The Coach is listening intently to his client as the client narrates in great detail the specifics of the problem he is facing at work. The Coach is deeply attuned to his emotions, his experiences, his intentions and his state of being. The empathy is complete. However, the Coach begins to go beyond empathy because he “has been there and done that”. In his mind, he is very clear about what his client needs to do to solve this particular problem. While his training as a Coach has led him to believe that giving advice is strictly forbidden his training as an executive is leading him to believe that it is a sin not to tell the client what he should do to solve his problem and allow him to struggle with it. In all my conversations with the coaches we train and the existing coaches with whom we engage in a supervisory relationship, the subject of giving advice always comes up.
Many wonder if this self imposed restriction on giving advice is a western idea and even suggest that in India, our culture strongly encourages people to pass on their wisdom to others especially because the recipient is more than willing to receive it. They also argue that they have been chosen by their clients for their credentials and wisdom and it would be unfair not to share it with them merely because they have to adhere to some norm about advice which seems hard to accept.
In this article, I would like to share some of my perspectives about the place of advice in an Executive Coaching relationship. I would like to look at this from two perspectives – the content and the timing.
The context of advice
Advice is a form of challenge, support and encouragement and has its legitimate place in a coaching relationship. Also, in many helping relationships the helper is not merely a coach but also a manager, a consultant, a skilled expert, an advisor and so on. In other words, in settings outside of pure executive coaching relationships the subject of giving advice assures real significance.
In his classic, “Essential of Skilled Helper” which is CFI’s prescribed reading for its Coaches, Gerard Egan has identified information sharing as one of the challenging skills for coaches.
Gerard Egan clarifies that sometimes clients are unable to explore the problem fully, set goals, and proceed to act because they lack information of one kind or other. For example, when clients tell their stores it might help them to know that they are not the first to have a problem of that kind. Similarly, when clients are examining what they actually require, sharing relevant information of a factual nature would help them clarify the possibilities and set clear goals. Similarly at the stage of action planning, information sharing could help clients become aware of the typical bottlenecks that they might face.
Gerard Egan sees information sharing as a challenging process because it shows clients new perspectives and is meant to push them to act.
Gerard Egan looks at information sharing as both giving correct information and correcting wrong information. He also sees information sharing as a source of confirmation and support for the clients.
Gerard Egan, however, draws a clear distinction between information and advice. He sees information as professional guidance and advice as “telling clients what to do”.
Therefore, my view is that it will be useful to stay within the realm of information sharing or professional guidance and refrain from using the term ‘advice’ which tends to focus on telling people what to do.
The timing of advice
Having understood the real meaning of advice which we will now begin to call “guidance”, we can now turn our attention to understanding when such guidance should be delivered. It is my experience that many of our clients’ problems and unused opportunities arise out of their inability to see their situation completely or accurately or see it through a whole series of mistaken beliefs and assumptions. Therefore people act and react in a certain manner because they firstly think in a certain manner and have been continuing to think in that manner because they are not aware of this manner of thinking and its impact on their effectiveness. In this context, you must now start examining the role of guidance in helping clients and when such guidance should be delivered.
When a person is yet to recognise and confront some of his mistaken ways of thinking it is not likely that he will accept guidance to act differently. For example, if an employee has been failing on his job because of a mistaken way of thinking about customers, peers, team members and his manager chooses to advice him on what he should do, he certainly is not going to change because at that moment, he is still seeing the problem as caused by others and not by his mistaken ways of thinking. This is where guidance/advice when timed badly, can either be of no use or even destroy the helping relationship over a period of time.
In this context, it would be useful to pay attention to Gerard Egan’s three stage skilled helper model.
In Stage I, when the coach is helping his client tell his story and tell it completely and then beginning to challenge him, so that he gets new perspectives, his entire focus is on understanding and challenging. There is very little place for advice at this stage except where information is used as a means of challenge. If the coach has succeeded in helping his client in challenging himself in helping him see new perspective the client may come around at examining what change will give him leverage. At this stage, the client begins to look at defining the change agenda and making commitments and taking actions.
Having crossed this stage, client is looking for strategies to implement the change agenda. This is the stage at which appropriate professional guidance by way of a range of ideas and solutions can be useful. Even here, the emphasis is on generating ideas, sharing information and correcting mis information. The focus is not telling the client what he should do.
In summary, guidance of any kind is most effective after clients have challenged their ways of thinking and not before that. We all recognise that we live in a world of information overload. The average executive has significant access to every source of information and insight. He also has access to several sources of self help. Yet, we all know that none of these translate into new behaviours.
Therefore, the real benefit that a coach can bring to his client is through his ability to help him challenge himself rather than jump to give him advice on what he should do. Of course, well informed professional guidance delivered at the right time is always useful.