Parallel processing in coaching and mentoring

Prof David Clutterbuck

Parallel processing happens when a coach, mentor or therapist reproduces a behaviour or emotion within their client, or more subtly, when they conflate the client’s experiences and issues with their own. It can distort the coaching or mentoring conversation, so that it focuses – usually unconsciously – on the coach or mentor’s agenda, rather than the client’s.

Professional coaches are generally taught to recognise parallel processing (which takes quite a lot of self-awareness) and to park it. At more advanced levels of competence, the coach brings his or her own emotional and physical reactions into the open, to stimulate awareness in the client of what is going on for them. Overall, however, parallel processing is depicted as a “trap” of unconscious collusion that the unwary coach can fall into.

Experienced mentors, however, can and do use parallel processing much more frequently to help them help the mentee. Recognising and emphasising with what the mentee is saying allows the mentor to consider how their own experience may be relevant and to choose whether or when they should share knowledge, which will inform and enhance the mentee’s thinking.

It will often happen that the mentor realises that they have a similar issue or dilemma to that presented by the mentee. Rather than regard this as interference in the learning dialogue, the mentor welcomes the opportunity firstly to gain clues as to what is going on in the mentee’s mind, and secondly to use the conversation to stimulate insights into their own issue. The key to managing this process is curiosity – with questions such as the following constantly in the mentor’s mind:

  • What is the mentee’s understanding of the situation?
  • How does that differ from my understanding of my own comparable experience?
  • What aspects or perspectives does my own experience suggest they may be missing?
  • What is significantly different in their overall narrative to my own?
  • What can we learn from each other’s experience and perspective?

A key skill for the mentor is recognising when to introduce their own experience – judging if and when it will be helpful to the mentee’s thinking – and how to do so. Ideally, this should be a joint decision, with the mentor making an offer – for example, “Would it be helpful if I share what happened when I had a similar challenge?” They should not launch into sharing their own experience without first seeking permission from the mentee. With the mentee’s assent, the mentor should check in at intervals that both of them perceive the sharing as relevant and helpful. It is important never to lose sight of the intention of sharing – to inform and enrich the mentee’s thinking, so they can work towards solutions and understanding that is truly valid in their context, rather than a reflection of what the mentor would have done in their circumstances.

An indication that the mentor is using parallel process well is that they are able to say at the end “In exploring this issue with you, I have learnt some things about myself or my situation.”