Donkey Coaching

What is that? Are we coaching the gentle grey, long-eared companions (that I find absolutely adorable)? Nope. “Donkey Coaching” is a term coined by Federica — a lovely SolutionsAcademy coach from Italy. I don’t know about Italian donkeys, but I do know about German lore on donkeys: If you try to force them, they won’t budge. If you pull them from the front, they dig their hooves in and won’t be moved, if you whip them with a stick they’ll get mad.

Now what does this all have to do with coaching?

When we are beginning to coach or apply a coaching style in leadership, we often will think we know where the client should end up, what the solution should be. We try asking “Socratic questions” which should lead the client to the “right answer” and are disappointed if we do not manage. Just like the person trying to move a donkey, we are unsuccessful because we have determined what the path is and not the donkey. This is frustrating for both parties: the coach feels helpless and incompetent, the client feels pushed around. The coach and the client have a much easier time if the coach and client are walking along side each other and the coach is neither pushing nor pulling but accompanying. Let’s compare the different style of questions.

Donkey Coaching

Let’s say the client wants to be more assertive. Coach and client have explored situations in which the client is more assertive. The coach decides that the client should use these experiences and apply them in the current situation.

  • Client: “Yes, with my children I can be more assertive”
  • Coach: “How can you use this experience with your co-workers?”
  • Client: “Well, actually, this is a completely different situation!”
  • Coach: “But you just said that…”
  • Client: “But, no…”

Tada! The client has dug his or her heels in — just like the donkey if it feels pushed or pulled. Coach and client are playing a game of “Yes, but” and the client is thinking very hard about why this won’t work which isn’t really helpful.

Side-by-side coaching

We’ll take the same situation.

  • Client: “Yes, with my children I can be more assertive”
  • Coach: “How do the children notice that you are more assertive?”
  • Client (gives detailed description)
  • Coach: “When you hear yourself describe your assertiveness with your children, what if anything are you learning about being assertive?”
  • Client: “When I am assertive with my kids, I feel like I am in charge and I know what I am doing — actually I don’t feel like that a lot in my job. But I know that I am competent.”
  • Coach: “Would you like us to explore this feeling of competence a bit?”
  • Client: “Sure!”
  • Coach: “When you do feel a little bit competent at work, how do you notice?”

And so on — the coach does not assume he or she knows the way and what the client should answer. Coach and client are side by side and the coach sometimes taps the client on the shoulder to help the client broaden his or her field of vision. This is much more relaxing for both coach and client, more enjoyable and more useful.

And did I mention that I love donkeys?

If you’d like to explore questions like these, discuss cases, get information on our programs, do come and join one of our free coaching meetups and exchanges: