Have you ever heard the voice of your inner activist? The part that tells you that “we really need to fucking do something about this!”?
In the face of the climate crisis and many other important issues that emerge during conversations, I often find ourselves triggered and part of me would love to be a more active force for positive change.
It can be frustrating to hold space for someone who’s not aware of wider systemic issues, who seems to be ignorant, or worse, indifferent to the ills of their family, community, society, humankind.
During coach training, we’re taught to be neutral, not to take a stance, not to share opinions, but to accompany the client wherever they want to go.
But in the face of wrongdoing, injustice, danger, risk of harm even… how can we stay silent? How do we stay neutral?
Isn’t it important that I’m taking a stance when there’s risk of harm?! Of course! That’s clearly an exception. But where’s the line? And how might I know when I’m merely pushing my own agenda. After all, what constitutes harm may lie in the eye of the beholder, and is often dependent on personal values and beliefs.
It’s a tricky question at which point to intervene, but fact is that, as soon as we do intervene (may that be a question, a comment, a challenge, even a friendly smile and nodding), we’re influencing the client, however subtly.
Our mere being there with them and the way we hold space is influencing them. It’s impossible to stay truly neutral.
But there’s different levels.
In my books, you’re not coaching anymore when you start consciously influencing your client.
I mean I get it, I really do! And sometimes a good piece of advice from someone who’s been there and done that is exactly what we need. But as an existential coach, it’s really important to me to really tune into my client’s worldview, and as long as it’s coherent and without any obvious inner conflicts, or in the way of what they’re trying to create…
Then it really doesn’t matter much what Ithink, what my political ideology is, or my spiritual framework, my values and my beliefs. I’m there to help this person to walk their own path.
And yes, it can be hard to celebrate someone when you disagree with them.
And also yes, sometimes voicing such disagreement, but doing so in a respectful way and in an effort to make sure that what they’ve arrived at isn’t going to fall down easily when challenged, that’s really going to help that person. But don’t be cross when they arrive at different conclusions with the same data, and end up thinking differently to you. That’s just life.
And that’s where activists have a very different stance: they push their agenda, for a (perceived) good cause. They fight, and get loud, and challenge, and disrupt. And yes, some of what may also be what coaches do sometimes. But a coach is not an activist. Though a coach may have a similarly strong urge sometimes (and find themselves in a tempting position) to influence positive change. I’m just saying be careful and think about what role you’ve agreed to take on for your client. Do they want an activist, or a coach, or perhaps a bit of both?
So next time you feel strongly about an issue your client raises, pay close attention to how you ask questions, what your body is doing, how your emotions influence tonality, perhaps you’ll notice an urge to offer advice or share your experience. One way or another, it’s likely you’re unconsciously influencing the client, that you’re subtly leading them towards where you think will be a good place for them to be.
I see coaches do this with the best intentions, but it stands in contrast to empowering people to come to their own conclusions, to choose their own course of action, to live authentic lives.
I talk about questions and challenges around coach neutrality quite a lot in supervision, in training rooms, and in podcasts. I could go on. It’s an important debate with many stances.
My inspiration to write about it today came from a very inspiring conversation I’ve just recorded with the highly esteemed Prof. Tatiana Bachkirova for Animas Centre for Coaching’s Coaching Uncaged podcast, and she’s recommended an excellent paper which I wanted to share with you: https://intranet.weatherhead.case.edu/document-upload/docs/2060.pdf
Neutrality in coaching, as an often-mentioned yet under-theorized norm of practice, is illustrative of how a lack of conceptualization leaves professionals with eclectic and contradictory tools and techniques. Therefore, the current study examines coaches’ attempts to practice neutrality, with diverse implications for their conceptions of professional practice. Through a qualitative study of 57 executive coaches using a critical incident technique, we identify situations of conceptual and practical complexity. The ongoing practice of enacting neutrality gave rise to diverse tensions, to which coaches responded by formulating individualization and socialization strategies that had different consequences in terms of forms of awareness. Considering neutrality in terms of situated, engaged, and processual practice, we use these findings to theorize its enactment within the interest-laden world of organizations. Our study contributes to the theory and practice of coaching while also furthering understanding of the dynamic nature of seeking neutrality in professional contexts.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, stance, comments, or any experience you have with tricky situations around neutrality!
I LOVED this conversation with John. He’s been instrumental in translating the Gestalt approach to coaching through his practice and publications, and he’s a really really nice guy, just lovely to talk and listen to. I’ve always been so curious to dig more into this approach as it seemed to have a lot in common with the existential approach, and I found lots of ground indeed, especially the emphasis on working phenomenologically, which really comes to live when you hear John talk about his practice and approach. Come join us for an hour. You can find the episode on YouTube, on the Animas website, and all major podcasting platforms.
And that’s it for this week. If any of it resonates, make it swing! I love to hear from people 🙂
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