A guide to the very lonely planet of working as a coach: maintaining my voice, presence and self as an instrument at its best By Luis San Martin

 74629231 - crossroad signpost saying this way, that way, the other way concept for lost, confusion or decisions

“Dad, I want to be a coach like you. [Dad replies, with clenched fists and a strained expression] Oh, God! Please, get a real job.”

Let’s imagine for a moment that your kid comes up to you with such an occurrence.

What would you do?

I know that I’d be very disappointed as I want to think that my kids are not so dumb.

But what would you say?

Would you encourage them or would you tell them to go and get a “proper job”?

Let’s be honest, you want the best for your kids, a job that brings security, steady income, career prospects… That’s not coaching, right?

But we know kids never do what you tell them, they do what they see you do. They see you happy, energetic: they see you enjoy your work, your relationships with your clients, you like to talk to colleagues and often tell them how much you learn. They see you’re optimistic and look at life with confidence, they are not so dumb after all and they say to you that this is what they want for themselves.

How would you honestly respond to them?

Not easy. In my case, I’d call my wife and let her deal with it.

Facing realities: honestly answering this for yourself

There are many challenges to be a good coach and stay in business, most of them have nothing to do with the things you learn when you train to become a coach or in your ongoing CPD. I don’t know a formula for success, which for me is just to be able to work and stay in business -please do share if you know any formula.

Coaching gathers brilliant people, extremely well trained, hardworking, but this is no guarantee for success. Coaching is exposed, uncertain, competitive, demands total dedication and there is no guide to it, I rather think it’s about the way you deal with certain things, some people manage them well, some don’t.

A coach must pay attention to a wide range of different dimensions to be at their best at any given time. Not only do we have to be good at what we do but we also have to be commercial. Turns out that the personal part of coaching is really rather important both for delivering coaching and dealing with all the challenges and pressures of the profession. This alone can determine one’s success and it’s the kind of thing that by its very nature you learn as you go.

I’d like to reflect on some aspects I think are important under the following headings:

  • Realize that you’re carrying your instrument with you at all times

  • Lives in the balance/Balancing business with delivery

  • Dedication

  • Always have a beginner’s mind to see things as they are

  • Be friends with uncertainty and personal transformation

  • Love yourself with compassionate love

  • The importance of a community

Realize that you’re carrying your instrument with you at all times

Placido Domingo, probably the greatest opera tenor alive, reflected in a documentary about his unique professional characteristic of always having to carry his instrument around and the permanent care and attention this requires. He spoke about how personal and delicate the human voice is, how it is affected by absolutely everything “good news, bad news” and of course any health issues. Furthermore, he reflected that this fragility puts you in a worse position than other professionals that use other instruments to make their living. “Voice is a mystery, like life itself. One day you are OK but you never know when something will go wrong, no matter how much you care.” He declared.

I like this story. I think it can apply to coaches because we are our instrument. We always carry our instrument around. Much like opera singers, we work really hard at our technique, constantly perfecting, updating, upgrading and can easily lose perspective of the fragility of our instrument.

And yet, there’s more. Lawrence Olivier once said that Domingo was a better actor than him. Quite remarkable. Not only does he have sheer technical perfection, the personality of a voice but also excellent acting. These are the top three criteria of what makes you an opera star; that’s what opera goers want. They want the whole lot.

Similarly, what do coaching clients want? What makes you a coaching star (or master in this field)? What are people buying in a coach? We could argue is not very different really. Sheer technical perfection would be very nice, but otherwise a high degree of technique is a must, an authentic presence and uniqueness in the quality of delivery. Coaching clients also want the whole lot.

This means working really hard but, in the end, here too everything hangs on your voice and your presence because you are your own instrument. Mastery in coaching comes from a mixture of technical proficiency and personal attributes that we all put into our work. We could say the technical part is common, much like a music training and scores that are the same for all opera singers. Whilst the personal part is unique to each and every one of us -or it should be, it’s what makes the difference.  After all, isn’t this what the market is buying?

Let’s recognize the fragility of our instrument and take care of the personal part: from the constant demands of the profession, of clients, of dealing with uncertainty, and managing expectations -your own and other people’s. Let’s talk about the need to nurture and care for this personal part. After all it is terrible for someone who has spent years training to perfect his/her technique before getting anywhere, especially someone whose life is dedicated to technical perfection, to know that everything hangs too finely on “you never know when something will go wrong, no matter how much you care”.

Lives in the balance/Balancing business with delivery

Domingo also talks quite naturally about cancellations - anything can go wrong with your voice momentarily or for longer periods - and how they are part of anyone’s career. Again, the same can be said of coaching. Most coaches are self-employed and live in absolute uncertainty. I don’t think using the term absolute uncertainty is exaggerated here, it is easier for me to wear that suit of absolute uncertainty than thinking of any form of professional certainty.

