Who’s In Charge of Your Coaching Engagements?

A friend of mine recently shared with me that she was working as a life coach. She was having trouble adapting to major life changes and wanted positive action. This surprised me. As a certified health and life coach and faculty for Wholebeing Institute’s Positive Psychology Coaching Certification, I know how empowering and life-changing working with a skilled coach can be. I’ve experienced that personally, in peer coaching during training, and throughout my career as a coach. It’s so inspiring to witness clients finally reach goals they’d dreamed of for years. 

My friend said she loved her sessions and that her coach was a positive psychologist. I noticed that the coach was a wonderful and wise coach over time. Meanwhile, nothing seemed to be changing in my friend’s life.

I asked her for more details about her experience. She said she was leaving each week with a list containing action steps. Some of these actions made sense on the surface. Get out more. Develop and use mindfulness practices. Exercise. She even had instructions for when and how to do it. They were all things she understood and believed in, but she wasn’t actually accomplishing them. I watched her lose the excitement she felt after each session, then she would feel discouraged, then she would get a new call. After that, she would feel temporarily hopeful, and the cycle would repeat itself. Despite her admiration for her coach never waned, it was accompanied by new self-doubt, shame, and even shame.

It seemed like two core principles of coaching were missing from her sessions: client agency and small steps. The former holds fast to an approach that assumes that the client can—indeed, must—be the engine of their own progress. The second is about how people can achieve change. 

Everything we do as Positive Psychology Coaches seeks to keep agency, or ownership of the change, in the client’s court. We do this by asking open-ended, curious questions that allow ideas to emerge authentically from our clients. We don’t know what our clients need. Instead, we are experts at applying positive psychology to facilitate transformation. This can be difficult for new coaches who have a lot of life experience and wisdom. Yet, it is the most transformative piece for our clients. They reflect and come to their own conclusions about what’s best in the context of their lives, and surface their own ideas and solutions for how to achieve what they want. 

That doesn’t mean Positive Psychology Coaches are passive. We listen deeply, we identify and focus on our clients’ strengths, and we elicit and play back to them explicit examples of their values, strengths, and successes. We embed approaches that support our clients to develop self-compassion and growth mindset along the way. We can create an environment where our clients can see and create their strengths, as well as seeing the setbacks, which will lead to real change that will last a lifetime.

The second observation I had about my friend’s process had to do with the long, ambitious lists that were weighing her down in between sessions. As coaches, we meet with eager clients longing for—sometimes desperate for—change. We want our clients’ success. It can feel like our success as coaches depends on it. We must resist the temptation of producing instant results if we want to be successful. Often, coaches actually support their clients’ success by finding ways to help them slow things down. Ironic, right? 

If a client is ready to get out of their rut and be a success, we must balance our support for that bravery and what we know about changing. At WBI, we are explicit about the value of taking very small steps, and we have strategies and questions that help our clients break down ambitious goals into manageable pieces. Sometimes the steps to achieving a desired outcome seem small and more reflective and observational than action-oriented. We magnify those small steps in session and give credit to them. Our clients see themselves in new ways and become the things they want. This is what drives further success. And, yes, if a client chooses to go big from the get-go, it’s their choice. We go with them. There is no “I told you so” in coaching. If things don’t work out as  planned, we celebrate effort and activate a growth mindset, asking specific learning-oriented questions to help them glean value from what happened. 

My friend. She stopped seeing her coach. The work did have some benefits, I believe. The change process began by simply committing to the process, and then showing up for the calls. Witnessing my friend’s experience was a reminder that a coach’s job is not to give our clients assignments; it’s to listen to their needs and help them put together a plan that reflects their values, their life, and their timetable. Our ultimate goal as coaches should be to become obsolete.

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