Is "Cruel to be Kind" Valid in Coaching?

Sometimes people assume that you need to be cruel to be kind as a coach. Tough. Challenging. Perhaps even brutally honest; pointing out the coachee's erroneous thinking or blind spots. Pushing them further or not letting them "get away" with anything.

Behaving otherwise is, they say, not preparing people for the “real world”.

The problem I see with that view is that there are often lots of assumptions behind the original one - for example:

* In the idea of challenging there is usually an assumption that the person can't think for themselves. In my experience, they mostly can, especially when I create the right conditions for them to do so. This includes my listening intently, not interrupting, being interested in what they're saying or might be about to say next, being at ease, encouraging them by not competing but waiting expectantly for what else they might think. Plus being appreciative, allowing them to express themselves and their different views and feelings fully, and not being superior to them in any way, for example, by being the clever one who's spotted what they have missed!

* Being treated well is just as REAL as the opposite – some of us just encounter it less so we assume it doesn't exist. By "well" I mean as an adult, not a child needing correction, but intelligent, resourceful and held in genuinely high regard. There are plenty of workplaces and relationships where people are treated well, and some where it's even part of their lived culture.

* When people are in their negative version of the “real world” they're often reacting under the control of impulses rather than choice. If we assume that people do their best thinking under impulse I don't think that's true. So by coaching people in the other "real world" I've just described, their thinking is likely to be better when they have critiqued the situation, chewed it over, weighed up the options, assessed the risks and made a firm decision. For themselves.

* Being challenging doesn't need to be done cruelly. It's actually very challenging to be coached by someone who encourages you to do all the work, because they know you can. I can challenge by being encouraging, like a cheer leader, or a sports coach, not by going into battle with you. You are an adult, capable of independent thinking. You can find your own aha moments, see your own blind spots, push yourself to do better. You just need the time and space and the right conditions to do it well.

Occasionally, very occasionally, despite creating conditions for good independent thinking, people still have blind spots, or are in denial, or make untrue assumptions about a situation. So in those situations I will ask if I can offer some information or I'll ask what they might be assuming or not facing, and sure enough, they will come to it.

People repeatedly report to me and to the coaches that I teach that they think much better (by that I mean clearly, creatively and boldly) about their workplace issues and challenges when they are treated well by the person who is with them. I think therefore it's pretty safe to assume that the quality of the coach's attention and presence determines the quality of other people's thinking.

So the next time you're thinking about taking on a coach who will challenge you, I'd suggest you ask yourself, "What am I assuming about the word 'challenge'?"


If you'd like to find out more about my kind of coaching that can take your independent critical thinking and decision making skills, or your coaching skills to new heights, contact me for a discussion. You can even challenge me if you like!