We revere great coaches in our culture – whether in sports, politics or even business. But we almost never address what conditions allow a coach to thrive — that is, what condition must the person being coached generate in order to successfully gain value from a coach.
Successful coaching takes a very specific set of conditions and mindsets, and while many people may call themselves coaches, the reality of how often they are actually coaching anyone depends on phenomena that are often out of their control. In other words, the quality of coach resides almost entirely with the recipient of it, and not with the coach himself.
Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I recall being in a dance class with an instructor that I adored. Not to give away the end of the story, but despite how much I loved and respected her, I would ultimately sabotage her ability to coach me. One day, she asked everyone in the class to perform a specific jump – one I had seen but never executed myself. The jump frightened me. I was afraid I would fall, or hurt myself, or worst of all, look like a fool. Instead of saying any of that, I refused to do it. My rebellion caused a domino effect. Several other participants in the class also gave in to their own fears of looking foolish, and they too refused to do it. Ultimately, the teacher lost all of her confidence, and left the class in angry tears. As the class ended I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt a sense of regret at being so stubborn and disrespectful. It is something I am still deeply ashamed of doing. Ironically, I had just completely undermined the teacher who had the most to offer me and who I most respected.
A coaching relationship, whether it is a one-off or an ongoing one, requires that both people adopt a specific way of listening to and being with each other. I’ve written in the past about how a coach must listen to someone she is coaching – and that the quality of coaching depends largely on how the coach listens to his coachee. That goes double for how one must listen to a coach in order to gain value. I once had a coach who told me that I could be coached anywhere, at any time, by anyone, if I would only commit to listen in that way. In other words, a great coach is made great by how we listen to her.
So, how should you listen to your coach? Consider the concept of surrender. In our culture, the notion of surrender is seen as an expression of weakness. But surrendering can be incredibly powerful. In a marriage, we surrender to the promise we have made and give up many of the options we had as a single person: For example, we relinquish the right to date or to quit the relationship when we’re angry. But what we gain from giving all of that up is something profound: A partner and a new family. When a nun or monk surrenders to God, he or she gives up a variety of conveniences and comforts, aspects of individuality, and the right to question most doctrine. But from that act of surrender, disciples gain something transformational or even transcendental – a life of the spirit.
When we surrender to a coach, we give up our opinions, and we give up our right to vote on the coaching. This involves risking something. What we risk depends on the setting, but we know this, if we seek coaching we are hoping to become something greater, better, or more developed than we know ourselves currently to be. So at the very least, surrendering to a coach puts our familiar and known self at risk. Even while that is enticing it’s terrifying. In a coaching relationship, surrender is the context that allows for miracles. If you have chosen a coach – someone you respect and have tasked with coaching you – then the most powerful stance you can adopt is surrender. Surrender doesn’t mean that you lose yourself. But it does mean that you suspend your own judgments about what your coach suggests, and instead give his input serious consideration. In fact, when your coach gives you input, the best thing you can do is consider that it’s true or right, and walk around for a few days really living with that. Only then can you discover what the coach is trying to illuminate or teach you.
Sometimes our coaches give us what feels like bad news. They may be observing aspects of our thinking, lives or work in which we are self-limiting or even self-destructive. Being told that your impulses are leading you astray can activate the most primitive part of our brains – the drive for self-preservation. Hearing that kind of bad news can feel like an attack. We are all hard-wired through our evolution and instinct to resist anything that threatens us. And suggestions that we are making the wrong choices, or that our reactions are anything other than correct feels like a threat. To overcome the instinct to defend ourselves requires a conscious commitment to put aside the reflex and instead surrender – so as to get the benefit of the observation.
The same kind of phenomenon is at play when a coach suggests we try something: A new behavior, thought process or even the jump that my dance teacher asked me to try. If the suggestion makes us feel afraid, or raises a concern that we will fail or look stupid, the same kind of self-defensive posture can often arise automatically. But in our agreeing to a coaching relationship we have already implicitly agreed to try whatever she suggests, even though we may find it daunting or uncomfortable. That’s why my teenage refusal was such a betrayal. I chose to study under that teacher and came — not just willingly but enthusiastically — to the class. By doing both of those things I had implicitly agreed to try what she suggested. When I refused, I violated my promise to surrender to her coaching.
Since really useful coaching will often cause a defensive reflex, or make us uncomfortable, it doesn’t make sense to give coaching feedback to anyone who has not asked for it. When people offer unsolicited coaching, it almost always comes across as criticism. And to be honest, it is criticism. Coaching ONLY exists within an agreed relationship. You can only coach someone who asks for your coaching. That’s a rule. We should all strive not to break it! Don’t give unsolicited coaching.
But there’s no rule against receiving unsolicited coaching. You can receive coaching anywhere you are willing to overcome your urge to defend yourself. By doing so, you could get the benefit of an outside view from all kinds of unexpected sources. That’s a great opportunity for those with the discipline and confidence to face criticism and gain value from it. But it isn’t for the faint of heart (or anyone having a bad day). In general, very few people are both committed enough to their own growth, and able to overcome their natural tendency toward self-preservation to really get coaching everywhere they hear criticism. But wow, imagine what you could accomplish by doing so!
Every now and then, for a day or two, I try to do that. When I do, life is magical and I am in a perpetual state of awe about life and about the discoveries I make. But it is really hard, and I never sustain it. That doesn’t mean you can’t. Give it a try! Turn the world into your coach by listening to everyone and everything as though it held secrets that would help you develop yourself. Apply criticisms you read on social media to yourself and see if they help you find something you want to transform. Try to do it without undermining yourself or creating new insecurities. Instead, use those unexpected bits of insight to grow yourself into the most extraordinary version of you that’s possible. If you succeed, it will have been worth it. If you don’t, remind yourself that you are human. You can always try again!
Want to experience surrendering to a coach for yourself? Contact me for a complimentary consultation.