Hammers, Nails, and Mindfulness: The Dangers of Coaching When You Have a Favourite Intervention “If the only tool you have is a hammer …..” by Peter Young (guest)

I’m curious about something that is cropping up more and more in my coaching at present. I’m noticing a growing frequency with which I’m introducing mindfulness to clients; whether this is in the form of a theoretical introduction to the field, or a short practice within the coaching session, or suggestions of exercises to undertake between sessions. It’s not that I am doing this ‘mindlessly’; it’s deliberate and supposedly well justified. And yet it is also raising questions for me.

My curiosity is piqued, probably because there is a little concern gnawing at the back of my mind that this pattern may have more to do with me (and my interests and enthusiasms) than it has to do with the client. In the past I have noticed a similar thing at work, where new frameworks, or specific techniques that have been recently introduced to me, (for example in books or on courses), suddenly start cropping up in my coaching. And at the time they feel like the exact thing that the client needs! (Yet perhaps a month or a year earlier, these techniques would not have been on my radar.)

This raises a number of important questions including the following, "How do I as a coach decide in the moment what is the most appropriate intervention for the client?" While we know from research that the precise technique or approach is a less significant predictor of success than the appetite of the client and the quality of the partnership, what is the importance of ‘technique’ or approach? And we also know that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then you’ll treat everything as if it was a nail. And yet every coach’s toolbox is limited – even those coaches who are inveterate learners and addicted to attending courses! So the hammer–nail thing must surely always be just a matter of degree?

How do you decide in the moment what is the most appropriate intervention for the client?

I’m going to consider how I decide in the moment what the most appropriate intervention is for the client. Now the ‘official’ answer, and the one that I would most likely give at an interview where my coaching style was being questioned, would be to make reference to my coaching model. (NB: my personal ‘coaching model’ was first articulated as part of a programme of professional coach development. Interestingly it has lain dormant in a folder on my computer for a number of years. This observation is a reminder to dust it off and to explore its continued relevance. Challenge to self: do I really only produce a coaching model in order to gain a qualification?)

Referencing my model then, I might talk about how I enhance the client’s levels of self-awareness; how I help her discern her habitual patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours, etc. How her resourcefulness and resilience is strengthened as she recognises and begins to integrate those less obvious or even pushed-aside aspects of her experience. So interventions that encourage such awareness-raising might fit well with my model.

Reflecting on the question of appropriateness further, other issues come to mind; ones which challenge my practice more than what might be seen as the intellectualising of the previous paragraph. There is surely something to be asked about,

  • How I assess the readiness of the client for a particular intervention?

  • What else have they tried already, and to what degree has it worked?

  • What else do they really need given what they already know and have tried?

  • What is their degree of appetite in this particular area?

  • How much are they willing to invest in bringing about change in this space?

As I write these questions, I’m aware that I may not always conduct such due diligence with the client, and that I run the risk of making assumptions about need, readiness and appropriateness, perhaps driven in part by my own appetite to share my latest enthusiasm, perhaps driven by a hurry towards solutions, and maybe driven by other, as yet hidden motivations!

Creating a path to greater freedom and choice

This then raises a number of important areas for further learning and experimentation.

First and foremost, can I bring a quality of mindful awareness to those moments in coaching when I feel ‘drawn to action’, whether that is grabbing the pad of paper and explaining a model, or introducing a tool, or suggesting an exercise. Can I press pause in those moments and connect with my own intention and energy in that moment; especially paying attention to any movement towards ‘teaching’ or ‘sharing my passions’ …!

Second, in that pause, there needs to be a process of checking that the client and I are moving in sync. That I’ve not got ahead of things, that we’ve done the groundwork together to establish why we’re doing this, and that the client is fully ready. That we’ve clearly contracted for where we are in the process, and the intervention is meeting the real articulated need, not one that has just been heard in my own mind.

Third, am I in a position where I can actively choose an intervention from a range of options, rather than to automatically default to my current favourite? Perhaps if I only have one method in mind, I should start to challenge myself more actively. What else could I use here? What other approaches might serve the client as well or even better? 

There is a delicious irony here: just as I’m challenging myself around my ability to deploy interventions appropriately, in the current case mindfulness, the solution that I’m diagnosing for myself is …. greater mindfulness. Well, what a surprise!

To connect with Peter Young

Peter Young (BSc Biology, MA Psychological Coaching) has been independently coaching, training and facilitating in organisations since 2001. His long-standing passion has been to help organisations to perform at their best and to be great places for human beings!

He’s to be found in environments that span city law firms, start-ups, and global not-for-profits. Prior to becoming a coach he had a career in the book publishing industry, culminating in the role of Operations Director on the board of Lion Publishing plc.

Email: peter@bladonleadership.com