Early in my development as a coach, just starting on my training and beginning to try things out, the use of challenge was definitely a learning edge for me, a place of discomfort, and something that moved me well out of my comfort zone. Now with several years of experience and coaching hours behind me, I feel more comfortable knowing when and how to use challenge, but find it is something I still treat with respect. But what was it about challenge in those early days of coaching that I found so challenging, and how have I worked on it?
Looking back, one of the first things I had to do was challenge my own beliefs of what I thought it meant. At that time, I would say it was still holding a negative connotation for me, and my primary association of it was with confrontation, and the negative side of conflict. Probably from the way I had experienced challenge at school, and even though no doubt it came from a well-intentioned place, it was nevertheless delivered in a very directive and authoritarian way. What I was starting to learn from my coaching training was that supportive challenge, delivered compassionately, can be a positive and powerful enabler for change. The right amount of challenge takes people out of their comfort zone, but not too far that they feel exposed.
Secondly, I started to discuss challenge as part of my pre-meetings and contracting with clients, asking how much challenge they would they like, how would I know I was being challenging enough? This helped to break the ice, gave me permission, and started to build my confidence that it was ok to bring some challenge to our sessions.
Thirdly, despite contracting, I still needed to learn to trust in the strength of my coaching relationships. In my early coaching days, I was still keen to keep the coaching safe, close to the comfort zone. Fearful that if I pushed the client too much, they would not want to engage any further in coaching, or feel they were being judged, thus damaging the relationship I had worked hard to develop. This has required a shift in my mindset, and a focus on building a strong foundation to the relationship through developing trust and rapport. However, by working on my presence within coaching sessions, deepening my listening, and using questions that raised awareness helped to strengthen the coaching relationship, I started to see the quality of trust and rapport in the relationship grow and with those higher levels, a move to more transformational conversations. This gave me further confidence to introduce more challenge into the conversation and push the client a little further out of their comfort zone, into the zone of learning and growth. By spending more of our coaching conversations here, my clients have benefitted from creating new insights, mastering new skills, and building their own confidence by stretching themselves beyond their normal limits.
Above all, what I have been reminded of throughout, is the resourcefulness and innate potential our coaching clients hold. When we introduce some challenge into our coaching sessions, we give the client the opportunity to unlock their potential, by raising their awareness and shifting their thinking, so that they can start to see new approaches and choices that they can take to face their situations head on. Framed this way, challenge then becomes an act of compassion.