Coaching Rules Gone Too Far

A Blog Post by Chad Hall


Lately, I’ve noticed people are afraid of the word “me.” I don’t mean they are concerned about narcissism or they are anti-self in some deep, ontological way. No, I’ve noticed people literally avoid saying the word me, and will conduct grammatical loop de loop maneuvers to evade this two-letter terror. For example: “The teacher told Bobby and I about the incident.”

Why the fear of me? My theory is that the perpetrators have been so conditioned against using me as the subject in a sentence (“Bobby and me asked the teacher a question.”) that they mistakenly believe it’s wrong to use me as the object in a sentence. The fact that it sounds dumb to say, “Shelly and me went to the park” leads them to think it sounds smart to say things like, “The waitress brought menus to my spouse and I.” It doesn’t. The good news is that breaking this grammar rule only offends me and 5% of the general population. If you want to know more about the rules of I vs. Me, check out this page.

Okay, enough grammar police. Why bring this up in a coaching blog? Because the unwarranted fear of me is a great example of taking a seemingly good thing too far. Coaches have to be on the lookout for misapplication of rules, otherwise, our coaching is less smart and more dumb. Here are three common coaching rules that can go too far.

1) Never ask why. We all know that asking “why” questions can make the client feel defensive or come across as judgmental, but never ask why is taking it too far. Some coaches seem to believe that uttering the word why will trigger the client to the point of assuming the fetal position or something worse. This is not the case. I’ve found that the tone when you ask a “why” question has far more impact than the actual word. “Why” questions tend to dig for reasons or causes, which can sometimes be a helpful inquiry in coaching.

One coaching technique is to ask five layers of why as a way to get to the root cause of a condition or problem. The technique was developed by the Toyota corporation as part of their problem-solving training. Why? Because you can’t solve a problem by addressing the surface, you have to address the root cause. Asking a why question once in while in coaching is a good thing; judging, creating defensiveness, or dabbling in therapy is what we want to avoid.

2) Avoid being the expert. Great (and even good) coaching hinges on the fact that the coach is NOT the expert. Practically the first rule of coaching is that the client is the expert in his/her life and work. Yet sometimes coaches take this rule too far. How? They seem to believe that the client is the ultimate expert, somehow the all-knowing wise one when it comes to anything and everything. This all-or-nothing approach places all the expertise on the client and none on the coach, but such an approach isn’t accurate. You, as the coach, do have some expertise. The problem is that beginner coaches believe the best way to help is by being the expert (wrong!). Advanced coaches know that sharing expertise once in a while is a good thing. This is especially true when the expertise comes from what you’ve learned coaching others and not from your own experience.

3) Don’t interrupt. Let’s be honest, interrupting someone is rude most of the time. Why? Because 99% of the times when I interrupt, I am doing so because I believe what I have to say is more important than what the other person has to say, and often this stems from the belief that I am more important than the other person. That is seriously rude. So why would I suggest that sometimes we take the “don’t interrupt” rule too far? Because there are occasions in coaching when interrupting is not rude and is actually the right thing to do.

You should never interrupt because you value yourself more than you value the other person. Instead, you should interrupt when doing so values the person you’re coaching, her goals, her words, her agenda, etc. I tend to interrupt when a client says something significant and keeps on talking about less significant things. I might say, “Hold on, I don’t want us to miss what you just said…” I also interrupt when a client drifts away from his agenda: “Wait a minute, it seems like we’re off to a different topic. How does this connect to ____?” And sometimes I interrupt in order to encourage a client by short-circuiting his negative self-talk: “Whoa, whoa, whoa. You’re talking as if you’re not any good at your job, but your history shows otherwise. What’s behind this negativity?”

Too much fear of breaking the rule will actually result in worse coaching, not better. On the other hand, the old adage “rules are made to be broken” is true, but it’s only half true. Rules are also made to be followed, when appropriate. All coaching rules are rules of thumb (including the rule that all rules are rules of thumb). The key is to be intentional about when following the rule results in better coaching versus when breaking the rule provides the client what she needs.

What about you? What coaching “rules” do you take too far? What do you find challenging about applying the rules of coaching in everyday situations?