A long, long time ago, when I first trained to be a coach, I remember one particular exercise I and my fellow trainees were asked to undertake.  It was very simple and very powerful and has stayed with me ever since.  In pairs, unsurprisingly, one of us was the coach and one of us was the “client”.  The coach asked: “And who are you?” … and then listened and said nothing; and then, judging when the moment was right, asked: “And who else are you?” … and listened some more, not responding, just leaving the “client” to fill the silence, going around and around with the same question for several iterations; until there seemed to be no more to say.  Asking the question set the challenge of simply accepting what was said and remaining curious; answering the question felt intriguing, intimidating, sometimes liberating, sometimes a little frightening.

Who are you?

Down the years I’ve asked my clients – coaching clients and sometimes supervisees – the same question; occasionally directly, probably more often indirectly.  I’ve asked it in particular at those times when it seems a coaching client and their job role have fused into one tightly bound entity.  They have found themselves creating the most valuable, most deeply self-determining, most absorbing part of themselves, through their job role.  Who they are in their role, in their organisational position, in their professional standing, is who they are.  And when this role has been threatened or taken away, when the truth of some part of the framework of values and relationships that supports it, has been denied or invalidated, they can find themselves in great distress.

Assisting a client through this distress is undoubtedly, if very sadly, not an uncommon experience among coaches.  But what if the truth of some part of our work as a coach, or indeed of some other part of our lives with which our sense of ourselves is tightly enmeshed, comes under threat; what if we ourselves are distressed?  If, as one my supervision teachers has famously said, “Who you are is how you coach”, how at such times can we coach; indeed, should we coach?

Where is your energy now?

We can of course be many selves and each one demands, and gives out, its own energy.  Perhaps one way to answer this last question – can we, should we coach? – is to consider, as honestly as we can, where our energy is now?   It may be that just now we need to reserve the bulk of our energy for ourselves, for our own healing and readjustment; and take time out, letting ourselves rebalance and find replenishment, and step away from coaching for a while.  Or it may be that our work in service of others can provide a refuge in which we can preserve and sustain our sense of ourselves, when we feel this is under threat by a harsh world or a change of circumstance.  Perhaps we can come to find our better selves more closely, when we let go of our distress and attend to others.

This is a matter for deep and honest reflection.  The challenge is to know when and where our own distress, our own un-ease ends; and then, to consider, with the utmost care, how what you know now about yourself can enrich your presence with your client.

As well as being an Executive Coach, Ken Smith is also a Coach Supervisor. Ken has a particular interest in supervision for internal coaches, where the impact of the wider system and the coach’s unspoken role as representing the organisation may add an extra layer of complexity to the coach-client relationship.