How good is your current relationship? Is it positive, energising and fun? Is it going a bit stale and in need of a shake-up or do you know it’s well past its sell-by date but you haven’t yet found the courage to have the dreaded conversation!?
No, I’m not talking about your romantic relationships although those would certainly be good questions to ask yourself in that context; I’m talking about your relationship with your coach/coachee.
The more I coach, the more I realise how fundamental the coach/coachee relationship is to the outcome of any contract. If the relationship isn’t right; if the rapport, empathy and trust aren’t rock-solid; if there is any doubt in either parties’ mind, then the outcomes won’t be anywhere near as positive as they might otherwise have been.
It’s not that I don’t know this fact. Of course I do. We all do. It’s just that it’s constantly being reinforced for me and it makes me wonder if all stakeholders in the coaching process treat it with the importance it deserves.
A Recent Example
I recently met up with a potential new client. Before we met, I asked her to consider what goals she might like to work on if we ended up working together so I had some context for the meeting.
She shared the goals with me quite early on in the session and whilst I didn’t say anything at first I did wonder if they were the goals she really wanted to work on. They were what I might call quite superficial goals, business goals that I suspected she had most of the answers to already. The following hour was fascinating as she visibly relaxed, opened up and began to share some of her real personal challenges, both in life and work. By the end of that first meeting the true goals had emerged; the goals that, if she were to achieve them, would be truly life-changing for her; the goals she was unsurprisingly too nervous to put on the table with a complete stranger at the start of the process.
As we got to know one another, as the rapport, empathy and trust between us built, so did her confidence in the relationship, in me as a coach and ultimately in the process of coaching itself which was new to her. She therefore found the courage to share and propose the more challenging goals that she knew could make a real difference to her life and business success.
So how and why does this happen? What’s the science behind it?
Oxytocin – The Bonding Hormone
Well, this first session is often referred to as a ‘chemistry’ meeting and it’s certainly a fitting name. Just as in a romantic relationship there needs to be some chemical attraction, the same applies in a coaching relationship. Now I’m not suggesting for one moment you should fancy the other person – far from it! – but there does need to be some attraction – you need to warm to one another, feel relaxed in each other’s company, be able to share a good laugh and feel a mutual respect. Just as you might with a good mate – but one of those mates who can challenge you without hacking you off!
The chemical in this instance is the hormone and neurotransmitter oxytocin. Oxytocin is often referred to as the ‘bonding’ hormone as it dramatically increases in women pre and post childbirth encouraging that vital early bonding between mother and child.
Oxytocin is also known as the ‘trust’ hormone. As we bond with another person, we begin to feel safe in their presence. We start to get to know them better, find common ground and connect more deeply with them. In other words we develop genuine rapport and empathy. Any social fear or anxiety we had at the start of the relationship dissipates and we can share more personal information or experiences – a sure sign of trust – which in turn also increases levels of oxytocin in the brain.
Thus the level of heartfelt connection we can create, develop and maintain with our coaching clients is a critical element in that client’s potential development and growth through the coaching process.
Research also shows that any bodily contact will increase levels of oxytocin in the body – a warm handshake, a comforting touch on the arm or a good old-fashioned hug. Even stroking a pet increases the levels of oxytocin in both your brain and that of your pet! So that also explains why, at the end of a session with a client, I often feel an urge to give them a big hug. In 99% of cases I don’t as it would be deemed unprofessional and, unless they are highly kinaesthetic like myself, it could make them feel incredibly uncomfortable. However, in many cases I do give them a big imaginary hug and I suspect that’s good enough!
So the relationship really does matter. If the chemistry is right between you and your client and oxytocin levels are high, the client will be able to move out of survival mode and into growth mode. They will be open, honest and reflective; they will be prepared to work on deeper, more profound and hence more transformative challenges; and they will have the mental capacity to think laterally and creatively thereby coming up with the answers and solutions they need in order to achieve their desired outcomes. In other words, the coaching will be extremely successful.
So how do we ensure we make this a top priority? What are the implications for everyone involved in the coaching process?
Implications for Coaches
As coaches we need to treat the traditional chemistry meeting with the respect it deserves. It can be tempting to do a 15/30 minute telephone or Skype call. After all we do it for free, so it can be a major investment of our time and not every chemistry meeting leads to a contract. However, how well can you gauge the chemistry in a first meeting when it’s not face-to-face? How well can you get to know a client and detect their key patterns in such a short space of time? How likely are they to share their true goals with you?
We also need to be brutally honest with ourselves, our prospective clients and their sponsors. If the chemistry isn’t right; if we have any reservations about the relationship and potential levels of empathy and trust going forward, then we should decline the business. Again hard to do when we are keen to help and support the individual and when we have a strong belief in our ability to do so, but if the chemistry isn’t really strong then we are not best placed to undertake the work.
Implications for Business Sponsors
As sponsors of executive coaching in your business whether you’re in HR, L&D, talent management or you’re simply the line manager involved in the process, firstly it’s about choice. How many executive coaches do you employ, whether they’re internal or external?
I recently started working in a business with around 100 employees – they previously used just two executive coaches. I wonder how likely it is that just one of those two people will be able to truly connect with anyone in that business who requires the services of a coach? Ideally a prospective coachee would meet up with at least 3 carefully selected coaches from your pool to make sure the fit is right, so the pool needs to be big and varied enough to meet everyone’s potential need.
Secondly it’s about briefing. Brief the prospective coachee on the importance of the chemistry meeting and its primary purpose – finding someone with whom you really ‘click’, who you trust implicitly and who you truly believe can help and support you in the coaching process. If none of them fits the bill, keep searching until you find someone who does. It’s that important.
That brings me to the third element – time commitment. We’re all incredibly busy and it’s all too easy to cut corners at this stage – three meetings just to choose your coach!? But that time commitment could be the difference between you getting a truly valuable return on your investment and getting a so-so return on your investment. It’s definitely worth it!
Implications for Coachees
Are you currently working with a coach? How would you rate the relationship on a scale of 1-10? If it’s anything less than an 8, and ideally a 9 or a 10, it’s time to move on. It’s hard to call time on a relationship, especially one where you might have gone through a fair amount together, but it’s also important to recognise when it has run its course.
Sometimes you can work effectively with a coach for many years; at other times something happens to impact the relationship – you change, they change, your situation changes and for some reason they no longer fit the bill. The key thing is that you’re honest with one another, otherwise you disengage with the person and the process and it becomes a waste of time, money and energy – not good for anyone.
In a great coaching relationship, the coach can challenge you, highlight potentially unhelpful behaviours and even hold a mirror up for you to see the worst side of you in certain situations, but you will always leave the session feeling better than when you arrived, you will always know that everything was done with your best interests at heart and you will be secure in the knowledge that the coach believes in you implicitly.
If that’s not the case, it’s time to make a change.
So, relationships in coaching really do matter. There is now clear scientific evidence to show that when we bond with another human being our oxytocin levels rise increasing our capacity for empathy and trust and thereby creating the perfect coaching environment.
Without this level of trust it doesn’t matter how experienced you are as a coach, how skilled you are or how many amazing tools you have in your toolbox, the results will probably be average and any behaviour changes short-term.
Conversely with the right coaching relationship you will end up working on something that really matters, the whole truth emerges, there is no need for survival behaviour (fight, flight or freeze), the coachee can face up to the challenge (or opportunity) with confidence knowing they have all the support and help they need and genuinely sustainable behaviour change can take place. A fundamental step on the path to truly transformational coaching.