“Is this my stuff, or the client’s stuff?” Putting frustration on the table for discussion by Doug Montgomery

Coaching, in the way I practice, is not a social conversation; it is a specific non-judgemental, contracted conversation in which a coach and a client have very specific roles and responsibilities.  I want to share a recent experience of how I addressed the frustration I felt during a coaching conversation that resulted in me being totally honest with a coaching client, and being direct. 

I have been working with this particular client for a little while, and we have built up a good rapport, established their coaching goals and got input from some colleagues and their manager. I realised that my main feeling was of intense frustration in the way that each of the sessions were being eaten up by my client’s long monologues. 

The feeling surfaces

At one of our session, this client started by telling me their plans to work better with one of their senior colleagues.  They had worked out a way of building trust with this very difficult colleague and was describing the plan, how it would help and why this was this would be useful and valuable to both the client and to the colleague.  The explanation included a detailed description with lots of logic and reasons to believe it would work. 

I noticed that a feeling of frustration began to arise in me.  

It started as a distraction, and then I noticed that I was tapping one of my feet on the floor, and I felt I wanted to ask questions but there was no space to insert them.  When I paused to step back and ask myself what was going on – the feeling of frustration came to the surface. 

The curious plunge

So I interrupted the flow, and asked permission to share an observation with my client.  This felt risky – both the interruption and what I was about to share. 

I am noticing that I am feeling very frustrated just now. What is going on for you?” They responded saying that they too were feeling frustrated and that they often felt that way with this colleague and with others that it is a struggle to work with.  And then the client started to give me examples and war stories which I listened to for a few moments.  
I felt under a deluge of information and my frustration rising again.  So I interrupted again, and was even more direct.  

I notice that you are giving me a lot of detail, a lot of which I don’t need, and some of which sounds like justification of your actions, and some sounds like explanations of why its ok for them to act the way they do with you.  Are you aware of this?”  

No I am not!” they responded slightly taken aback.

Is this typical for you?” probing a little further having now received their attention.

After a pause to think… “Yes it is, mainly with the difficult colleagues. ….” And again the explanations came forth.

So I interrupted again, “What is going on just now?

I’m doing it again, aren’t I?”  And I replied, “Yes, you are doing it again.  What might others be experiencing talking with you?” They answered without hesitation, “I don’t get to the point, or when I do, I confuse the message with lots of other information and asides.  I try to justify myself and I feel I need to keep them happy or they won’t work with me.  They don’t know what I really want or need from them. And I let them off the hook, and don’t hold them to account.

To shift the atmosphere, I straightened up in my seat and with a twinkle in my eyes, I asked “Are you up for some fun with this?” “What do you mean?” they asked. And I shared more of my thoughts, and what I was seeking permission to do, “Would you be willing to seek to answer in a maximum of two short sentences?  And I can interrupt if they a very long, or if you start a third sentence?

They agreed, and so I then asked “what message do you want the colleague you started the session with to hear loud and clear?” Without hesitation they replied with, “I need them to commit to their actions. I need them to deliver on their commitments.


From this point on, we re-contracted for the real work that they wanted to address in their behaviour, AND included the permission for me to interrupt when I was getting information and especially justification I don’t need, and for them to seek to be brief and to the point. 

The learning

What I learned from this example, is that being aware of my whole self – thinking, feelings and energy levels – that allowed me to leverage all my senses in service of the client.    Sharing what I am experiencing, in an open, honest, direct manner, enables my client to connect with their own feelings.  In this case there was a parallel process of frustration present, that we surfaced, and then used.  In this example we were able to use what was in the room to explore what was going on outside in the client’s world.  This can be a very powerful exploration because it is ‘real and now’ rather than a recollection of a different time and place. 

Multiple parallels

When I reflected back on the previous sessions the same pattern of long descriptions and justifications was there, and so was my unease and a sense of time being wasted and us not getting on with the work.  So perhaps there was a second parallel process -  of pleasing others - perhaps holding me back from this direct intervention being made earlier in the work, and holding my client back from being direct with her colleagues?

And so…

My social discomfort in being very direct, of interrupting and pointing out that I was frustrated, is just that – a social discomfort.   In a coaching conversation, one responsibility of the coach is to be open and direct with their observations and feedback, and to use these observations to raise awareness in the client.  If not shared these feelings may become distractions for the coach.  Of course, they need to be held lightly, as they may be the coach’s own stuff, and have no meaning for the client.  The light hold allows the coach to let them go easily if they are not useful to the client.   By not sharing our own experiences and feelings with our clients we risk being a witness to their thinking rather than a supportive and challenging thinking partner. 

Question: How have you dealt with this feeling of frustration that’s emerged through a coaching conversation?

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