Challenge, Trust and Intuition In The Coaching Relationship By Luis San Martin


“Throwing the ball back”

This is a very personal article about coaching and, as such, you will find personal reflections and also several personal confessions. Let me start with the first confession: I am a tennis player. As far as I know from my personal experience and from seeing other players, it is a chronic condition. So far there’s nothing I can do about it and, like with any chronic condition, you may as well get used to live with it and try to enjoy it as much as you can.

Now let me tell you about another tennis player: Tim Gallwey. The very first time that I heard about his seminal book The Inner Game of Tennis I was in London in one of those leadership training programs multinational companies send you to –Thomson Reuters in my case. One of the trainers mentioned the inner game theory and the book. As soon as I heard the title I was all alert and interested and wanting to know more. That day, I went into a bookshop in Piccadilly street, bought a copy and read it as the tennis player I was.

Reading the Inner Game of Tennis left an impression in me, lasting even when years later I became a coach. In 2012 The Association for Coaching interviewed Tim Gallwey and again, that interview left a lasting impression –if you haven’t seen this interview you can find it here  I totally recommend it.

In that interview Mr Gallwey summed up his vision of coaching reviewing key insights in the development of coaching as a discipline.  He explained how important it was for him to realise that coaching was about putting the focus on the coachee learning rather than on the coach teaching. He also described the coaching conversation as one where, and I quote, “the coach has to keep throwing the ball back, the leadership ball back to the coachee, so that he is taking responsibilityand accountability for the choices that he’s making. He’s thinking for himself, she’s thinking for herself.”  

Challenge in the coaching relationship

I believe that Tim Gallwey is really serious when he talks about “throwing the ball back”, for any tennis player there’s no bigger challenge. As coaches, we don’t dispute that challenge is essential to coaching, perhaps the more important question to be asked is how each of us do it. How much, how deep and even when to challenge is something we all probably have a different ideas about.

As individual members of the coaching community, we all share a set of competencies and training without which we couldn’t do our work. Furthermore, we would probably agree on the key elements we must find in any definition of coaching. However, most certainly, all of us put coaching into practice in a very personal way and have a different idea of what challenge is. And thank God for that.

At the end of the day, coaching is –or should be- a very personal thing.

You are who you are as a coach. For me, it is much like a musician performing classical music. Classical musicians share the same set of skills, they have the same formal training needed to read a very complex score where they will find, with impressive detail, everything they need to perform. Every trained musician can read the same music score written by, for instance, Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin. However, when they sit to play the same score on the piano, not every performer will sound quite the same, their music will not touch you in the same way. They bring their personality, passion, years of training and the mood they are in when actually performing and that becomes all part of the music you can hear.

The same can be said of coaches putting coaching into practice. Each one of us “interprets” challenge in their own way. For me, and based in my experience, the “right challenge” is determined by triangle formed by three things:

  1. Trust in the coachee,

  2. Trust in my intuition and

  3. Being present and working with what is in the moment.

1.      Trust in the coachee

Don’t forget the essence. Don’t forget that what we’re dealing with is a human being, that has great potential and is somewhat handicapped by their interferences and that’s a delicate job. (…) Learning is an inherit capability within people and you don’t have to put it into people, you have to encourage it and bring out and that’s the privilege of a coach
Tim Gallwey -An Association for Coaching Interview

I suppose, the very first thing you have to do if you want to be trusted (and deliver on this privilege of a coach) is trust yourself. It is very difficult to expect that your coachee trusts you if he or she doesn’t feel trusted by you. People pick up on those things.

Establishing trust is one of the foundations of the coaching relationship and it is important, among other things, because you never know where you are going to go in the coaching process or how your coachee will respond to or resolve a challenge. This is a fascinating reality and one that, as a coach, I enjoy more.

