance to a coaching relationship. When a client is caught up in a crisis of purpose, competence and self-esteem, facts, figures, models, 360-degree feedback reports and flow charts don't help-in fact, they get in the way. The currency of the realm is feelings and emotions, not facts and figures. Logical analysis and rational planning may help the coach feel competent, but they will only make the coachee feel worse. Anyone who has had an argument with a significant other and attempted to defuse their emotional issues by logical analysis to prove that they "shouldn't feel that way" will understand that you don't solve a "heart" (emotions and feelings) problem with a "head" (data and logic) process.

In a coaching relationship, the more a client's "heart" issues are responded to by the coach's "head" solutions, the wider the empathy gap. What is necessary before helping the client move forward are the basic skills of empathetic listening, reflecting feelings and emotions, and the ability to form an authentic, nonjudgmental, helping relationship. I deal primarily with top managers, and including their family, I'm frequently the only one they feel they can open up to. In these unsettling times, we can often be of more service to our clients by simply giving them empathy rather than supplying them with our "scientific" tools.

2. Don't be compulsive about boundaries.

I once worked with a bright but inexperienced coach who lost a valuable client by, when in a very teachable moment, disengaging and indicating that the client needed to talk to a licensed clinical psychologist. Business coaches should not practice therapy; most are not licensed or trained, and that is not our business purpose. If we are doing our job correctly, we are, however, engaged in a client-centered helping relationship and that is, in itself, therapeutic. We don't have to be licensed clinicians to be good listeners, reflect feelings and emotions, and help our clients articulate debilitating feelings. It is essential to know and adhere to our limits, but it is also important that we don't let artificial boundaries limit our abilities to help our clients. Another Pat Williams saying is "...to meet your clients where they are, not where you want them to be." In a time of business discontinuity we need to have the skills to meet them in the messy and unpredictable world of uncertainty and personal doubt.

3. Don't be a solution in search of a problem.

Most business coaches have a favorite technique or approach. Whether it is a diagnostic tool, an analytical process or a structured behavioral rehearsal process, we all have preferred mental models that guide us. Unfortunately, I have found that, despite diagnostic evidence to the contrary, too many coaches become locked into a single technique.

I recently followed a coach into a textile manufacturing company. My client was the vice president of manufacturing and was facing a massive downsizing triggered by a strategic decision to move operations to China. What he needed was help in dealing with the layoff survivors and in teaching his managers to facilitate venting sessions and formulate a positive vision for the remaining work force. What his original displaced coach kept pushing was a 360-degree feedback process. No doubt 360-degree feedback would, at some point, be useful for this vice president, but given the current environment, it would at best be a distraction. In order to be relevant to our clients, we need the discipline to engage in a diagnostic process and the skills to have a contingent repertoire of coaching interventions.

4. Make the client an individual, not an organization.

Almost always, helping the individual client helps the organization in the long term. However, in the short term, as when the best solution for the client is to help them leave the organization, the connection is not so clear. I have very few iron-clad rules; however, one that has been of great help is to always contract with the person. I don't turn down assignments if my fee comes out of a "corporate" account, but I strongly prefer it come from the budget of the individual client and, if not, I make my costs very visible. In a time of restructuring, mergers, downsizing and financial crisis, most executive clients are examining their life and career goals. It is not possible to engage in an authentic helping relationship if the coach has divided loyalties between the organization and the individual client.

Dr. David Noer splits his time between his executive coaching practice and serving as the Frank S. Holt Jr. Professor of Business Leadership at Elon University in North Carolina. His instrument, The Coaching Behaviors Inventory, is widely used in coaching workshops such as those offered by the Center for Creative Leadership. Contact David.

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