Self-employment makes things so much more complex, especially at times when things are not flowing for whatever reason. For instance, being self-employed adds a tricky dimension that has nothing to do with coaching but is critical to the coach’s success: running a business and all the different demands this presents. As a result, most coaches work very hard and put in very long hours at a number of things other than coaching.  Who hasn’t questioned the return of investment of all this work?

Self-employment and its pressures often mean that coaches work in a very lonely environment. Working alone can be a good thing, I am one that can advocate its many benefits but loneliness doesn’t really help. Loneliness also means that taking breaks, especially mental breaks, is not easy.


Is it possible to be good at anything without total dedication? This is a relevant question, especially in certain places.  Many coaches have difficulties financially making ends meet. In countries like Spain, for instance, it is not infrequent to meet coaches that also do other things; they do all sorts of things to make ends meet. Many work in related areas such as teaching or training and many in other areas that apparently have nothing to do with coaching.

This has always fascinated me… it is difficult for me to understand being in coaching without total dedication to it. If we can say that “Voice is a mystery, like life itself” when we talk about professional opera; we can say people are a mystery and life is a mystery when we talk about professional coaching. You need to dedicate yourself to it to make some sense of it and have your own voice in it all.

Coaching is not an exact science: being curious, redefining, validating, constantly reading, learning, training, and talking about coaching helps. Learning from the wonderful process, from your coachees and from yourself.  Getting to know your own mind, your consciousness, your values and views, how you make sense of things and being aware of how all that is constantly being redefined with your practice. Perfecting your proficiency much like an airplane pilot does with their flying hours and putting all that at the service of your clients. Dedication goes a long way to know and understand, to learn and accept, changing perceptions and bring about transformation for self and others. This is how we gain our mastery in coaching.

Always have a beginner’s mind to see things as they are

The great Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki (1970) has a wonderful quote in the Prologue to his book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

Actually, many of the things that he says about Zen can be applied to Coaching, as an art, not an exact science. Dedication is a must to attain mastery. The way to learning in a learning profession. We all want to know more and as we learn we think we know something and become better professionals. But Coaching is also the land of paradox, you are your own instrument and work with the mystery of human minds and human behaviour, filling our minds with knowledge and feeling we know often impacts our attitude as our ego gets in the way, this is inevitable. We live in a world where everybody claims to be an expert. We could even argue that being or becoming an expert is a commercial need just to stay in the game as any branding “expert” will tell you!

All that being said, let’s make a claim for humility and a beginner’s attitude. Years of experience hopefully bring the wisdom of knowing that you don’t have to know because your coachee knows, you just have to hold the process. We must stay away from the temptation of being star coaches and being the center of the process.

As Suzuki says about Zen: “For a while you will keep your beginner's mind, but if you continue to practice one, two, three years or more, although you may improve some, you are liable to lose the limitless meaning of original mind. For Zen students the most important thing is not to be dualistic. Our "original mind" includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few.(…)

In the beginner's mind there is no thought, "I have attained something." All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner's mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. Dogen-zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our boundless original mind. Then we are always

true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice. So the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner's mind. There is no need to have a deep understanding of Zen. Even though you read much Zen literature, you must read each sentence with a fresh mind. You should not say, "I know what Zen is," or "I have attained enlightenment." This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point. If you start to practice zazen, you will begin to appreciate your beginner's mind. It is the secret of Zen practice. 

Be friends with uncertainty and personal transformation

One of the most difficult and demanding characteristic in the business of coaching is dealing with uncertainty. For instance, how many times have you heard “this Project is definitely happening; can you do it?” Then it never happens or it happens much later when you least expect it. In the meantime, whether it happens or not, you invest your own time and resources with no guarantee. The very nature of coaching is dealing with uncertainty every minute of every day.

Professionally, we provide a space for our clients to deal with their uncertainties and their expectations but we also have to become masters at managing our own.

One of the most demanding characteristics of the profession can also be one of the most appealing. Interestingly, dealing with these realities with an open beginner’s mind and learning along the way provides the grounds for personal transformation. Here we can use Robert Kegan’s (1982) definition of personal transformation, that is “changing the very form of the meaning-making system – making it more complex, more able to deal with multiple demands and uncertainty”

For Kegan, transformation is different than learning new information or skills. New information adds to the things we know, but transformation changes the way we know those things. It occurs when someone is able to step back and reflect on something and make decisions about it in a different and new way.

