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Coaching Downhill – The Importance of High-Resolution Self-Awareness

Every coach and every coaching client struggles with the same primary challenge, one that compromises the progress that can be made in any professional coaching relationship.

This challenge is the client’s own lack of internal awareness about what’s motivating her. And it’s sometimes nothing short of a herculean achievement to help awaken this awareness within a client without causing her to resent the experience or the coach who helped make it happen.

As human beings, we have an amazing capacity to believe what we want to believe about ourselves, even in the face of contradictory evidence. We believe what we believe because it’s more pleasant than the alternatives or because it carries more utility. Sometimes our beliefs predict what will happen and so we choose to believe that which will invite a more favorable outcome.

Do you Believe in Miracles?

The 1980 USA Men’s Olympic Hockey Team believed they could beat the Soviet Union despite overwhelming evidence that they couldn’t or shouldn’t. But they did….because they believed. They believed in themselves; they believed in their coach; and they believed that their intense preparation was enough for them to get the job done, which they did.

In that situation, there is no utility in believing anything else. If you believe you can succeed, then the chance of your success rises.

Now, it’s one thing to believe in miracles or possibilities, but it’s another thing to believe in that which is factually not true.

Consider the factory supervisor, for example, who genuinely believes that his floor workers like and respect him when, in fact, they find him irritating and careless in his decision-making. The disconnect between the truth and what the supervisor believes will inhibit his ability to navigate his strategic environment effectively. It will adversely affect his decisions, his behaviors, and his actions, making it harder for him to earn and retain the trust of his team.

No matter how hard he tries, he will encounter situations, however frequent or infrequent they may be, in which he feels like something is wrong. He will become frustrated and this frustration will only worsen his judgement.

This factory supervisor has fallen prey to his own delusions. And if he happens to be working with a professional leadership coach to help him figure out what’s going on, the coach will likely tread very carefully in deciding the best way to learn exactly what the truth is.

One method for doing so is putting to use a reliable, anonymous feedback instrument so that the supervisor’s employees can share their actual opinions without fear of reprisal. Many coaches rely on such instruments with great success, but only when the client is mentally and emotionally prepared to receive the feedback.

Unfortunately, the more that the client has subconsciously built his own sense of self-identity and self-validation around a fictional framework of beliefs, the more painful and shocking the truth may be when it becomes known. So, before a coach applies an external feedback methodology, she must be confident the client can handle and act constructively on the feedback that is received.

I believe strongly in the proper and skilled use of external feedback instruments, but I also know that they are risky because the feedback can cause fragile clients, delusional clients, or both to shutdown and entirely reject the coach and the coaching relationship. This can be a difficult thing to judge with accuracy, and the coach’s own biases about the client, if any exist, have to be explored carefully.

As a coach, the key to navigating this risk is to be more strategic in how I guide clients toward the truth. Years ago, my understanding of this nuance completely revolutionized my coaching practice and my ability to prepare clients to learn things about themselves to which they were previously blind.

Believe in Your Strengths

In 2021, I began to incorporate Gallup’s CliftonStrengths assessment into my coaching practice. The decision to do so was a game-changer for both me and my clients because it allowed the truth-seeking process to be informed by what my clients are naturally empowered to do very well.

In focusing intently on what a client does well, we can see that for every talent and strength there are blindspots, sticking points, and temptations that are to be expected.

Perhaps the factory supervisor I mentioned above is an ACTIVATOR according to the assessment. Activators have a powerful capacity to get things moving and get people unstuck. We need activators in those moments when a team finds itself wallowing in its own indecision or lack of confidence. Activators get things moving and they are people we can rely on to help us when we are getting in our own way.

A natural part of being an Activator, however, is being impatient, and this impatience can wear on people if it’s not kept under control. When it’s not being kept under control, it is most likely because the Activator is not aware of it.

It is by tapping into what people do well that we can better understand what they don’t. And when coaching clients are given the opportunity to explore truths about themselves they hadn’t considered before, they will be more eager and more prepared to take this complex journey of self-awareness when the journey begins with a full understanding and appreciation for what the client does uniquely well or what makes her great.

“If you understand and appreciate what makes me great, I can trust you with my imperfections.”

For any coaching relationship to be successful, the client needs to establish high-resolution self-awareness, which is a very detailed and comprehensive understanding of reality that the client both accepts and embraces. Learning new truths can be both exhilarating and demoralizing to varying degrees, but the experience is always made more informative and more impactful by first commemorating the many things that make each client worthy of affection, respect, and validation.

Coaching uphill, against the wind, in defiance of a client’s own delusions is a painful and frustrating way to forge a meaningful partnership. But when this partnership is established on a foundation of appreciation for the client’s unique pattern of talents and strengths, it can endure the turbulence that will be experienced as the client learns things about herself that she wasn’t before willing to acknowledge.

Now that she is, she can grow and mature at an accelerated pace, and she is more likely to enjoy the ride.

This is when it feels like I’m coaching downhill.

This is when it’s really fun to be a professional coach.

John M. Collins is an executive leadership coach at Critical Victories in Southfield, Michigan. He specializes in supporting clients in high-stakes occupations requiring high levels of expertise to earn and retain the trust of the public or other consequential stakeholders. John shares some of his unique philosophies and insights on high-stakes leadership in his 2022 book, THE NEW SUPERIOR – A BETTER WAY TO BE THE ONE IN CHARGE (, available in hardcover and audio.

John works with people, teams, and organizations across the United States and oversees. If you are serious about expanding your leadership effectiveness, click below to request a free client strategy call:

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