Blog Post: Three Ways to Make Healthy Observations (Re-Post)



Coaching is not telling, at least that is what we reinforce with beginning coaches. The telling coach gives answers rather than creates awareness. The telling coach creates dependence rather than fostering responsibility. The telling coach is the easiest coach to ignore.

New coaches learn that awareness can be created by asking powerful questions – open ended, concise, thought-provoking questions. And then we must return to the telling. Telling can also create awareness, sometimes even greater awareness than questions. For a new coach to become a seasoned coach, a lesson in making observations is required. So let’s begin that lesson with three great ways to make healthy observations with your client.

Share a Principle

As the coach listens to the client, it can become obvious that a drop of knowledge would allow the client to more fully understand their situation. The coach needs to be disciplined to squirt only one drop out of the eyedropper of principles. The coach wants to ensure the client doesn’t leave the discovery mode of thinking and shift gears into the receiving mode.

For instance, the client may be sharing their frustration about someone who is attempting to sabotage their leadership. The client has become defensive and protective and now sees his followers more as “them” than “us”. A principle I might share is that Edwin Friedman writes in his book, A Failure of Nerve, that good leadership should expect sabotage. It is not an “if” but a “when”. When a group of people are challenged into a change, at least a few of the people will seek a way to stop the change from happening.

The principle needs to be cleanly handed off to the client. A coach could then ask, “How does it change leadership if sabotage is expected?” Rather than ask a question, I would become silent after sharing the gist of the principle. The client will know it’s their turn to talk. This is new information. They will need to wrestle with it a bit, and the coach should give them room to do so.

Principles, shared sparingly, bring much awareness to the client. It is good to keep a mental list of principles that are helpful to your clients.

Share an Inconsistency

As the coach listens to the client, the coach may hear something from the client that is inconsistent. This is not a place for judgment, as if inconsistency is the problem. The problem is much more likely unawareness.

For example, the coach may hear the client say that others on his team need to take more responsibility for their assignments but then hear how the client rescued a team member who failed to have their work accomplished before the next meeting. The coach might say, “Earlier in the conversation, you said it was your goal that team members take more responsibility, but it sounded like you just shared a story of where you took the responsibility for the person’s failure to act.”

This observation, as all observations, should be held lightly. The coach may not know the whole story. The coach is not going to solve the whole issue with one grand observation. The observations should be small and spare. The client will make the appropriate connection.

Sharing too many inconsistencies may take away the client’s confidence. We all have blind spots. The coach should find the appropriate balance of when to speak and when to refrain.

Share an Experience

As the coach listens, the coach may hear a situation where the client is inexperienced. Experience can be a helpful observation, but this is where we must take the most care. We do not want to be the client’s mentor. We want the client to come to their own awareness and learn from the process. The client wants discovery not download.

For instance, the client might share that they have been accused of something that is unequivocally untrue. However, the client is concerned that fighting back may cause more damage than just absorbing the hit. I might share with my client that I did once absorb the pain rather than strongly stating the truth, and that to my surprise my choice caused more damage than standing my ground. That is all the experience that I need to share. The client does not need the details.

The experience was counter-intuitive to what I wanted to believe. That is the best experience to share. I thought this was true but found out that something else was true. It is the kind of truth that can only be learned from experience. But I did not need to tell the whole story.

The client can hear my story and decide how to apply the experience. The client likely has a clearer head about your experience than you do because it is not tied up in any emotional pain for them. Trust the client to hear your experience and apply it. And remember, the experience does not have to be your experience. The beauty of coaching is you hear hundreds of experiences.


There are things you need to tell your client. Observations break up the asking of one powerful question after another and suddenly the coaching conversation begins to sound like a conversation, not an interrogation. Telling can create powerful awareness if you craft the observation well and allow the client to determine the awareness it creates.

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