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Coaching case study: Round and round we go


This month in our ever-popular coaching case study series, Richard Hawkes looks at managing a situation where coach and coachee have both got themselves stuck in a rut.


This time we shall go straight into the coaching conversation.

Coach: "So what do we need to talk about today Darren?"
Darren: "I'm finding my line manager difficult to understand and he does not make it clear to me what I should be doing. I know what my job description is, but he keeps instructing me to do things that are outside that remit."

Coach: "I'm not sure quite how to express this without appearing judgemental, but our last three sessions have started off with virtually the same words. May I suggest that we look at the list of actions you undertook at our last session and see what impact those have made."

There is a point here that the coach may have missed. He has let this go on for three sessions – much too long. He should have been looking for a way round this blockage as soon as it arose. This has now locked in, as we shall see in the continuing conversation.

Coach gets out his copy of the Darren's action list from the previous session and finds the following actions on it:-
  • Spend some time and set out occasions when the line manager has asked Darren to deviate from his job description
  • Be absolutely sure that these are deviations and not just a matter of interpretation
  • Come back at the next session (i.e. this one) with some ideas as to whether I (Darren) am being intransigent
  • Arrange a meeting with my (Darren's) line manager to express all these thoughts and get him to understand the problem

Coach: "So Darren, let's go through this list one by one and see what you have done since we last met."

In view of the long-term problem here, there is a strong argument for the coach to have been in touch between sessions to ensure that Darren did not just put this to one side. Emails, calls etc are definitely needed.

Darren: "When I got back and looked at the list, I was not sure that the actions I had undertaken were actually relevant to this problem. You see I am finding my line manager difficult to understand and he does not make it clear to me what I should be doing. I could not see that I could do anything. He needs to make himself clearer."

Coach: "I see; so do I understand that you think that it is up to your line manager to make himself clearer?"

Darren: "Yes."

Coach: "And there is nothing you can do to help?"

Darren: "No he is difficult to understand."

Coach: "Darren, assume for a moment that I am Darren and you are my advisor, what advice will you give me to deal with the fact that I am finding my line manager difficult?"

Darren: "My advice to you is to leave the organisation."

Coach: "Darren, do I recall that you once told me than you had trouble understanding your previous boss and the reason you left that job was because of that?"

Here we go again: Darren has gone round and round and stuck himself with the same conundrum – his line manager and he is repeating this over and over again.

Darren: "Yes, but that was different, she had problems of her own which was causing that and that is not relevant, you see I am finding my line manager here difficult to understand and he does not make it clear to me what I should be doing all that was in the past."

Coach: "So if you could change one thing Darren to help you understand your line manager better, what would it be?"

Darren: "Him to change his approach to make me be able to understand him better."

Coach: "If there was one thing that you could change in you, not the job, not your line manager, what would that be?"

Long pause here.

Darren: "Well I could ignore my frustration and do my best, but that is not right. I should have a line manager who makes himself clear."

Coach: "Darren, can we try and put what seems to be to me a fixation with your line manager and look at some overall objectives for you over the next two/three years."

Darren: "Yes but it will still not help me understand my line manager."

The coach now has to work hard on getting Darren to look beyond the current major block he has which is overriding everything else. Once he gets Darren looking to the future, he should come back and deal with the issue he has with his line manager.

Tools that the coach could have employed include proper role reversal; future imaging; role playing (Darren to play the line manager); goal setting. There is a real need to break the cycle and in this conversation this has not been done very well.

There is a real need for the coach to make sure that he/she has adequate supervision, does some co-coaching and takes time out with other coaches for some reinvigoration. This coach is as tired as his/her coachee. Make sure this does not happen to you in your coaching activities.


Richard Hawkes is a leading business coach with Unlimited Potential

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