When not to support a client’s outcome
At the Adventures in Clean retreat in 2017, one of the most important things I learned as a coach was when not to support a client’s outcome. The lesson was particularly memorable and transformative because I was the client. And it was in the middle of my being coached that my facilitator, James Lawley, said to me: “I’m not going to support that outcome. You can carry on if you want to. But I’ve got better things to do.”
I was taken aback, to say the least. And yet, it was the best thing for James to have done. Here’s what happened and how it transformed me.
My desired outcome
My stated outcome was: “I’d like to figure out a way to deal with this missing that’s here (a square space in front of me), and it keeps coming up and demanding attention from me.” The metaphor I developed for “missing” was a blacked-out film strip, like when we used film in our cameras and took a bad shot.
“Missing” had been a need in my life for 10 years. I wasn’t able to fulfill that need and wasn’t certain I could anytime soon. James, who was co-facilitating with Phil Swallow, asked me more developing questions until it became clear that I wanted “missing” to “stop making demands on my time, attention and energy”.
And that’s when he said, “I’m not going to contract for you to stop that making demands on you. You can go and get someone else to stop it. I actually support it. I’m ready to help you review your relationship with it, but I won’t help you to shut it down.”
Then he said, “So now what are you going to do?”
This was certainly not what I expected. After a long pause, and some tentative answers from me, he said: “Would you like to know why I won’t support you to deal with it in a way that keeps it quiet?”
“Because I’m not going to flog a dead horse. If it hasn’t shut up in 10 years, I don’t think it’s going to shut up at least for the next 10 years. So why would I spend all my time to support something that I don’t think you can shut up? You can have a different relationship with it. But I don’t think you can shut it up, not if you’ve spent 10 years trying, and you failed.”
After the session, one of the other participants at Adventures in Clean, who was observing, asked James about what he had done. He explained that coaches had a right not to work on an outcome they did not agree with. This could be because of ethical reasons. Or in my case, practical reasons such as the fact that if something hadn’t gone away after 10 years, the chances were really slim it would go away now.
“More importantly, why would you help a client get rid of something that was vital to her? She had said that that part didn’t want to be forgotten, it didn’t want to shrivel up and die and it wanted safe expression. As her coach, I am operating on behalf of all the parts in her whole system, even if the client doesn’t like that part.”
One of the other facilitators at the event, Caitlin Walker, expressed the same position with another client who wanted coaching so she could “stop using so many metaphors” in her communication.
Someone had told this client she used too many metaphors.
Caitlin: So when you’ve been told that, and you’d like to stop using so many metaphors, what is it you’re wanting to have happen?
Client: I want to be able to communicate more clearly.
Caitlin: With whom?
Client: With this person who says I use too many metaphors.
Caitlin: So you use metaphors when you talk, and for this person, it’s too many metaphors. And you’d like to be able to communicate more effectively with this person. I’m willing to coach you to develop flexibility about when you do and do not use metaphors. And to have more choice about how you communicate. However, if you naturally use a lot of metaphors when you’re communicating, I don’t want to coach you with the implicit judgement that you’re not OK the way you are. I’d like to start with how you naturally are, and then develop the kind of flexibility you need to communicate with this person.
And that is what Caitlin eventually did.
After this client gave consent for Caitlin to share that story with me, Caitlin explained what she was thinking about when she said she wouldn’t support the client’s outcome.
“Somebody gave her negative feedback, and she accepted that they were OK and she wasn’t. And I didn’t want to consolidate that she wasn’t OK. I stand in the world with ‘I’m OK as I am now.’ I don’t want to start in a position where my job is to diminish you, in order for you to be OK.”
The client, Caitlin said, hadn’t come to her with an outcome. Instead, she had come to her with a belief that a fundamental part of her was not OK, just like I had done in my session with James and Phil.
What happened to me?
I returned to James and Phil Swallow for a follow-up session that afternoon. In the half hour between the sessions, I had begun developing a different relationship with the blacked-out film strip that was my “missing”. I understood that it was providing me with vital information about who I am and who I wanted to be.
And because it was doing that, I wanted James to coach me to find out more about my new relationship with “missing”. And I asked Phil to coach me to find out more about the thing that needed to happen so that “missing” could find “safe expression” in my life.
In the 20 minutes of that session, my “blacked-out film strip” was transformed into a “strip of possibilities”. I burst out in tears, thankful that James wouldn’t support me earlier with my stated outcome.
Additionally, because I was finally acknowledging “missing” as being a vital part of who I was and wanted to be, it had become less demanding. I knew at that point that even if I couldn’t give “missing” what it needed immediately, that was OK. I just needed to acknowledge it, which I was already doing in that moment.
I still had to act on its demands but I could do that in small steps because “missing” wasn’t expecting me to provide immediate solutions to its needs. It just needed to know that I hadn’t forgotten it, and that I wouldn’t let it “shrivel up and die”.
It has been a few years since my experience at Adventures in Clean. Where before, I would feel annoyed and frustrated because of the demands of “missing”, today I have an easier relationship with it. It’s still there but it’s no longer making demands I feel I can’t fulfill. It knows it hasn’t been forgotten and is now a hopeful strip of possibilities.
The next Adventures in Clean will be held in West Kirby, UK from 14 to 17 May 2023.
About Jacqueline Ann Surin
Jacqueline Ann Surin is a Level 1 Clean Facilitator, the first Master Level Systemic Modeller in Asia, and is qualified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the ICF. She is an associate of Clean Learning and Training Attention in the UK, and a specialist-partner of the Singapore-based BeInClarity. She was previously an award-winning journalist and has a published chapter in Clean Language Interviewing: Principles and applications for researchers and practitioners.
She can be found on LinkedIn.
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