"Dispatch from the [Internal Coaching] Front" by Ian Flanders

Self-disclosure: powerful material from which to construct a safe space

I’ve started two new coaching relationships in the last couple of months. As is usual with my coaching clients, I was aware of both men, but not involved with either of them on a day-to-day basis. Both are managers, one in a very specialised technical services leadership role, and the other in a much more commercial role. The ‘public’ agenda both men, separately, brought to coaching was stakeholder management.

Robert is technically well qualified, by profession, and a spreadsheet man by inclination. His coaching agenda was to improve his stakeholder management skills; for him this meant addressing a deficit in his ‘soft skills’. I suspect that based upon his ‘coaching objectives’ Robert expected a discussion about tools and techniques for managing stakeholders; hopefully involving a spreadsheet! But, at our first coaching session he put on the table an emotional intelligence self-audit that he had recently completed, and that was the rabbit hole down which we disappeared. Though clearly not a surprise to him, he had scored particularly low on ‘empathy’, and this was causing him some distress. I felt that he was looking at me, imploringly, to make him empathic! I told him that it was beyond my powers, as a coach to make him empathic, and then I surprised him by questioning whether it was necessary for him to be empathic. But the surprise that changed the nature of our relationship came when I used a personal experience to back up my questioning position.

Eighteen months previously, I had been absent from the organisation for 4 months; Robert was aware that this had been the case, but didn’t know why. I now shared with him that my absence was triggered by the serious illness of my partner, and used the behaviour of my line manager to discuss with Robert what role, if any, empathy played in what had happened. I experienced the attitude of my boss as practical, helpful, but not empathetic. He had only joined the company quite recently at that time, and I felt anxiety that an extended absence might damage the relationship I was trying to build with him, and ultimately my job. He recognised this anxiety, and took it off the table; no fuss, no warm words, just a simple statement. But, I experienced his attitude as hugely supportive, and very helpful.

The effect of my disclosure was dramatic. It enabled Robert to re-evaluate his assumptions about the need to feel empathy, and led onto a discussion about a member of his team who was coping with a similarly challenging personal situation. I watched Robert decide to change the way he approached this colleague; to stop trying to make himself empathise, and instead to focus on practical ways to support his colleague. Reflecting back on this conversation I realise that Robert experienced no difficulty in “doing the right thing” for his colleague, but needed permission to separate the practical from the emotional.

The other impact my disclosure had was upon our relationship. Robert later admitted that he had been surprised that I had shared such a personal and difficult experience. He described experiencing my disclosure as being trusted, and found trusting me an easier decision as a result.

Phillip was nervous at our first meeting. This surprised me a little, as my impression was of a confident, almost brash young man. As we got acquainted I asked a question which accidently opened a box of emotions. In answering my question, about a recent job change, he told me that his young child had recently been diagnosed with a very rare condition, and that this had been a factor in his decision. Rather than stepping back from this clearly difficult topic I chose to share with him my partners ongoing health challenge. He admitted later that he had been surprised that I had shared such a personal story, but was grateful, as, in doing so I had removed the stigma he feared might attach to him if he were to become emotional during our sessions.        

I regard myself, after De Haan, as a relational coach. The relationship that I seek to build with my client is central to my approach. My goal is to create a ‘safe space’ within which my client can explore their situation. Reflecting upon the two relationships I have written about here I realise that my aim, in disclosing something so personal to me, was to construct a strong, secure safe space for my clients. I am also clear that, in part, my success in building the safe space was a result of the surprise that my clients felt at the personal nature of the building materials I employed; that the contrast with my work persona was significant.

Another way of looking at my approach could be in terms of ‘risk’ and ‘reward’. It might be argued that I took the risk and that my clients gained the reward; but this is not the way I see it. In disclosing information personal to me it is true that I took a risk, but, I did this with a purpose, intentionally, and was rewarded by the relationship that was the result. I ask clients to trust me every time we have a conversation; for me, reciprocating their trust is part of the deal.

As an internal coach I have a persona within my organisation that is for everyone, except those that I have coached, made up of images from my day-job. Looking back it becomes clear that almost every new coachee I have worked with has assumed that my work persona is the whole me. This assumption must, for some, raise power/hierarchy concerns, a barrier to the formation of our relationship. Being able, and willing, to use personal disclosure to jump this barrier is, for me, a risk worth taking.

Ian is a senior executive working in a major international business. In addition to his current responsibilities, he has become increasingly involved in his own practice of Coaching. 

He has developed his own coaching approach and practice over a number of years, participates as a member of various coaching (internal and external) networks, and also contributes regularly to the supervision of other coaches