Executive coaching is about asking questions and helping the client find their own resources. That said, there are as many coaching models as there are coaches and I owe my clients full transparency on my approach.
Coaching with strategic empathy helps me build a bridge between the support my coachees need to feel safe, considered and understood, and the challenge they are ready to take to change.
Accordingly, recent publications by systemic coaches claim that “relationship prevails over strategy”. Even Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which has long considered the therapeutic relationship as a neutral stimulus in a technical treatment, now integrates attachment theory to leverage the therapeutic potential of the relationship.
I have reviewed and improved my practice of each of the ten components, making a habit of turning off all sources of distraction and asking my coachee to do the same as a favour to our working relationship, shortening and opening my questions, giving my coachee time and space to find their own pace to think without being interrupted, doing whatever is in my power to make the meeting space welcoming and enhancing for my client, and so forth. Asking a personal assistant to book a particular room is no longer trivial: it has become a backstage part of my signature presence.
How much time to spend checking-in differs significantly whether my client is American or Lebanese; I don’t make contact with a Japanese as I do with a French person. Understanding better how foreign executives experience the French corporate culture whether they come from a high or low context culture, use an implicit or explicit communication style, has greatly helped me improve my awareness to create a personalised thinking environment for each coachee. Reciprocally, I put special effort in grasping the cultural gaps when working in non-French environments: if these cannot be abolished, I often find it better to make them explicit.
Having been trained to focus on my client, I had never thought that bringing my own emotions into the relationship was an option. Reading that being “genuine, words matching own internal feeling” was an indispensable characteristic of a helping relationship has liberated my natural sensitivity, enhancing the quality of my relationships and opening a whole new field of coaching possibilities.
Supporting insecure overachieving leaders to ‘be themselves more, with skill’ is indeed an enjoyable and rewarding experience, both for the coach and coachee. But I define this developmental type of coaching as reinforcement or fine tuning rather than change. In my view, change is a more confronting experience, and I see my role as a coach to support my clients through this challenge toward a desired or unknown future.
Guiding a coachee through a chair work experiment requires supporting the effort on the one hand and confronting the client with a situation they most often dread on the other; sharing my clients’ frustration while listing all their failed attempts to reach a goal also requires a robust blend of support and challenge. Drawing from Rogers’ description of the helping relationship, Wittezaele & Nardone, two masters of the Palo Alto school in Europe, have created the concept of strategic empathy, to describe this double movement, meeting the patients where they are, stuck or in pain, resonating with the nature and intensity of their feelings, yet challenging their course of action to help them find a more ecological one.
It is never comfortable for anyone to be asked questions as provocative as: “If you were absolutely sure that your assumption is not true, what would you do or say or think differently?”, or "no matter how much care one takes in phrasing it more gently. Even Nancy Kline’s soft voice calls this question “incisive”, cutting. I have many other provocative questions in store to instill doubt into my coachee’s mind, and I have learnt to make them feel deeply and sincerely understood before I ask any of these sharp questions. Even then, many clients keep telling me they remember them long after the coaching has ended. I cannot anticipate when is the right moment to ask a provocative question in the course of a coaching. The only thing I know is that my coachee must be absolutely confident in my understanding and positive intent before I ask them.
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