Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Clients are Liars

There are many schools of coaching, many coaching models and many styles of coach. All, apparently, serve the same purpose, to “free up the client’s resources” and “enable growth”. In short, all coaches help the client to achieve the things that they want in their lives.

But why are there so many different styles of coaching? At one end of the spectrum, we have a person centred approach, akin to counselling, and at the other end we have a goal focused approach which is concerned primarily with the end result that the client desires.

I believe in simplicity and elegance as an operating principle. Even that regularly quoted genius, Albert Einstein, said, “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler”. Machines are at their most efficient when their motion is at its most simple. In the arts, we admire grace and elegance. In product design, we admire multifunctional objects which conserve energy and resources. And in the field of personal change, I personally admire simplicity.

Conversely, it would seem that much of the ‘self help’ industry does not admire simplicity. Coaching and personal change theories can become incredibly complex, drawing upon theories as diverse as Jungian psychology and quantum physics in order to justify ever more outlandish claims, including the idea that your thoughts can change the physical universe and manifest money and success into your life.

In fact, the greatest search in physics for almost the past 100 years has been for a unified theory, a simple, elegant explanation of how everything works, from the biggest solar systems down to the smallest elementary particles.

Can we find a similar unified theory of coaching, one characteristic which is the essence of all coaching models? I believe that we can, and here is my logic.

Let’s say that I want to write a book. Well, it’s fair to say that I am writing a book, so my goal is achieved. I won’t be asking for a coach’s help with that.

But what happens if I lose direction half way through and give up on the book, as I have done in the past? On one hand, I want to complete my book. On the other hand, I’m not completing it. We have a dilemma, and our bodies tend to resolve dilemmas for us. I say that I’m “trying” to finish my book, or that I am “working on” my book, yet if you observe my behaviour, there is nothing to suggest that this is the case.

The dilemma only exists as a disconnect between what I say I want and what I am doing. If we were observing an alien species, we might do an experiment where we place an alien in a cage with an apple. The alien doesn’t eat the apple, and so we might deduce that the alien doesn’t like apples, or it doesn’t know that it can eat the apple, or perhaps that it’s just not hungry. There’s no way to be certain, because we can’t communicate with the alien to ask about its intentions. We could therefore conclude that, for whatever reason, the alien doesn’t want the apple.

Applying this same logic, if I’m not writing my book, it’s because I don’t want to. My dilemma is only that I have said that I’m working on it, therefore I have to at least make it look as if I’m trying. And to the people who care about me, I don’t look anything of the sort.

When you lie to yourself, you expect other people to believe the lie too. You expect other people to think that you’re hard at work on your book. But after a year of trying, and still no book, they could no longer care less about how hard you’re trying. Either you’ll produce a book or you won’t. So what? And if your ‘goal’ is to complete a task in a full time job, after a year, your manager would be quite justified in asking, “What have you been doing all year?”

If, after a year, my book is still not finished, I might give the following reasons:

I’ve been too busy
It was more time consuming than I had imagined
I had to do something else instead
I had a better idea and decided to work on something else
I needed to do more research

All of these reasons are lies. They are not reasons for failing to finish my book. There is only one reason why I haven’t finished my book:

I didn’t want to.

I’ll complicate it a little and say that of course I wanted to finish it, but I only have so many hours in the day and there are other things that I had to prioritise, other unforeseen calamities that I had to deal with and exciting opportunities that I couldn’t allow to pass me by.

This relegates my book into the category of “Things that I’d like to do if…”

…if I had more time
…if I had more money
…if I had fewer worries
… if I wasn’t so busy with other important things
… if I could just make the first chapter perfect
… if you’d get off my back and stop hassling me about it
… if you’d like to try writing a book instead of being critical of other people all the time

Desires and goals are expressed on a spectrum which ranges from a vague possibility to an absolute certainty:


We could therefore say that the aim of all coaching is to move a person’s expression of a goal towards the certainty end of this spectrum.

However, as an aim, this is pointless. It presupposes that a person can’t turn a desire into action without external support, and more importantly, it presupposes that a person’s lack of action is unintentional.

Many coaches get round this obstacle by saying that coaching accelerates a natural process. The client would have achieved their goal, sooner or later. With the help of the coach, it’s sooner.

I propose that the aim of all coaching should be to reveal the simple truth to a client:

A goal is something that you are not doing
If you have not yet achieved something, it is because you don’t want to
Your life already has everything in it that you want

But what about that time delay between first thinking of something that you want and actually getting it? Don’t you need a coach to help you plan that out? A coach to help you break down your big, ambitious goals into bite sized pieces?


