On the morning of August 7, 1974, Philippe Petit spent nearly an hour walking back and forth between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Had he been strolling on the sidewalk this would have been no big deal. However, Petit’s walk that morning was via a cable he and his co-conspirators had suspended between the two buildings, over 1300 feet above the ground. The 2008 documentary film Man on Wire recounts the daring high-wire walker’s feat and the even more interesting personal journey that led him to attempt and achieve such a fantastic feat.
How does a person muster the courage and confidence for such a death-defying display of skill? Well, obviously, Petit did not start his tightrope career in August of 1974. Had his Twin Tower traverse been his first tightrope experience, it would certainly have also been his last. No, Petit had been developing his skills for many years. As the film documents, he learned by stretching a rope safely suspended only a few feet off the ground before moving gradually to higher and riskier performances.
As coaches, we support our clients as they strive to achieve challenging goals. Our clients are often capable of much more than we are, and it is our role to help unlock their capabilities. One way we do this is by providing them a safe place to risk and fail. We do this in three ways.
1. Mental Creation. As Stephen Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, all things are created twice – first in the mind and then in reality. Coaches provide a safe place for clients to risk and fail by supporting the mental creation of goals as well as the mental attempts to reach those goals prior to the client playing out chosen scenarios in reality.
One of my clients recently shared how he wished his relationship with his wife were better. The relationship had grown a bit cold and distant and his wife seemed apathetic toward him and his attempts to connect. In the safety of the coaching relationship, he was able to explore his goal of reconnecting, to highlight what was meaningful to him about it, to consider the challenges, and to create a path through the challenges. He imagined possibilities for nurturing the relationship with his wife. He also safely imagined his wife’s likely response to his various attempts. Rather than experiment in reality, he safely experimented in his mind and in our conversation. He mentally created a plan for expressing love to his wife – a plan that had a high likelihood of being received well by his wife. He left the coaching session with confidence and later texted me that his wife had responded well.
One of the things that helped humans adapt and survive over thousands of years was the development of our prefrontal cortex. It’s this part of our brain that allows us to imagine. Without this region of our brain, we would be locked into perception of the present reality and reaction to it. We’d be trapped in the prison of the present, unable to conceptualize of something other than what has been and what is.
Coaches invite clients to exercise their prefrontal cortex in order to imagine what is possible. We invite our clients to safely consider unrealized goals and to play out scenarios for reaching goals. In the safety of the mind, a client can imagine a preferred future and create a viable plan for achieving it.
2. Consideration of commitment. If you want to shut down a client, press them to commit to every idea they consider. Nothing stymies growth and goal achievement like too little room for consideration of one’s commitment. In such a relationship, it feels unsafe to be uncommitted, so clients hold back. On the other hand, when we promote a spirit of exploration, consideration, and even rejection of good ideas, clients can feel safe to dream, explore, and risk.
A potent coaching question is “If you had unlimited resources and could get by with anything, what would you do?” I asked this question to a business owner who was struggling with a toxic leader in her company. My client responded that she would terminate the leader, who was the company’s Chief Operating Officer. I did not press her to commit to this idea because it was just one idea. It was something to consider, not something to do. Instead, I asked her what she liked about that idea. Then I asked her what she didn’t like about the idea. Eventually, we explored how she could move forward in a way that got her more of what she liked and less of what she disliked. Safely giving consideration to the idea of firing her COO evoked awareness for my client and allowed her to get to an idea she did want to commit to.
As coaches, we like it when clients commit because commitment is powerful and necessary. But we must be careful not to push for commitment in ways that make it unsafe for clients to brainstorm, think out loud, or creatively envision bad ideas. Like Thomas Edison finding hundreds of ways not to create the lightbulb, oftentimes our clients need to consider several bad ideas en route to a good (or great) one.
3. Review and Preview. Not everything goes according to plan. Sometimes a client will commit to an action for moving forward on a desired goal but not follow through. Other times a client will take the action, but the action will not generate the forward movement they thought it would. And there are occasions when a good idea even backfires. Good coaching creates safety for when things don’t go according to plan.
A safe place to risk and fail means that when things don’t go according to plan, we don’t judge or condemn the client. Judging doesn’t help. Also, it’s not our place to judge. It is our place to notice and draw the client’s attention to what happened, what didn’t happen, and what got in the way.
Early in my coaching career, I had a client who served as a campus minister and needed to raise his own support. We coached on developing a plan for raising support and he came up with what sounded like great action steps. Then he didn’t execute the plan or take any actions. I was faced with two temptations. On the one hand, I wanted to make it safe by saying, “It’s okay. It doesn’t really matter that you didn’t do what you said you were going to do.” On the other hand, I wanted to challenge him by saying the same thing but with a snarky tone and condemning attitude. Neither temptation would have served the client very well.
As coaches, we want to invite clients to safely review what happened and to do so with a sober and gracious spirit. Clients will not explore failures and learn from them if we don’t invite them to do so and if we don’t make it safe to do so. The campus minister failed at carrying out his action plans. Why? It wasn’t because he was lazy or stupid or anything like that. It was because he didn’t feel worthy to ask people for money. His failure to take action revealed a deep hurt and his belief of an unhelpful lie the enemy had convinced him to believe. His failure brought that deception out into the light of day, exposing it, and freeing him from its hold.
Reviewing a failure naturally opens the door to preview the way forward. The campus minister imagined what it would mean to live out of the truth that he was worthy because of God’s love for him and Christ’s sacrifice on his behalf. In the safety of the coaching relationship, he could be vulnerable and admit that he wasn’t yet fully convinced of God’s perfect love. He could also safely imagine what he would do if he was fully convinced. He previewed what was possible and then chose to act as if he were convinced as a way of becoming fully convinced. Providing a safe place to risk and to fail allowed the client to experience something far more valuable than being a fully funded campus minister.
Philippe Petit fell from his tightrope many times. He didn’t fail when a fall would be fatal because he had fallen so many times when it was safe to fail. He succeeded because of his failures.
Step by step, risk by risk, failure by failure, our clients succeed. They succeed in becoming the people God created them to be. They succeed at imagining new possibilities. They succeed at becoming more discerning. They succeed at honing their skills and becoming capable of greater risk and more challenging goals. All of this success is supported by a relationship in which it is safe to risk and to fail.