Stay Awake To The Sub-text

Listening as a coach isn’t always about taking everything your client tells you as verbatim.  In adopting a process oriented approach to coaching, we are called to pay attention to what is happening in the moment.  It’s not just the content of the client’s narrative that is rich, but also the subtext.

The client may not even be aware of some important aspects of their communication.  To reveal the client’s subtext, we can ask ourselves:  What else is the client saying?  What words do they choose?  What strikes us about their tone of voice or their body language?

Edgar Schein, whose work I’ve referenced before, turns his focus not only to the hard data of the client and their organisation, but also to the micro-elements of each interaction, such as how the client engages with the coach or consultant.

What Are They Really Looking For?

Schein asks:  What is the client looking for?  Is she seeking an expert?  Is he seeking a sounding board?  Is he in search of an ally, someone who will have his back? Or is she looking for someone who will challenge her?

Rather than being taken at face value, the client’s initial take on what they need is a starting point for a deeper understanding.  As coaches, we need to read into the subtext and find what else the client is asking for.  What do they want that they are not quite aware of yet?  When we stay alert to what else the client is saying, we find what informs their conscious preference.  Do they experience isolation?  Do they trust their own judgment?  Do they congruently believe their stated goal, or is it a response to some external pressure?

I often ask my clients how they would like me to work with them.  I’m always excited when a client says they want to be challenged.  I have a rigorous and sometimes challenging style as a coach, so this is both an invitation and a trap for me, if I don’t pause and enquire a little further.

Is What They Believe Really What They Need?

Does the client genuinely want or need to be challenged?  Or are they relentlessly driving themself because of a pressured belief system?  Do they assume challenge is the best path to growth when they would actually benefit from more space to take a breath?  Are they already pushing too hard, and if this is the case, how do they approach their staff?  Is their workforce feeling too driven?

Then I consider what other options might be of value.  The answer usually is found in the subtext; the less-known aspects of what the client is saying.  Maybe they need me to coach them in how to relax more.  Or maybe their path is to relate more to their staff and allow time for flow of ideas and creativity.

I hold these ideas as hypotheses in my mind, as I reflect on the next question to ask my client.  Ultimately the client and I must embark on this discovery together.

What I understand from Schein, is that the coaching client’s initial brief, their definition of what they need, is information rather than a fixed prescription for what we should give them.  So don’t follow it without question!  Become curious about it.  Interrogate it.  Dance with it.  Unpack it, and deepen both your own and the client’s understanding.

Learn To Read Your Client’s Subtext:

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Being Our Role Models

Who are your role models? What do you love most about them? How have they inspired you?

One of my role models is my former high school principal, John Tindley, an approachable and progressive leader who was out and about in the school yard chatting with us on a regular basis.  However, what comes to mind as I think of him today is that he threw his job in at the height of his career and became a truck driver.  What do I love about that?  I feel inspired and somehow stronger knowing that he wasn’t caught by the trappings of status but that he followed a path that while unconventional, was uniquely his.  When I heard, many years after the fact, about my principal’s career change it didn’t surprise me.  He brought that same sense of freedom to his role when he was in the job.

Reclaiming Our Potential

Whilst role models inspire us, we don’t always make the most of our attraction to them.

Buddhist scholars describe the process of splitting off from the world around us and our own potential as separation.  When we stay split off from the traits that we admire in our role models and think our interest in their lives is about them, more than us, we miss the point. We fail to capture and act on the power of their inspiration in our own lives.

In Coaching, Flea Markets and Identity I spoke of the challenges our own identities can present.  I argued that as a consequence of our identities we start to think of qualities, characteristics and traits as ‘me’ and ‘not me’.

We are usually drawn to our role models because they possess qualities that we admire, but don’t fully recognise in ourselves.  Often they are qualities we think of as not-quite, not-yet or simply not-me.  By paying attention to the people we admire, we can start to reclaim some of those attributes we think of as not-me.

