Live where you fear to live: Embracing our own challenges as coaches by Jon Dunsmore (Guest)


During my postgraduate diploma studies in psychological coaching with the Metanoia Institute, I followed a strict study regime – devouring coaching books in my spare time.

One such book was Much Ado About Coaching, published by the contributors to this website.

My mind was consistently awash with theoretical knowledge, and certain buzzwords, such as ‘responsibility’, ‘trust’, ‘self-management’, ‘presence’ and ‘authenticity’.

I knew the terminology, their meanings and, in many cases, the Latin roots of the words. However, there was something missing:

I was unable to connect this sense of ‘knowing’ in a practical, visceral or feeling dimension, which hindered the way I related to clients.

Living where you fear to live

My sense is that, as coaches, we need fewer tools, terminology, theories, models and assumptions, and more ‘situational intelligence’ (a simple understanding of what’s going on ‘in the moment’ with the client). It’s clear for me why I came to coaching … to help clients work out:

  • What really matters in their lives

  • How to be consistent and create positive habits for growth

  • How to give voice to their desire for meaning, for a life of purpose and creativity, for a sense of belonging, for wisdom, and, as always, for love.

As coaches, however, I also believe we are challenged to manage our own inner states, to listen intently and to pay attention to the client’s agenda.

‘Attentiveness is the heart of prayer.’ – Simone Weil

Theory and practice should be two sides of the same coin: Embracing my own coaching challenges

Learning from taking action has helped me study my own patterns of behaviour. Having feedback helps – for example, during my peer-to-peer practice sessions at the Metanoia Institute, I was repeatedly observed as ‘trying too hard’ in the following areas:

1) Anxiety, over-thinking and finding ‘the killer question or technique’

I’ve long upheld the maxim of ‘Getting things right’ – in both my personal and professional lives.

It’s good to set positive intentions; however, this is a proverbial hot potato, and sometimes we must accept that things don’t work out as planned.

‘Don’t worry too much about the specific things you are doing.’
‘Specific interventions appear to make much less difference than the more general, common factors.’
‘There are even strong indications that specific interventions make no difference at all.’
– Erik De Haan (2008, pp.51–52)

I’ve learnt to reflect on my performance anxiety by simply noticing when I’m being caught in ‘fight, flight, freeze’ mode, and to remind myself to focus on being ‘good enough’, rather than achieving absolute perfection, especially with such a myriad of theories, interventions and ‘how to’ coaching guides out there.

My sense is that I must focus on being ‘Me’ (everyone else is taken) or, as my coaching supervisor once said, ‘Borrow your theories, Jon, don’t buy them.’

2) Asking the client too many questions

Asking productive questions in coaching takes experience, awareness and skill.

However, sometimes my performance anxiety would become a self-perpetuating feedback loop, which would lead me to ‘over-asking’.

‘When you ask long questions you are at risk of turning the spotlight of coaching onto yourself.’
‘Long questions normally come out of uncertainty.’
‘Inside, the coach is thinking: “What shall I ask next?”’
‘If I go on talking I’ll get to something eventually and it will cover up any pauses which might embarrass me.’
– J. Rogers (2012, p.80)

I’ve learnt to study my own thinking patterns – to be aware of the many potential questions which could be asked at any particular time – and be secure in the knowledge that I can pause for breath, pick one question (of many) and still make progress on helping the client make meaning of their experience.

3) Solving the client’s problem

I’ve also become deeply aware of my need to ‘solve’ the problem for the client.

As soon as I hear what a doctor might call ‘the presenting challenge’, every part of my body starts twitching with a desire to fix it or offer a solution.

It has taken humility and understanding on my part to manage this temptation to jump in and to instead ask more productive questions like:

  • What’s the real challenge here for you?

  • What’s important to you here?

  • If things were exactly right for you right now what would you need to change?

Reflecting from practice: A client case study – (50 mins, session no. 6)

My client, Andy, 29 years old, was a senior site safety supervisor in the construction industry. His aim was to get better at scheduling, planning and prioritising, allowing him time to incorporate a new sport or exercise regime. Andy wanted to try climbing, aikido or another martial art in order to promote more balance in his life.

Coaching conversation transcript (published with client consent)

Andy: I need to do something about this [martial arts club] ... but I just can’t find the time to fit it all in. I have art class on Tuesday, the webinar group on Thursday, then the rest of the week I have approx. 3.5 hours.

