Chapter 18 - Dealing with problems in the coaching relationship

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The drama triangle

The drama triangle is a useful framework when empathetic curiosity breaks down. This commonly used coaching tool is derived from Transactional Analysis and is attributed to Steven Karpman. It is most often used to identify and explore dysfunctions in relationships at work or home.

In the triangle, there are three roles people play towards others:

  • Persecutor: Someone who either attacks aggressively, or simply disturbs the equilibrium by innovating or asking awkward questions.
  • Victim: Someone who feels the persecutor is targeting them, or who is affected by changes the persecutor initiates (for example, a new boss, who wants to introduce different ways of doing things).
  • Rescuer: A white knight or protector; or someone who tries to restore the equilibrium. (Sponsorship mentors can easily fall into the rescuer role – the title protégé suggests being there for the coachee to lean on.)

The characters in the drama triangle can be specific (a particular person) or general (a financial situation, or an illness). Roles are also not static – people move from one to another rapidly, repeating old behaviours. Once trapped into a drama triangle, it can be hard to extricate oneself, because the other players are still playing the game. These power games can be very destructive.

In coaching, it is common for the coach to become either the persecutor (‘Why do you keep asking me these difficult questions?’) or the rescuer (‘You are going to solve my problems, aren’t you?’). It’s less common for the coach to become the victim, but it still happens (‘This coachee is wilfully not addressing their issues, or implementing the changes we discuss. It makes me feel useless.’).

Sometimes, the drama triangle may be appropriate as a healthy response to a temporary situation. But getting locked into a drama triangle is rarely, if ever, healthy.

Steps to break out of a drama triangle:

  • Recognise that you are in one.
  • Consider how important it is to stop the drama. Are you and the other parties willing to take the discomfort of ‘outing’ it? What is the payoff for doing so?
  • Step back mentally and analyse what is happening. Who is playing what role? When and how do the roles change? What benefits do they derive from behaving in this way? How can we become emotionally detached from the game?
  • Explain to the other players what you think is going on and the implications this has for your relationship (and, in a team, for the team task).
  • Invite them to join you in analysing the ‘game’. What do we agree and disagree on? How do we want this relationship to function?
  • Work with them in committing to a more adult relationship, in which none of the drama triangle roles are played; and in which it is acceptable and welcome to query whether a colleague is slipping back into a dramatic role.

The comfort/learning matrix

This simple technique is used when coachees appear to be resistant to challenge. The comfort axis (high to low) is about the emotions the coachee is feeling in the moment and generally about the coaching or mentoring conversation. The learning axis is about the impact of the conversation.

When the coachee feels in the low comfort-low learning quadrant, they are essentially stuck. Their instinct may be to move to the high comfort–low learning space, but that essentially is an avoidance tactic. The coach can make two other choices explicit: low comfort–high learning; or high comfort–high learning. What tactics might they adopt together to reach a position within or bridging one of these options?

  Download Figure fig_18.1

When the coachee wants a solution too soon

When people have high anxiety about a problem, they often instinctively seek someone else to tell them what to do. In the face of internal confusion and uncertainty, we seek confident direction from an external source. This can be very beguiling for a coach, because we want to be helpful and useful.  However, we can be most helpful, if we address the cause (what is creating the confusion and uncertainty), rather than symptom (their need to be rescued from their anxiety). Jumping straight into solution mode pretty much guarantees you will address the wrong issue. It’s also analogous to giving a dehydrated person water – giving too much too soon will cause harm; it’s better to start with small sips.

When the coachee explicitly or implicitly asks ‘What should I do?’ the coach first needs to help them achieve a state of mind, where they are able to absorb and think about any solutions that are generated. A useful question is: ‘What can you do right now to let go of some of your anxiety, so that you are able to think more clearly about this?’ By their tone of voice, their posture and their attentiveness, the coach invites them into the protective bubble of their own calm.

Next, the coach can help the coachee let go of the need for an immediate solution. Useful questions include:

  • What confusion do you feel that might be preventing you from finding your own answer?
  • What is driving your need for a solution now?
  • Are you looking for a permanent solution or a quick fix?
  • What assumptions need challenging before you think about what to do next?

