Coaching – to suggest or not to suggest?

To coach or not to coach

As we all know, the most effective coaching approach is fundamentally a non-directive one, that is, when the coach’s intention is to create a ‘thinking space’ for the player to find their own solutions to whatever challenges they are facing, so that they can move forward for themselves and achieve their goals.

This requires certain skills from the coach, not least being the capacity to withhold their own views and opinions and then expressing these in the form of advice or suggestions. To be clear, there is nothing wrong about offering suggestions or advice to a player in a coaching session – the question is, how do we know as coaches when a directive intervention is truly in service of the player and is the most effective intervention we can make at that time?

The temptation to be directive can often be strong and the coach may be tempted to deliberately steer the conversation in their own preferred direction, and/or offer a suggestion or their own ideas outright. Sometimes the coach may not even realise that they are forming a view on what the player should or could do, but unconsciously shapes the conversation in a direction which, to the coach, seems most ‘helpful’ to the player at the time. This brings into focus a critical distinction for the coach which lies at the heart of effective performance coaching, namely the distinction between being helpful and being useful. As coaches, we must always remember that our intention must be, at all times, to be useful to the player. This is not the same thing as being helpful! Being useful is a coaching distinction that allows us to choose whether to be helpful – or not – in service of the player. Being useful comes before being helpful. Let’s look at this.

‘Helpful’ is defined as being pleasant, kind, accommodating, considerate, thoughtful and supportive. ‘Useful’ (as distinct from the distinction ‘being useful’) is defined as being of benefit, valuable, profitable, advantageous, worthwhile and productive. The former expresses an energy of sympathy and subjectivity, whilst the latter expresses an energy of action and objectivity. In psychodynamic terms, the former is ‘love’, the latter ‘will’.

Obviously the two overlap (being pleasant doesn’t preclude being of benefit for example), but this can cause tensions, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Love can be spontaneous, brings together, and is gentle, but this can over-played by the coach - by needing to ‘help’ they then become protective, boundaries become less determined and suggestions and advice start to creep in without adding any value except to make the coach feel that they are ‘helping’. Will can be determined, separates and be ‘tough’ but this can also be over-played by the coach - by needing to ‘help’ they then become determined to offer, even impose, a suggestion or advice onto the player.

A self-ware coach will appreciate this, and being aware of their own innate preference for love or will, will guard against overplaying their preference for either. This can cause tension in a ‘loving’ coach, who might feel they should be more wilful to help the player, and choose to act accordingly. Similarly, a ‘wilful ‘coach might feel they should be more loving to help the player, and again, choose to act accordingly. My point is that, if these choices are driven by the coach’s desire to be helpful, then they may not, in fact be adding the value they could be. The distinction we need to make as coaches is ‘how can I be useful right now?’

In his seminal book The Act of Will, Assagioli wrote: “One of the principal causes of today’s disorders is the lack of love on the part of those who have will and the lack of will in those who are good and loving. This points unmistakably to the urgent need for the integration, the unification of love with will.”

The integration of the energies of love and will is an existential journey, and one which any coach must take to be effective. In energetic terms, to coach effectively, it is not enough to love effectively, nor is it enough to be wilful. True effectiveness comes from integration of the two, and this requires a deep and meaningful understanding of oneself, truly a journey of self-discovery.

This is the value of the ‘being useful’ distinction. It allows us, as coaches, to navigate the line between love and will by distinguishing the two energies as they arise in us and then, by choosing to be useful, we can act is ways that are most helpful to the player – be that lovingly or wilfully. The exercise of this choice on the part of the coach allows them then to be helpful, when needed by the player, because they, the coach, chooses to be useful. By choosing to be useful, we can act in helpful ways. When we choose to make any intervention when coaching, that choice should be driven by exercising our capacity as coach to make the distinction ‘am I being useful right now?

This is why coaching can be regarded as an art, rather than as a science. There are no guidelines, procedures or rules that describe how individually we develop the capacity to make the distinction of being useful. Yet this endeavour goes to the core of what it is to be a great coach, and perhaps more.