Executive Coaching: Different types of dilemmas

Experiences of coaching individuals who are under pressure to ‘perform.’ 

I co-wrote two books on coaching with Will Thomas. Will was the driving force and the brains behind the books. He was very committed to it and I learned a lot about different models, about questioning and about listening. Its helped me over the years.

Questions or Answers?

They want answers and you’ve got questions. The greater the pressure from outside the more the expectation you will give answers – but that’s not coaching is it? Or is it?

Curiosity is at the heart of coaching. Your ‘client’ wants to find out what’s possible, move to solutions, and you’re, hopefully, curious about where the conversation will go. In its purest form coaching is about elicitation and iteration; skilful questioning and micro-adjustments based on what’s said. It’s different to mentoring. It’s indirect. I get confused when I read about ‘Instructional Coaching’ which seems a contradiction in terms. If you instruct you tell; if you coach you ask. Coaching shouldn’t be about exercising authority, no matter how subtle, but there again they want answers and you’ve got questions!

The Business of State

So, I coach individuals who are in different roles, in different stages of their career and in different industries. That’s no big deal, lots of people do so. What for me is a big deal is the state of mind those I help come with. Its usually high anxiety, low locus of control. Too much nose, too many claims on your time, too many unrealistic expectations.  It always surprises me. The emotional state dictates the flow of what happens next so forget instructions. They won’t work, not yet anyway. The job is to listen to, and perhaps nudge, the ‘dump’ of self-sabotaging emotion as it pours out. As part of this you’re clearing out – separating what’s noise from whatever the issue or issues might be. 


Clients beat themselves up over the notion of performance. It’s a whole study in itself but for the moment my observation is that this is the inevitable fall out of not having the conversation. If two individuals in any relationship – in a business, a sports team, a school department – don’t or won’t discuss their expectations of each other turmoil awaits. How can you live up to an expectation if neither of you know what it might be? 


In any high performing team or organisation I’ve encountered trust was saturated into every relationship. Without it no one took risks. It’s the same in Executive Coaching. No one is going to tell you about their incompetent boss if they think you’re indiscreet.  Of late the term ‘psychological safety’ has been used more frequently in describing organisations which strive to be deliberately developmental, but it could well apply to the coaching relationship. 

So What?

My brief guidelines for ‘brief’ coaching.

  • Be curious
  • Listen then adjust
  • Visit the emotional dump if you need to
  • Ask selfless questions
  • Separate out the issues from the noise
  • Share expectations and explore those of others
  • Be discreet