- AUTHENTIC VULNERABiLITY in Systemic Coaching
An exploration of complementary coach and client postures

To read an exerpt in Italian:

Whenever they are considering a relationship with such help or supportive professionals as with consultants, trainers, experts, therapists, doctors or coaches, potential clients are generally experiencing feelings of vulnerability.  More specifically, the main apparent or underlying motivation for many coaching prospects is that they are either struggling with or suffering through important transitions, sometimes wrestling with very deep personal transformations. In short, they are feeling vulnerable.

Of course, many clients also incrementally call on coaches to be accompanied as they work through much lighter short-term projects or to achieve outcomes that are just slightly more challenging than the ones they normally target.   Among these, we can also consider those who enter a coaching relationship very cautiously, by first announcing rather superficial operational goals.  And then, as their work progresses, they become aware of deeper yearnings or much more consequential issues and progressively gather the courage to face these much more important challenges.

Consequently, if many client initial needs could be perceived as incremental issues or operational problems to resolve, just as many clients may come to coaching to address deeper personal and professional life-changing quests and much more absolute existential necessities.  With this in mind, we could position two general forms of client motivations 

  • Whenever a personal need is really clearly formulated with concrete and operational goals, potential clients often precisely know on who to call.  They will most probably choose an expert or specialist in the field they have predefined.  By doing so, they are very practically looking to acquire appropriate means to achieve their well-positioned goals or solve their clearly defined problems.
  • Whenever potential client aspirations are not so clearly defined, if they have been lingering in time, are more uncertain or more complex, if they have been evolving over time or have remained unresolved in spite of multiple attempts, then these prospects may more probably call on a coach.

The above types of client motivations may not be the only ones that differentiate between those who would rather call on solution-providing specialized experts and those who would rather choose a coach.  However, they do shed a light on the fact that although many coaching prospects may initially seem quite clear and decided as to their desired coaching outcomes, they may also tacitly call on coaches in order to embark on deeper forms of personal or professional quests. 

Beyond those apparent motivations however, coaching prospects may all harbor more or less intense feelings of inadequacy or vulnerability.  They may simply admit to not knowing or that they could usefully benefit from a sparring partner’s support.  They may also admit to a simple lack of operational clarity as to how they could achieve a goal with available resources in their personal or professional environment. 

  • More deeply and as the coaching relationship builds, however, clients often admit to not having the time, or competency, or motivation, or resilience, or environmental support, etc. to achieve their aspirations or to meet the expectation of others.
  • Much more importantly, many coaching prospects also want to work through a major life transition, often involving an overwhelming and detonating combination of health, professional, personal and existential issues.

No matter the true motivation or apparent importance allotted to their initial coaching goals however, coaching prospects often begin their coaching process by first owning and sometimes admitting a perceived personal inadequacy or deeper feelings of vulnerability. 

When prospects feel vulnerable, they may unfortunately suppress or disqualify their own creative capacity to solve their own problems and/or achieve greater accomplishments.  By over - focusing on their feelings of inadequacy or vulnerabiltity, they will lose sight of their own inner powerfull potential to progress on their own.  When they do so, they may call on a coach or someone else, firmly believing the other person has the strength and means to help them out.  In this way, clients actually project their own healing power outwards on others or on their coaches, and thereby perceive in these projected figures their potential capacity to grow.

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Complementary relationships

Depending on the intensity of client feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability and depending on the way they are expressed, an initial client relational posture could be defined in numerous ways.  One could perceive that clients are adopting a low position, an underdog posture, a powerless attitude, a victim role, a delegating strategy, etc. But it is not this article’s object to embark into judgmental considerations or logical justifications for such initial client postures.  Much more important to the coaching process, is the fact that any person who adopts a low posture at the onset of any relationship is perceived as tacitly inviting their professional partner to assume the complementary active and powerful role. 

The complementary position to that of any person embarking on a positive professional on a personal or personal quest could be named a challenger, a leader, a teacher, a mentor, a master, a coach etc.  Less positively, the same polar position can be described otherwise: a victim may be looking for savior’s support, an underdog for a top dog, a powerless person for a caretaker, an adept for a guru, etc.  All these top-down and bottom-up complementary relationships are rather common, are generally socially acceptable and relatively politically correct.

  • Caution: When clients are sent to coaching by their organization, sometimes sent by an HR and management coalition after passing tests such as 360° feedbacks or MBTA inventories, they may feel disqualified, judged and under social pressure to better perform.  This will obviously add to their underlying feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy. 

