Teasing out the deeper understanding of how Coaching works at its best – how Teasing, itself, can be productive by Jeremy Ridge


Appropriate Teasing consistently comes up, for me, as important for how Coaching can really work at its best. However, it rarely seems to be mentioned, and its particular potential explored, among all the other terms widely used across the field. So it is good to explore this feature of practice for how I believe it can contribute so importantly.

I have in mind how a high level of teasing can often be the sign of a really healthy relationship, as well as in a group, or team process ( e.g. peer coaching. )  I am often surprised by how readily people resort to teasing as an important way of testing how to relieve tensions that may otherwise go underground, and become highly destructive.

In one form or another, teasing between people even takes place on a considerable everyday scale. Much of comedy relies on it; even marketing and advertising draws on it significantly; even everyday family life often engages in it! For example,

  • Times for giving people presents – carefully wrapped – introduces a form of teasing.

  • Teasing can be a major feature of negotiation. Making an offer attractive, in order to obtain something important in exchange.

  • Even coaching makes attractive promises to people. And then there are all the related books, models and techniques, often equally big in their promises. This is also teasing the reader to believe they are reading all they need to know about how it works.

Teasing, for me, is a way of testing for possible expectations someone may have formed, in a delicate and careful way, for how able another person might be to deal with the possible surprise involved. Learning (as one way of considering what coaching aims to achieve) can often involves surprise because it introduces new things that may not have been fully understood before.

The challenge involved in explaining teasing is often the high levels of subtlety involved in the behaviours that can amount to a form of teasing, e.g. the way people may use all manner of facial expressions, and movements, rather than just words, to convey such messages.

And, of course, it is important to ensure that teasing is appropriately constructive, rather than its other meanings that are often associated with teasing as being more deliberately aimed to frustrate, and even bully.

1. Sorting out the everyday meanings and uses of the term teasing

In starting to consider this meaning involved in teasing, I am immediately drawn to the range of meanings people can bring to it; such as their experiences of teasing being quite negative. So I start with understanding the meaning that appeals to me in the way the word has come into various uses over time.

The origins of the word in a historical sense can be seen, for example, from the old English use of tæsan [1]. 

  • This involves meanings such as to pull about, pluck, tease, in particular, to gently shred or pull apart for microscopic examination.

  • This refers most often to physical materials however, such as woollen thread.

For me, the original meaning in the use of the word teasing is important, which is more about doing something very carefully, lest there be a breakdown in something.

It is even possible to find reported cases where teasing is used overtly and deliberately on an organised social basis, and a clear and important feature of the culture. For example,

“An Inuit principal of learning that follows a similar teasing pattern is known as issumaksaiyuk, meaning to cause thought. Oftentimes, adults pose questions or hypothetical situations to the children (sometimes dangerous) but in a teasing, playful manner, often dramatizing their responses. These questions raise the child’s awareness to issues surrounding their community, as well as give them a sense of agency within the community as a member capable of having an effect and creating change. Once the child begins to answer the questions reasonably, like an adult, the questions would stop, [2]”

After all, our social culture is sometimes something we have to learn about whether we like it or not, that is deemed to be in our best interests to conform to. Teasing can be a form of feedback as to when we have got it right, or not, in gradual steps.

2. Looking further at the ways teasing works positively between people in Coaching

Constructive teasing means identifying something that may be important for someone. But, finding those ways to start carefully to enable the other person to progress towards their learning in a manner that is felt as being in their reasonable grasp.

To be effective, Coaching has to create conditions across an important range of factors, not just through teasing, by itself.

Teasing is one of the later conditions to introduce; see Carkhuff’s detailed and comprehensive framework [3] which laid out a careful and thorough process for first creating a sound foundation for dialogue, and the relationship, before working up to the risks involved in more overt teasing, or confrontation. It is important to build the level of confidence in the established trust and proven goodwill between the people concerned that can insure against the risks sometimes involved in teasing

Teasing can also be a source for light relief – an important break in the otherwise more serious side of any dialogue. For example by introducing some humour, through some sort of surprise observation outside of the otherwise more serious process.

Laughing with a tease – in other words seeing, accepting and joining in the humor involved in a tease is often used by people to signal they are ok with being open to exploring the issues that may be involved.

These short teasing interventions are efficient ways to do some quick testing. Yet there are still times when the space may be best created by the coach more directly. For example, when the coachee refers to having a problem, and the coach offers the surprise perspective that this may be more of an opportunity, rather than a problem, and so taking a much more positive view. Similarly, teasing whether to choose to view the glass as being more half full, rather than half empty.

3. Looking at examples of the behaviours that can be more appropriate approaches to teasing

For me, deeper understanding of how Coaching works at its best is to be able to work at a detailed level about the behaviours that make a difference.

Again, the subtlety of the actual behaviours involved still often defies simple illustration. For example, the investment in building trust is not a simple process, and cannot be fully mapped out in a few lines of text, such as it always takes place in a few sentences, or other behaviours, exchanged between people.

Hence, the whole process involved in teasing may often involve very gradual approaches, of which I name three, in testing readiness and reaction about this matter that may be important.

3.1. More Immediate Evidence of a positive reaction to being teased

The measure of whether teasing is positive is the reaction evidencing a form of genuine attention to what is raised in a manner that leads to mutual satisfaction.

For example: The Coach introduces a perspective that may highlight some challenges to the Coachee. Ideally the responses by the Coachee looked for are, for example:

“I haven’t really thought this through, have I…”
“I haven’t really tested whether some of these issues are what I have assumed them to be…”
“I am still trying to work out how to test and do something different in these circumstances I have put on the table ….”