The combination of calm reflection and gentle support allows the coachee to put aside their anxiety, at least to a considerable extent, because they feel relatively safe. They can therefore be more creative and the coach can encourage that creativity with questions, such as:

  • What are the hidden opportunities in this situation?
  • What questions are in your mind now?

Eventually, of course, the coachee has to leave the protective bubble of the coaching dialogue. If they have made no progress towards a solution, then the anxiety is likely to return and they are likely to feel that the session has not helped at all. If a clear solution has emerged, that’s fine. If it hasn’t, the coach can support the coachee with questions, such as:

  • How clear are you about what you still have to find out, in order to make a decision, and how you are going to do so?
  • What other conversations do you still need to have with other people and with yourself about this?
  • What are you taking away that will enable you to start resolving this issue?
  • What do you now realise you need to just accept, and move on?
  • What strategies do you now have to manage your anxieties about this issue?

Resisting the coachee’s instinct to be given or find an instant solution helps make sure the decisions they make are better than if taken in haste.

‘Relationship droop’

A common occurrence in coaching and mentoring is that, after the first flush of enthusiasm, the relationship begins to run out of steam. Both parties are reluctant to take each other’s time when there appear to be no urgent or significant things to talk about. The initial sense of purpose becomes dulled.

Managed effectively, this apparent setback can be an excellent opportunity to revitalise the relationship and set it upon a much deeper and useful track. Key steps here include:

  • Openly recognise and discuss what you feel.
  • Review and celebrate what you have achieved so far.
  • Be honest in considering what issues, if any, you have avoided discussing – these are often fruitful areas for more substantial personal development.
  • List the coachee’s medium- and long-term personal goals (both career and personal competence): what learning conversations would help make these easier to achieve and/or achievable in a shorter time period?

Insight provoking questions (RHQs at the end of each chapter) have an important role to play here, stimulating the coachee to think more deeply and from different perspectives about the challenges they face. In many cases, they may be unaware or only partially aware of these challenges.

If the coachee still feels they now have everything they need to get on with their original goal(s) and wants to focus exclusively on this for a period, using their own resources, it’s best to accept the situation gracefully. The coachee should never feel you are struggling to find reasons to keep the relationship going! However, you can legitimately:

  • Make it clear that you are available to them when they do have an issue to discuss or if they run into difficulties.
  • Offer occasional – regular or ad hoc – goal-free meetings, where they can simply use you as a sounding board on current issues.
  • Drop them a short monthly or bi-monthly e-mail to pass on some relevant information or contacts you have found, or to pose them a new question to think about.

It is very common in these circumstances for the learning relationship to renew itself in a more powerful form, after a period of reflection.

Overcoming zombie relationships

Zombie relationships are those that are static and have ceased to perform any useful function but, for a variety of reasons we don’t bring to an end. They are not moving forward – the agenda doesn’t develop; the coachee isn’t reflecting on the content of earlier sessions, if any, and building new issues and insights.  Zombie relationships also seem to be hard to get out of: the coach may find it difficult to let go and the coachee often seems to have a wish to keep a coach on their books, as it were, even though they are not using the relationship for any developmental purpose.

Here are some ways to overcome potential zombie relationships:

  • Brief the line manager thoroughly for the three-way conversation; let coachee manage the meeting, the line manager should not dictate the agenda.
  • Build the commitment of the coachee; including help with focus.
  • Address passivity and readiness to act.
  • Be prepared to hand on relationships – no false pride.
  • Name slowness and superficiality.
  • Address power issues.
  • Clarify purpose of coaching.

Coach collusion

Could leaders and managers be using having a coach as an excuse to abdicate their responsibilities for their self-development? Is the coach colluding with this in some way? The coach may consciously or unconsciously agree to limit the level and scope of their challenge and the coachee provides a long-term relationship, with all the attendant financial benefits. Indeed, long-term coaching assignments (more than a year) are almost, by definition, collusive.

