Trust Me, I'm a Coach
It takes courage to embark on a coaching partnership. Our clients may feel nervous anticipation, discomfort or even fear. What we do as coaches to build and cultivate trust, safety and intimacy reinforces our clients’ courage for the path ahead.
I talked with colleagues to add to my understanding of this powerful piece of the updated ICF Core Competencies.
Three themes emerged:
- Foster trust and safety through connection.
- Create conditions for openness and trust by showing vulnerability.
- Seek the client’s context early and tap your whole being.
Mike Bass of Mike Bass Coaching in Chicago believes that trust is essential for coaching to be meaningful. Without it, coaching is superficial, limiting the client’s potential for making shifts.
“To build trust you listen, really listen, and connect,” Bass says, recalling one client who, during a debrief of an assessment, would answer something other than what Bass was asking. “Instead of clarifying what I had asked, I let the client drive, paying attention to what had been triggered in him.” The client then let down his guard and spoke more candidly.
Safety and connection are also closely related.
For Kendra Coleman, an organizational development consultant, coach and president of Kindred Organizational Consulting, creating a safe space means helping a client feel comfortable enough to bring up any thought or feeling.
“It’s not cookie-cutter … making a personal connection,” Coleman says. “Rapport, credibility, trust and creating a partnership are what I hold in my head.”
What works well will be different depending on how we come to know the client.
Consider someone who meets a potential coaching client while delivering a workshop as a consultant.
“If I meet someone during a workshop, it’s not unusual for me to know their manager, so boundaries and expectations are critical,” says Julie Salganik, founder of Avance Global Consulting, a Boston-based leadership consulting and coaching company. “I need to make explicit how coaching would be different than the way we have interacted until now.”
At the start of the conversation, Salganik focuses on exploring fit and how the client and coach might work together. “Above all, clients need to have some sense of what it might feel like to work together and helping them feel safe and prepared is my main objective. If they don’t, it’s likely not a good fit, at least not at that time.”
In my practice, I offer brief questionnaires as a tool for clients to do some reflection before our first session and for me to gain a sense of who they are. This inventory helps clients organize their thoughts about goals, their principles or values, their context and what they want from me as a coach partner.
We discuss the responses during the first two sessions, with the client choosing where to begin and me as the coach bringing lots of openness and curiosity. At its best, our conversation flows — the client is going deeper (even changing goals), I am showing who I am and there is a mutual search for understanding. This process builds our foundation.
Just as important are those opportunities to listen to our gut, be transparent and show vulnerability.
It can take us time to be vulnerable with clients.
Early in her career, Coleman remembers a client assigned to her for coaching. Trust and connection were low. She missed her plane for their first one-to-one session. Coleman recalls gathering herself, calling the client to admit fault, apologizing and asking him what he wanted to do. “That allowed us to connect, when I showed vulnerability and didn’t make excuses,” Coleman says. “It opened up the door for him to talk about his own vulnerabilities.”
Even confessing when we are uncertain and inviting the client to direct what happens next can be powerful, Salganik notes.
Coaches who have a previous profession bring empathetic understanding of their clients’ contexts — for instance, professional identity.
Pamela Burkett-Jones is a former police officer and manager who founded Proactive Life Coaching and Consulting in the Washington, D.C. metro region. While not all her clients are first responders, many are. Burkett-Jones knows clients do not want to be seen as weak or non-conforming.
“My clients come from controlled environments, where expressing your thoughts to move forward, especially in situations affecting them personally, is considered out of line,” she says. “I help them know they can have their own thoughts and I give them space to say how they see their life — they understand I know what it’s like not to have a voice.”
Trust is earned. Personal connection, openness and showing vulnerability are our currency. Do these things well and we walk safely on the coaching path — client and coach.
© 2020 The Jupe Group, LLC