Why is ‘challenging’ and ‘giving feedback’ in coaching just so challenging?


Why is ‘challenging’ and ‘giving feedback’ in coaching just so challenging?

“Professional coaching is being fully committed to a client’s personal and professional success and wellbeing, through high support/high challenge conversations that encourage accountability and lead to increased confidence to take action”

Matthew Radley

High support…..and high challenge combined is what drives excellent outcomes for clients through coaching. High support alone is not enough.

When you see the words ‘challenge’ and ‘feedback’ what immediately do you think? What picture do you see in your mind? What feelings do you have about these two words? What internal beliefs do you hold and what personal experiences affect your emotional response to these two simple, yet often uncomfortable, words? Are your responses positive or negative? Why is that?

Understanding our own emotions and reactions to the words ‘challenge’ and ‘feedback’ is critical to our self-awareness as coaches. If we believe they are positive in their intent then we are more likely to bring them into our coaching practice. Likewise, if we believe they are negative we might shy away from using them on a regular basis.

At MRA we believe that it’s not the behaviour of using challenge or feedback in coaching that is important but the intent from which it is given. If the intent is to support a client’s awareness and development, and if it comes from a place of generosity and positive intent, the feedback is almost always received this way – even though the message itself can often be very hard. And, if the coaching relationship is first built with the strongest foundations of rapport and trust, the coaching can withstand any challenge or difficult feedback that the coach brings. As Brene Brown shares in her ‘Engaged Feedback Checklist’ (2017), the most important mindset in which to give feedback is from the position of ‘I’m ready to sit next to you rather than across from you’ – in other words, ‘I’m with you on this journey – we are in it together’.

‘Receiving’ challenge and feedback is one element to talk through in your ongoing contracting conversations together. Asking the client questions such as “How would you like to receive feedback and challenge from me as your coach” then gives you the permissions you need, and the approach that will work best for the client, and at the same time gives you confidence to bring this into the coaching relationship.

Receiving is one thing, ‘giving’ challenge and feedback is another! In the book ‘Challenging Coaching’ by Blakey and Day (2012) the ZOUD (Zone Of Uncomfortable Debate) is brought to life. The shift from ‘comfortable debate’ to ‘uncomfortable debate’ to ‘the heart of the matter’ is described as an essential skill of good coaching. And yet the text also notes ‘it is important to note that the coach can experience the same feelings and thoughts as the coachee while in the ZOUD. The coach can lose resourcefulness and may be outside their comfort zone’. But again we must consider the intent from which the messages are coming – that of ultimate belief in the client.

So what does great challenge and feedback in coaching look like?

  • Absolute silence and deep listening is often more challenging than talking. Encouraging the client to be at one with themselves in silence often creates space for vulnerability, and therefore emotions to come forward
  • Playing back a client’s exact words, and encouraging them to hear precisely the words they themselves have used in any given scenario can be extremely powerful – we often don’t realise the words we are using until we hear them back from someone else
  • Acknowledging how a client is showing up and how they are making you feel as a coach is another useful way of raising self-awareness and emotional intelligence for clients. Sharing the impact the client is having on you personally can be enlightening
  • Bringing direct and honest feedback into the relationship is especially helpful, and tools such as 360 feedback and psychometric profiling all add value in supporting a client to understand the importance of internal self-awareness combined with external self-awareness. Not diving into ‘rescuer’ or ‘nurturing parent’ mode but instead holding the Adult space is vital as this gives the client ownership of the data and accountability to make the necessary changes for themselves
  • Holding to account on actions is another way of bringing challenge and feedback into the coaching relationship. Thinking, talking, and reflecting are all part of coaching but it must ultimately lead to action, to change, and to progress. Therefore actions must take place between every coaching session, and the client must be held accountable for taking these actions
  • Client readiness; showing up to coaching ‘client ready’, engaged and focused is an expectation of every client. On occasion a client might experience stress or pressure and therefore not show up immediately ready to engage. However, if this becomes a repeated pattern, calling it out and potentially postponing or even cancelling the coaching is the right thing to do. Coaching is an investment of time and money for everyone involved, and the client must be ready and resourceful to maximise their experience

These are just a few examples of bringing challenge and feedback into the coaching relationship with positive intent, always from a position of Adult, and always with due care and respect for the client’s whole self and everything that they are experiencing in their lives at the time you are working in partnership together.

We often use the phrase “As a coach if you are not actively giving feedback and challenge…how committed are you really to the client’s personal and professional success?”

A great question for every coach at every coaching session. And one final note, as professional coaches the one piece of feedback we most often get from clients is the value they receive from our challenge (not from our support). This isn’t about ‘being cruel to be kind’, it is about ‘being kind by being clear and being honest’.

Enjoy bringing positive intent challenge and feedback into your coaching practice; it really can make the biggest difference to the client’s experience, and often to yours too.


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