SF Tip #5: Giving advice as a coach

Jenny Clarke 2007 medby Jenny Clarke, sfwork

There are times when we are burning to offer advice to a coachee but reluctant to do so because of the notion that giving advice is just not done. And yet ….. how crazy is it to have a good idea and NOT pass it on?  The question is how to maximise the chances of fair consideration and minimise the chances of rejection – when and how to offer advice?  This is a particularly important question for managers adopting a coaching style: the manager does have an agenda and does sometimes have cause to make his or her views known.

Let’s think first about timing: when is it a good time to offer advice?  The obvious answer is “when it’s asked for” but actually it’s not quite as simple as this!  Even in this case, it’s better to explore the coachee’s own thoughts, experience and know-how first.  If you don’t do this, in the context of what he or she wants, your ideas may well be greeted with a response like “I’ve tried that. It didn’t work” or “That wouldn’t work”  or “I haven’t got time for that” …. However, if your exploration hasn’t yielded useful any ideas, this is probably the right time to provide some ideas of your own.

So now, the question is how to go about offering advice and here it’s worth first asking permission to do so: “would you like a suggestion?”  Having received a definite yes, think about how to package your ideas.  Here are a few possibilities:

  • Be direct: this has the advantage of being quick and unambiguous
  • Tell a story from your own experience.  Putting the advice in story form makes it personal and vivid and so more compelling
  • Offer the ideas as if from a third party – “I knew someone who always tackled this kind of thing like this ….” This has the advantage that the ideas can be rejected more easily if the third party isn’t in the room
  • Offer the ideas as from an even more remote source – “x has written many articles on this kind of thing and his suggestion would probably be …”  This gives the idea expert credibility and yet can still be easily rejected if it doesn’t fit.

The SF trainer, supervisor and consultant John Wheeler makes a useful distinction between the different tasks a manager may have, calling the roles gatekeeper, guru and guide. When the manager is being a gatekeeper – ie has standards or duties which have to be fulfilled in a particular way – than it is legitimate to be direct and specific in telling someone what to do.  This isn’t giving advice, it’s giving instructions!  But even in the role of guru – ie when the manager is an acknowledged expert in the topic – it may be less useful to be as direct as this in giving advice, and some of the other suggestions above may offer more acceptable ways of being helpful.  Of course the role of guide – or coach – is one where one is indeed cautious about offering advice in any form.

7 responses

  1. Surely this is a non-problem created by choosing to adopt a less than ideally helpful position. Change the position and the problem disappears.

    If I call myself a coach then, yes, giving advice to a client would seem to be at odds with my chosen role. But the problem is in calling myself a coach and trying to be one – trying to conform to what I think a coach should and shouldn’t do. By doing so, I am making any transaction with the client about me, not the other person.

    That might make me feel good – validated as a ‘professional’ ‘coach’, but it isn’t the most helpful position to adopt if one is to meet their needs. And, feeling one can’t give advice when advice is clearly needed demonstrates the falsity of the position. Worryting about how you’re going to wrap it up so that you don’t appear to be giving advice seems pointless and just bound to found out as inauthentic.

    Far better to call oneself something neutral, such as practitioner, and deploy techniques derived from coaching, mentoring, counselling, advice giving, consultancy and teaching, slipping seamlessly from one to the other, minute by minute, always and only at the service of the client.

  2. Thank you Jeremy – it’s really good to receive a considered response to my tip, and to give a considered response in return!
    Of course, my remarks are meant to be from a helpful position and to be thinking from the client’s perspective, not the coach’s. My piece was intended to tackle the “feeling one can’t give advice when advice is clearly needed”. I do want to suggest caution about the idea that advice is clearly needed – clear to whom? And so I address the occasions when advice is explicitly requested and the occasions when the coach (practitioner) has an idea to share. In each case, my suggestions about “wrapping it up” are aimed at increasing the likelihood of the advice being accepted and not brushed away (as I have often done when given parental advice for example!). So my aim is to be “ideally helpful” as you put it – to give choice about the advice I’m offering.

    1. But why do you think that the client is going to give you a better answer than you can? We know that clients are resistant, and it is the resistances they have to the issues they’ve paid you to help them address which are most likely to cause them to answer “no” if you ask them if they want advice about them.

      At which point the coach is stuck. Both parties are now colluding in a situation where the client is not going to get the advice he/she needs, and which, if only unconsciously, he/she is probably expecting—after all, clients don’t know, or care, what a coach is supposed to do and not do.

      You position is akin to a GP who feels they have to ask the patient if he/she would like to be told what is wrong with them.

  3. Ah …. we are operating from different assumptions here: in SF-land, we don’t “know that clients are resistant” – see de Shazer “Death of Resistance” Family Process, Vol 23, Issie 1, pp 11 -17. Getting the answer “no” in the circumstances you describe means that the practitioner hasn’t yet found how best to co-operate with the client. I don’t see the analogy at all: the patient has told the doctor what’s wrong and our clients may have done the same. But the work we do with our clients is not (in Sf-land anyway) based on a medical model of pathology and cure.

    1. OK. Well, I think that is an end to this conversation! The overwhelming weight of all the psychological literature that I’ve read over forty years supports the idea that clients come to the practitioner with their resistances fully formed; often developed years previously. The idea that the resistances are in effect created by the coach’s failure to engage with the client in the “best” way is unsupportable and confers a degree of responsibility on the coach for the client’s presenting condition out of all proportion to reality.

      My previous contact with SF leads me to believe that it is not interested in aetiology. That might be a selling point for some prospects (allowing them to preserve their resistances intact), and indeed for some coaches (for the same reason), but it seems unlikely that it is going to result in long-lasting change at anything other than a superficial level. After all, as Aristotle observed, “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

      It does seem to me that the SF process is one focussed on the models used, and beliefs held, by the coach and this, I believe, is never the most useful approach since it makes the transaction, as I have already said, about the coach not the client.

  4. It’s a shame if it’s over – I was enjoying the conversation. But you’re right: we are not interested in aetiology; I don’t think that’s the same as living or advocating unexamined lives. (I’ll be out of the country from this afternoon until Sunday, so no further response till then – if you are minded to reply!)

  5. Hello Jeremy, thanks for sparking this discussion. My eye was caught by your claim that
    “it seems unlikely that it is going to result in long-lasting change at anything other than a superficial level. ”
    This crops up quite often as the way people assume things are, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Solution-focused practice, at least, has dozens of peer-reviewed studies showing lasting and persistent change for the better, many over five year and longer horizons. You can see one list of these at Dr Alasdair Macdonald’s website at http://www.solutionsdoc.co.uk/sft.html.
    I guess it may be about definitions of ‘superficial’. If people living their lives free from the troubles that were holding them back is superficial, then perhaps we are.

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