In our coaching circles we often talk about how ‘coachable’ a person might be. My definition of coachable up until recently is a person who is curious about themselves, willing to learn about themselves, open to a deeper level of thinking when probed with ‘tough’ questions, and genuinely committed to development (be it of self, team, company, or their own businesses).
In my own mental construct of coachability, I have assumed that a person is either coachable or not coachable, and I have based this assumption on how they think through alternative answers to the questions I pose as their coach. If they take their time, and if they become contemplative and reflective, I tend to believe they are coachable, and that they are reaching insights they would not have reached without being coached.
However, if they have the answers at their fingertips, and are somewhat defensive in their answering, I tend to believe they do not really want to take the time to think through alternative scenarios. I get the impression that it is more about giving the coach the ‘right’ answer than the ‘true for myself’ answer.
Many years ago, whilst practicing as an Accountant in the UK, I had not heard of the word ‘empathy’ and hadn’t thought about what having empathy entails or why I would ever need to be empathetic. These were not corporate buzzwords, and in my unawareness, having empathy, showing empathy, being empathetic was not needed for my own corporate success.
However, as a coach, being empathetic is non-negotiable. I needed to learn the art of empathy. It was a word I had to google, and consciously practice in my personal relationships and business relationships. Imagination plays a big part in being empathetic. We do not experience life or situations in the same way, and as a result, imagining what another person is experiencing is key to being empathetic. This got me thinking. If empathy can be learned and applied, or if it can be brought from the subconscious to the conscious, can the same be true for coachability?
Let’s imagine a scenario where a company is sponsoring a coaching journey for a leader, or a corporate is sponsoring a coaching experience for an entrepreneur. As a coach, it is always useful to start the coaching relationship by clarifying coaching expectations between coach and coachee, especially since the coachee may not always have been self-selected for coaching.
As much as these might be understood and agreed, it may come to be that the coachee comes across as defensive, that no obvious traction in development or change is being made, and that the coaching experience is ineffective. The coachee might then be labelled by the coach as ‘not coachable’. And the coach might then be labelled by the coachee as ‘not recommended’. Yet surely, if we look deeper into what is happening, our own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and systemic frameworks are preventing coaching synergy.
How we show up to our coaching sessions, as either coach or coachee, is symptomatic of the systems we operate in. If we operate in systems that support the notion of being either ‘coachable or not coachable’ are we not, as coaches, opening ourselves up to the bias that our coachees may be ‘not coachable’. Does it not suit us to label them that way if there is no progress being made?
What should we be considering instead? The following thoughts come to mind:
Are the concepts of empathy and coachability indeed binary? One is either empathetic, or not? One is either coachable, or not? According to Danny Tuckwood (Co-Founder, Metaco), this highlights polarity thinking that we may carry from our coach training. Most things (including empathy) should be viewed in more of an analogous (sliding scale) way.
Is it true that a person labelled as ‘not coachable’ does not want to learn? As coaches, we can lean into this question, cross-examine it with our coachees, and perhaps find a different explanation for ‘apparent’ resistance.
Is it true that a person labelled as ‘not coachable’ has low self-awareness? What about our own levels of self-awareness as coaches? What is really happening between coach and coachee that is not conducive to a productive coaching session? Perhaps our own (subconscious or conscious) judgement of what is happening is the barrier standing in the way of a successful coaching session.
What systemic frameworks are in place that need to be challenged? What beliefs do our coachees have of the way they are showing up in a coaching session? What beliefs do we, as coaches, have of the way we are showing up in a coaching session?
How can we bring these into the open in a safe and respectful manner? How can we both (coach and coachee) get more curious about the leverage point for change?
Open, honest, courageous conversation is needed to start breaking down the labels we give ourselves and each other. I shudder to think of myself as someone who is not empathetic. It was more a case of not being aware of empathy as a way of being. Once I had become aware, I was relieved to learn more about empathy, and to practice this way of being more consciously.
I believe the same can be said of ‘coachability’. Would a coachee ever really deserve being labelled as ‘not coachable’? I don’t think so. It is up to us, as good coaches, to bring this concept of ‘coachability’ into the light, to challenge it, and to discuss with our coachees what it means to them, and how we may best support them in their growth and development. We need to bravely share our non-judgmental and neutral observations and be genuinely curious about our coachees true leverage points for change.
I particularly enjoyed what Peter Hawkins had to say in his December 2018 article, 13 Crackers for Systemic Team Coaches, “There is no such thing as an impossible boss, difficult team member or an un-coachable team, just a mode of engagement we have not yet found”.