Why coaches and mentors shouldn’t beat themselves up when client change doesn’t happen

Every beginner coach or mentor goes through a phase of questioning their own competence, based upon a sense that they could (or should) have had so much more impact. Even very experienced coaches and mentors sometimes feel that they have “failed” their client. While there are some professional coaches and mentors, who think they are worth far more than they are paid, it’s more common for effective coaches to harbour doubts about whether they are giving good money’s worth.

One of the restorative functions of professional supervision is to help restore a realistic balance between learning from every assignment and managing expectations about what it is reasonable to achieve in a given time period or a given number of meetings.

The key issues to consider here begin with the purpose of the coaching/mentoring relationship and the purpose of coaching and mentoring in general. It’s a common misassumption that the purpose of coaching or mentoring generally is to resolve a client’s problem or issue. The dangers with such an assumption are that it shifts responsibility subtly from the client to the coach/mentor and that it encourages the coach/mentor to do too much. In reality, the purpose of coaching and mentoring are to help the client become more aware – of themselves, of the world around them and of the interaction between these – and as result be able to make better informed decisions and take more control of their circumstances.

The purpose of the mentoring conversation equally is not to come to decision. It is to advance the client’s thinking to the point where they can either make a decision, or have a shift of perception, on which they can reflect – when they are ready to do so. Jumping to solutions too early is not helpful for the client – and the “right” time for decisions and resulting change may be well into the future. A while ago, someone, who I had given some brief coaching to 15 years before, wrote to thank me for the questions I had asked, explaining that it had taken him most of that time to answer them to his satisfaction and then to make significant changes in his life and work.

What we can achieve through coaching and mentoring is limited by many factors, among them:

  • What the client is capable of (their physical, emotional, intellectual and other resources)
  • The client’s interests and motivations
  • The many systems of which the client is a part. When a client does not implement changes they say they want to happen, the reason is often that there are strong forces preventing them from doing so. These might include colleagues, who are resistant to change, or a boss, who doesn’t want to provide support when it is needed.

When two or more of these limiters operate together (for example, when a manager keeps getting involved in the detail, because that’s what she enjoys, and her team go along with it, because it is easier for them to delegate responsibility upwards), then the task of the coach or mentor becomes much harder. While you can be helpful to them in developing greater understanding of these systems and systemic ways of bringing about change, some systems are just too powerful to change through coaching or mentoring alone. The coach or mentor has little opportunity to exert direct influence on the situation.

In measuring the success of our coaching or mentoring, therefore, we can look to the question What has changed in the client’s capability to self-manage the issues we have explored together? Measuring whether specific goals have been achieved is, of course, often valid – but we should not confuse these relatively simple, relatively easily delivered impacts with the deeper learning that takes place in the truly effective coaching or mentoring conversation.

And if our conversations do not bring about these simple achievement goals? Rather than beat ourselves up about what we did or didn’t do, better to reflect upon:

  • What learning can we draw from the factors, that limited the client’s ability to bring about the desired changes?
  • What is it about the client’s systems that inhibits change?
  • If the systems inhibiting change are too powerful to overcome with coaching or mentoring, what can the client do to move to a more supportive environment, where they can break ingrained dysfunctional behaviours and ways of thinking?
  • What will you leave them with, which will make them more self-aware and more capable of facing future challenges?

Above all, it is important to be compassionate towards ourselves for our imperfections as coaches or mentors. Remember that every coaching or mentoring conversation that delivers lasting change is an experiment  — one of a series of trials that progressively develop the insight and knowledge the client needs to fulfil their aspirations. If we can let go of the need to be perfect, the need to demonstrate that we are adding value and the need to help the client find immediate answers, we can be much more relaxed and attentive in our coaching and mentoring. And that allows us to grow our own capabilities as agents of change.

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