Have you ever found yourself in a coaching session chomping at the bit, to share your wisdom or insights? You can see so clearly, from your emotionally detached position, the pathway forward that your client could take? Have you ever been attached to some wisdom, and felt that little jolt as your client disagreed or stepped past your brilliant insight? Thinking to your secret self, “If only they would listen to me, they could move through their situation a bit faster with a better outcome.” As coaches, we can sometimes wrap these insights and “emotional hits” as direct communication. And, I am going to challenge that idea a little bit.
In the 1950’s a psychologist named, Eric Berne, began to notice that people can switch between different states of mind during conversations, even within a single conversation we can show up in different roles. The roles he observed people moving between were that of the Parent, Adult, and Child.
The Parent state often reflects our ideas about authority. It stems from our interactions with our actual parents or parental role models, and our teachers, bosses, or anyone in a position of power over us, expand our experience of this role. This is the voice of authority and typically carries with it a general expectation of hierarchy and often expects obedience.
The Child state is the part of ourselves that is a time warp to our childhood. It is a “childlike” state where our intuition, creativity, spontaneous drive and enjoyment lives. It’s also a position in many cultures that represents less power. Children rarely can control the situations around them in a direct manner. They rarely get to choose anything from where the family will live to what’s for dinner. A conforming child will do as they are told to do, while a rebellious child may do the opposite. We all tend to fall on a spectrum with how we respond.
The Adult state is where one might hope all of us adults lived. It is our sense of adult confidence, personal sovereignty, and this role also functions as the mediator between our internal child and parent states. It’s also often that part of us that is able to be calm in the face of other people’s upset. A healthy adult state can calm troubled waters, is proactive and thoughtful in response, rather than reactive and demeaning. When you think of people who are your best examples of what an Adult can be, they are typically an example of what you, at your best, want to be.
So, all this going on in each of us. We are each wrangling with our Parent, Adult, Child in every situation we bump into. Which in and of itself is tricky enough, now add a new layer of complexity and bring in another person. If we find ourselves in a conversation, with say our boss, where their Parent is speaking to us as though we are a Child, it may trigger our defensive strategies, if not outright rebellion.
For instance, if a manager is talking to a team, taking the Parental approach, it will often engage the Child response from the team. Team members may not openly challenge the manager, instead they may use creative defense strategies, such as checking out (checking emails while your boss is talking counts), working v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, they may ignore the manager and go off and do their own thing, our responses to the feeling of being talked down to are legion.
The interesting question is, “What might change if the manager were speaking to his/her direct reports Adult to Adult?” How might adults respond to developing a plan to solve a problem? And, what damage is mitigated when we stay in a curious and open mindset of the healthy adult, versus a punitive, bossy, and parental one? This question is at the core of creating a coaching culture; it’s also entirely relevant to any coaching conversation.
Let’s take into consideration the concepts of Sender/Receiver, from the Transactional Model of Communication in our coaching practice. When we engage with others from a hierarchical structure of Parent/Child or Expert/Inept in our communication style, the receiving person isn’t only getting the obvious information from the sender, all that wisdom and expertise, they are also getting much deeper messages about their ability and role. From a coaching perspective, if the coach takes this communication hierarchy to the Coach/Client roles, the client will never feel like an equal partner in the exchange, that can only occur with the Adult/Adult states of mind engaged. It is in the Adult/Adult, CoCreator/CoCreator, equal exchange that clients are enlivened to find their meaning, their own more profound insights, share their brilliance or share innovations that expand their awareness and ultimately develop their felt solutions.
My experience is when I am holding the client as whole, capable, resourceful, and creative, being mindful of the role I am in, in the conversation, is imperative. As I share direct communication, it shows up most often in the form of lightly holding the offered insight/wisdom/experience, and allowing that the other adult may not want, need, agree, or use what I suggest. I am at choice to let go anything that is not useful to the client’s forward motion. They are at choice to pick up and play with or abandon any ball I toss.
As coaches we have an extraordinary opportunity each time we work with a client, to notice when we feel the pressure to tell or share. It’s a brilliant opportunity to get curious about our motivation. The development of transparent and aware motivations deepens trust and keeps both the coach and the client engaged in the co-creative process that is the best of coaching.