Working for the same organisation in different capacities, we began discussing our work and realised that we are both on a similar trajectory but starting from different points on the journey. We were curious about the similarity and differences in our roles and the challenges we each face as coach-counsellors in transition. Does where we each start on our journey – as coach or counsellor – make a difference to our experiences? And what can we learn from each other?
In our latest conversation, we explore how the shadow and the subject of power are currently impacting our work as counsellors and coaches, and on a personal level.
CN: I recently read the article [in the April issue of Coaching Today] by Bill Critchley and Ann Knights about internal coaches, which touched on the concepts of hierarchy and power in the coaching relationship.1 It has illuminated something for me that I was aware was there, but I didn’t have the frame of reference to find the right words for it. My gut feeling was that as a coach, fundamentally, people were ‘holding back’. I didn’t know how much of that could be attributed to people’s natural wariness or how much of it is connected to my role in the organisation as a member of the human resources team, perceived as being responsible for ‘hiring and firing’.
TJ: Would you be comfortable raising this with them, so it is in the room?
CN: Until now, I haven’t included that as part of my contracting, because I didn’t want to create an issue where there was none, but now I’m wondering if not discussing it creates more of an issue. I wanted it to be about the purity of the relationship and to believe the quality of the connection can overcome it, but can it? I don’t know.
TJ: I felt the same as you but now I am beginning to feel we should bring those potential perceptions about our other roles in the organisation into the room and discuss them. Is there any evidence that your positional power has impacted anybody you have coached?
CN: Not that I can think of, but it’s not necessarily about that. For me, it’s more about the fact that it’s a potential blocker to the relationship.
TJ: How does that impact your sense of inner power as a coach?
CN: If I think about coaching somebody now, I feel a bit flat. In a recent coaching engagement, I have created hurdles for it to progress and I’m wondering if that was my shadow, basically communicating ‘I don’t want to do this’?
TJ: I feel we take our own sense of inner power into the room and maybe at the moment it’s more difficult to inspire and engage with coachees. I have noticed a similar situation with my counselling and how I seem to be creating hurdles myself in taking on new clients.
CN: A parallel process happening here! So, in what way are you creating hurdles?
TJ: Lately, in discussions with potential clients, I have found myself listening for a reason not to work with them. I am waiting on a symptom or issue that means I can refer a client on to someone else even though I know I have worked with it before. I’m doubting myself. I want something ‘easier’ that I feel comfortable dealing with, something to bring my confidence back. If I’m approached by clients I perceive as having complex problems, I initially feel: ’Whoa, this is even more out of my comfort zone’, but as we talk, I begin to feel we could work well together, and a few sessions in, I find that is the case.
CN: And it’s about…?
TJ: It’s about how I need to be ‘doing’ the counselling or coaching in order to feel valued, competent and confident. It’s not the first time I’ve pushed clients away because the work feels too difficult for me at the time. When I talk to the clients, they just want someone to listen to them and I know that, but it doesn’t stop me on occasion from ruling myself out from working with them. That’s why I link it with my sense of inner power because when I don’t feel like I’m lighting up, how can I expect to give energy to anyone else?
CN: You are kind of giving away your power a bit, aren’t you? I also realise that I can be critical of myself, which serves to disempower me. I acknowledge my power but at the same time can be uncomfortable with it. I wonder why we each seem to be uncomfortable with our own power?
TJ: On the face of it, it looks like our locus of evaluation is external. But I don’t think it’s that simple; I feel an inner sense of belief and sometimes I don’t need someone else to tell me I am ‘good enough’. My question of the moment is: ‘Are your better years to come or have they already been?’ and my instant reaction is they are yet to come. My outlook is generally positive and there is a level of inner belief, which dims from time to time, but if I am not involved in the ‘doing’, I tend to disengage from people or situations. If I feel I am not playing to my strengths, that’s what I do; I become invisible. It doesn’t mean I lack total belief in myself, but equally, if I don’t get a sense of being of value, I disengage.
CN: Isn’t that true of everyone to a certain extent?
TJ: I think it’s a little bit more important to me. For me, it’s all about belief and value, the belief in what I’m doing and the value I feel I bring. I’m challenging my behaviour; I am taking actions to change the situation. There are avoidant aspects in my attachment style that I have recognised and worked on. I feel, now, I spend a lot less time in that disengaged state that I used as a way of coping, and that is all down to more self-awareness and a level of acceptance of that aspect of myself.
