Can a coach say “I” during a coaching session?

Recently, we had a very interesting discussion on the MCC assessor’s basecamp (a communication forum) about the use of “I” by the coach. Carly Anderson raised the question whether the use of “I” by the coach was acceptable for an MCC recording or whether it would be frowned upon. Examples she gave were:

  • “I hear your frustration”
  • “I sense there’s something more there”
  • “I acknowledge you for….”

Apparently, this was sparked by a discussion with another assessor in a masterclass.

There are so many rumors going around in ICF circles of what is acceptable in MCC recordings that I am sometimes flabbergasted. If you hear any of them — let me know or talk to an experienced mentor if you are on your MCC journey. Not everything that is purported is actually a criterion for ICF mastery. We have seen many MCC candidates having been “led astray” by these rumors when they join our MCC masterclass. Don’t join their ranks and practice the wrong thing!

But back to the rumor on using “I” in coaching sessions.

When I hear rumors on assessors’ views on the coach using certain words, structures etc. as “allowed” or “forbidden”, I get worried. In my view this is a misunderstanding of both coaching and language.

I (yes, I) like the way narrative practice positions the stance of the practitioner: decentered and influential. The client is always in the center of the conversation and the practitioner is decentered, but fully there as a human being. 

From my perspective, coaching is a collaboration. Coach and client co-construct meaning and forward movement (hopefully) in the session. So no coaching session is alike and therefore, imho, you cannot simply say that “the use of I” or “a closed question” etc. is masterful or not in general. It depends on the specifics. Words or phrases do not “mean” anything. The meaning of a word is defined by its use in conversation and there is no “absolute” or “fixed” meaning of anything. Conversations are emergent, complex events and not something that we can “measure”.

ICF is caught between a rock and a hard place here: the market wants predictability and “tested” coaches. So we need to find a way to supply a “test” (which is actually impossible for something as complex as mastery in conversation) that is manageable, consistent and equitable. So now we have to figure out “rules” that can be applied consistently and equitably so that all applicant performances are “measured” by the same “rules”. Sad thing is, that this is an impossibility by nature.

My invitation is to look at the co-construction that happens in the session rather than at certain aspects of language. This will always be subjective — to make it fair, assessors are invited to be aware of their biases and make sure that they base our assessments on observable co-construction rather than their first hunches.

So is the use of “I” allowed or not? As I said, the question is wrong. Instead, you might ask yourself: when I am speaking from my perspective as a coach in a coaching session, is this putting me into the center of the conversation or am I contributing something which adds something to the client (who continues to be in the center).

An example of “centering the coach” might be:

  • Client tells a story about how she hates mansplaining
  • Coach agrees, tells her own story about how yesterday she was mansplained to

An example of “contributing” might be:

  • Client tells a story about how she hates mansplaining
  • Coach shares: “Oh, I can really relate to what you are sharing — how would you like us to tackle this issue, if at all?”

I don’t think that the coach needs to “hide” her own feelings. Showing them quickly and then moving the client back into the center might even be acknowledging and helpful to the client: she is not alone with her perception. I, personally, do not like to be coached by people in hiding, it makes me feel like I am being “treated” and not accepted at eye-level. But that may be different for different clients.

If you’d like to explore these or other topics, learn about our classes, share some of your questions and simply hang out with fellow coaches and coaches-to-be, why not join one of our free meetups and exchanges?

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