People set big, adventurous goals so that they will have something to dream about without actually doing anything to get it.

I’m currently in the process of moving house. I don’t need a coach to help me to plan it. I have a house full of ‘stuff’ that needs to make its way to another house. It will take me a month, but I know that on a certain date, one house will be empty and the other will be full of stuff. Physical processes take time, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s going to happen. One house will no longer be available to me, whether I move my ‘stuff’ out or not. I’m not “trying” to move. I’m not “planning” to move. I’m moving.

I will continue to return to my central premise; that if you truly want to achieve something, you are already working on it. If you’re just saying that you’re working on it then you are lying to yourself and to other people about the fact that you want it.

Some people, notably coaches, will argue that this is an extremely reductionist approach, creating a black and white world of coaching without all of the subtle nuances that define interpersonal relationships. They would argue that we cannot delineate our world into things we’re doing, things we’re not doing and with no space in between for our hopes and dreams. And yet it is in precisely this space that the client hides, safe in the knowledge that their engagement in the coaching process is itself a deception, proof that they are really, really working on their goals.

Thus, the coach enters the client’s deception and says, “Yes, your majesty, your new suit looks quite marvellous”. And why wouldn’t they? For whatever reason, the coach wants to coach. It’s what they do, and nothing is going to stop them, not even the small matter of a client who isn’t being honest about what they want.

Is there a role for a coach, then?

Of course. The role of a coach is to prevent the client from lying to themselves.
A person’s behaviour becomes more complex and more indecipherable when they are hiding something. It is a natural reaction to hide a deceit behind confusion, and if challenged directly, to respond with confusion, denial or direct aggression. The person believes that they are getting away with their deceit when it goes unchallenged, never realising that their colleagues or friends don’t challenge them, not because they believe the deceit, but because they don’t care.

Let’s take a simple example; a colleague who claims to be on a diet yet doesn’t seem to be taking the necessary steps to losing weight. At the simplest level, she will either eat cake and chocolate or she won’t. The middle ground is where she overtly eats a healthy lunch and then covertly sneaks a few chocolate bars, just to keep her going until her evening meal. A recent British TV series used private detectives to follow people who couldn’t understand why they weren’t losing weight, and all were eating significantly more than they had reported to the dieticians.

To quote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, speaking through possibly the best known solver of mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” So once we eliminate the possibility of a physical disorder, the improbable truth is that the person hasn’t been having just a salad for lunch. And that is the simple, elegant reason for their weight gain.

In the UK, a TV show called Secret Eaters follows people who are struggling to lose weight, despite being on strict diets. They swear that they never have takeaways, eat salad for lunch and drink alcohol sparingly. They then have cameras installed in their homes, and undercover detectives follow their every move for a week. At the end of the week, they are shown what they have actually eaten during the week, and the mystery of their unexplained weight gain is solved. The careful dieters actually had late night takeaway pizzas, chocolate bars, extra large portions and snacks galore. All of those extra calories just slipped their minds.

Truth is simple. Truth obeys the laws of physics and of cause and effect. The boy who claims not to have broken the window is the only person standing on a straight line which connects the hole in the window and the position of the fallen stone.

I spent two years coaching the up-and-coming managers of a global engineering business. While there was no obligation for them to pass their exams and become chartered engineers, it was definitely a positive career option for them and came with the company’s full support. So why did some engineers achieve chartered status within a few months while others were still “working on it” after two or even five years? They presented all kinds of complex and confusing reasons; difficult projects, lack of support, lack of time, a need for perfection. But the simplest reason was, however improbable, true. They just didn’t want to pass their exams. To become a chartered engineer meant a promotion and a pay rise, but they reasoned that this also meant greater responsibility and higher expectations of them. Why bother? But on the other hand, they couldn’t say, “I’ve decided not to become chartered, I’d rather just hide in the corner and hope you don’t notice how lazy I am”.

One of the coaching group was a financial manager. He had succeeded in hiring an assistant and was hoping to hire another. He spent his working day chatting to people around the office, and when they all went home, he stayed late to catch up on his work in order to accumulate lieu time. When I asked him to talk me through a typical day, minute by minute, it appeared that the sum total of his output for the day was two phone calls and a letter. He did defend this by saying that one of the phone calls was particularly difficult as the caller had a strong Scottish accent.

For at least five year’s the person’s employer has allowed him to get away with such behaviour. He thinks that it’s because his managers have believed his illusion. In truth, his managers have been far more concerned with their own career plans to worry about what he’s doing all day. As long as the job gets done, and as long as their managers don’t ask any questions, they don’t care.

