In my years of coaching, I’ve learned to not get discouraged when a client has a breakdown in their attempt to complete their action steps, because over and over I’ve seen breakdowns become the catalyst for breakthroughs. When a person is repeatedly tripped up by a simple action step, it often reveals a much deeper issue. Taking a transformational approach means stopping to uncover and address the underlying issues instead of just pushing harder for change on the original step.
Fellow coach, Sharon Graham, who specializes in lifestyle and health issues, had a client who suffered from insomnia. The client stated, “As I talked with my coach about getting to bed earlier, she started probing. I come from a troubled family background, and though in day-to-day life it wasn’t affecting me, I wasn’t at rest in my mind and I couldn’t sleep. I’d have periods where I couldn’t sleep at all.”
“As we were touching base on this in our coaching session (I hadn’t made any progress), I said, ‘I want to meet this goal, I want to change, but I just can’t!’ We started discussing it, and the next thing you know [we were talking about] forgiving my family and letting go of bitterness. My coach didn’t just stick with the surface issue—she helped me deal with the underlying problems. One problem was feeling unworthy, that I wasn’t worth taking care of. If you don’t believe you are worth taking care of, you won’t make those long-term changes.”
Sharon believed that her client had a good reason for what she did, and it led to a much broader transformation. When clients do something that doesn’t make sense or seems self-destructive, find out why. If a person wants to take a step to change and can’t, or sets out to pursue a goal and shies away from it, there’s a reason. Find the reason, and you can overcome the obstacle and take a transformational approach to coaching them.
Years ago one of my clients, a pastor with young children, was habitually late to our appointments. I knew he was a busy man, but when I began to probe a little, I found that he was extremely overworked—to the tune of 80-plus hours per week. When I pointed out his pattern of being late to our sessions and asked him to comment on what his lateness meant, the resistance was palpable. He was sorry for being late, but he was fine, thank you, and didn’t see anything wrong with his life patterns. Because he was not ready to hear what I had to say, I backed off.
Six weeks later I gingerly brought up the topic of his schedule again. “You know,” he said ruefully, “When you asked me about showing up late and my workload a while back, it was like a doctor probing a tender wound. Every time you touched it, it hurt! I was going, ‘Ouch!’ But when I went away and thought about what you said, I realized that I needed to make a change.” One of the action steps he developed in that appointment was to make a covenant with his wife that before he said “yes” to any new commitments, he’d talk it through with her first.
Because coaching is about believing in people, my first response to a breakdown is to withhold judgment and believe that there is a good reason for what happened. Discovering the underlying issues can lay the groundwork for truly transformational approach to change.
Tony Stoltzfus is a master coach, author and coach trainer and director of the Leadership Metaformation Institute. More of his writings on the disciplines, skills and heart of a Christian coach can be found in his book, Leadership Coaching.