[Andy spoke about how he makes commitments and then ‘suddenly drops them’]:

  • Fitness

  • Studying life coaching, personal development and helping others

  • Art making

Andy: I want to enjoy these things, but at the moment they just feel like a chore.

JD: I can understand, Andy. How might you focus on ‘small wins’ during your day – by building in little ‘pockets’ of time?

Andy: Time is the one thing I don’t have

JD: How do you feel when you are doing these hobbies? [trying to coax the client’s motivation]

Andy: I feel great. It’s just getting time to do them is the hard part. When I’m at work I have two 30-minute breaks. But I can’t guarantee I can switch off from work because I am responsible for health and safety of other people. Sometimes it gets a bit chaotic and I need to be around. If I was to leave to go for a run it would probably cause some tension. It wouldn’t be fair. Then I get home and my wife’s there, the baby needs fed, and so forth.

JD: I empathise with your situation, Andy. Your role is highly important to others, but your own health should also be a priority. It’s all about finding a balance. Might I suggest perhaps opening up a dialogue with your boss/supervisor to free up some time?

Andy: I don’t know, it’s emotionally and physically draining [the work] – there are so many responsibilities and expectations, the list keeps on growing and everyone expects you to follow up on your tasks. But then I look at other jobs and I think: why am I complaining? It’s not like I work in the service sector and need to scan barcodes all day – at least I can get up and walk around my workplace.

JD: What would be the ideal role for you, Andy?

Andy: I could be in a leadership position – controlling people.

JD: Controlling?

Andy: [Thinking] Well, having an influence. Mentoring people, maybe, or coaching. I need the human development aspect at work. I want to inspire people.

JD: That’s very positive, Andy. Could you get that at your current company? Fitting around your duties as a site safety supervisor?

Andy: No, I have tried.

JD: So where would be your ideal workplace?

Andy: When I was in the army I ran a wee shop. I was responsible for selling sweets, cakes, cigarettes. I ran the whole operation, from sourcing supplies from the wholesaler to selling to the guys. It felt authentic and real.

[Session ends]

Post-session review

I felt that Andy had touched upon an important point in his final statement – ‘It felt authentic and real.’

This indicated to me how he related to how his internal values and needs were connecting to his tasks at work.

From humanistic psychology comes the term ‘authentic leadership’, which emphasises self-actualisation, positive growth and individual autonomy.

This is what I believe Andy was searching for in his personal and professional lives.

As a coach, I’ve learnt how to ‘lean in’ to uncertainty by becoming fully present to what is happening internally (feelings and thoughts) and externally (in my environment), to be positive, remain calm and discerning, and to have confidence in my own abilities.

Just as our physical health depends on functioning of the body, our psychological and emotional health depends on our capacity to turn sense experience into understanding, growth and (ultimately) towards wisdom.

Conclusion: A recipe for coaching success

I believe that coaching success depends on a variety of factors – most particularly, on the relationship between the coach and the client and on the way the coach is able to ask questions, offer insights, perspectives and understandings.

One of our biggest challenges as coaches, then, is to keep our focus firmly on the experience of the client, and to understand the current situations as our clients understand them, in addition to the way we understand them.

The following are the 7 strategies that have emerged for me to make coaching work:

  1. Be present and listen well

  2. Demonstrate empathy and rapport

  3. Stimulate engagement and commitment by asking appropriate questions

  4. Manage your own anxieties, expectations and insecurities about ‘helping’

  5. Try to leave the client in a better place than you found them and ‘do no harm’

  6. Focus on the client’s agenda

  7. Engage in reflective practice

It is this combination – of holding our own perspective while we hold the perspective of our clients – that makes coaching so powerful.

To conclude, my message to fellow coaches comes from Sufi mystic Rumi:

‘Forget safety. Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation.
Be notorious.
I have tried prudent planning long enough.
From now on, I’ll be mad.’

To connect with Jon Dunsmore:

Jon Dunsmore.PNG

Jon Dunsmore is a practising coach and aspiring coaching writer with a previous parallel career in the corporate IT sector.

His interest in the human lived experience follows a career-long fascination with how adults learn and with how our psychology can help or hinder development.

Jon is enthusiastic about helping others grow their potential, to become aware of how to deal with life’s inevitable struggles and to make positive choices.

Tel: 07817063839

De Haan, E (2008) Relational Coaching: Journeys Towards Mastering One to One Learning. Chichester, West Sussex – John Wiley and Sons Ltd.
Rogers, J (2012) Coaching Skills: A Handbook. (3rd Edition) Berkshire: McGraw Hill Publishing