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Maintaining Expectations in a Coaching Relationship by Tony Stoltzfus

Feb 13th, 2012 | By | Category: Featured Content, Transformational Coaching, [None]

Sometimes even with regular encouragement and accountability, action steps don’t get done. Let’s say your client’s goal is to organize her office. For two weeks running, her action step has been to remove the piles on her credenza, but today you find out she still hasn’t even begun. How do you respond? Read the following two options, and think about what impact each approach would have on you if you were this client:

  1. “You know, when we set up this relationship, you agreed that you were going to take it seriously and complete the steps that you chose. It’s time to step it up and stop playing around. Set up a time this week when you are going to do this, and follow through. OK?”
  2. “That’s OK—don’t feel bad because you didn’t get it done! It happens to all of us. I’ve had action steps with my coach that I didn’t get done, too. When the right time comes, you’ll get to it.”

Coaching works because it is a great relationship built on clear expectations about change. If either the openness in the relationship or the high expectations are eroded, you’ll lose effectiveness. The first example above maintains expectations, but at the expense of the relationship. I wouldn’t want to be treated like this—would you? There is no grace or understanding, which damages the climate of unconditional belief a coach tries to build.

The second example is the opposite of the first—it sacrifices high standards to maintain relationship. The problem is, if you don’t uphold expectations in the relationship, the client will lose respect for both the process and you as the coach. The coach in the second example will soon find that his clients never get anything done. This type of response supplies no consequence for failure.

So the challenge for the coach is to maintain expectations without using up the goodwill in the relationship. You can do both! Here’s the principle:

Give grace but don’t lower the standard.

What that means is that the coach is not there to punish wrong behavior, but to help the client get up and get back on track as quickly as possible. I call that “doing a reset”—restarting the change process without wasting energy feeling guilty or shamed. Give grace where the client has failed, identify any obstacles that are blocking the process, and get the client immediately back on track. To not lower the standard means maintaining the expectation that this step will get done, even if it takes a little longer than we first thought. To give grace means accepting that there may be a good reason why things didn’t get done, and to believe that the person’s actions weren’t motivated by apathy or disrespect.

Years ago I had a client who couldn’t get his action steps done. He was a politician in the middle of a political campaign, and phone calls and interviews and kissing babies were always upsetting his best-laid plans. So I said to him, “I’d like us to reach the point where you succeed at every step you set out to do. What could we change to reach that standard?” At first he was at a loss, but as he began to examine options, he realized that his best time to work on reflective action steps was at work, not at home. It was the only place in his life where someone (his secretary) could guard the door for him and leave him uninterrupted. He had a legitimate obstacle to overcome, and his action steps where never going to get done until we overcame it.

Here are several more examples of how to give grace and not lower the standard when doing a reset:

  • “Thanks for being honest with me about that. What do we need to do to make sure that your step gets accomplished this week?”
  • “OK—that happens some times. Let’s identify the obstacle and make a plan to deal with it. What stopped you from taking that step? What do we need to do to overcome that obstacle and move the piles?”
  • “Is that still a step you want to take? [If so…] When would be a realistic date you could have that done by?”

The way these statements give grace is that there is no punishment or accusation in them. But they uphold the standard by assuming that the client is going to solve the problem and take the step. Although the client has failed in the short term, the coach still believes in the person and remains focused on future success.

Tony Stoltzfus is a master coach, author and coach trainer. More of his writings on the disciplines, skills and heart of a Christian coach can be found in his book, Leadership Coaching.

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