Healthy vs Unhealthy Challenges

Since writing ‘Challenging Coaching’ I have found myself being challenged more often by those I mix with. It is as if I have given everyone ‘carte blanche’ to adopt this style and experiment with me. Of course, it is right that I take my own medicine (even if it tastes a bit foul at times!). Being on the receiving end of challenging interventions is the best way to understand how these might impact others. I am learning to discern better between the qualities of a healthy challenge and the qualities of an unhealthy challenge – a topic we did not explore explicitly in the book itself.

Take an example from this week, I had a conversation with a friend on a sensitive topic – if we were using Bateson’s logical levels (book p.142) then this topic was at the level of my beliefs. Beliefs are developed over many years and serve as the foundation stones of someones behaviour. At this level we need to tread carefully. My friend asked me what my beliefs were on an issue related to my Christian faith. I openly shared with them my opinion ( ‘speak your truth, face the FACTS’ ). They listened and then shared with me their contrasting opinion ( ‘speak your truth, face the FACTS’ ). For me this was a healthy challenge and much better than them simply agreeing with me ( ‘cosy club’ ). Whilst I did not agree with what they had said it did make me think and in the process of listening and thinking it through I could feel my own position shifting slightly. At this point all was well. It felt a bit uncomfortable ( ‘ZOUD’ ) but nothing the trust in the relationship could not handle.

However, not satisfied with this slight shifting, my friend shifted themselves from a position of genuine interest ( ‘passionate curiosity’ ) to one where it seemed like they wanted to convince me that I was totally and utterly wrong. It was if they saw an opportunity to ‘win’ the argument once and for all, yet suddenly I felt that a boundary had been crossed and the dialogue assumed a pantomine-esque quality – ‘oh, yes it is’, ‘oh no it isn’t’, ‘oh YES IT IS!’. The conversation polarised and I said in an irritating, coach-like manner ‘It feels like we are getting into a battle on this one and you have just crossed a line that I didn’t give you permission to cross’ ( ‘build the contract, honour the contract’). An unhealthy challenge.

If I were to sum it up in a metaphor then a healthy challenge is when someone comes round to your house for a cup of tea and notices that you have bought an expensive new picture by Monet. ‘What do you like about Monet?’ they ask. You explain and they reply ‘That’s interesting. Personally, I am not a big fan. I like Picasso and the reason I like him is …..’. This is speaking your truth. However, an unhealthy challenge is when they carry on to add ‘In fact, I just happen to have a really lovely Picasso in the boot of my car. I’ll tell you what, I’ll go and get it and we can take that rubbish down and put up a decent piece of art’. To which you obviously reply ‘Look this is my gaff and in my gaff I put up the pictures I like not the ones that you like. If you can’t respect that then I suggest you go and drink someone else’s tea’. The moral of the story is that a healthy challenge provokes new thinking, an unhealthy challenge is about needing to win. Here’s a Monet…

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