This type of rapport is often foundational at the onset of most service professions.  On the one hand, prospects and clients admit to their needs, their shortcomings, their incapacities and vulnerabilities, and on the other hand, they project that the professional coach they are seeking or meeting knows, understands, can help, is powerful, healthy and capable.

  • Caution: As a consequence, clients usually initiate coaching relationships by tacitly or authentically admitting to their intrinsic vulnerability.  They naturally invite their coaches to adopt the complementary helpful relational position. 
Unfortunately, in some cases, coaches may adopt that complementary role, also join the organizational HR and manager coalition and become judgemental and impatient (top-down) with the client.

Socially speaking indeed, the coach is expected to be the one who knows, who will be open, supportive, and understanding, and/or demanding.  Therefore for the usual prospect (not suspect), the coach is initially the one who can, who has intrinsic capacities, who wields energy and power, who can care for, support and validate, who will be able to motivate, who may have strategic solutions, support action plans, etc.  That perception of the coach most often allows prospects to enter the coaching relationship with relative security, feeling it will be productive.

  • Caution:: A coach presnting excessively soft, caring, protective and loving qualities will also be unwittingly offering clients a top-down position inviting clients to adopt a complementary posture, settling their ambitions aside in order to benefit from this motherly cocooning comforting relationship. This will compensate for perceived external pressure and shortcomings.
  • Not to forget the wide-eyed and open-jawed awed clients who want and find appropriately complementary gurus.  The latter generally offer an accomplished albeit illusory image of a fully illuminated, god-like, post-human, idealized being.

Needless to say, these examples of bottom-up/top-down polarity have no place in coaching.  They can often illustrate invitations that create relational dependencies rather than focus on achieving results.  They may also set a trap for coaches to become much more responsible for clients or for client outcomes than they should or can be.   Remember indeed, that coaching is defined as a peer relationship within which clients have the power to find their own most appropriate answers. 

  • Caution: So more subtly, coaching should not be a profession that rests on any form of one-up attitude or top-down behavior or relationship.  In no way should the coach adopt a smug posture of excessive  knowledge,  condescending support, wisdom or wordly experience.

In reality, coaches are normal people who also have to deal with their rightful share of issues and challenges.  in the relationship with a coach, it is often repeated that the client is perceived as the one who can and who knows.  The client is the only person who has access to the power and the means to achieve their own goals and solve their own issues.   The coaching relationship is notoriously said to define the coaching posture as one who cannot be responsible for the client, who does not know more than the client and who cannot do anything in the place of the client.

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For a complementary article on drama triangle roles

Symmetric competition

Consequently, at the onset of coaching processes, whenever clients initiate the relationship by adopting a low position, expecting help or support, how can a coach pertinently respond? 

  • A)    Some coaches more or less subtly or bluntly tell the clients that they don’t know either.

This type of coach response illustrates what could be defined as a symmetrical or competitive posture for the low position.  Both coach and client are echoing each other’s underdog posture. On the one hand such clients come to a coaches because they don’t know what to do, and on the other hand, not wanting to pick up the tab, their coaches are rsponding that they too don't know and have no options to offer.  This is the quagmire in which many beginning coach-client relationships may unwittingly get stuck.

Unfortunately indeed, if both coaches and clients are mirroring each other, both competing for the “not knowing” position, what can ever come out of their relationship?  If both partners are symmetrically competing for the same underdog position, the relationship could indeed quickly come to an unproductive standstill or stalemate.

  • B)    Some coaches choose to explain the coaching relationship to the client: They patiently elaborate on the fact that coaching is about clients finding their own paths to achieve their desired results, that coaches do not offer solutions, etc..

Although this information is truthful, it is nonetheless given from a “knowing” position and may unwittingly reinforce client feelings of inadequacy, if only temporarily.  By attempting to inform or teach, coaches who adopt this form of response may in fact be embodying a top-down relationship, if only in the client’s perception.  In effect, the coach is saying that the client doesn't know much about the coaching relationship, is poorly informed,... and in that sense, is inadequate.

In other public situations, coaching prospects want to challenge coaches by adopting a very different, assertive and sometimes aggressive top-down attitude: “What do you mean that coaches never offer options?  Why should coaches be paid if they cannot offer any tangible help?” could be an arrogant or condescending comment aiming to push coaches out of their seemingly smug, paradoxical position.

  • Caution: For some coaching prospects and in many cultural contexts, clients may not want to openly or publicly admit to any form of personal uncertainty or vulnerability.  If these feelings are ever openly shared in some contexts, they could quickly be interpreted as indicators of impotency or weakness.  In street-wise or totalitarian environments, that could be perceived as dangerous.

