I was sitting in a therapy session last year, talking about navigating the ups and downs in my relationship. When I paused to take a breath, my therapist leaned close and revealed in conspiratorial tones that she had—actually, just that week—chosen to leave her husband. And (not surprisingly, in hindsight) she advised me to consider similarly ending my relationship.
It’s not the kind of thing I wanted to hear from the person who was supposed to be helping me find inner resources to surf the waves that come with a serious partnership. My heart sank a little, and I lost trust that she had my best interests in mind.
That’s not a reflection of how I perceive her choice to divorce. (Get to know me more and you’ll see that I encourage people to explore the wildness of this life as they choose—who am I to judge?) No, my grievance was over how she jumped into my story and made it about her.
Please know that I admire my therapist and might not be sitting here today without her help. And let’s be real: she’s a professional and has probably seen dozens of clients with the same issues. She probably knows what she’s talking about. But that’s not the entirety of what I pay her for. As a therapy or coaching client, what I want is someone to help me create a space to explore my own convictions and beliefs—and to make my own choices from that place. When my therapist gave advice—especially unsolicited—from her own experiences, she blocked my ability to tap into my own deeper convictions to find the answers I seek.
THIS IS WHY I DON’T GIVE ADVICE AS A COACH.
(Pump the breaks, Mark.)
Let’s be clear. When I’m brought in specifically for consulting work, you could say I give clients advice. I bring my expertise to bear by looking at the odds and talking about probabilities, what’s most likely to be the best way forward given the evidence at hand. That approach usually works on technical issues, like research design or ROI evaluation. It’s less effective on the types of issues for which my coaching clients seek my services: clarifying their personal mission, aligning their business’s impact with their core values, and communicating fearlessly with their team. On topics like those, my advice is useless or worse, because…
COACHING IS NOT ABOUT ME.
In my coaching practice, people work with me on significant personal and professional challenges—issues that need answers, that will impact their lives, work, and the world around them. When they ask me, though, “What do you think? What would you do?” I basically reply, “What do you think? What would you do?” Because if it’s going to cultivate real change in their life, it must come from within them and not from anywhere else.
We ask for advice when we want other people to tell us how to live. We want external, dependable rules that will guarantee fulfillment, health, and security. We want certainty. But it’s a mirage. Guarantees, what guarantees?
There is no certainty, only choices—and when we’re uncomfortable with others making their own, we give advice.
Advice is more about the giver than the receiver. It’s an attempt to control our world, and we usually lead into it with this notorious little word—‘should‘. As in, “Here’s what you should do…” What this effectively translates to, though, is, “Here’s what I want you to do.”
My anti-agenda is for clients to see that they possess the answers already, even if they don’t know it yet or don’t know where to find them. Instead of dishing out advice, ‘shoulds’ or answers, I bring questions that help clients better know and trust what feels right to them. Together we challenge the agreements clients have made with their world—the limits and rules that govern their choices—in order to better connect with and act from their own deeper convictions. When that happens, the growth that clients experience is sustainable because it is fed with sources from within themselves and does not rely on external approval.
Your life is your story. It’s a valid narrative, and I’m not here to rewrite it for you—much less to make it about myself. With that as my starting point, I do everything I can to remain unattached to clients making what seem like the ‘right’ decisions from my perspective.
YOU ARE THE EXPERT ON YOU.
The ‘right’ course of action will always depend on the perspective from which we view a situation, and each perspective is unique. We all have our own pair of goggles, shaped and tinted by the distinctive ingredients of our own stories, brain chemistry, and DNA— ‘nature and nurture’. (And we could even add a ‘spiritual’ element to catch the unobservable forces that impact a person’s life.) This means that we’re all walking around in our own stories, each the center of the universe as we experience it.
Since I don’t know what it’s like to be you—to have lived your life, to see the world through your eyes—I can’t pretend to know what’s right for you. And advice I would give myself may not be the advice that truly serves you.
When it comes to things like clients’ core values or what ‘fearlessness’ looks like—my thoughts and judgments are irrelevant at best, and at worst they are loaded with the sludge of my own baggage and experiences. I don’t need to be smearing any of that onto clients’ goggles, especially when I could be helping them enhance their vision instead.
You are not stuck with your current perspectives. You can clean and tweak the goggle lenses through which you see, thereby elevating the way you show up in life. By building awareness around why you’ve acted and felt the ways you have—why choices serve you or don’t, why you’re drawn to certain actions over others—you actually can alter the nature-nurture-spirit decision-making code inside yourself. When you do, you give yourself the tools to choose something different and more intentional the next time.
You are competent. If I tell you the ‘best way’ to do something, I’ve done you a disservice by keeping you from sharpening and calibrating your own decision-making tools.
“Give someone a fish, and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish, and they’ll eat for life.” A cliché, right?
I’ll freshen it up: “Give a client an answer, and they’ll thrive for a day. Show a client the answers in themselves, and they’ll thrive for life.”
My clients seek new ways of thinking and being as they optimize themselves and their teams. Limits are the last things they need. They need possibilities. They need creativity—access to their inner inventive and imaginative resources in order to align their work, their impact, their relationships with who they really are. I just try to keep myself from blocking the panorama of opportunities available to clients as I help them pull the best course of action from within themselves. Doing this, they build the mental and emotional muscles that make it easier and easier to utilize those resources on command.
IN A NUTSHELL
I’m not a chauffer who just drives clients to where they’re going. I’m a wilderness guide who knows the mountains and woods. I help clients better read their internal map and compass so they can navigate themselves to where they’re going. And I am honored to walk beside them.
Advice, ‘certainty’, ‘should’—my coaching practice is not interested in these things. They are boring at their essence. Knowing how everything ends, knowing the road there—life becomes a commute rather than an adventure.
I prefer the adventure. What about you?