Our role models provide a chance to reflect on our own lives.  My former headmaster’s story is a reminder to think about whether status holds an undue influence in my own life.  It’s a prompt to question whether and where I am seduced by the trappings of success. It’s also a chance to get honest with myself about who I am and what I want in life and to develop a plan for working on any attachments or things that hold me back from pursuing my genuine goals.

Of course, it’s easy to falsely elevate the achievements of others, seeing the success without the sweat.  We can admire people who’ve made courageous decisions, assuming that they have done so without doubts or anxieties.  The problem is that we don’t know their backstory.  We project our own ideals and fantasies onto others.  What’s interesting is that we are drawn to those fantasies in the first place.

The Traps of Comparison

Throughout my life, I’ve set myself various stretch assignments. I’ve looked at other’s achievements as a way to spur myself on.  While there have been benefits, there are distinct disadvantages to this approach.

A deficit-based approach to thinking about our role models relies on comparisons that can make us feel smaller.  It focuses our attention on areas we believe we’re not doing as well as we might.  Rather than drawing on our role models as resources, we can measure ourselves against them as illustrations of our own inadequacy.  Can’t you just picture it?  There’s my former headmaster (the ultimate free spirit) or Anita Roddick or Martin Luther King and well … then there’s … me.

Comparison is a risky strategy.  To the extent that your self-esteem is strong and your confidence robust, you’ll probably make steady progress.  However if you’re having a bad day and lack inner support it may not be the most effective approach to take.   If your self-critic gets hold of you, it’s an invitation for them to have a field-day.

We can draw on our role models in a ways that either motivate or discourage us, and that learn from or idealise them.  It’s important to notice the impact your way of thinking about your role models has on you.  Does it elevate you or put you down?  Do you feel closer to their attributes and achievements or further away?  It’s not so much the role model that’s healthy or unhealthy as the way you relate to them.

It is You  

Another approach when thinking about role models is to start with the assumption that you already possess the qualities you admire.  Perhaps it is only your identity that needs to catch up – to reboot itself, so to speak.

Viewed from this perspective our role models become invitations to appreciate the occasions, both large and small, when we’ve acted in ways similar to them.  When I hone in on times I’ve responded to a deeper calling, I remember leaving a specialised role in neuroscience to become a consultant; something I knew very little about at the time.  This approach immediately connects me to my own inner resources, such as my courage and resilience. It activates important capabilities that will make a difference to the way I tackle today’s challenges. Reflecting on our role models is a chance to appreciate characteristics in ourselves that we usually take for granted, underestimate or forget.

It’s interesting to contemplate why certain role models come to mind at certain times.  Ask yourself: what part of me needs to hear their message?

Why did I think about my former headmaster today?  He ranks as a lesser deity in the world of my role models than say the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela.  What might having a sense of adventure and willingness to take risks allow me to do in my life right now?   I have an idea, I’m not quite ready to share it with you yet … but I will, soon.

Here’s a short exercise that invites you to reclaim attributes that might be valuable but overlooked in your life now.


  • Think of someone who is a role model for you
  • What is it in particular that you admire about them?
  • In what ways do you possess this attribute?  Think of specific examples.
  • When do they emerge?  What supports them?  How can you get to know this part of yourself more?
  • Why did you think of that role model today?
  • How might these attributes be of value in your own life right now?  How can you activate them?


I’ll be interested to see what you discover – write and tell me. Who are your role models?  How have they influenced and inspired you?  What do they reveal to you about yourself?

What Do You Really Want?

When Vicki and I first launched the Global Coaching Institute we debated for quite a time about whether we should offer advanced or foundational coach training programs.  We went back and forward but no solution really satisfied us.  And so the conversations went round and round.  You know the feeling!

We were caught in a false polarity.  False polarities present you with an either/or scenario.  They place you in a bind.  To proceed with one thing you value, it seems at the surface level that you have to give up something else.  

Something about the way we named or approached the two possibilities, created a distance or separation between them, positioning them for a time as polar opposites.  It was a dilemma of our own making.  With the benefit of hindsight I ask myself: Why didn’t we begin with the assumption that both were possible?

Yet how often do we see our coaching clients get stuck in this same way?   What are the options your client puts on the table?  What assumptions are they working from?  How are they growing or limiting their choices.

