Challenge in Coaching

Martin Hill, Senior Tutor, BSC
Martin Hill, Senior Tutor, BSC

“If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you” Fred DeVito

“Challenge” is one of the key skills that a coach needs to possess, but from my experience as a coach and supervisor it is interesting to reflect upon the many and varied meanings that people apply to the same word. For some challenge equates to confrontation, for others it means causing the coachee to pause, reflect and explain.

Just Googling “challenge” generates the following definition (The Free Dictionary):

  • “A call to engage in a contest, fight, or competition.
  • An act or statement of defiance; a call to confrontation.
  • A demand for explanation or justification; a calling into question.
  • A test of one’s abilities or resources in a demanding but stimulating undertaking.”

As a coach, for me, the latter two bullet points perhaps best reflect what challenge means in a coaching context. It is the stretch demanded by the challenge that moves the coachee from the comfort zone to the learning zone. The coach needs to ensure that the stretch is not too far as this can lead the coachee into the stress zone and endanger rapport, trust and the coaching relationship itself.

How do you gauge tension in the coaching session? This links in to your skills of active listening and observational skills- change in tone, body posture, eye movement etc. Having seen it what do you do?

In their book “Challenging Coaching”.John Blakey and Ian Day suggest the following interventions to INCREASE tension:

  • Use of silence
  • Prolonged eye contact – especially if accompanying silence
  • Probing questions
  • Challenging the coachee to take a risk – they pose the suggested question “What is the riskiest thing you could do in this situation? Why aren’t you doing it?”
  • Challenging statements
  • Play devil’s advocate
  • Take the role of opponent
  • Use an approach opposite to the coachee’s usual style

They suggest the following interventions to DECREASE tension:

  • Increase the level of support by more active listening (summarising, paraphrasing etc.) and less probing.
  • Acknowledge the feelings the coach is observing.
  • Provide affirmation and praise.
  • Set lower and more achievable goals so the coachee experiences the positive feelings of success.
  • Take a break, move the coaching into a different environment, take the coaching outside the normal workplace, such as walking in the open air and coaching at the same time.

From my own coaching and supervisory practice, I would strongly recommend the practice of specifically contracting with the coachee about challenge – what is their preference? (Then test and explore that, rather than simply accepting that); what do they understand by challenge? Explain what challenge may look like in the session.

The other recommendation I would make is to have a post session review with the coachee and review challenge. Consider asking the coachee whether they had encountered challenge in the session, and what was the nature and level of challenge. It is often interesting to note what they perceived as challenge, and this may be different from what your views (or perhaps intentions) were. I have found that humour (appropriate and considered) can be an effective tool to introduce challenge in a session, whilst at the same time maintaining rapport and trust.

Reflect on what your challenge style is. Is it authentic to the real “you” and is it effective? Above all else keep it under review. That is where supervision may prove useful

And finally …..Challenge is the pathway to engagement and progress in our lives. But not all challenges are created equal. Some challenges make us feel alive, engaged, connected, and fulfilled. Others simply overwhelm us. Knowing the difference as you set bigger and bolder challenges for yourself is critical to your sanity, success, and satisfaction.” Brendon Burkhard

Martin Hill LL.B (Hons), FInstLM, AMAC, EMCC Member, Coach &Coach Supervisor

Faculty Member

Programme Director for ILM 7 Executive Coaching & Mentoring

British School of Coaching

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