Self in Coaching

May 20, 2018

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.

Carl Rogers

The space between self-awareness and self-deception is rather small.

We see two pictures in coaching: one of the coach and the other of the client. The coach needs to see only the picture of the client. Through the client’s eyes and client’s picture, coach infers and intuits what the client sees. These may include the situation client is in, the people client interacts with, the time and space boundaries client travels through, the larger system client is part of in work and life, and most importantly the client’s mind map at that moment in time. This last part, the mind map, is both the potential and the challenge for the client to move towards a desired outcome.

This mind map may be the cat seeing itself as only a cat or as a lion believing to be a lion, or a cat aspiring to be a lion, however, not quite confident.

When the coach sees these client pictures as disjointed pieces of data, coach loses the plot. Coaching becomes transactional. When the coach sees the entire client map coaching turns transformational. What should be the focus of the coach is the mind map of the client, not the bits and bytes of data pixels that form the picture. Coach’s ability to discern this holistic ‘being’ level mind map of the client alone adds value to the client.

In order to achieve this ‘being’ level picture, sometimes referred to as the ontological approach, coach needs to be self-aware. Coach needs to be conscious of the coach’s mind map and yet be disengaged from it. One of the dictums of Carl Rogers was about the need for the coach awareness to effect client awareness. Understanding Self is the first competency of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council competency framework. This should be the starting point and the fulcrum of coaching. Professional ethics, conduct and behavior arise from the clarity one has of oneself.

Following are some factors that allow the coach to be self-aware to enable client awareness.

Absence of Judgment

Non-judgmental attitude is essential to a coach. Conditioned memories produce judgment. Once we judge a person all we do is to collect evidence to support that preconceived judgment. Listening becomes selective to what we have judged. Our ego will not allow us to change the perspective and judgment. Everyone claims to be objective and most of us are subjective.

Self-awareness rings an alarm when our thinking and feeling are clouded by judgment. Compassion, kindness and love are our feelings for the other that free us from taking a judgmental stance.

Creation of Safety

It is the coach’s responsibility to create a climate of safety and trust for the client to open up. At one level the coach’s approach needs to be that of an equal and client centric. At another, coach’s language, in words, feelings and body need to reflect empathy for the client and congruence with client values and outcome.

One of the reasons why internal coaching in organizations and coaches working with family and close friends does not always work well, however good the coach, would be the absence of openness arising from personal safety issues perceived by client.

Intuitive Inquiry

Ed Schein talked of Humble Inquiry. Laura Whitworth and others wrote about intuitive and curious asking in place of directive telling. I heard the Dalai Lama say that ‘telling is about what we know; listening is about leaning what we don’t’ know’.

Inquiry arises from deep and active listening. It reflects the genuine concern that coach has in the client. It is all about the client, the holistic client, arising from the deep self of the coach.

Partnering in Presence

Coaching is about communication between equals, with deep respect for and trust in each other, and with a common purpose. At the mastery level, this communication elevates to communion, a partnership at the being level, a dance that evolves from one insight to a deeper one.

Otto Scharmer speaks of ‘generative’ listening as listening at the highest level. At this level coach sees the potential in the client intuitively and partners with that future persona of the unfettered client. This liberates coach and client.

Client Centered Focus on Outcome

To be client centered, as Carl Rogers advised, coach needs to be centered within the self. Coach’s outcome focus must be congruent with that of client. Coach’s vision must be that of client.

This simple principle enunciated by Rogers was singularly absent in all forms of client work, in which the therapist or the coach or the counselor was the dominant force. They were those who told others what to do, and clients listened to obey. This seemingly simple shift from telling to asking has taken a few more generations to filter through into management leadership space.

Mindless Disengagement

What is the role of the mind in the Self? In Western idiom, going by Descartes, you are what you think. Your mind is you. In the Eastern idiom, one evolves as an individual when the mind, the ego, the senses and the ‘I’ disappear. Only then the real ‘I’, the Self, reveals itself.

This concept is known as the ‘No Mind’ in Zen and as the ‘Fourth State’ in the Upanishads. Einstein established its scientific proof through how all matter is fundamentally energy. Quantum Physics talks of ‘Singularity’ as the concept of the invisible mass with infinite energy.

True energy and therefore real power, is not in the mind. It is in the absence of the mind. That is when we allow energy to reveal itself. The ability to disengage from the mind and witness what evolves is the most important criterion in coaching.

That is when the Self in coaching becomes present.

Bonus: Use of Self in Coaching Webinar with Lise Lewis

In May 2018, as part of International Coaching Week, we had the pleasure of hosting Lise Lewis for a discussion on Use of Self in Coaching. If you found this blog post interesting, you’ll probably like Lise’s talk as well. You can watch it below or here:

Ram Ramanathan, MCC
Ram Ramanathan, MCC


Ram is the Founder and a Principal at Coacharya. As the resident Master and mentor coach, Ram oversees and conducts all aspects of coaching and training services offered under the Coacharya banner.

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