Me, judgemental? Don’t be stupid, I’m a coach!

Am I judgemental, are you judgemental? In the past week when developing some ideas and presenting on Challenging Coaching the matter of being judgmental has come up which has led to some interesting discussions about the role of the coach and being challenging.

While presenting to an internal coachng community in Turin, John and I were asked if our approach to challenging coaching using the FACTS model was judgemental. We had just presented a seminar and this question related to the use of feedback, accountability and systems thinking.

When providing feedback we talk about feedback that gives praise and recognition for a job well done which is balanced with honest feedback on mistakes, learning and failures. We hold a coachee accountable for personal  commitments as well as to the coaching contract and to the values and strategy of the wider organisation. When doing this are we being judgemental? When representing the wider system while coaching, are we being judgemental?

I would say this is about asking curious questions that are based on what I think or feel. This is about raising awareness within the coachee, and for them to then decide and take action.

Let me give you an example. If I was in a coaching room and said to the coachee “when you said that my immediate reaction was a feeling of irritation” this is a valid piece of feedback to the coachee. I believe we are in a ‘laboratory of learning’ when coaching and what I see, hear or feel as a coach is a valuable source of information to the coachee. I believe what occurs in the coaching room is typical of what happens on the outside. So it is useful for the coachee to have feedback from the coach that will develop awareness and provide insight. This is better than the coachee not hearing the feedback and then being blind-sided by a negative reaction from someone in the ‘real world’.

However, if in the coaching room I said “you irritate me” then that would be judgemental as it is criticism of the person not the behaviour. This goes back to the early work of the humanistic therapists such as Carl Rogers and the saying ‘hate the sin not the sinner’. In this respect there is empathy and unconditional positive regard towards the individual – two of Rogers’ core conditions of person centred counselling. The third core condition is being congruent whereby the therapist is true to themselves without facade – saying what they think or feel. The impact on my feelings as a coach based on what the coachee has said is a valuable source of information and learning. This is about the coach being totally present and congruent and stating their reality and speaking their truth.

Consider accountability and holding the coachee accountable for the commitments they agreed to undertake. For example at the beginning of session three of a coaching assignment the coachee says that they have not done any of the actions agreed at the end of session two, what do you do? Now it would be judgemental if I said “you idiot, you haven’t done any of the actions we agreed!” However, if I stick to the principles of ‘build the contract honour the contract’ and ‘speaking my truth’ then it is very valid for me to say “you have not done any of the actions you agreed last time, this concerns me and I don’t want to let you off the hook so we should discuss this”.

In a separate conversation on this topic in the UK, a coach said to me that she would never ask about the completion of actions as ‘it is the coachee’s responsibility’. I can agree with this as an approach to ensure ownership and avoid dependence, but this is not sufficient. If the coachee has not done what they agreed then the coach should call this behaviour and explore it. Not discussing the behaviour lets the coachee off the hook and possibly leads to the ‘aggregation of marginal decay’ (see previous blog). If this occurs in the laboratory of leaning, what happens outside? One is a symptom of the other.

When discussing the Systems Thinking element of FACTS we talk about representing the interests of absent stakeholders and asking questions from their point of view. Again this is not being judgemental since I am not telling the coachee what they should do, I am not manipulating the conversation to make a point and I am not on a crusade to persuade or convince. What I am doing is asking curious questions to raise awareness to provide a different viewpoint – What would a customer say? What would your direct reports think of this? How would it be if this was reported on the front page of a national newspaper? Once the questions have been considered the coachee still chooses their course of action.

In the end this can become a matter of semantics since, let’s face it, being judgmental is part of being human – making judgements is about solving problems and making decisions. It is part of helping us make sense of the world and navigating our way through the immense complexities of life. Judging whether a person has done what they agreed is very different to the overly critical judgement of whether a person is good or bad.

What do you think? Comments welcome on the Challenging Coaching Linked In group

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