A crucial skill for coaches to have

A crucial skill that many coaches struggle with is how to distinguish observable behaviors from the client's story and conclusions about the behaviors.

For instance, a client might ask, "How do I deal with my passive aggressive colleague?"

Or, "How can I stand up to my arrogant boss?"

"Passive aggressive" and "arrogant" are both conclusions based on specific situations and behaviors. They are interpretations, story, labels, and judgments.

To be effective, you have to focus in on the specific, measurable behaviors that lead to the broader interpretation. Otherwise, you are stuck in drama, and can't be effective.

For instance, someone who fits the description of arrogant might have any number of behaviors: interrupting someone in a meeting, rolling his eyes when someone speaks, calling someone a nasty name during a specific interaction, taking
over an assignment when someone makes a small mistake, and many more.

A good coach focuses on these specific behaviors, not on the story that the client makes up about them. That way, the coach avoids the drama that comes from focusing on a broad label. He or she can focus on specific situations and behaviors, and help the client cope with what is actually happening.

Let's take the case of the client with a passive aggressive colleague. Before I go further with this client, I want to know the specific behaviors that he observes his colleague doing. I want to know specific situations when the behaviors show up, too.

Once I know this, I can be a more effective coach….

For instance, if the colleague is frequently late with assignments on a specific project, then I want to work with my client to focus on that. We can role play ways that my client can assert and influence the colleague to be more timely.

That way, we don't have to get into labels that can destroy the relationship. We don't have to get into a confrontation about an interpretation, which the colleague will easily refute ("No, I'm not passive aggressive, and I resent the implication that I am….").

At the Center for Executive Coaching, we do a great exercise to help coaches get better at this skill. We draw two columns, one for specific behaviors, and a second one for our judgments, labels, story, and interpretations of those behaviors.

That way, when we are coaching clients, we don't get caught up in the client's own mental model or drama. We stick to the measurable, observable facts– and we focus on specific situations.

Doing this opens up opportunities to help our clients be much more effective, by working on behaviors to address specific situations….without getting wrapped up in other, less effective stuff.

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