My coaching experience has taught me to acknowledge that the client ‘knows’, even if they think they don’t know, and that eventually they will have the ability to self regulate. This could be presented as a gestaltic approach to coaching, of course. Clarkson (1989) words it as follows: “gestaltits assume that people know at some level what is good for them. (…) The counsellor uses himself or herself actively and authentically in the encounter with the other person. It is more a way of being and doing than a set of techniques or a prescribed formula for counseling. Gestalt is characterized by a willingness on the part of the counselor to be active, present as a person and interventionist in the counseling relationship. This is based on the assumption that treating the client as a human being with intelligence, responsibility and active choices at any moment in time is most likely to invite the client into autonomy, self-healing and integration.”

I must say that in my experience this has always been true, so it is more than a theoretical stand point. Trusting that the client ‘knows’ is, for me, essential. As coaches we work with the coachee’s responsibility and awareness, yet:

  • It is the coachee who makes his or her own choices.

  • He or she will live with the consequences of those decisions, and

  • If the coaching process is done in a conscious way, no matter what the outcome, the coachee will have strengthen his or her ability to learn and self regulate, and they will also have the personal structure to rise to future challenges.

There is something to be said about when to throw the challenge. As coaches we will often clearly see what the challenge is but choose to develop the relationship further before we face the client with it. A stronger relationship or a more confident client could determine the success of the process. It is not infrequent to face this dilemma at the very early stages of the process, even in chemistry meetings. Experience has shown me that it’s best to wait, develop the relationship and make sure that a number of things are in place before throwing the ball.

2.      Trust in my intuition

It was pretty late in life that I found out that I am an “N”. I guess that when this happened I started to take my intuition more seriously. Since then, I feel that I have come a long way but I am still learning to “use” my intuition.  Before that, I knew I was intuitive but I didn’t take it as seriously as I do now.

According to Jung, Intuition is a mental process that individuals tend to favour when gathering information or drawing conclusions about issues. Obviously, being an “N” conditions all my experience of intuition and I couldn’t speak about it as an “S”. Intuitive people know but they don’t know how they know. Intuition (as Sensation) is considered by Jung an irrational (non rational) function because it is often reflexive or involuntary, rather than conscious or deliberate (Ewen, 1993). Talking about intuition though is not as easy as talking about logic or reason, because there is part of intuition that will always remain “hidden”.

Intuition connects, in a way, the conscious and the unconscious. The unconscious plays an all important role in determining our behaviour, performance, decisions or our capacity to think (Bion 1970). No matter how hard we try or how many frameworks we develop, coaching is not an exact science and never will be, the unconscious must be recognized in both coach and client and attended to. As coaches, we have to learn to let ourselves go with it and flow with it.

How do you do that? It’s something,

  • You learn to do,

  • You learn to relate to your intuition,

  • You learn to trust yourself with it.

It’s a process of discovery.

From my coaching experiences, there is a moment in the coaching conversation when I know I have to throw the challenge. It emerges clearly. The coaching relationship has been sufficiently tested, by now I know that my coachee “can take it” but I still wonder if it’s best to wait, gather some more information, if I should present it as crude as I see it or maybe I should dress it a bit… In those moments, I’ve always trusted my intuition to decide when and how deep to challenge and so far, I have never regretted it.

I remember this one occasion in which, after the session, I thought I shouldn’t have gone so deep, but presenting the challenge was very clear to me during the session and it went very naturally. I wondered for days whether I had overdone it. I only knew I’d done it right when the results became apparent in the coachee. She was at the time having a really hard time facing this reality that I presented to her. However this challenge meant a huge turning point for her, life changing. She was very grateful about how much this process gave her, clearly exceeding the objectives we had set. I am always amazed when I remember how that happened.

3.      Being Present

As Liz Hall (2014) reminds us, at least two of the main professional coaching bodies –The Association for Coaching (AC) and the International Coaching Federation (ICF) include presence as a core competency. Furthermore, she discusses that there is very little in the coaching literature about how to develop a presence and defends that, and I quote, “mindfulness is perfectly suited in the developmentof presence, helping (the coach) to meet requirements such as (…) to be present and flexible during the coachingprocess, dancing in the moment; access their own intuition and trust one’s inner knowing –going with the gut, be open to not knowing and take risks, and to demonstrate confidence in working with strong emotions, being able to self-manage and not be overpowered or enmeshed by client’s emotions”.