To address this issue:

  • Include some discussion of this issue in the initial contracting conversation.
  • Focus assignments less on single, specific goals and more on fulfilment of a more comprehensive Personal Development Plan (PDP), of which those goals are a part.
  • Review progress against the PDP as a regular agenda item.
  • Help the coachee understand and work with their personal learning styles/approaches to learning. If possible, help them expand the range and flexibility of their approaches to learning.
  • Encourage them to keep a learning diary and to share this, as appropriate, with you and with other key stakeholders in their development
  • Help them develop a more systemic view of their learning – to recognise how dependent sustainable individual change is on learning and adaptation by others around them. How can they take greater responsibility for the collective learning of the leadership team? Are they willing to do so?
  • Look out for signs of hidden procrastination – lots of verbiage about how they perceive they are changing, with little real evidence that is anything but superficial. Have the courage to call this!
  • Early in each coaching conversation, ask questions such as: ‘What has changed noticeably for you since we last met? How much of that change have you initiated?’
  • Explore the issue of pace of learning. How fast does this business need to change to compete? How fast does that mean that the leaders have to change? How fast does that mean you have to change?
  • If you suspect that the relationship is being used for development avoidance, explore what might enable and motivate them to spend more of their time in learning mode. What deeply held values can they associate with such behaviour?

If a coach does not at least address these issues in their own mind, they are tacitly laying the foundations for collusion!

Moments of disconnect

Most coaches encounter occasional moments of disconnect – points in the learning conversation when they begin to doubt their ability, are unsure how to move the dialogue forward, or feel that they simply aren’t helping the coachee as well as they might. When you do have such feelings, don’t feel guilty; feel grateful, because they are valuable for reflective practice and the continuous improvement of your coaching competence.

Some of the most common moments of disconnect occur:

  • When you begin to lose rapport with the coachee.
  • When you feel the learning conversation has lost its energy.
  • When the learning conversation doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
  • When the coachee’s problem seems insoluble.

Consider and discuss the disconnect openly. Has it occurred because:

  • You are making assumptions about the issue, which led you into questions, which the coachee does not feel are helpful?
  • The coachee is avoiding the issue?
  • The process you are using does not fit the coachee or the issue (or both) sufficiently well?
  • You are being too mechanistic in using the process?
  • The pace of the learning dialogue is inappropriate?
  • You are working on the wrong issue entirely?

It is easier to prepare for moments of disconnect if the coach makes a point of reflecting from time to time on the quality of the conversation. Some useful questions include:

  • Why are we having this conversation?
  • To what extent am I reflecting back my experience of the conversation?
  • How relevant is this to the broader context?
  • Do we both feel comfortable with the conversation, even if we don’t know where it is going?
  • Is my intuition switched on? Is theirs?
  • How aware are we both of what is going on in the present, even if we are dealing with issues relating to the past or future?
  • Are we both being truly authentic?
  Download Figure fig_18.2

Managing disconnections

  • Refer to Figure 18.2 and consider who is aware of the disconnection. Often the coachee is unaware. Signs might include postural change, change in the pace of the conversation, a shift in mood, mindfulness or even a breakdown of communication altogether.
  • Where is the disconnection located? It could be within the coachee (e.g. something they are avoiding), within the coach (e.g. a question or comment that has an unexpected effect, interrupting the coachee’s reflection, or a distracting body posture), or in the space between them (e.g. different interpretations of the same word or phrase). It may also be part of a pattern.
  • Do we have the conditions for sustained connection? Issues to consider include
  • Are the conditions for flow present?
  • Where is the energy?
  • Did we begin with an appropriate mood for reflection?
  • In what ways can we each describe the disconnection?
  • What sense do we both have about what happened?
  • What sense do we each have about the coachee’s role in the disconnection?
  • How effectively is the supervisee bringing the coachee into the conversation?
  • What is the impact of the disconnection? The impact may be immediate (e.g. the conversation dies) or potential (recognition of an opportunity for learning and personal growth). Useful questions might include:
  • How did it affect the flow of our conversation?
  • What conflicts, if any, did it illuminate?
  • What else has now entered our awareness?
  • What learning potential does the disconnection contain? What lessons can we extract about the coachee’s issues and/or about the coaching/mentoring process?
  • What action, if any, do we want to take as a result? Can we now take the learning conversation more deeply? Do we want to park and return to the issues that the coachee raised? Do we want to change the coaching process?