Coaching Change: When NOT to Speak Up

Coaching Change: when not to speak upMaria is a client with too much on her plate. She has trouble meeting her commitments, she is always a day late and a dollar short, and her life is a jumble of competing demands and half-remembered promises. When you think about coaching change in her life, the agenda that would make the most difference is pretty obvious: Maria needs to get her life under control. But she doesn’t see it that way. What do you do? Should you speak up? As the old song goes, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”

Coaching Change by Believing in People

Coaching change is the art of helping people behave differently by believing in them unconditionally. Instead of telling them what to do, you listen and ask, because you believe in the person’s relationship with God and their ability to make the changes they need to make. That means you let go and let Maria choose what to work on. That’s the simple answer.

But letting go of an obvious blind spot to work on something else is a counter-intuitive concept. At first hearing, those who are new to coaching change always raise a million practical objections. The discussion usually boils down to  this: “If I see my client doing something wrong, don’t I have an obligation to speak up and say something about it?”

Here’s how I respond. Pause for a moment to really ponder the following question, and answer it with a number:

How many things does God see right now that are wrong with your life or that don’t meet His standards? ______

As the expression goes, there’s a hole with no bottom! The gulf between God’s holiness and yours is larger than the universe. If we saw a true picture of God’s holiness alongside our own depravity, it would literally kill us (See Exodus 33:18-23). Yet of all your infinite number of shortcomings, how many is God explicitly prompting you to work on right now? My experience is that I can count that number on the fingers of one hand. Of all that God sees in me that needs to change, he only chooses to reveal a few things at once.

The See/Say Principle

I call this the See/Say principle: “Just because I see something doesn’t mean I’m supposed to say it.” When I am coaching change, seeing a problem does not make me responsible to address it. Leadership Coaching by Tony StoltzfusAt any moment, God sees many things wrong with me, but asks for change on only a few. Therefore, I need to figure out what things God is speaking to the client about and match my ideas about what the change agenda should be to His. I’m only responsible to say the things that God prompts me to say. Even Jesus accepted this limitation, when He stated, “…The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). I think what he is saying is, ‘Even I can’t just change you. If I don’t see that Father has already been at work, arranging circumstances to make you want this change, there is little I can do.” That’s pretty amazing.

So when you are coaching change, you are NOT responsible to speak to everything you see in others. Your mandate is only to address what God specifically prompts you to address. Accepting this principle frees you to let go, love your clients and believe in them unconditionally. That letting go of responsibility for others is a big part of the greatness of the coaching change.

Adapted from the book, Leadership Coaching: the Disciplines, Skills and Heart of a Coach, by Tony Stoltzfus