“How do our moods encroach on our coaching relationships, and help us to become a good coach” by Simon Dennis

I remember years ago, I used to travel to coaching sessions and during the traveling, I could kind of get myself in the right frame of mind,  in the right mood. More often than not now, I find that my coaching occurs in amongst my day-to-day role to the point where I can literally go from one meeting into a coaching session without breaks.  For example, there might be a finance discussion about budgets and forecasts and then suddenly I have to switch into coaching. I began exploring this shift with colleagues, and started to ask questions around moods and mindsets,

  • Can you coach if you're in a bad mood?

  • Can you coach only if you're in a good mood?

  • Can you only coach if you're in a kind of coaching mood?

Managing moods ‘on the run’

I connected moods with a phrase that’s prevalent in our field that is typically about

a) Do you bring your stuff into coaching,
b) when in a coaching conversation is it your stuff versus their stuff?

And for me, the mood I bring as the coach is clearly my stuff.

I then began asking and reflecting on, how much do you or should you then hold that back if the other person is here to talk about their stuff? But then, how much is not being dealt with genuine integrity.

For example, If I'm in a bad place because I've just had a heated conversation with my wife or my children, and I then go into a coaching conversation, is it right that I share that information with the coachee and say, "Just to let you know, I'm in a bit of a bad mood at the moment because I've just had a row with my wife/children." Are they going to turn around and say, "Well, do I care?" or are they going to respond and say, "Well, if you are in a bad mood, maybe you need to go and fix that first before you try and fix me?"

A mood is not that kind of technical issue that can be resolved by a singular technical response, rather it's something more to do with recognising the imbalance, or better still finding ways to regain balance.

For me, it's back to trying to be good at what I do in the moment. So if I want to be a good coach, then my mood can't come into it even though you might come away from the session and have that kind of epiphany moment that says, "I'm going to scream now because I've got to go back to what I was doing before the coaching." But there is a balance issue in terms of how do you hold that inside without it becoming a barrier to success in the coaching session.

It's not happened to me often, to be fair, but there are times when I just thought, "You know, I'm not in a great place. How am I going to do the best I can as a coach?" Sometimes literally having that thought walking from one meeting to another and thinking, "How am I going to do that without it…?”  it becomes a valuable conversation and I guess I have learnt some tricks of the trade.

  • Compartmentalize a little bit.

  • Try and deflect it e.g. some people might say, "Hang on a minute. I need to make a quickphone call. I'm going to do a two-minute walk around the block to clear my head."

  • Sometimes it's a physical thing where they have to physically remove themselves.

For me, it's a combination of things, I don't sit and meditate or such, but I might just take two minutes just to get myself focused on the individual by reviewing any notes that were taken from the last meeting. Sometimes I give myself a bit of a talking to and say, "Hang on a minute that is my stuff. That's not what this next meeting's about. This next meeting's about their stuff." Even when I’m with my team, I can have a tricky meeting at work and afterwards I think, "Well, this is about their stuff now and why has this just happened? I need to park that."

Likewise moods can be a positive thing too. You can arrive in a really good frame of mind and then shift the individual that's in front of you who isn't in a great place.

Moods is about managing boundaries

Most people will say and give the model response, "Oh, yeah. I can put that to one side and I can compartmentalize that. And then I can then be the coach for you in the room."  For some it might be as easy as that, just breathe and then just put the nice mask on and then take that step into the coaching thing.

From my experience it's not something I think you can necessarily train, but it's something that I think you have to learn to do to an extent.

The reality, I think, and almost in nature of ‘the good coach’, is that you are who you are, and you bring yourself to the coaching and that's what makes you a good coach.

That's what makes you a different coach to the next coach and therefore the individual whose being coached by you, I think, almost has a right to get you, the coach, in the room. And if that means you're coming with baggage, you know, where does the level come where the baggage starts to encroach, recognize that as a coach and say, "Hang on a minute. My stuff's now getting in the way. I need to either compose myself or I need to take a break. Or we need to go down a different avenue."

The worst case scenario, I could imagine, is if you're in a coaching relationship and the thing that comes up in the coaching conversation is the very thing that's causing you the pain as well. For example,

  • You're moving into a new house and home, and all the stresses that involves. You step away from that to coach somebody and they then start saying, "We're leaving the house and we're going through all this stress. And it's putting stress on my home life and my work life." At that point as a coach, where do you go with that? Because suddenly it's like, "Well, hang on a minute. I really do empathize with what you're going through but you don't want to hear about my pains of moving house. And I really don't want to hear about your pains from moving house either because all that's going to bring it back home to me."

  • Or as one of the organisational coaches working on a transformation program, if you’re a senior person in the company, you might know more than the coachee knows. Not only bringing your own stuff, they will be talking about their perception of it and you might be tempted to begin responding with, "Actually, you've got it wrong. That's not what's really going on."

These are real dangers, and where do you tread that path as a coach?

Someone once said to me, "You can't not know what you know. It's just how much of it do you then share in a bid to help the coachee." If we keep our intent clean, there's juggling going on inside the coach which says, "I know stuff. I'm in a similar place to them but I've got to be careful I don't step over the line and start pushing myself onto them because I need to get them to recognize where they are and how they can help themselves."

This is the challenge. Coaches are human beings. They're going to experience those same challenges. And there is a possibility that their coachee will be bringing exactly that challenge to the table. This is because what's going on because of the work we’re doing works at quite an intimate level, and as a compromise it’s worthwhile to check out the assumptions you're making about the way you're looking at things.

