Ten tensions 6: supportive and challenging

6. Being supportive and challenging

I have heard this described in many ways: coaching with backbone and heart [1], “tough love” or the “loving boot”[2]. All look to capture the positive intent in both support and challenge. Seeing support and challenge that way enables us to view them not as opposites or alternatives but as different ways of serving the client. As my coach Aboodi  Shabi often reminds me: the point is to serve the client not to please them. A previous coach of mine, Marjorie Shackleton, helped me embrace both the comfort of supporting a client and the frisson of challenging them by seeing that both are necessary: we mirror and affirm for empathy, and we mismatch for change.

So intent unifies support and challenge. Beyond this, we need to recognise that much of what transpires in a coaching conversation is both supportive and challenging. Being non-directive, asking lots of questions, encouraging the client to speak, not judging them, are all supportive. But as I recalled from my own early experience, being coached does not feel like a soft option. The rigour, depth and potential for self-exposure that comes from skilled coaching can, my clients tell me, be exhausting and can rock their sense of themselves or of their world. That is deeply challenging.

[1] As in Mary-Beth O’Neill’s wonderful book.

[2] Courtesy of one of my first coaches, Ben Thompson-McCausland.

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