Does fear of opening up something you can’t handle hold you back from asking tough questions?

By Professor David Clutterbuck

Even very experienced coaches and mentors admit to worrying that sometimes they are not taking the conversation deep enough, or giving enough challenge to the coachee or mentee. They feel held back by the concern that they may open up the emotional floodgates on an issue that requires professional therapeutic intervention.

The resulting “timid” conversation can be unhelpful to the client and to the coach/mentor. It stems in large part from a misunderstanding about boundaries. It’s clear that coaches and mentors should not attempt to be amateur psychotherapists and, even when they do have appropriate counselling or therapy skills, they must consider whether they are the appropriate person to deal with this particular issue for this person. In my work as a coach supervisor, I estimate that coaches, who have these skills, still refer the client on to a specialist colleague 60% or more of the time.

Coaches and mentors also have to be careful not to become intrusive into the client’s private life and internal world. There is a balance between helping them to understand themselves, in the context of the situation they bring to the conversation, and digging randomly into their family relationships, for example. The principle of relevance is core here.

However, it is equally not ethical for the coach or mentor to collude with the client in avoiding emotion-laden issues that may be affecting their ability to achieve their goals in life or work. In many cases, the coachee or mentee may delay or never get around to counselling or therapy, without the help of an empathetic, skilled listener, who provides a safe space, where they can give expression to these powerful issues and feelings.

Rather, the coach/mentor should be aware of emotional upwellings and create the space for the client to let these into the open, should they wish to do so. The tougher the coaching questions, the more likely this is to happen. When, many years ago, I took to my own supervisor the observation that most of my clients cried during my coaching sessions, the response was “Now you are getting into sufficient depth”. Sometimes, we may give gentle encouragement – for example: “I sense that there is something you have been wanting to say to yourself for a long time. Is this a good time to do so?”

Once they do open out, it’s important for the coach/mentor to have a strategy for managing the situation. This strategy can be very simple: listen and say very little (body posture and attention say all that is needed); help them decide what they want to do with what they have revealed to you. Key questions here include:

  • Are you telling me this, because you feel you are now ready to deal with this issue?
  • What kind of help would you like?

Very often, the client already knows what they have to do to resolve the issue and speaking it aloud gives them the focus to manage it themselves. All they need from the coach or mentor is some input relating to tactics, or being a sounding board. At other times, it is clear that the issue relates to deeper, perhaps traumatic and more complex issues, which are outside the boundaries of coaching or mentoring. Here the coach/mentor helps them to find suitable therapeutic help.

In summary, the point, at which the coach or mentor should apply boundary principles most strongly is not to prevent the client from straying into deep, emotional issues, but when they have done so. Transformational change can often only happen when our tough questions cause the client to confront aspects of themselves that they have been avoiding. Great coaches and mentors support their clients through that painful process. Where therapy is needed, they do not through open the lid of Pandora’s box – rather they allow the client to peer into it and decide what to do about what they see within.