Being mindful is the opposite of being on our automatic pilot. It is the result of maintaining a meditation practice. In meditation we train being present, in the moment, on the dot.

  • We train focus and know clarity.

  • We pay attention with intention and notice when our attention has shifted.

Chogyan Trüngpa (1984) one of the greatest Tibetan meditation Masters writes about it in a very eloquent way: “in the process of losing your awareness, you regain it because of the process of losing it. Slipping, in itself, corrects itself. It happens automatically. You begin to feel highly skilled, highly trained.

It is important to say that we can train attention, focus, clarity, awareness and being present. The training is the daily meditation practice and the results just come as a consequence of maintaining that practice.

A daily meditation practice prepares us, certainly is key for me, to be in an optimal state in the coaching conversation. Free flowing to recognize what is and how to work with it to better serve the client. We could again quote Chogyan Trungpa (1984) when he says “First, you must trust in yourself. (…) At that point your discipline becomes delightful rather than being an ordeal or great demand. When you ride a horse, balance comes, not from freezing your legs to the saddle, but from learning to float with the movement of the horse as you ride. Each step is dance, the rider’s dance as well as the dance of the horse. (…) You have to relax with yourself in order to fully realize that discipline is simply the expression of your basic goodness. You have to appreciate yourself, respect yourself, and let go of any doubt and embarrassment”.

As coaches being present allows us,

  • To recognize what is and work with it,

  • To accept it without judgment,

  • To let go of our assumptions and mental constructs,

  • To genuinely trust in our abilities and those of our coachee.

We have to acknowledge that we cannot see things as they are but as we are and that the same is true of our client. Being present will help us to “see things” in a more mindful and “objective” way and our client will be the great beneficiary of it.


  1. It is very clear that presenting a challenge is essential to coaching. How this challenge is presented depends on a number of things that are not as easy to grasp. It is not possible to present a formula resulting in the perfect challenge. Rather, a good challenge depends on a set of competencies that the coach brings and also, largely, on a great deal of personal qualities. For me, the decision of how and when to challenge depends basically on three things: trust in the coachee, trust in my intuition and being present.

  2. Major coaching models such as The Inner Game, Gestalt or Mindfulness share evidence of the importance of personal qualities in the coach rather than a set of techniques or a prescribed formula. They also supply ways to develop those personal qualities and help and encourage the coach,

    • To have his or her own way of being and doing,

    • To trust the coachee,

    • To trust their own intuition andinner knowing,

    • To be present as a person and interventionist,

    • To “dance in the moment”,

    • To be open to not knowing and take risks, and

    • To demonstrate confidence.

Bion, W. R.(1970). Attention and Interpretation. Tavistock Publications
Clarkson, P. (1989) Gestalt Counselling in Action, SAGE Counselling in Action, Series Editor Windy Dryden.
Ewen, R. B. (1993) An Introduction to Theories of Personality, Psycology Press.
Gallwey, W.T. (1986) The Inner Game of Tennis, PAN Books.
Hall, L. (2014) Mastery in Coaching, A Completely Psycological Toolkit For Advanced Coaching. Edited by Jonathan Passmore. Associaction for Coaching and Kogan Page.
Trüngpa, C. (1984) The Sacred Path of the Warrior. Shambhala Dragon Editions.


To connect with Luis

Luis San Martin is Founding Chair of the Association for Coaching in Spain and sits on the editorial advisory board of The International Journal for Mindfulness & Compassion at Work.  He brings an exceptional business experience to his work as executive coach and organisational development consultant which includes CEO responsibilities in multinational companies in several countries. His business career background spans more than 20 years in the UK, Spain and South America working for companies such as McGraw-Hill, Thomson Reuters and Grupo Santillana (PRISA Group).

He works internationally and is passionate about working with people as he believes that everyone can continue developing themselves beyond their own expectations. Luis is bilingual in English and Spanish and works in both languages.

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