As a former business consultant in a new coaching career, I consistently felt an inner tension between trying to “facilitate a monologue” versus “giving advice.”
Not only did I freely give advice as a consultant, but many of my coaching clients knew my experience in business and non-profit, and expected to benefit from it. They asked for advice in specific areas such as time management, human resource issues, fiscal responsibility, and leadership and team development.
The consultant side of me said, “You know what might help them!” but the new coaching side of me gently whispered, “Trust the client and trust the process!”
Could the experience and skills of the consultant be leveraged in the coaching conversation to help the client achieve his goal(s), while still empowering him to deepen his awareness and design his own actions?
Consulting and coaching share some similarities. Both are forward-looking and goal-oriented. Both disciplines bring value to their clients, but in different ways.
The consultant is often considered the “expert” and typically tells the client what the problem is and how to solve it. The coach, on the other hand, may have no particular expertise in the topic being discussed, but seeks to ask questions to create a space for the client to discover for himself what obstacles are holding him back, and develop his own actions.
But are they mutually exclusive? Must the consultant abandon her knowledge, skills and experience to become an effective coach?
Advice vs. Options
It was Cheryl Scanlan, MCC/CMCC and President of Way of Life Coaching, who challenged my mindset. She ignited a curiosity in me to dig deeper into the coaching competencies and to distinguish between giving someone advice to solve a problem versus offering expertise as a resource for the client to consider in solving their problem.
In Designing Actions, the coach is encouraged to “brainstorm and assist the client to define actions that will enable the client to demonstrate, practice and deepen new learning.” In Planning & Goal Setting, the coach “helps the client identify and access different resources for learning (e.g., books, other professionals).”
Even though I was asking my client, “What have you tried in the past? What other resources could you access?” I was eliminating my own expertise as one of those other “resources!”
In Direct Communication, the coach is encouraged to “easily and freely share observations, intuitions, and feedback with the client without attachment…The coach fully trusts the client to choose the responses to the coach’s communication that are best for the client.”
As a consultant, I often had incentives tied to the client’s outcomes, so I was naturally attached to my advice being followed! However, as a coach, I must be free from attachment to any idea over another.
Now, when I am asked for advice in a specific area in which I have expertise, I follow this simple process:
Reassure the Client
The writer of Ecclesiastes reassures each of us that in life, “What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Eccl. 1:9) Whatever issue your client is facing, reassure them that “you’re not alone in this struggle!”
We need only consider the number of books available on any given topic to realize that people everywhere struggle in many of the same ways. Reassuring the client reduces their level of stress and improves the opportunity for deeper awareness and learning.
Secondly, explore options. Brainstorm with the client, offering your knowledge, without attachment, for them to consider. This is less about inserting yourself as it is about opening up the opportunity for new possibilities!
M. J. Marx, EdD, PCC/CPCC, has said, “A trusting client appreciates when his coach can speak into his situation by adding clarity and sense…Good coaching should be a friendly and interpersonal exchange of ideas among partners.” Here are a few examples:
- “Ah, that’s an interesting idea…there’s also this…..”
- “Here is a book/resource/method others have found helpful.”
- “Some clients like this approach/technique; others find that approach to be more successful.”
You are offering non-directive personal expertise as just one of perhaps several potential ideas out of your mutual brainstorming. The client is then free to respond to any option he believes has value.
It’s important to note that people tend to move too quickly into potential solutions without doing the hard work of fully identifying the real problem. This can be a trap for the consultant-turned-coach who is accustomed to providing solutions.
Quick answers address what is obvious, which may turn out to be only a symptom of the problem rather than the actual problem. An effective coach will take time to help the client gain clarity on the issue they’ve brought to the table.
- “What specific problem are you trying to solve?” What is causing it?”
- “What impact is this having in your life?”
- “What is going on inside of you that prevents you from being who you want to be in this area?”
Confirm the Client’s Work
Lastly, be sure to confirm the client’s work. It is ultimately the client’s responsibility to discover for themselves what it is they desire, what is truly holding them back, and what immediate actions they need to take to move forward. Follow-up your brainstorming by asking,
- “What seems like the best solution for your situation?”
- “What will implementing this solution do for you? What will it require of you?”
Ensure the client has ownership and accountability for any actions. Maximize the learning by asking,
- “What have you learned that might be applied to other areas of your life?”
I believe in the coach-approach and value the process we ask our clients to undertake. Now I’m learning to replace the tension I once felt with a new freedom and confidence to bring my whole self to the coaching conversation for the benefit of my clients.