The first element of the coaching methodology is that it is relationship-based. Two words that describe a great coaching relationship are authentic and unconditional. Authentic coaching relationships are ones in which we are real: we don’t have to maintain different public and private faces. Who we are inside is who we are outside. When we’re afraid of being judged or rejected, we hide who we really are, and throw up a façade (a false front) so no one can see that we aren’t as good as we appear. The problem with façades in a coaching relationship is that they prevent the coaching conversation from dealing with the real person or the genuine issue. Developing solutions for surface problems won’t transform the client’s life. The power of authentic coaching is that when the relationship is genuinely transparent and safe, you can begin working with reality and not just appearances.
Authenticity doesn’t just happen. The coach must cultivate the ability to take relational risks and go first at being real. One of the things I customarily do to build an authentic relationship with my clients is to share life stories. During our first session, I take 15 to 20 minutes to share my own story, making it a point to include failures, reverses and wilderness times in my life. I go first because I’m setting the tone: I’m giving the client an example of the depth of sharing we’ll do together. Once I’ve been honest about my life, my clients find it easy to be equally open when sharing their stories with me.
A while back I had a relationship with a client that seemed different. After about the fifth session I figured it out—he was still trying to impress me and look good for his coach. I was mystified, because I’d never had a coaching relationship where that pattern had persisted beyond the first meeting or two. Then I realized a crucial difference: because of time constraints in our first appointment, we’d never shared life stories with each other. Because I hadn’t taken the initiative to go first in being real, the client hadn’t gone there either.
Not all coaches use life stories, but whatever you do, find a way to be vulnerable with your client and jump-start an authentic coaching atmosphere early in your coaching relationships. A good measure of your ability to catalyze authenticity is to look at your present relationships: how many really transparent relationships do you have in your life now? Who are the people in your life that you could tell anything to?
Tony Stoltzfus is an author, leadership coach, master coach trainer and director of the Leadership Metaformation Institute. Additional information on this topic can be found in Tony’s book, Leadership Coaching.