Coaching the Model Client

I greet my client for an evening session, in this instance it’s a movement session, but very quickly I can sense and see that all is not well…

“I’m absolutely shattered, I tell you what, the last thing I need is a tiring session tonigh

t.” his bag hitting the floor with a sort of angry resignation.

Now if you’ve been a trainer or a coach for any appreciable length of time, these situations aren’t uncommon and can, if you’re not “on your game,” catch you unawares and be disconcerting, at worst, triggering perhaps a defensive or unwelcoming response from you.

I chose to immediately frame the session by saying “we’ll find the right balance tonight, you’ll leave feeling better, tell me more if you’d like.”  We have a history of sit-down coaching sessions regarding his resilience and performance at work, so this was agreed to and he began.

As he spoke, I listened, aiming to create in my own mind a solid working landscape of what he was talking about.  After some time it became apparent to me that he was very focussed on facts and events about what sounded like an incredibly difficult schedule and situation.  The more detail he went into, the more our heads felt like they were going to explode!  I saw and felt him live out, literally, the embodiment of his stress.

Very often we can get so subsumed and overwhelmed by our clients’ stories that we, like them, lose perspective and objectivity.  Detail can bombard our senses and quickly we can feel like we have to provide an answer or a solution.  In these instances models can provide a creative and helpful “frame” by which we can start to interpret what is occurring.

In “The Case for Coaching” (Jarvis, Lane, Fillery-Travis, 2006, p. 13) there is some strong empirical evidence that coaching can deliver “tangible benefits to both individuals and organisations” and is “an effective way to promote learning in organisations.”  Over 75% of managers and practitioners stated coaching to be an “effective to very effective” interaction.  (CIPD Chartered Institute for Learning Development.  Survey. 2005)

The effectiveness of our, or indeed any coaching, of course, comes down to the coach and as an evidence-based approach to coaching grows, we can see when, where, why and how coaching becomes necessary and powerful to help craft change, and indeed where it is harmful or unwarranted.

So, my client spoke and a model that I like to use sprang to mind.  This is an organic process that I have learnt to trust and the model that came to my aid was this one, called “Domains of Competence.”  This model is from the work of Habermas and is found and described in the excellent book “Coaching:  Evoking Excellence in Others.  (Flaherty, 2005, p. 84)

 “Domains of Competence” (Flaherty, p.84)

Ken Wilber takes this model and expands on it in “Integral Life Practice” (Wilber, Patten, Leonard, Morelli, 2008, p.28) an excellent resource for any trainer bridging the ‘exercise’ to ‘personal’ gap with their clients.

If we look at the three levels here, it becomes apparent where my client was focussed in his account of his situation.  He was reporting entirely from the “it” domain – facts and events weighed heavily on his mind, waking him at night, creating stress responses with each bombardment of potential worse-case scenarios.  It became evident that he was largely unsupported in the “we” domain and due to his existential aloneness, not therefore, engaging with the “I” domain, or how to “self-manage.”

Using the model in this way allowed me to do two things.  The first was offer some support, bridge the “we” domain and start, via listening and being present with him, to offer a “container” or a space to share experience.  The second key point is; as he relaxes, I help him become aware of the change in his state and the physiological differences as he becomes more embodied and grounded, thus highlighting the “I” domain for him.  This became a key practice for him, namely to “notice” when he became very identified with facts and events, forgetting literally, his breathing and his physicality.

In “The Psychology of Executive Coaching” (Second Edition, Peltier, 2010, p.165) there is an excellent section on “The Existential Stance” the first core concept given is “individuality and context.”  This points out that; “things are fixed” yet “there is no fixed person.”  My client was stuck in undeniable “things”, a very tough period in a very tough climate, yet due to a lesser engagement with “we” and “I” domains he had lost two vital resources, namely self and other support.  Bringing the concepts to light through a discreet use of a model gave his situation and him some needed context and reference points to work with and create new perspectives.  He felt able to really relate to the concept of “self management” particularly and I, as his coach, was now able to share this frame with him and provide “self management tools,” namely body awareness techniques and reframing ideas.

To summarise the take-away message from this article I’ll refer to “The Skilled Helper” (Sixth Edition, Egan, 1998, inside cover)

Egan outlines a brilliant model with three distinct phases to it, which I feel can be applied very simply or with sufficient training, very extensively.  I’ll refer to the first stage here because it’s simple and can be a “meta-model” for the application of other models.


The Skilled Helper Model

Stage One:

“Current Scenario”

This is a really beautiful and simple flow chart.  Listen to the story, intently, with all your senses.  Get a “feel” for where your client is metaphorically and literally with their story.  Start to internally ask yourself  “what am I hearing?” and also “what is missing in this story?”  “What is it that we are not seeing clearly enough or at all?”  In this instance my “Domains of Competence” model allowed us to see where the focus was too dominant and therefore see what unused and underdeveloped resources where in fact available, granting us “leverage.”  Two further stages go into how to create plans for action in this process.

Alfred Korzybski, the “father of semantics” remarked famously “the map is not the territory,” and he was right.  Models aren’t our reality they simply give us a filter through which we may understand our experience.  If we hold them lightly and let them inform our situation they can be immensely powerful.  I know I’m far happier with a map heading into a city centre than without one!



Jarvis, Lane, Fillery-Travis, 2006, p. 13. “The Case for Coaching” The Chartered Institute of Personal Development

Flaherty, 2005, p. 84. “Coaching:  Evoking Excellence in Others.”  Elsevier Butterworth Heinemann

Wilber, Patten, Leonard, Morelli, 2008, p.28. “Integral Life Practice” Integral Books, Shambala Productions

Peltier, 2010, p.165) “The Psychology of Executive Coaching” Second Edition, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group

Sixth Edition, Egan, 1998, inside cover. “The Skilled Helper” Sixth Edition, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company


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