Blog Post: Coaching Immorality

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Have you had that uncomfortable coaching conversation yet? You know, the one where the client starts talking about a subject that stretches you because it pushes up against your convictions, values, beliefs? It might even seem to step across moral, legal and ethical boundaries you have. And yet, you are the coach, they are the client and here you are. What do you do?

First off, you might want to be encouraged that you are doing something right. Competency #4 in the ICF Core Competency Model is “Cultivates Trust and Safety.” Transformational coaching takes place when a client takes the risk to take a deeper look at the issues and motivations involved in change. That the client would choose to reveal thoughts and issues that are “edgy” is a sign that you are someone they can trust to be a true thought partner. Congratulations! You are doing your job. That is a sign of good coaching.

Life Is Messy – And So Are People

The ministry leader working in a context where bribery is “the way things get done.” The business leader who works in the cutthroat world of competition where cutting corners is the most cost-effective and efficient way for her to get things done and look good to her boss. The married man who becomes attracted to his co-worker who is a great business partner. The ministry leader whose hectic life makes it easier to “borrow” other people’s work and claim it as their own. The underpaid, under appreciated worker who sees a financial shortcut by skimming a few dollars where nobody will ever notice.

These (and many others) are coaching conversations and they are probably all issues where you have an opinion. How do you coach when people are struggling through hard stuff that challenges your values? Here are some keys to keep in mind.

Don’t Start What You’re Not Going To Finish

One of the worst things you can do to a client is communicate judgment of their initial thoughts and feelings. If you want to know how to shut down a conversation quickly, just let the client know how wrong they are as soon as possible! But also realize that you have effectively ended your coaching relationship with them. If you only want safe conversations, choose your clients and your context very carefully. Life is messy and people are messy. If you are judgmental you will limit your coaching impact and you will ruin clients for future coaching. If you aren’t willing to wade into the messy with a spirit of curiosity, openness and non-judgment, don’t be a coach.

Stay In The Moment

Don’t get me wrong: there are immoral, unethical, illegal, unbiblical pathways and choices people make. We all think about these things a lot more than we talk about them. Working through them is where the client has the potential for growth and development, wisdom and discernment, conviction and fidelity. As a coach you serve your client by staying in the moment with your client, maintaining curiosity about what is driving the conversation and why this is important to them at this time.

To stay in the moment requires the emotional intelligence to recognize what thoughts and feelings the topic is stirring in you, acknowledging them and then pushing pause so you can be fully available to your client. This isn’t denying or minimizing your convictions, it is choosing to keep the conversation about your client and not about you. Depending on the topic, this may not be easy. Particularly if you have experiences with what they are talking about. Be the coach. Stay present.

Thoughts Are Different Than Actions

We could get into a great theological discussion about when temptation becomes sin but I’m going to keep it simple – a person talking through the options who includes in their list things that are immoral, illegal, unethical and unbiblical is not sinning, they are just being thorough and honest! It is that level of honesty that will lead to the deepest insight and the greatest awareness of options.

People thinking through and talking through the depth and breadth of the issue is what you live for as a coach. Inviting people to explore things to this depth is skillful coaching. It is OK to feel uncomfortable and stretched in the conversation. I believe this is also where we experience the greatest moments of the Holy Spirit giving us wisdom that we don’t possess.

It is also OK to speak your perspective and convictions into the conversation, but it has to be at the right time. This is almost always at the end of the conversation after the client has had the freedom to process in their way.

Foot Wounds vs Head Wounds

One of my first experiences of coach training was by Jim Griffith (I love his coaching practice tagline – “Candor and Grace”). I gained a piece of wisdom from him over 20 years ago that has stuck with me. Someone asked him a question in our workshop about what to do if you are coaching a client and they design an action you know is wrong or won’t work. His response is where I first heard the distinction between actions that are a Foot Wound or a Head Wound.

A stupid, wrong or bad action step (that’s not being judgmental, that’s just being honest – people can do stupid stuff) is a Foot Wound if it will hurt a lot and cause someone to limp in the future. An action step where someone inflicts a Head Wound is where they are doing something that is causing serious, irreparable, long-term damage to themselves or to another.

If your client chooses an action that is a Foot Wound, it’s going to hurt. But it isn’t fatal and it has great potential to be part of their growth process. Coincidentally, it can also be the fodder for some great future coaching conversations.

But if your client is choosing an action that is a Head Wound, you are obligated to warn them. It goes beyond being a good coach, it is being a good person.

It’s OK for someone to shoot themselves in the foot sometimes. They are the ones designing the action. (It is also OK to warn them that it might hurt – a lot.) If someone is running full speed headfirst into a brick wall without a helmet, you tell them to stop!

At CAM we want to invest in coaches who are changing the world. My prayer is God would increasingly put you in the lives where these kinds of conversations are happening. And I pray the Spirit of God will give you the wisdom to be part of Jesus’ prayer of “…Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” happening in your coaching conversations.

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