After I asked one of my clients what she would like to work on, she began to talk about being her authentic self in various environments. My client was expressing angst at some pushback she had received in an environment that encouraged her to be her authentic self but discouraged her from acting in a way that was true to her. Though I was not completely clear on the focus of the topic, I could tell it was an issue that pressed into the tender flesh of her heart.
We worked through the issue slowly, taking our time to uncover the core issue. Then we worked on designing some action that would help her show up authentically and honor the environment where she had experienced pushback.
At the end of the conversation, she gave me this compliment: “You made me comfortable enough to be uncomfortable.” This topic was going to require some deep work. She needed comfort but not coddling.
How do you make a client comfortable enough to have an uncomfortable conversation?
Here are three competencies that create the appropriate atmosphere:
A Confident and Competent Presence
People take less than 5 seconds to decide if they are comfortable in a new environment. Safety is a core brain function and operates below the rational level. A coach needs to immediately project a confident and competent presence for a client to feel comfortable enough to be uncomfortable.
The first element of creating a safe presence is to be non-anxious or more simply, calm. To be non-anxious, the coach needs to be unattached to several things: being right, being impressive, being liked, and worrying about personal concerns. People pick up on anxiety at a subconscious level. If you are anxious, your client will be anxious, and comfort will be ejected from the relationship.
The second element that creates a safe presence is a tone of confidence. Not to be confused with bravado, the confident coach has an auditory tone that does not quaver, that is warm and not in a hurry. The coach does not sound unprepared or frazzled but sounds fully equipped to be unconditionally present as the client does her work.
The third element is a mindset of interest in the person over the problem. Questions and observations should reflect the value of the client more than the value of a solution or plan. The coach’s posture positions the client to work on the problem. When the coach focuses on the problem, anxiety rises because the problem is difficult and bothersome. Instead, the coach focuses on how to evoke awareness in the client about the situation, those involved, and the problem itself.
The fourth element is a non-judgmental posture. The coach has no role in assigning meaning, blame, or even approval. Judgment will immediately cause the client to retreat. Vulnerability can disappear from a conversation in an instant. The motivation for remaining non-judgmental is that it allows the client to feel safe in exploring all the uncomfortable aspects of their issue. Judgment makes many aspects of the topic unavailable to the conversation.
An Agreement Around Challenge
To make a client comfortable with the uncomfortable, the coach must create strong agreements that surround the relationship and the conversation. These agreements can be found in various places around the conversation. These agreements create a comfortable support that makes it safe to challenge the client during the discussion of an uncomfortable topic.
The first agreement occurs in an onboarding conversation. The coach asks questions such as: how do you prefer to be challenged? If I see something difficult that needs addressed, how would you like me to approach it? What are some difficult challenges that you have successfully overcome? These questions create an agreement that uncomfortable topics will be addressed and that the coach has a good understanding of how to make those conversations safe for the client.
The second agreement occurs at the beginning of each coaching conversation. It is a simple statement that says one of the goals of the conversation is to think new thoughts. One way I like to say it is that we will “boldly take your thinking where it has not gone before.” This Star Trek reference reminds the client that exploration is an essential part of the coaching conversation.
The final agreement comes with the issue of accountability, which can be built throughout the conversation. The plan needs to be challenged for the client to take full responsibility. Many times, I have asked my clients to rate how likely they are to take the action from 1 to 10. The number of times I’ve heard four, five, or six are astounding. Without challenge, your client may not have enough motivation to take necessary action. The coach needs to create an agreement with the client for strong action.
Space for the Client to Maneuver
To make the uncomfortable comfortable requires lots of space. It requires a slower pace. It requires what will feel like awkward silences. Long periods of silence give the client room to safely think and consider possibilities. I have never had a client complain that I was silent too much. The silence does not make them feel awkward. Instead, it provides safety and comfort.
A second way to create space for the client is to ask, “What else?” This allows the client to stay in one place and dig deep rather than to shovel out a lot of shallow holes. It is permission to go deeper and see what might lie beneath the discomfort.
I often hear my clients asking permission to go deeper, not by specifically asking, but by awkwardly posing a deeper observation. Many coaches hear the awkwardness and move the client to another area of the topic, thinking they are making it safer for the client. But instead, they have confirmed for the client that it is not safe to feel or sound awkward. When something is said awkwardly, it is a signal to have the client dig a little deeper.
The final way I create space is to imagine that I’ve accompanied a friend to buy some new clothes. We look around for options, some safe, some bold, and then they go into a changing room and change clothes. With each new outfit, they come out, and we observe how the new clothes fit. I become another set of eyes for them, pointing out what they may miss.
Many clients need to try on a new idea. Let’s say they need to have a tough conversation with someone. I talk about a scale of 1 to 10, where one just skims the surface of the issue and ten is a “come to Jesus” conversation. Then, I ask them to try on a tough conversation they would rate as a four, and then again at a six. This lets them try out several options to see which one might fit the best.
Most coaches I know have a pastoral heart. They love people. They are empathetic. And if they are not careful, their empathy will create an environment that is unsafe for uncomfortable conversations. However, these comfortable uncomfortable conversations are what create transformation at the deepest levels, and transformation is the business of kingdom-minded coaches.