The truth of the matter is that we wanted to offer programs that would stretch practitioners while recognising their extensive skillsets, cultivated often over decades.  We wanted to meet the deep insights into human behaviour that psychologists bring and extend it through our own studies into signal awareness, those cues to the client’s innate growth.  Similarly we wanted to draw on the knowledge of complex systems that facilitators and OD practitioners offer, along with the business acumen of leaders and marketing professionals.

We knew deep down that there were many skilled professionals who hadn’t yet taken the accreditation plunge and we wanted to recognise their experience, while also extending their knowledge.  Honing and refining their coaching practice.

Going back to basics for us meant asking ourselves what we really wanted. 

What do you really want?  It’s a simple question isn’t it, yet so layered.  Often we have to edge our way toward it, through layers of belief about whether we are allowed or entitled to have what we want?  Whether it is possible?  Whether we will succeed or fail? What comes up for you when you ask yourself this question?  Stay with it.  Try journaling or drawing, if you hit an obstacle ask yourself:  Why not?  Allow any obstacles to rise to the surface so that you can examine them in the light of day.

Designing the Coaching Foundations program in a way that met our own specifications meant taking our own power back, moving beyond what we thought we ‘should’ do – i.e. fitting into arbitrary categories we had defined for ourselves and creating what we valued.

And in that we discovered what was unique about our offering.  It brought us closer to our own essence as a Coaching Institute.

Along the way we debunked several other either /or myths, such as the artificial constructs of being a beginner or being an advanced practitioner.  But I’ll save that conversation for another day.

Questions you may ask yourself

What choices are you currently making?

What options are you giving yourself?

How do your assumptions inform your thinking?

And finally:

What do you really want?   

Thriving In Disruptive Environments

We are living in an era of disruption, in which rapid technological change demands a radical rethink of the ways we do business and how we live our lives. Most leaders know that even their best-made plans are good for only as long as it takes the ink on these documents to dry.

A key indicator of our effectiveness as leaders lies not only in how we manage our vision and strategy, but in how we deal with unexpected developments – both those that we welcome and those that are confronting. Leaders who are able to deal with the curveballs life throws their way are usually better equipped when it comes to the big shifts.  They are more agile.

Are you open to new opportunities and able to harness the potential within unexpected events? Are you an early adopter or do you regard the rapidly changing environment merely as a nuisance?  I’m capable of both reactions.  

Even Visions Can Be Disruptive

Disruptions come in many forms. Some of them excite and inspire us.  Your organisational vision can propel you to a new future. Yet no matter how great your initial enthusiasm for this vision, achieving it inevitably means new challenges that will demand you learn as you go.

Ash Maurya, the author of Running Lean, reports that while most start-ups fail, 66% of those that succeed take a radical change of direction at some point. Taking a deep breath, they rethink and overhaul their initial product design. More often than not, their initial ideas – the place where it all began, had been precious to them.

Last year my colleague Vicki Henricks and I worked with business mentors who supported us in our launch of the Global Coaching Institute. They were masters in harnessing the potential within disruptive environments.  It was quite a journey.  Every program, every premise, every assumption we held dear was laid out before us, so we could take a fresh look. It’s an exciting and rigorous process that surfaced every thread of attachment that tied me to the workshops and resources I’d played a role in writing.

It took committed team work to get through the seemingly relentless process of testing and challenging our ideas. More than once I questioned why we were putting ourselves through it. The answer? Because we knew deep down that start-ups and mature businesses that can’t face up to radically revamping their favoured assumptions and practices, put their enterprises at risk. We teach this to coaches and business leaders. This was our opportunity to walk the talk.

What sustained us? A willingness – albeit delayed and reluctant on occasions – to open up to the disruption. 

Vicki and I both hold a fundamental commitment to growth.  We know that means going beyond what we currently know or have experienced and that this can bring discomfort.  We were also able to be patient with each other and to give each other a nudge when it was needed.


So how do you deal with disruption? 

What’s your attitude to it?  

What influences your attitude?  When do you shut down and when do you open up?

What works for you?