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Differing Realities


Differing Realities

In conversation a colleague talked about a coachee in a business with low levels of profitability but with an order book which many companies would envy. However, the company required higher levels of profitability and the coachee seemed unreceptive to the need to change. He is involved in producing a high quality product that is in high demand with a full business pipeline well into the future, so why change? It struck me that there are different realities and different levels of tension needed to create the need or desire to change.

Each of us views the world in a different way based on our values, experiences, personality, etc. As a result we all have different realities, it is as if we have perceptual filters which are unique to us. These filters help us determine what is important to focus our attention on or just ‘noise’ to be ignored. This means that perception determines our reality and we all perceive much, but also filter out much. Take the example of a football match, was it a goal, or was it off-side? Reality is under question and decided based on your perceptual filter of which football team you support.

So in our example, this coachee’s perceptual filter was telling him that the business is doing well and there was no need to change. This is his reality. But the reality of the company is different.

So as a coach what can you do in this situation? I can’t change reality, but I can help develop awareness. I was interested in a comment on the Challenging Coaching Linked In discussion group by Aboodi Shabi who said “We are all blind, and to be coached, or challenged effectively we need someone who is differently blind than we are.” Through the input of another person our blind-spots are filled and our perceptual filter allows more information through.

In our example there are a number of things a coach can do. Firstly through the contracting process with the coach, coachee and other stakeholders such as the line manager and possibly the HR Director, the different realities will be surfaced. With passionate curiosity the coach can explore these, speaking their truth and stating that there is a difference in perception and this must be resolved before the coaching assignment can progress. This may involve a difficult conversation and entering the zone of uncomfortable debate, but it is vital to deal with the elephant in the room and get to the heart of the matter.

Sometimes, the difference in perceptual reality is not obvious. People may be guarded on what they say or so polite that they do not speak their truth. It is only later that the reality becomes apparent. For example, the coachee does not seem to be engaged with the coaching process, they do not follow through on agreed actions. It is at this point that the coach will get a sense that something is not right, there is an intuitive feeling which needs to be checked. By speaking their truth the coach can raise this matter based on curiosity. For example the coach could feedback “I have noticed that you have not completed the actions agreed at our last meeting, and now you seem reluctant to discuss ways to increase profitability. I’m wondering how you are feeling about this objective and the coaching in general. I sense that there are something’s unsaid. What are you thinking?”

The response may come back “I just don’t see the need for this drive for profitability, we’re doing well, it’s not relevant!” this has surfaced the reality, the perceptual filter is obvious, but what can be done? The coach and coachee could enter into a Punch and Judy style conversation of “Oh yes it is” “Oh no it’s not” but this will not be effective. The key is to develop the picture of reality by exploring it from other perspectives. This considers the wider system of the company and the perception of absent stakeholders.

For example the coach could explore the different perspectives:

“Your line manager stated that increasing profitability is a priority, but you don’t agree. Why is there this difference?”

“When the company results were announced last June, the share price dropped because of the disappointing level of profitability and the Chairman had to answer some difficult questions. How relevant is this to you?”

This second question certainly suggests that the coach has broad business knowledge and is able to apply this as needed.

If the answer comes back and the coach still feels that there is not ownership of this profitability objective there is the need to increase the tension, for example:

Coach: “I don’t understand. In the contracting meeting your boss identified profitability as a key area to work on. The share price took a hit at the last results announcements because of the low levels of profitability. To me this is a clear business issue. Why are you not acknowledging this?”

Another approach is to re-contract:

Coach: “Profitability was a key issue agreed at the contracting meeting and is not being addressed. We are not honouring this contract and so we need to go back to a new contracting meeting with the other stakeholders to establish if this is a real issue or not”

These may be challenging pieces of feedback intended to increase tension and either wake up the coachee and to shock them into seeing, or to determine what really is real!

Sometimes if people do not see or choose not to look, as coaches we must check reality, shine a light, provide a magnifying glass or even force open their eyes. This is not based on being judgemental, but simply saying that there is a perceptual gap and it is in no ones interest to ignore this.

In conclusion, our reality is a perceptual issue. We all perceive things differently, and so it is the role of a coach to help a coachee develop as near to a 360 degree view as possible by considering different perspectives.

Ian Day is co-author along with John Blakey of "Challenging Coaching: going beyond traditional coaching to face the FACTS" published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing. For more information visit

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