In his article “Leaps in Perspective” David Hudnut (2015) explains that “people grow in fits

and starts, alternating long periods of stasis with abrupt expansions of their empathy and capabilities.”  To understand this theory, he says that “a good place to start is with the work of Clare W. Graves. Graves taught psychology at Union College in Schenectady, New York, for 30 years, starting in 1948. A colleague of Abraham Maslow, he built on Maslow’s idea of a “hierarchy of needs,” which holds that humans focus on more complex motivations when simpler ones are satisfied, moving from physiological needs (food, water, and survival) to safety (shelter and protection) to love and belonging to esteem to self-actualization. Graves disagreed with Maslow’s premise that people naturally evolved up the hierarchy. Instead, he proposed that there is always a period of crisis and regression before each advance to a new level. This is because circuits in the human brain are switched on when people face challenges (or as Graves called them, “biopsychosocial shocks”).”

So, transformation may not a pleasant journey or the answer to all prayers but it will make our instrument better as it provides a “system upgrade” of our “meaning-making system – making it more complex, and more able to deal with multiple demands and uncertainty”.

Love yourself with compassionate love

As a coach, our instrument is permanently exposed to others and also to yourself. It might be easier to deal with the exposure to others than to deal with the exposure to yourself. Your inner critic can be your worst critic, one that will block personal transformation and will make you underperform. Loving yourself with compassionate love or practice self-compassion will help.

Tim Anstiss and Paul Gilbert (2014) point out that “Coaches commonly work with clients who engage in excessive self-monitoring, are self-critical, are shame-prone and lack confidence. Excessive self-criticism – a form of negative self-monitoring – is common to a wide range of wellbeing and performance issues.”

They go on to explain that “Compassion has two psychologies or mental sets. The first is the ability to pay attention to suffering, to turn towards suffering and to start to notice the triggers and causes of suffering in our self and others. Here skills such as mindfulness and acceptance are very helpful – if we are to start to pay attention to suffering we also need to be able to tolerate it. The second element is action, because compassion without action is not very helpful. (…) Another important aspect of compassion is that it flows. There is the compassion we feel for others, the compassion we feel coming from others to ourselves, and the compassion we can have towards ourselves – also known as self-compassion. Neff suggests such self-compassion comprises three interacting components: 1) self-kindness versus self-judgement; 2) a sense of common humanity versus isolation; and 3) mindfulness versus over-identification with painful thoughts and emotions.”

Self-compassion is a must as we deal with all the uncertainties associated with coaching.

Being comfortable with your unique style

In time, with practice, dedication and personal transformation we’ll each develop a style that is unique to your/one-self. You’ll have a unique instrument, just like Domingo. And just like Domingo that might well be what your clients want. What is your value as a coach, what makes you who you are? Sometimes these questions are not easy to answer, sometimes they are even uncomfortable questions to deal with.

  • Developing a personal style is not easy.

  • Staying in the game while you do it is not easy.

  • Being comfortable with who you are and your own style may not be easy either.

Think about it, then walk the talk. There are plenty of practicioners that don’t live by what they preach, it’s like going to a doctor who obviously displays unhealthy habits telling you to lead a healthy life style or watching healthy-eating programs on TV hosted by popular hosts with evident weight problems.

Get coaching supervision if you want to explore yourself and your practice. There are many definitions and approaches to supervision but I like Julie Hay’s (1996). She writes super-vision (and it looks like a super power) and defines it as “the process of self-reflection with a “guide”. Edna Murdoch has a refreshing approach as she cares about how to resource the coaches, how to recycle energy and to make sure we can work at our optimum, work at a high level without unnecessarily losing energy. Watch this video: http://coachingsupervisionacademy.com/video-resource-yourself/

Staying healthy, keeping fit, eating well, practicing meditation to live in a position to see things as they are and enable personal transformation, being compassionate: these will all help you to have your instrument be at its best, tuned and ready!

The importance of a community

Finally, I am one to advocate the importance of being part of a community. A coaching association has many formal advantages but it also provides this community space where you can meet other people just like you, share, learn and get away from your lonely practice and your individual way of looking and make sense of things.

Here is the final paradox in the land of paradox, is it possible to see things as they are without some kind of input from others? Is it possible to get to know ourselves, no matter how much we dedicate to it without others? A community where you feel free and comfortable is the greatest help for that and the perfect place to practice the one skill that is worth becoming an expert in: listening. Listening with complete presence so when you notice you are not completely listening you can just get back to listening. Do this as many times as necessary.


Connect with Luis San Martin via Linkedin

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.

Imprescindibles, Pacido Domingo, RTVE http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/videos/imprescindibles/imprescindibles-placido-domingo/4328619/
Suzuki, S. Zen mind beginner’s mind. Weatherhill Inc, New York, 1970
Kegan, R. The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982
Kegan, R. In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994
Hudnut, D. Strategy + Business Magazine, September 30, 2015
Anstiss,T and Gilbert, P, Mastery In Coaching, AC and Kogan Page, 2014
Hay,J, Transactional analysis for trainers, second edition, Sherwood Publishing, 1996