There was a commercial for a bank a few years ago that featured a “monkey on your back.” The unsuspecting banking client gets a variable rate mortgage, which seems like a good idea until she signs the contract. Before she puts the pen down, there appears a monkey on her back, representing the ongoing detriment that comes from such loan. What should have been a burden for the big bank is now the burden of their client. It’s a funny commercial.
Too many coaches willingly carry around a burden that is not theirs to carry. They coach as if their client’s burdens are their burdens. Unlike the banking commercial, nobody benefits when the coach carries the monkey on his/her back – the coach struggles and the client is not served.
What does it look like when a coach has the monkey on his/her back? There’s not a primate hanging from the coach’s neck; instead, there are voices in the coach’s head saying burdensome things. Here are three common ways the burden sounds in the coach’s head:
- “We have to fix this.” When a client describes a challenge and the coach immediately feels a pressure to address the challenge in a way that fixes it, solves it, or makes it all better, the coach has the monkey. Sometimes a client’s issue feels so big or complex that it could somehow “break coaching” – that the coaching process will not (cannot!) address the issue. Coaching is great, but coaching cannot bend the laws of reality. For example, if a client has gone all semester without studying and now wants coaching on how to pass tomorrow’s test, the coach should not feel the burden of the client’s failure to prepare. The coach can ask the client what’s the best they can expect given the fact they have not studied all semester. The coach can stir new awareness about how to best leverage the remaining hours before the test. The coach can even help the client discover some new self-awareness that change how the client approaches future semesters. But the coach cannot fix the fact that the client has not studied. That is a burden carried by the client.
- “I have to be the smart one.” Many of us got into coaching because people tended to approach us looking for help, support, and maybe advice. Unfortunately, a smart coach often continues to lean too heavily on his or her own smarts when trying to help a client solve the client’s problem. This is a dynamic I address in my short ebook Coach the Person, Not the Problem – it’s as if the coach believes that if only the coach understood the client’s problem as well as the client did, then the coach could figure out a solution for the client. When the coach carries the burden of being the one to figure things out, the coach will coach with low client expectations – both in subtle ways and in explicit ways. The power in coaching is to tap into the client’s creativity and resourcefulness. But if you think you have to be the smart one, you’ll spend your energy tapping into your own creativity and resourcefulness in order to solve the problem.
- “That plan will never work.” Who determines whether a client’s plan is a good, great, mediocre, or terrible? Honestly, the only way to tell for sure is by testing it against reality. There are three ways to do this. First, you could take each and every idea and actually try them, one-by-one, in the real world. That’s one approach, but it’s time consuming and often dangerous. Second, the coach could imagine how the idea would play out in the real world. After all, one of the things that separates humans from instinct-driven mammals is our ability to test ideas in the safe space of our pre-frontal cortex. It’s smart to test ideas mentally before testing them in reality. Coaches are good at running an idea through its paces in the safe space of the mind, but this isn’t our best contribution. Instead, we should opt for the third approach, which is to prompt the client to do the mental testing. When coaches do the mental testing, we are doing the client’s work and carrying their burden. The alternative to telling the client whether their idea is a good/bad one is not to just let the client run with whatever idea they generate (that’d be approach #1). Instead, the coach is obliged to facilitate the client doing the mental testing so the client can determine for him/herself whether a plan will work (or not).
As a coach, how tempted are you to carry burdens that are not yours to carry? In addition to the three burdens mentioned in this post, what other monkeys manifest in your coaching? What burdens are you tempted to carry?