When ego gets in the way of a good coaching conversation by Petra Macdougald


Recently I conducted a video conference session with an overseas client. This client is a senior executive and we have had previously three very fruitful sessions face to face. While I do conduct a fair number of coaching sessions via video conferencing, I do feel always that I have to be even more vigilant in following my client than when we are in the same room. I am aware that I do not control the space they are in. In addition I cannot pick up their current emotional state as easily as when we are physically together. I have to rely strongly on verbal communication, as body language is not always easily to pick up from the screen either. This being said, the  good rapport with this client does not appear to be impacted by our different cultural backgrounds or the fact that we are physically removed and in different time zones.

I had certain expectations as to where the client might want to pick up in their coaching journey. As always, after checking in with the client, I asked them what they wanted to speak about. The client said that they would not want to speak about the actions resulting from the last coaching session. Instead he started to describe, for me, a complex political situation in his country of residence. Apparently he thought that giving me the largest context possible would be necessary for me to fully grasp the issue, which was still to be shared.

That is where my problem with this coaching began.

I tried to understand and follow the detail of this political background, and I got tangled up in it whilst also wanting to follow my own intellectual interest of trying to get to the bottom of this.

After a while I realised that getting the background right would not get us any further in solving the client’s issue. At that moment I knew that we had not even touched on the client’s purpose for the session yet as I kept trying too hard to understand auxiliaries.

With that in mind I finally asked the question: ‘What is this situation doing to you?’ I felt that by asking this question, I would be able to center the discussion again on the heart of the matter, which was the emotional state of my client and the issue they were having with this situation.

The answer was that it worried them to a point where they would consider making serious lifestyle changes.

There it was!

This was the turning point of in the conversation as this question reconnected the client and myself in the here and now in authentic dialogue. I realized that not only did it feel right to be on this coaching ground again, but then keeping the process came naturally and I was able to work with the emotion expressed by the client, scale it, explore it, and assess options and actions.

What I was less happy with, was the time it had taken me to get there. After the session I took the time to seriously reflect on what had been going on and I also took the case to supervision.

Two conclusions stand out for me: 

  1. The need of the client to try and make sense of the situation transferred to me. While the client certainly knew more than me about the background, he was still not fully satisfied with his level of understanding. I entered into this state of confusion, searching with him, rather than moving to a place where I can work from as a coach.

  2. My ego, the analytical thinking part of my being, got the better of me! It seriously interfered with me just being present with the client as it was maybe trying to demonstrate that ‘I am clever enough to understand this complex context’.

On reflection I realised that the indicators of my ego getting involved were a mixture of the following:

  • I want to understand for my own (intellectual) education and that perceived necessity to follow my own interest placed the thinking activity in my head whereas it should remain with the coachee

  •  I asked more questions on the context as I felt not ready to move into the real coaching conversation as I thought I might look not very well educated on the matter if  I did not ask all these questions on the situation now (in case I need the information afterwards)

Obviously as a coach we are there to follow our clients’ interest and not ours. The above is an example on how, for a while, I followed my own. 

The context here could have been any context; simple or complicated. This session put into evidence for me that some context is useful, but that my value is not in understanding the context (sorry, ego), but in understanding what this does to my client. The use of video conferencing probably contributed to me falling into the situation of asking more and more questions on the context, as in this situation I had to rely very strongly on verbal communication. Maybe I would not have stayed for so long in this trap, if I had had the possibility to pick up physical clues from the client.

So next time round, I will be more on guard to see if ego shows up and if so will not invite it to stay with me and my client.


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Petra is internal Cross Divisional Lead Coach in Euroclear Bank, Brussels. She provides individual, team and group coaching at all levels of the company and is also responsible for the internal Job+ coach programme, the training of new coaches as well as supporting leadership development programmes.

Her business career of 30 years in the finance industry prior to her full time coaching appointment mainly focused on roles relating to relationship management and strategy and included managing and developing teams.

Petra's passion for personal development increased over the years in line with her involvement in people management. This interest led her to become involved in coaching and in 2012 she became an accredited business coach. Petra is an active member of the Belgian Internal Coaching Network and a Member of the Association for Coaching.