Differentiated Coaching

by Christopher Frierson

Scenario 1: An ex-coworker, Mark, is really struggling with the boss you both once shared. Throughout your coaching session, he seems stuck in rationalizing the boss’ behavior and keeps ideating how to stick it out. You realize how fortunate you are to have quit when you did. He keeps talking about how futile it all feels when, suddenly, you feel it happening. It’s that instantaneous surge of motivation to throw all coaching conventions aside and whip out your sage advice.

Scenario 2: It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for: your client finally confronted her mother. However, after learning more about the confrontation, the boundaries your client was hoping to initiate lacked the necessary punch to establish concrete boundaries. All the time and work you invested to get her to the aha moment, for this? You can’t hide the disappointment through your nonverbals.

As coaches, we’ve all been there. Your client isn’t accomplishing the goals they have set for themselves. Moreover, they aren’t doing what you have coveted they’d do all along. You’re caught up in their story, like any good coach, and you’re personally invested in their outcome. When clients successfully execute a plan you’ve discussed in coaching sessions, it validates your masterful coaching ability, right? After all, it’s why you got into coaching isn’t it? That dopamine hit isn’t just a boost to your coaching skills, it reinforces your outlook on life. But what happens when you’re dissatisfied with the result? When they stay at that job or with that person? When their story invalidates your story?

It’s intoxicating to be respected, sought after, credited, and have clients refer others. I know I can ask powerful questions, but my personal tendency is to cut to the chase and give some good ol’ advice. Perhaps it’s the military-veteran-turned-consultant in me. A recent event, however, has curtailed my propensity to share unsolicited advice. A successful client recently told me the reason he chose to become my client was my ability to ask powerful questions that challenged him in ways others could not. These questions resulted in powerful self-realizations. One of his mentors invented the computer mouse. Clearly, the inventor of the mouse must be innovative and brilliant. However, despite competing with a man of great intellect, my client preferred the coach who could ask powerful questions. His feedback reinforced and emphasized the true power behind coaching.

In the moments I am most compelled to advise others with the intent of proving my competence, is precisely when I rob the client of their own discovery. A differentiated coach can manage these impulses and steer them by asking powerful questions. Sometimes our attempt to keep the session running on time, or because we want to see them do what we know is best for them, we lose the most powerful gift we can offer clients: asking powerful questions.