A common situation brought to coaching is that the client feels powerless to achieve change, because they believe that the problem is someone else. For example:

“My manager micromanages and won’t let me get on with my work.”

“My colleague is untrustworthy.”

“She is impossible to work with.”

The problem for the coach is firstly that he or she only has the client’s narrative to go on. The other person will almost inevitably have a different perception of the reality of the situation. And secondly that the coach has no direct way of influencing the third party. Coaches faced with the kind of situation often describe feeling a strong pull towards giving the client generalised advice about how to manage the third party relationship.

A pragmatic way to maintain the coaching role is to focus on responsibilities. Firstly, to clarify the responsibility of the coach, which is to explore the situation sufficiently to help the client identify different and hopefully better ways of managing it. Next the responsibility of the coachee, which is to take ownership of what is happening and their part in it. While they may feel like a victim, for example, it is their choice — conscious or unconscious — to do so. Thirdly, the responsibilities of other people, such as the client’s colleagues or the other person’s boss, who are able to influence mattes, if they choose to. And fourthly, those of the third party, both towards the coachee and towards other members of the team, to their own boss, and so on.

Asking lots of questions about the other person (such as what motivates them, or whether they behave in the same way towards other people) without establishing responsibilities pushes the conversation towards finding solutions, without enough information to assess their relevance or effectiveness. With this clarity, however, a different conversation is possible, along the lines of:

  • What choices do you (the client) and the other responsibility-bearers have here?
  • What can you do to influence your own reactions and those of other responsibility-bearers?
  • What conversations might you have that would change the dynamics of this situation?

If the conclusion is that the client needs to have a coaching conversation with the third party, many of those questions about that person, which the coach didn’t ask, now become relevant, but as questions for the coachee to explore with them. We have now stripped away two layers of assumption about this person and what makes the behave as they do — those of the coach and those of client — and in doing so both raised the likelihood of positive change and enhance the client’s skills at coaching others.

© David Clutterbuck, 2016

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