Blog Post: Naming the Topic is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

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A fatal mistake for a coach is to hear the client’s topic and assume you know how to proceed. The topic needs to be held lightly. It is your first glimpse of a mystery, and you don’t even know what aspect of the mystery you’ve observed.

Many analogies come to mind.

Ninety percent of an iceberg is below the surface. Another name for iceberg is ice mountain. You cannot assume anything about navigating near an iceberg until you’ve mapped what is below the surface. It may be flat and wide, or it may be long and deep. It may have a limb jutting out into the water that will puncture whatever proceeds its way. To navigate the iceberg, you must be prepared to dive into cold deep waters and carefully explore what has never been seen in the light of day.

Wikipedia defines a tumor as a neoplasm. “The growth of the neoplasm is uncoordinated with that of the normal surrounding tissue, and it persists growing abnormally, even if the original trigger is removed.” That sounds a bit like a topic. It wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t uncoordinated with what surrounds it. Removing the tumor does not always solve the problem. The tumor may be intertwined with nerves and vessels and organs. We may need a blood test, an X-ray, or an MRI with contrast. We can’t assume anything. The tumor isn’t the problem as much as it is a sign of a problem.

A bomb can have many triggers. Some of the triggers may even be decoys. The price that is paid when a bomb is unsuccessfully disarmed is too great to not give the technician pause. What is the explosive material? How is the bomb detonated? Are there any fail safes? Much analysis needs to be done before any wires are cut.

A coaching topic has significant depth, and you know nothing about the mystery of it at the beginning of the conversation. Go into the conversation curious. There is a reason the client brought it up, and it’s unlikely it’s because they were hoping you’d tell them your solution. The topic has depth. It has emotion. It has belief. It is connected to the client’s personality wiring.

Make no early assumptions. The presented topic may have nothing at all to do with the real issue which is bound up in the life of a real person. Start out with exploration and partner with your client to first discover an accurate description of the topic. Then once appropriate discovery has been made, then partner with your client around the outcome they’d like to receive from the conversation.

Coaches can avoid this fatal mistake by treading lightly, asking powerful discovery questions, noting key words and phrases that deserve more exploration, and helping the client to get a clearer look at their own issue.

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