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Coaching Case study: The Confidence barrier

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In this month's Coaching Conudrum, Richard Hawkes deals with 'Imposter Syndrome and how a coach can help build confidence in their coachee.

It has been suggested that about 90% of initial coaching sessions fall back very quickly on the confidence issue, or lack of confidence issue. Either this lack of confidence is due to perceived shortcomings in a person’s skills or, it seems, very often, because people have been promoted into a management or leadership role without any training or guidance on what leadership is all about.

There is also deep seated concern about what is known as The Impostor Syndrome. In a book called, If I'm So Successful Why Do I Feel Like a Fake, Joan Harvey cited research which showed that it is often the most competent people who feel like impostors. When people perform well with little effort and/or advance too quickly, they may have doubts about their true abilities, thereby creating a gap between how others see them and how they see themselves. Such people are often very competent, but exaggerated expectations placed on them can undermine their confidence causing them to avoid situations where they will really be tested. Our culture is partly to blame. Such a premium is placed on effectiveness and "getting it right first time" that there is no room for anyone to admit to making a mistake.

So it seems that most people, despite a confident front that they create suffer from inner doubts.  A coach will have to deal with this is whatever way is right, although a typical exchange may well look as follows.

Barry is a successful sales manager working for a company that sells specialist vehicles. He has been with the company for ten years, achieves his targets most of the time and is well respected both by his peers and his customers.

Coach: “Well Barry tell me what you would like to talk about.”

Barry: “There is nothing particularly on my mind at the moment. Everything is going well. Targets are being achieved. Nobody is on my back and the future is looking good.”

A small bell should be ringing in the coach’s mind here. Either Barry is really on top of the world, or he is hiding something that needs to be dealt with.

Coach: “So if everything is going well, tell me what you could do better.”

Barry: “I could react better to these new ideas that are coming from the directors; they want me to contact a group of people in the industry who they say are potential customers.  They are wrong and it is a waste of time to do so.  We all know that it is far easier and better to retain our existing customers that get hold of new ones and that is what I think we should be doing.”

So all is not going perfectly; as usual there is something in the background. The coach can now dig deeper to find out what it is.

Coach: “Barry, I am hearing a reluctance on your part to change your ways. Is this correct?”

Barry: “No I just think that is a waste of time.”

Coach: “So talk me though what you would have to change so that you thought that it was not a waste of time.”

Barry: “Um...they scare me these people. They are all highly intellectual specialists and I am scared that I will make a fool of myself in front of them. I know all about these vehicles of ours, but these people seem to be on a higher plane than me.”

The first revelation, Barry is beginning to internalise and reflect on what is holding him back. Remember on the face of it he is highly successful and outgoing. The coach now needs to be very careful on their choice of questions moving forward. This is moving into emotional and life changing words.

Coach: “What other words would you use to describe your feelings.”

Barry: “Well I suppose, and I would not admit this to anyone else but you, my confidence goes all to pieces.”

Coach: “So what does that really mean Barry?”

Barry: “I am embarrassed.”

Coach: “Embarrassed?”

Barry: “I feel uncomfortable, not as good as them, inferior and they may find out that I do not know as much as they think I do.”

Coach: “So who is deciding that you feel inferior and all the other emotions you have described. Are those people that the directors want you to see deciding that? Have they given you any indication that they think you are not as good as them.”

Well done coach (although three questions at once is not always a great idea).  Barry has admitted to himself what is troubling him and the coach has led him into a comfortable, trusting place to do this. Coach now needs to slow the pace and look for serious 'Aha' moments.

Barry: “No they have not...I suppose the answer to your question is that it is me that is deciding that I feel inferior etc...so why do I do that?”

Barry grins at this point and continues.

“How silly that looks when I look at it that way!”

A real ‘aha’ moment; Barry has seen the light.

Coach: “So how do you know that the guy you are taking to does not also feel inferior himself?”

Barry: “I don’t.”

Barry looks away and upwards at this point and the coach lets ‘Silence do the Heavy Lifting”’ (thanks Susan Scott for this expression) and leaves Barry to ponder.

Barry: “It is me who is deciding that I do not feel comfortable amongst those people. It is me that can change that. It is me that is deciding that they are looking at me and me worrying that they may find me out. It is me who is holding me back from going out for some new business. Whatever am I thinking?  I shall now go and show those people just how good I am.”

The coach can now move into a more practical area and lead Barry into some techniques visualising, forward projection etc. to anchor and reinforce the changes that Barry intends to make to his attitude and thinking.

The coach can also lead Barry into a place where he produces and action plan for him to make sure that this session has a real impact on his thinking, attitude and actions.

A coach should be very alert to what is going on in the background. The apparent perfection that Barry indicated at the beginning of the session was effectively challenged with a seeming random question: “So if everything is going well, tell me what you could do better”. The right question at the right time.

So you, as a coach, should have a selection significant questions in the back of your mind at all times and consider very carefully which is the right one for that particular circumstance.  Take note of the body language and other signs and use the power of silence. In coaching always remember that Confidence is King.

Read Richard's previous column: "I don't know! I don't know!"

Richard Hawkes is a leading business coach with Unlimited Potential www.unlimitedpotential.co.uk

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