Can you challenge your client? Should you challenge your client? What if you do challenge your client and they stop liking you? What if you don’t challenge your client and they stay stuck in an action, perception, thought or feeling that doesn’t serve them? If you’re like me, you might not even want to think about this issue, as it feels uncomfortable, maybe even assuming and self-important and not the role of a coach, anyway.

In Solution Focused coaching, we are constantly focusing on collaborating with our clients. We try to have as little assumptions about our clients as possible. As all coaches do, we see our clients as resourceful and whole. Does that mean that we cannot challenge our clients?

I don’t think so. Here’s why:

A challenge is a form of collaboration

In my view, we don’t only collaborate when we agree. This may be a very German sentiment, but I think that we also collaborate by challenging a person’s view or by inviting him or her to think about something differently. In fact, we often challenge clients’ perspectives very softly without even noticing it. For example, when a client is saying that he or she is stuck and doesn’t see a way out, we challenge that perception by a question like: “Suppose you got what you wanted, what would be different?” The question assumes that something can be changed which is a challenge to the client’s perception that things are unchangeable. So why not collaborate more directly when the culture and the relationship between coach and client allows for it? Coaching German executives, I often find myself saying things like: “Are you sure that’s true?” and it is implicitly clear that this isn’t a contest, I am not “right” and the client is wrong! The client can react to the question in any way he or she wants to (and usually does 😊).

A challenge doesn’t have to be based on an assumption about the client

A client was describing her behavior toward her boss as “in her face” and was feeling uncomfortable about her own assertiveness. She was looking for different ways to communicate urgency. When she described how she was currently acting, the words “in your face” really didn’t seem to fit for me. I offered my perception in a very open way so that she could view it as one other possible interpretation (and obviously not as the right one). I said something like: “Can I share an observation?” The client agreed. “Please push back if this doesn’t speak to you or if this is not relevant. When I heard you describe how you acted toward your boss, I wouldn’t describe that as ‘in your face` — to me it actually sounded more like two adults having a productive conversation.” The client was intrigued, and we started reflecting about how she and her boss would notice the client displaying an appropriate level of assertiveness. I don’t think that I was assuming anything about the client by challenging her this way. I was offering another potentially helpful perspective without any attachment to it being better or worse than the client’s.

Challenge doesn’t mean we don’t see our clients as resourceful and whole

In the above example the challenge resulted from the coach seeing the client as more resourceful and whole than they were seeing themselves. Of course, we don’t want to argue with our clients. Coach: “You are great!” – client: “No, I am not”, that’s completely counterproductive. Challenging by tapping on the shoulder of the client and inviting them to look in another direction and potentially notice something about themselves or their environment that they had not previously noticed without presuming that there is anything for them to notice can be a very helpful thing. We accept the client as who they are and where they are at the moment and still see their futures developing.

Of course, challenges that imply that the coach is right in his or her interpretation, that the coach knows what to do and the client doesn’t are neither respectful nor tend to be very helpful. They lead to “Yes, but” – games in the coaching conversation and to the coach perceiving the client as resistant. At that point coach and client collaboration is destroyed.

However, if we challenge each other on the basis of full appreciation of our counterpart in the spirit of generous curiosity, it can only be a good thing that leads to more collaboration and discovery of new things for coach and client.

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