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Asking permission – is not so simple, consider the power dynamics.

Asking for permission to provide feedback or offer a suggestion when coaching is not as simple as just asking the question; coaches need to also consider the power status.

Do you offer suggestions to your coaching clients? Do you offer feedback? Good non-directive coaches would ask permission beforehand. There is the danger of imposing a view, opinion or suggestion, which would come from the coach, rather than facilitating ownership and agency from the coachee. So to avoid imposition, the coach should ask for permission before providing feedback or offering advice, in this way the coach is not being directive.

Let’s pause for a moment. I don’t agree with the paragraph above. It is over simplified nonsense. But this paragraph comes from non-directive rhetoric, which some coaches swallow without thought. Asking for permission is not appropriate when the power dynamics are not equal. The interplay of power and permission makes this a whole lot more complex.

Consider the power status of the coaching relationship. It is far too simplistic for the coach to ask: “would you be interested in a suggestion?”, “can I offer a suggestion?”, “can I give you some feedback?” I’ve seen this happen many times in coaching practice and demonstrations. The problem is that the coach is in a position of power, and when asked, I have never seen the permission refused. This could relate to the coachee being submissive to the expert power of the coach, in the process being disempowered into approval.

Consider French and Raven’s (1959), model of five sources of power:

  1. Reward power, the ability to grant rewards, for example pay increases or promotion.
  2. Coercive power, the ability to make life difficult, unpleasant for others, for example, by withholding or withdrawing rewards.
  3. Legitimate or positional power, derived from formal authority or position within an organisation.
  4. Expert power, based on knowledge, experience or judgment.
  5. Referent power, based on personal qualities, like ability, being respected and charisma.

Executive coaches possess at least two of these power bases. Firstly, a coach is a ‘coaching expert’. They have coaching experience, skill and possibly qualifications. They control the coaching process. They may have accreditation/credentials from a coaching professional body, and proudly display PCC or MCC on their LinkedIn profile, and prominently printed on their business card. All of these components link together to create a very strong base of expert power.

Also, when considering executive or organisational coaching, the coach is likely to be appointed by the HR Director, Head of Talent, or a senior Director. As a result the coach will also have positional power or legitimate power.

In addition to this, the coach may be ‘lucky’ and also hold referent power, based on their ability to build rapport, and their likability.

I’ve heard many coaches ‘boast’ proudly of how inclusive and non-directive they have been, because they have asked for permission. But with this strong power base, the coach and coachee are not equals. There is a power differential, which means that asking permission, the coachee is likely to agree.

Granting permission is more complex and should be considered at the ‘chemistry’ session and in contracting. Because of the unequal power base, it is naive to think that asking permission legitimatises this inequality.