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Coaching: Focus on the positive

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Positive energyDo you consistently encounter negative clients as a coach? Do you find it difficult to bond with them? These were just some of the issues raised in the keynote speech at the recent International Coach Federation (ICF) Conference in Geneva. Bob Selden was lucky enough to be in the audience. He reports for TrainingZone.co.uk on the conference highlights and some answers to tricky coaching conundrums.





High impact coaching: keynote by professor George Kohlriesser, IMD, Switzerland

All of us have coached at some stage or another (perhaps we did not know it was coaching). For some of us, coaching is a major part of our professional lives. Whatever your experience with coaching, George had three key points in his message. The first will come as no surprise, yet the other two are quite novel.

Photo of Bob Selden"People who are seeking help are looking for an anchor, a secure base... If you can't create this bond with the coachee, the suggestion is to pass him or her on to someone who can."

1. Build trust
This is essential in any coaching situation and needs no explanation.

2. Play to win
George suggests that most of us are natural pessimists and often see the negative before the positive. Could this natural negative tendency be inherited from the 'flight or fight' instincts of early humans? There is debate on the issue as to whether it is nature or nurture. However, some recent research showed that in the US (and it's probably the same in many western countries) 75% of 16-year-olds were found to be negative about themselves.

If not worked on, this negativity can impact our lives. Do the people you coach have more of a negative or positive outlook on life? As a coach, how can you help change their outlook? Are people seeking coaching not only because they have a problem or issue, but because they have a natural tendency toward negativism and need someone to show them a way out? Is your own outlook more negative than positive and if so, what impact does this have on your client?

3. There is often a failure to bond with the coachee
Failure to create this bond prevents people from moving forward. People who are seeking help are looking for an anchor, a secure base. Once they have this base (the bond with the coach) they feel much safer to try things in the knowledge that they have a strong support base. If you can't create this bond with the coachee, the suggestion is to pass him or her on to someone who can.

However, having created this secure base for the coachee, there is the danger of being trapped or engulfed in their problem. Sometimes the coachee tries to transfer the load of the problem to the coach. As George comments "you don't have to be a hostage to feel you have a gun held to your head". Keep in mind that whilst you must be seen as a secure base by the client, you have to create a boundary for yourself.

Some points to consider when dealing with negative clients:

  • Is there a failure to manage how to focus (you and/or the coachee)?
  • The power of using positive language in your questioning rather than negative
  • The need to model the behaviour you are expecting of the coachee
  • Learn to live with conflict – give people choices
  • There is a need to change the coachee's mindset, not merely their behaviour
  • To change, people require a challenge e.g., doing something different for 20 minutes each day
  • Finally, George suggested that sometimes coaches can be too soft – so be tough, but bond

  • Pressing the System: workshop by Lynne Burney, France

    The other highlight was a workshop by Lynne Burney to demonstrate the work of David Gove's emergent knowledge. This was a true workshop in every sense of the word. After a short introduction, Lynne proceeded to have us as her client's for the next couple of hours. By asking us to each think of a relevant and compelling question, she proceeded to take us through six levels of self-discovery. We were not told what these were at the time. She merely asked a very simple question six times over whilst we wrote out our answers. During the debrief, Lynne outlined the following six levels and asked us to see whether our answers reflected each level. People were amazed that their answers coincided precisely with the following descriptions:

    "Could this natural negative tendency be inherited from the 'flight or fight' instincts of early humans?... Some recent research showed that in the US (and it's probably the same in many western countries) 75% of 16-year-olds were found to be negative about themselves."

    1.Declaration – what is our first answer to the question?

    2.Reinforcement of our first response – generally this includes the view of others.

    3.Expansion of response #1 - which is more general and far more global.

    4.The wobble – our story does not tend to stand up at this stage. One feels emotional discomfort (I certainly did as I wrote out my answer) and often turns outward to blame or include others.

    5.Crash and burn – this is where we deconstruct our previous answers. At this point it can become almost unbearable. However, something new can emerge.

    6.Reorganisation – new information is now brought to bear on the issue and it is very clearly defined.

    Finally, we were asked "what does that question know about you now?". Once again we went through six response levels which really highlighted our feelings about the original question. At the conclusion of the workshop, I had some real answers to something that was a genuine issue for me. Of course, there is more to the use of 'emergent knowledge'. This was merely a sample, but quite a compelling one.


    You can find out more about George Kohlreisser's work on high impact coaching in his book 'Hostage at the Table'(Jossey-Bass. 2006).

    More of David Gove's work on pressing the system, or as it is otherwise known, emergent knowledge, can be found in the book by James Lawley and Penny Tomkins, 'Metaphors in Mind'(Developing Company Press. 2000)


    Bob Selden is the author of the recently published 'What To Do When You Become The Boss' – a self-help book for new managers. He also coaches at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland and the Australian Graduate School of Management, Sydney. You can contact Bob via www.whenyoubecometheboss.com

    Read his previous feature: Take your corners please: Management v leadership, who wins?


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