At the time of writing, the Leveson enquiry into press standards is still in full flow in the UK. Celebrities and journalists file into the court room, taking it in turns to answer the judge’s questions about the true nature of journalists’ intrusions into the lives of public figures. The celebrities complain about their loss of privacy, the journalists complain about their loss of freedom of speech. It’s in the public interest, they claim, for the readers of tabloid newspapers to know which celebrities are having extra-marital affairs. Well, the public certainly are interested, that’s why they buy the tabloid newspapers and lap up one scandal after another. But is it in the public good?

An important point to emerge from the enquiry is that the illegal and immoral behaviours which led to the closure of one of the UK’s oldest newspapers, the News of the World, are not recent changes in press behaviour; it’s just that no-one really cared before. Out of court settlements were made, apologies were published and no-one got hurt. Much. Individual careers, families and lives were destroyed, but at least they sold a few copies.

We all get away with what we can. We leave the household chores a little longer. We ‘forget’ to complete the employee satisfaction survey. We ‘don’t have time’ to donate money to charity. And when no-one really cares whether we do those things or not, we think we’re getting away with it. But the only person you fool is yourself.

Imagine that you’re driving to an address in a town you’re unfamiliar with. After an hour of driving round in circles, you can’t deny that you’re lost. You know that you need to be near a certain restaurant, you know that you really should have been there by now and you know that the directions were very simple and you really should have been able to follow them. You’re also sure that you are absolutely nowhere near the restaurant. You call your friend. “Hi! I’m a bit held up, terrible traffic”. There’s the first lie. “And I just wanted to check the directions because I wasn’t sure whether you said the Indian restaurant or the Chinese restaurant”. Another lie. Your friend asks you where you are now so that they can give you the best directions. “I’m outside the restaurant”. You figure that you’re sure to find your way there very soon, and you don’t want your friend to think that you’re incapable of following such simple directions.

It does not matter how good, how clear and how succinct your friend’s directions are, they won’t help you because you are not actually where you say you are.
It also does not matter why you acted in this way. Whether it’s through a fear of looking stupid, a desire to appear perfect or plain arrogance, the fact is that you made a choice to lie.
“I’m sorry, I have absolutely no idea where I am. I thought your directions looked simple, but I’ve driven round in circles for ages. All I can see is a clothes shop next to a hairdresser.”
If your friend replies, “What the hell is wrong with you? Can’t you follow simple directions? You’re miles away!” then I suggest you turn round, go home and unfriend them from Facebook.
Wouldn’t a more realistic response be, “Never mind! OK, so keep those on your left and drive for about 2 miles until you see a….”?

Coaches will use this very same example to prove the ‘power’ of a coach. You knew where you wanted to be. You knew where you were. The coach provided the means to get there. This is absolutely untrue. What your friend provided in this instance was information which you did not have. That makes them a mentor, at best.

In this example, you didn’t need a coach. A coach would have said, “OK, great! So what options do you feel are available to you right now?”

My point is this; when you’re honest about where you are, you no longer need a coach. That’s not to say that you don’t need any help, it’s just that coaching isn’t the answer. Therefore the role of a coach should not be to help you get from where you are to where you want to be. The role of a coach should first be to get you to be honest about where you are. Once you know that, you can figure out the route for yourself.

Maybe the route is very long and complex, such as the route to starting your own business or making a big change in your lifestyle. You need a coach to help you plan your strategy, yes? No. Planning  a long term strategy tends to make people feel daunted by the amount of work ahead of them, which discourages them. All that you ever have to focus on is the next step, because once you’ve taken that next step, the landscape will change anyway. The things that you thought would be important turn out not to be.

OK then, maybe a coach can help you to create a vision of the end result you’re looking for? Help you to create a compelling multi-sensory representation of how wonderful life will be when you have achieved your dreams? Again, no. Research has shown that this is actually counter productive. Creating a compelling vision actually makes it less likely that you will achieve your dreams, for two reasons. Firstly, the warm glow that you get from thinking about your future gives you the payback now, so you don’t need to do any work. Secondly, there is such a big gap between that goal and where you feel you are now that you feel discouraged.

The best that a coach can do is support the client in taking just the next step. And the next step is always the most difficult.

I'll be running a Coaching Masterclass in Mumbai, 30 April to 3 May 2016, and that will be the first time that I'll be teaching you the art of performance in coaching. Beyond that, I'll be including it in NLP Trainer Training from late 2016 onwards, and in other Masterclasses.

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