Coaches are usually passionate about learning, and that includes learning about their client. Sometimes coaches can become so interested in what the client presents as the topic they want to focus on, that the coach gets bogged down in the content. This doesn’t serve the client because that is likely where they are – bogged down in their content, their circumstances or their situation.
What clients really need from their coach is a broader perspective of what they are observing about the client as they talk about their topic, circumstances or situation. This comes back to the distinction between coaching the Who of the client, versus coaching the What of the client. When a coach listens for the way the client speaks about their topic, their tone of voice, their energy level, congruence with emotions, strengths, passions, and values, we are listening for the Who of the client. When a coach listens for the details, the side stories, the background and gets excited about solving the problem for or with their client, the coach is coaching the What of the client.
As a mentor coach and co-leader of The Mentor Coaching Group, I am always listening for the coach’s presence, and where they are putting their attention as they coach their client: what’s the balance between coaching the Who and coaching the What.
Example of Who versus What coaching
Let’s say your client has been successful at delivering workshops in organizations within the United States on Leadership Skills for Technical Managers. Now, they have been introduced to a large company in Australia and have been invited to deliver that same workshop. Your client comes to your coaching session saying they want to work out what they need to change in order for their workshop to be successful in Australia, knowing there will be cultural differences. The client says that a measure of success for the session will be having an action plan of what they need to change and what they can keep the same.
As the client starts talking about this project, you get more and more intrigued by the content, so you ask more questions about the content. This usually keeps the client in their head and is coaching the What of the client.
Observe the client not their content
At the same time, the client may be talking fast, you may notice their voice tone is soft and low in energy, which you may interpret as lacking in excitement. You pause and make this observation to the client, “As you’re speaking about the content, I notice that you are speaking faster than usual, and your voice tone is soft, and I’m not hearing your excitement about this new opportunity. I wonder what you are experiencing right now?” This is coaching the Who of the client.
Usually this allows the client to check deeper within themselves as to what is really at play for them. It could be that they are anxious about how they will create a culturally sensitive workshop, and it’s not about the content at all. It’s about their beliefs about their capability. Now you have a completely different coaching session agreement than creating an action plan of what they need to change and what they can keep the same. Now it’s about helping the client to connect with their strengths, their talents, and to call on resources to support them to learn what they need in order to be confident delivering this workshop in another country.
Coaching the Who is where the real value is for the client
Most often the client is already successful and what they really need is their coach to be paying attention to the way they are engaging with their content.
When the coach gets caught up in the content the client brings, there is usually minimal opportunity for awareness to emerge or shifts to occur for the client.
- As an active ICF Assessor, I hear newer coaches who may be at ACC level coaching focus on the What of the client and rarely pay attention to the Who
- Mid-level coaches who may be at PCC level coaching, will focus on the What but also be paying some attention to the Who
- Master-level coaches who may be at MCC level coaching, will focus on the Who first and foremost, knowing the What is merely the entry point to the shifts the client needs or wants to make in order to achieve the “What” success they are seeking
No success is really success if you don’t feel confident and successful. And that’s why coaches who have successful clients are those that primarily focus on the Who, and coach their client not their content.