3.2. Encouraging the Coachee to tease the idea forward by themselves

At this level of quality of response, it is possible for the Coach to let the Coachee tease out their awareness, by themselves. It may also become a simple matter of having a factual conversation where the Coach can offer his/her perspectives on what might be considered, such as straight forward matter of fact responses…

“That’s great - keep going …”
“Can we look in more detail at some of the examples of this happening”
“Can you tell me some more about (something) you just mentioned - what was involved in more detail …”

3.3. Teasing based on very careful and small behaviours that tests for possible reactions.

One real feature of teasing is the subtlety that may be important in choosing a behaviour that introduces something of possible surprise.

For example, the hints in non verbal expressions often used provides the other with options that they may want to raise or ignore...to tease whether the other person is open to being offered a different view:

  1. The hint of a nod! Someone says something and the reaction may be to nod – but not rise fully to its implications … or a hesitation – that will be noticed as something that is part of an overall reaction.

  2. The hint of a smile! Someone then says something and there is a hint of a smile in the response to it.

  3. The hint of a frown! Someone then says something and there is this time more of a facial expression –such as a frown, and or a pursing of the lips, a shift in body posture showing some tension.

  4. The suggestion of an offer that may be different in approach: Someone says something and there is an verbal response which says something like – of course there may be a different interpretation of that you are describing …to test interest

These may be the teasing behaviours that are the precursors to next taking a more direct approach, such as, ‘you may need to re-think your view about this in order to fully understand and check you have understood why things happened the way they did.’

As well as the examples of how teasing behaviour can operate between just two people, there is often greater evidence of teasing being evident, and important, when a number of people are involved, such as in teamwork.

4. The importance of teasing in teamwork and Team Coaching – remembering the essential

Remembering the essential basis of teamwork: A team is typically a task where each person involved brings capabilities that are both different, and important to what is needed for the overall task to be completedTeamwork is thus at its best when it starts to enable others to bring the best out of each other.  However maintaining an appropriate balance in how each person makes their contribution can be a challenge, and is often a source of tensions that need addressing constructively.

High levels of effective teasing between people in the team are, for me, one of the clearest signs of the highest standard of process in such a collaborative context, as a team. This is when there is an established, accepted, culture (patterns of behaviours) in the group/ community that clearly gives permission to this careful testing, and teasing, type of behaviour in the group.

The important role for team coaching is often in taking the lead by introducing these sort of teasing behaviours. High functioning teams will often quickly take this initiative up themselves. I am often impressed by the naturally learned high skills many have in doing this.

At its best, in these circumstances, everyone realises that challenges can be surprises for some involved, so there is a collective effort to jointly explore and find the right ways to introduce these challenges in a supportive and constructive way. The people who are the focus for these challenges encourage this exploration by openly disclosing their own surprises, thus enabling more matter of fact exploration of the evidence around it.

For example, One person in the team may be seen as behaving in a dogmatic manner because they believe they have special knowledge, or information, relevant to the task – and others may just not see this – and cannot yet understand why the dogmatic person is appearing increasingly dogmatic in their behaviour.

Even at the very start of interaction in a team, – seen at its clearest among a team of strangers – is often the sort of start which involves some sort of ‘checking in’ process that can take place– albeit apparently innocent commentary about something unrelated to the task.  Usually there is some banter – attempts at a few comments designed to test the laugh/smile index among those involved.

The team coaching task is then to encourage the sense and importance of this ‘non direct task behaviour’ – because for some it can appears off the subject and a waste of time.


  • The importance of Teasing in Coaching: Teasing is typically an important indicator, and way to test, and develop readiness in Coaching – where Readiness is that important ability to process experience, and learning, willingly and effectively. Without readiness, coaching has serious difficulty in working effectively.

  • Teasing as ‘easing’: Progress in a dialogue is about engaging in a manner that others are comfortable with. The comfort may come, first, from positive investment already established, (trust) allowing then more tolerance of risky comments. Otherwise, comments and behaviours that might surprise and disappoint have to be done even much more carefully.

  • The skills of teasing: Teasing is often very similar to a process of research, carefully testing in small steps to discover what begins to get a positive response. It is about finding the most careful way of testing whether a direction is appropriate. Teasing is a recognition of the importance of small steps in behaviour that can have important impacts – and some themes need to be assessed carefully before going further

  • Teasing does not have to be always negative: The importance of leading with teasing along positive themes becomes really important before raising more important but challenging initiatives.

  • It is not simple to establish simple principles. Interaction between people takes place on such a scale of complexity, along with the risks of how something might be perceived rather than intended, that there can be real risk of negative reactions.

Coaching will always depend on getting some very small behaviours right, and then continuing to get them right in lots of small steps. I find that looking through this teasing lens is a useful perspective in continuing to learn about, and share, more of the small things that can really make the important difference.

QUESTION: How aware are you of the small subtle sorts of behaviours that you may use in constructive teasing?

To connect with Jeremy Ridge

[1] Webster's New World College Dictionary Copyright © 2010 by Wiley Publishing, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio.  http://www.yourdictionary.com/tease#uJ7MhBsDdedBHRIJ.99
[2] Briggs, J. (1998). Inuit morality play: The emotional education of a three-year-old. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
[3] Carkhuff in https://the-goodcoach.com/tgcblog/2016/10/3/getting-trust-is-the-essential-outcome-that-makes-coaching-possible-and-different