CN: So, you are not seduced by the disengagement, you are not giving any credence to the idea that you don’t want to do counselling anymore?
TJ: No, it is not that I want to stop. I am beginning to sense that the learning journey in coaching is raising questions for me about my identity as a counsellor and a coach. What are your thoughts about moving towards counselling?
CN: I have been considering how power is coming up in different ways in counselling versus coaching. What power do you think being a counsellor gives you and how do clients respond differently to you?
TJ: Power dynamics are often on my mind when working with clients. There’s power in relation to age, gender, social class, and the power inherent in being treated like an ‘expert’. Then there is power play in terms of how the relationship is playing out from a transference perspective, which we might not immediately be aware of. I have received a few enquiries from parents on behalf of their children in their 20s, and have to manage that in a sensitive way that puts the young adult in charge of what is shared, but acknowledges the parents’ concerns. For me, the power must be with the client, and it’s important to consider what is taking the power away from the client? Is it me, my age, my class? Is it their parents? Is it because I’m perceived to be an expert? Who or what do I represent for the client? Who is the ghost in the room?
CN: What aspects of power come to mind with coaching?
TJ: I do feel there is a perception of power in being an internal coach that is not just about expertise but being in a trusted position. Some clients do have power. This is the thing about working with clients who are senior to us – do we treat them differently? There is also the power of the sponsor and potentially some projection by the sponsor of their own shadow onto our coachee that needs to be considered.
CN: What’s the question behind the question; what’s the sponsor really saying? If someone is referred for coaching because of a performance issue, potentially it’s: ‘I can’t get through to this person, I think they need help, and I am arranging that help for them, so I am benevolent; it’s out of my hands now, I’m trying my best’. Do they genuinely want that person to improve? Or is there a part of them that hopes to be validated, ie ‘It’s not just me who can’t get through to them’.
TJ: Yes, they’re sticking a label on them. I now take time to reflect: ‘What’s the dynamic at play here? How much of this is a projection?’
The shadow side is within all of us, our coachees and the sponsor.
CN: Yes, it’s very different when the sponsor asks for a coach, versus when an individual requests coaching of their own volition.
TJ: Another aspect of power has come to mind – power within the team. If someone is in a high performing team in an organisation, that’s going to impact their sense of power positively, but what if they’re in a low performing team? If the individual’s power is diminished by belonging to a team that’s labelled as ‘underperforming’, how does that affect the dynamics in the coaching relationship?
CN: Yes, in those scenarios the coachee might be engaged in a job search and, clearly, they may feel inhibited from sharing this with an internal coach.
TJ: Just as individuals have shadows, I feel that an organisation can have a shadow, the dark side that is inferior or unacceptable to us and is denied or at least only whispered about. Take the gender pay gap or bullying; we might say, ‘That doesn’t happen here, everybody is treated equally’, but the reality is that it does go on in some organisations. People may be subconsciously aware of it but they don’t accept openly that it is, as that would mean accepting that they are part of the problem too.
CN: I always thought that people didn’t accept things like that or deny them because they didn’t know what to do about it. I realise I’ve been operating under the assumption that coaching is in some ways easier, or a ‘lighter touch’. Certainly, it can be entered into with less training, governance, supervision, etc, and yet there’s the potential to do a massive disservice to the client who could be on the receiving end of all of these shadow dynamics, especially when being coached by an internal coach, who has far more duality of role.
TJ: When I’m looking at the basis of power, there’s a lot more at play for an internal coach compared with that of a counsellor. I feel any coach would benefit quite dramatically by understanding the unconscious processes that are being played out.
CN: I agree; those covert processes are so important. What’s under the table?
Tim Jones (TJ) is a registered BACP counsellor who combines private practice and work for a charity with his role as a senior project manager for a blue-chip company. Tim completed his coaching training last year and now coaches in private practice and within a large organisation.
Catherine Noel (CN) is the People Development Manager at the same organisation Tim works for, with a postgraduate qualification in executive coaching. She leads the UK Coaching Network and is currently training as a counsellor, with an aspiration to become BACP registered.
1 Critchley B, Knights A. Thinking together: the untapped potential of internal coaches. Coaching Today 2019; April: 6–11.