Let me share some examples

Quite often I find myself in internal situations where people will talk about team changes or structural changes, where they'll say, "You know, I understand this is going to happen." Depending on whom made the comment, I might say, "What makes you think that?" or "How valid is your information source?"

And as the conversation continues, I’ve learnt how to respond and acknowledge where they’re coming because in their mind, it's going to happen (probable) and so I subtly shift the conversation by adding the idea of ‘possible’ as I engage with them. I’ll start saying, "But if that did happen, what would be your course of action? What would be your options?" Trying to use a language of possibility rather than probability in a bid to help them see that maybe what they're firmly believing is maybe not so firm after all. I’ve found sometimes I use language that closes down a conversation that ends up with them responding and saying, "So what do you know that I don't know? And what aren’t you telling me?" These are quite subtle and indirect ways to test assumptions, and maybe there's a point where you just have to say to them, "Look, I do know some things about that. What I can tell you is your assumptions aren't correct. But let's just leave it there."  And sometimes I have to be formal and say, "I'm not at liberty to tell you what's happening."

I had a situation many years ago where people were asking for me to be their coach because they knew I would know other details.  They knew that I was in a position of leadership in this particular area so they were - I'm thinking of one case in particular - they actually admitted and said, "Well, the reason I chose you as my coach is because you know an awful lot more about the strategy and where this is going."

I said, "I can't say that's true, but that shouldn't affect your choice of me as a coach and it certainly shouldn't affect the way I coach you. If you actually want me to divulge strategy and future plans, that's a different conversation. And you need to approach me as a professional and say, "What is happening?" because that's not part of the coaching contract." I was very clear upfront but sometimes, your coachee isn't clear and they’re not clear about their motives. Unless you're particularly perceptive as a coach and know where their motives come in, it might take some time to say, "I get the sense that, actually, you want me to divulge information rather than coach you."

Another time, very early on when I was attending coach training, I was paired with a guy as part of observed coaching. He began to discuss a project that he was really struggling with and with people on the project, and we had a really good 20-minute dialogue that was being fully observed by the other attendees.  

What was interesting was at the end of the conversation, after he achieved what he was looking for, as we were getting the feedback, a number of the observers said, "Oh, that was a really good clean coaching session." When I was chatting to them all over coffee and mentioned that I'd been working on the same project for the last two years, and so almost everything he'd said, I knew already. In effect, he hadn't told me anything I wasn't already aware of and yet no one in the room had noticed. The facilitator who was leading the training said, "Were you that aware of what you did?" The guy I was coaching said, "You hid it very well." And I responded that, "I wasn't consciously hiding it but in my head, I didn't think it would add anything to the coaching for me to share that. I didn't feel the need."

For me, as I reflected on this thought, "If I said to you right now, actually, I've been on the project for two years so I kind of know what's going on. I think it would just shut down the whole conversation. And so I said, "It was more about the intent. The intent was to help the individual. You need to let them air their perspective." And that’s the decision I made in those initial few minutes to give this guy the space to work through his challenges and lift his mood.

For me, there are different ways to air the elephant in the room at that point and respond appropriately to those moods in those moments. Where are those boundaries, how you recognize those boundaries, and what do you offer rather than what do you hold back and how that affects the relationship.

Continually rediscovering balance

All the time as coaches, I think we're walking that line between what's genuine and real and what people want to present to you. It’s being able to quickly assess and diagnose whose mood is impacting the quality of the relationship in those moments. And I guess the whole nub of coaching is to get underneath that and get to what's really driving it? What's really going to improve? What's really going to make a difference?

There is value in sometimes sharing that and saying, "You know what, whatever you're saying isn't hitting home." And I think the careful bit is knowing when it is your stuff, because I can say to somebody, "You know what, I'm hearing what you're saying but it's just not registering with me." And they may reply, "Well, that's your problem. That clearly has something to do with you." With that response comes the jolt of reality and you might say, "Actually, you're right. I need to switch and just be more in tune with what's going on." Whereas at other times, they may respond, "No, actually, you're right. I'm just talking for the sake of it." So it's trying to get that.

It's about at what point would you say, "I'm afraid I can't continue this dialogue." At what point do you step over the boundary and say, "I'm afraid I don't subscribe to that point of view."

For me, I guess it's about walking that tightrope, maintaining rapport, maintaining integrity, maintaining authenticity. It’s recognizing that the person in front of me may have different views, may have different cultures, may have different beliefs and what I can do is work with the individual in the room and what they bring to the table. And importantly, noticing how and when I’m bringing my stuff, my moods, into our coaching conversations and that when I do it’s used with the right intention.

Questions: How do you recognise, and then use moods to keep appropriate boundaries?

To connect with Simon Dennis

Simon has over 20 years’ experience of service delivery and continuous improvement in a variety of roles and industry sectors. He trained as a coach and coach supervisor and as Head of Coaching at Fujitsu UK & Ireland he established a Coaching Community utilising internal and external coaches to meet the business need for performance improvement and provided a basis for establishing a coaching competency for the organisation.

He has continued as a coaching ambassador for Fujitsu, presenting at conferences and contributing to publications and professional bodies in order to promote the use of coaching for performance and particularly internal coaching as a valid and valued approach.

He is married with 2 daughters and lives in Manchester, North-West England.