Blog Post: Three Distinctions Helpful to Make in Coaching



In one of our coach training classes (CAM 505 The Language of Coaching), we talk about helping clients make distinctions. That is, helping a client clarify between two related, but not synonymous, words or phrases. Making a distinction unclouds confusion and often brings fresh and invigorating freedom. For example, a common distinction involves the client’s language about their action plan. The difference between, “I want to” and “I will” can be powerful. The former indicates a desire. The latter indicates a commitment. And as a semi-professional procrastinator, I can assure you that is a distinction that makes a difference!

I like to pay attention to distinctions. Over the past few months, I’ve noticed three more distinctions that are helpful in my personal life as well as with my coaching clients.

Motivation vs. Discipline

Sometimes a client says he lacks motivation, but what he really lacks is discipline. Other times a client unfairly gets bummed out because he thinks he’s not disciplined enough but the real issue is motivation. So what’s the difference?

Patrick King, author of Motivation Triggers, writes, “Motivation is the collection of psychological forces that allow us to initiate, organize and persist with behaviors that will ultimately lead us to the achievement of a goal.” In my coaching, I find it most helpful to think of motivation as a feeling that spurs immediate action (or inaction). Meanwhile, discipline is less about emotion and tends to be more sustaining. Discipline is a form of commitment that helps you do something even when you don’t feel like doing it.

Carl is a sales manager at a franchise car dealership. He knows he should meet with his salespeople in both one-on-one and group meetings to help guide them and keep them moving forward, but he really doesn’t like such meetings and he has a tendency to find other, “more important” things to do. He is overly reliant on motivation, which waxes and wanes. Once he stopped framing the issue in terms of motivation and framed it as discipline, he started meeting with his people regardless of whether he wanted to or not. He told me, “The commitment to doing it because it’s the right thing is what’s most important. Otherwise, I am at the mercy of my whims and I’m never going to feel like having those meetings.”

Assertive vs. Aggressive

A lot of client issues involve communication, especially direct communication. Telling someone what you want, need, or expect can be challenging. And confusing assertiveness with aggressive communication makes such conversations extra challenging.

Rebecca needed to ask her co-worker to cut down on interruptions. Rebecca would close her office door, but her co-worker would enter as she knocked, apologize while defending the need for the interruption, and usually answer her own question as she explained the question to Rebecca. These episodes left Rebecca understandably flustered. When I suggested she might want to say something to her co-worker, Rebecca protested that it would be rude and probably mean to say anything.

As we unpacked her concern, it became apparent Rebecca was conflating aggressive and assertive communication. Assertive involves stating your needs, wants, or expectations in a way that leaves room for others to agree, disagree, or just be. You can be assertive and respectful. On the other hand, your communication gets aggressive when you not only share your interest but when you disrespect or insult the other person. Merely stating your interest is not insulting.

Many people struggle to carve out space to be assertive. Back to author Patrick King. In his book The Art of Everyday Assertiveness, he describes the lengths that people go to in avoiding just asking for what they want. We accommodate, even though doing so makes us miserable. We manipulate instead of being direct. We people please while forgetting that we, too, fall in the category of “people”.

Rebecca’s realization that assertive and aggressive were two different styles of communication allowed her the freedom to explore what asserting herself would look like with her co-worker. She reframed the issue in non-emotional terms and found the words came easily: “Hey, I close my door so I can focus and stay focused. Unless you have a life-or-death emergency, would you please wait until I open my door? When my door is open, I am working on things that don’t get sidetracked by an interruption.”

Rebecca wondered if her co-worker would feel hurt by Rebecca’s assertion. Then she realized that her co-worker’s feelings were her co-worker’s business. Rebecca’s intent was not to hurt or harm, and she needed to trust her co-worker to deal with the assertion in her own way and in her own time.

Conflict vs. Unhealthy Conflict

Lots of people think of conflict as a bad thing – something to be avoided at almost any cost. But conflict comes in at least two flavors: normal and unhealthy. The distinction between the two is important. Conflict occurs anytime two or more people have interests that are (or appear to be) incompatible. The way we choose to engage the conflict is what makes it normal vs. unhealthy.

Ayden was in perpetual conflict at work. As the production supervisor for a manufacturing company, he was continually aiming to get more from the team he managed while controlling costs. As he told me, “The owner of the company wants to get the most work from my guys while paying the least he can. My team wants to do the least work for the most money. And I feel caught in between. I could get more work from them, but it would cost more to the owner. I could control costs, but I’d get less work. And I could give them the time off they want or move at a slower pace, but then they’d make less money. I can’t make anybody happy!”

Ayden’s situation was not unhealthy conflict, it was normal conflict. Unfortunately, he sometimes turned it into unhealthy conflict by allowing it to become personal. When his team accused the owner of being greedy, he sided with them. When the owner accused the workers of being lazy, he sided with the owner. In Ayden’s mind, there was no other way to be in conflict than to allow it to be personal.

The breakthrough came for Ayden when he made the distinction between normal and unhealthy conflict. Once he recognized that making personal attacks was unhealthy, he began to steer conversations away from the attacks and toward understanding the fact that having competing interests wasn’t all that strange. He learned to say things like, “If you were in their shoes, what would you want?” These kinds of tools and approaches led to far healthier conflict – disagreements conducted using negotiation and problem-solving instead of defensiveness and attacks.

Like Ayden, many clients gain tremendous freedom when they allow themselves to engage in conflict. But this allowance only comes when they recognize the distinctions between normal conflict and unhealthy conflict. In addition to personal attacks, unhealthy conflict can involve:



Pretending to agree



As we make our way through life, we learn to recognize things for what they are – and what they are not. That’s really what the skill of making distinctions is about. The capacity to not mistake one thing for another thing allows us to operate with greater clarity, certainty, and confidence. What distinctions have been most helpful for you (or your clients) lately?

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