As I a came off a telephone call with my client I didn’t feel very good. I had a rising sense of panic derived from a big dose of self-criticism and a mixture of other feelings all rolled into one: inadequacy, shame, embarrassment, sadness and hurt but at the same time this was tempered by some relief and elation.
I sat for a few minutes in this really rather uncomfortable space to consider what might be going on and then texted my client to thank him for his feedback. Like it or not, when I reflected on what had happened it was a really important development, not just for me in a coaching context, but also for the coaching relationship with my client.
It wasn’t easy to pick up the phone and send the text and I had some real questions ringing in my head about whether this was really an appropriate thing for me to do. The reply I received from my client confirmed that it was the right thing to do.
All rolled into one, I’d ended up feeling pretty vulnerable in this coaching context.
I still feel somewhat confused about what happened. I continue to feel really uncomfortable, and especially vulnerable. I’ve sat in this experience of vulnerability without being able to shed it for a few days and it makes me feel raw, like I have a large and deep graze wound.
It’s clearly something I need to bring to my next supervision session but meanwhile I wanted to have a look and see what I could find about vulnerability in coaching, especially in executive coaching and leadership development.
The backdrop of this is that it was me who was opening up to be vulnerable within the coaching context. (This is of course not the only time I have felt this way in coaching, but it is the first time I've had the courage to speak and write about it openly).
We’d found ourselves at a curious place. The process we had followed came to be a dead end and there was an air of frustration that had been lingering in the background for some time and now it emerged as the elephant in the room that it was. There was some critique around this with my client questioning the whole coaching process and the relationship.
I'd felt compelled to offer some kind of explanation..
I expressed my experience to my client, telling him that I found myself really divided with a strong desire to be driven by this sense of frustration to be more forceful, and more active, and provide more process oriented interventions as a result. Yet simultaneously, I had the overriding sense that this was completely wrong and inappropriate yet other than what I can only described as an intuition of empty, still space, I had no idea what this opposite something entailed. I was aware I was constantly grappling with this inner conflict and hadn't been in tune enough to make it explicit within our coaching sessions.
However, as I spoke about the qualities of this thing, trying my best to describe what was going on inside me, I got to a point where I was empty. There were no words and it just became space - raw and uncomfortable, but there wasn’t anything else for me to add. I was spent and found myself feeling resourceless.
Now, this place is pretty much the opposite of the image portrayed in the executive coaching field. We’re usually the resourceful ones. Confident, knowledgeable, capable. We have some authority upon which we speak and act and guide/facilitate the process in the desired direction for the client. It isn't unusual for some coaches to create the impression that they might even know better.
Literature on Vulnerability through the search engine spectacle.
In this turmoil, I thought I’d throw out a search to see what might be out there that shared with my experience. The search yielded a lot of results, but disappointingly, I didn’t find them particularly diverse or enlightening.
If you’ve looked into this subject, you will almost undoubtedly have come across Brené Brown’s TED talk: The Power of Vulnerability.
It is constantly referred to within other posts and it seems to have stuck as a defining narrative in this theme.
But what happened for me in reading what was out there on the subject was an overwhelming feeling that the point has been missed, especially in executive coaching and development circles.
As I read through a number of articles, some of which were published in what some might consider leading business publications, there was an overriding message along the following lines:
..a tool to be used to:
turn it into a competitive advantage,
make you stronger,
help you to gain something.
All of the articles speak of how the client can and should be vulnerable - some of them being somewhat more cautious in how this must be done tactically and strategically so as not to lose face and the confidence of your staff - and the coaching ones would express how the coach is invaluable in helping the client to do this. But what was so interesting for me was that none of the pitches being used were particularly vulnerable in themselves - they portrayed that 'expert' picture in glossy uniformity. None of the experts, thought leaders, advisors, or executive coaches demonstrated it themselves other than perhaps an acknowledgement that they might have said sorry to someone at some point in their lives. The message: how good it will be for the client if the client can accept the notion - and there are plenty of examples of how they facilitated this.
I wondered whether if we’re going to be in this state of vulnerability in its true nature, it isn’t about using it for such individualistic gain, because then surely it loses its value, merely becoming yet other method, tool, or technique for achieving a selfish end game.
And in that sense it represents a misunderstanding, or misconception of the very thing that Brené Brown speaks of in her talk, surely?
The Executive Coach is just as vulnerable as the leader and as such, is this not in itself a lost opportunity for the quality of the coaching relationship to emerge for more meaningful change?
And why might this be?
I ponder that surely as soon as we begin to rationalise shame, that goes hand-in-hand with vulnerability, into an individualistic competitive context of victory, we’ve turned back towards that numbing of the uncomfortable, the painful, the unpleasant, which, according to Brené, is impossible to do without also numbing the other, the joy, the love, the non-egotistical kind of self-fulfilment - and so we find ourselves back to square one. Nothing learned, nothing gained.
So what about the Executive Coach being first to step into their space of vulnerability with the client. Where could that potentially take us instead and how might this enhance the emergence of new leadership?
Just a thought.