Let me start with a recent example.
A few weeks ago I was coaching a young lady on the topic of moving across the United States. She was trying to decide whether to move from the Bay Area of California to Nashville, Tennessee. The conversation unfolded like one of those old-fashioned paper maps, with new layers revealing additional issues, complexities and factors to consider. No wonder she was having a tough time making the decision.
As the conversation progressed, the client and I both noticed that her thought process was a jumbled mix of brainstorming and evidence gathering. That is, she was quickly switching gears back and forth between brainstorming future scenarios that would make the move a good or bad idea and noticing the evidence she needed to gather in order to make her decision. For a while she’d spin scenarios about how this could work and then some scenarios about how this could be a dumb idea, and then she’d talk for a while about her need to research job opportunities and housing costs.
After several minutes of this external processing, I offered her a challenge. I said, “Julie, I have a challenge for you. You can accept the challenge or reject it or you can edit it into something you want to say yes to. Here’s the challenge: Stop dreaming about the future until after you’ve finished your research. Then your research can fuel your dreams instead of clouding them.”
Julie’s response was super. She said, “I want to accept that challenge with one small edit. I get what you’re saying about gathering the facts first. I’m going in circles without knowing the facts about housing costs and job prospects and some of those things. But I also think that gathering the facts is a way to dream about the future. So I’m going to dream by gathering the facts and that will kind of create the frame for the picture; then I can dream with my imagination and paint a picture on the canvas.”
From there the conversation flowed straight toward an action plan. She made a list of all the facts she needed to gather and even got a start on some of them by detailing how she could go about her research. She came up with some creative ways to get the facts and we finished with a strong commitment.
If you’re a beginner coach, you might read my summary of this coaching session and think, “Hey, you can’t tell the client what to do! She has to come up with the ideas and do the thinking!” You’re right: the coach should not tell the client what to do. The thing with a challenge is that it’s not the coach telling the client what do so much as the coach offering a helpful suggestion of which client has full ownership. Coaches issue challenges to help the client get unstuck, to upgrade an idea the client has come up with, or to really stretch the client. Coaches and clients are thought partners and challenges come out of the coach’s thinking. But let’s be clear: the challenge does not come out of the coach’s expertise; coaches are not content experts or advice givers, we are thought partners and supporters.
Issuing challenges is tricky. If you overdo it, you get bossy and you step over the line into mentoring or advising or something worse. If you underdo it, you ask a leading question that lures the client into thinking your idea is hers.
To help you issue great challenges, let me share seven rules with you. Let these rules give you the confidence to add challenges to your coaching and to add value to those you coach.
- Less is more. Don’t issue challenges all the time or it will get formulaic and (even worse) it could turn your coaching into advising or consulting. Some coaches issue challenges more often than I do, but I tend to keep them limited to once every three or four sessions on average. Challenges add some spice to your coaching, but nobody wants to eat a dish of just spice, so don’t overdo it.
- Complement, don’t replace. Challenges work well to stretch the client, so look for stretch opportunities, be that with client thinking or acting. But don’t let the challenge substitute for the client’s hard work. Instead, use challenges alongside the client’s effort, with the challenge serving to complement the work she’s doing.
- Set the rules. Before issuing a challenge, let the client know it’s coming and what options she has for responding. There are always three responses to a challenge: yes, no, and yes to an edited version. By stating the rules before issuing the challenge, you ensure the client doesn’t hear the challenge as a command or expectation.
- Stand on trust. Challenges take trust, but they also build trust. The more trust you’ve established with your client, the less chance there is for the client to mistake your challenge for a command or expectation. On the other hand, if you can issue a challenge in such a way that it’s abundantly clear that you are not commanding or expecting, you’ll add to the trust.
- Keep it really simple. Your challenge should be easy to comprehend; otherwise you’ll get drawn into a long description or explanation that keeps the focus on you and your idea instead of the client and her brilliance. To help keep things simple, keep them short.
- Be happy with No. There’s no extra pay or status for you if your client accepts your challenge, so don’t count it a win if she says Yes and don’t consider No to be a loss. In fact, whatever the client’s response, it’s a win for her because she’s clearer on what she wants and what she is willing to do. If your ego is wrapped up in getting the client to accept your challenge, you need to dial down your ego!
I promised six rules, but let me share one more Bonus Rule: Shift quickly. Whatever the client’s response to the challenge, you need to help the conversation move forward instead of getting stuck in the challenge. Quickly transition from the challenge to designing actions and getting on with the coaching conversation. Challenges occur within a conversation, not as a detour or a new conversation.
What about you? When was the last time you issued a challenge? What did it sound like? How comfortable are you with issuing challenges? Has your coach challenged you? Leave your comments and questions below.