In these cultural contexts or in the case of initial, top-down, prospect positioning, many coaches also experience a difficulty to respond appropriately.  Whenever such communication takes place in a public setting, they may immediately feel disqualified, attacked, or inadequate. 

  • C)    Consequently, whenever prospects powerfully display their assertive capacities, coaches may also react symmetrically by choosing to painstakingly explain that the coaching relationship rests on clients assuming their own responsibility to work out their own issues in order to achieve their own goals in their own way.
In effect, coaches are then indirectly telling these prospects they are just trying to pass the buck to their coaches or experts rather than responsibly facing their own issues.

Unfortunately, in doing so, these coaches are also teaching or demonstrating their expertise on coaching.  They are also subtly revealing their prospect’s lack of knowledge of coaching, or telling them how to behave.  The message could be construed as a judgment or put-down that the prospect is incapable of assuming his or her personal responsibilities.  The form of relationship offered by the coach could be perceived as communicated from a competing stance, also vying for a top-down position, symmetric to that of the challenging client. 

This can be perceived as a second form of symmetrically competitive response where both the coach and the client are vying for the powerful top-dog position, each trying to prove they know more than the other.  It will also lead to a type of argumentative quagmire in which many potential or beginning coach-client relationships unwittingly get stuck.

  • Caution: Whenever both coach and client are in symmetrical relational positions, either both vying for the underdog, not-knowing position or both competing for the powerful top-dog knowing and defining posture, the relationship will most probably lead to an unproductive stalemate.

As a reminder again, the preferred posture for clients in an appropriate coaching context is when they own their own capacity to think, emote, intuit and behave in the manner that will best help them solve their own problems and achieve their own ambitions. 

At the onset of any coaching relationship, the best strategy is for coaches to allow clients embody their own posture of self-reliability and responsibility, or their own capacity to achieve.  For clients to do that, coaches need to leave the actively empowered solution-oriented role wide open for their clients to embrace.  Indeed, should coaches ever adopt that powerful or knowledge posture, their clients will choose a complementary low position that would be considered less productive, in a coaching perspective

  • Caution: Consequently, the best initial coach posture, from the very first minutes of any prospect relationship is a focused and modest, attentive and discreet, reserved and respectful, totally available presence.  Coach moderation and simplicity mixed with very occasional pertinent or supportive comments will set the stage for clients to expand or unfold into all the spaces they need to fully own their active part of the coaching partnership.

Coach vulnerability

This is often easier said than done, so a little more needs to be considered here.  Beyond the basically humble or unassuming professional coach posture described just above, systemic coaches can also honestly or authentically come into contact with and very simply share their own vulnerability with their clients.  In effect, such a systemic coach attitude is the equivalent of a low posture, embodied in a sincerely humble, modestly human way.  It could be formulated into a simple statement that communicates on two levels: “Your issue is not easy, and I too am not an expert in it”.

  • Example: Should a client voice difficulty in any field, for example in managing a group of turbulent, noisy teen-agers, in learning how to swim, in taking an important managerial risk, in cold-calling sales, etc. the coach can offer “I know what you mean!  I have the same difficulty, and it is not easy.”

Note that the comment is first validating for the client, and that the coach is then admitting to shortcomings in the same dimension.  This allows a form of partnership or coalition to emerge between the coach and client. 

Note that the systemic coach comment is in the present tense.  In no way is the coach pretending to be beyond the issue, having faced it and solved it in the past.  That would be indicating a subtle top-down position, slightly more mature, just a tad more advanced than the client.  The client would then most probably ask the coach what was done or how the issue was solved, thereby validating the coach's knowledgeable position.

Of course, truly modest and partnering type of responses rest on a systemic awareness that clients very often offer ambitions and issues or admit to vulnerabilities that are identical or at least very similar to the ones their coaches also face in their own lives.

  • Note: This type of modest and positive posture could be called a positive, qualifying symmetric stance, mirroring assumed client vulnerability. 

This type of attitude and response very often opens the door to a more authentic coach-client partnership based on shared, assumed vulnerability.  Indeed, if both the coach and the client can be authentically vulnerable about similar (if not identical) issues and ambitions together, then they can also partner to embark on a common quest for solutions and growth.

More importantly, whenever coaches realize they are getting emotionally involved in a client issue, they should share it, even when it just very lightly.  When they are becoming aware the client is delving into a situation that is similar to one they are also facing in their private or professional lives, systemic coaches should indeed clearly speak up to own up. in those situations, coaches need to be ethically transparent and tell clients that they too have a similar issue and that their emotional involvement could affect the quality of their coaching presence.  An agreement that they should both watch out and alert each other in case of undue coach projections and involvement in the client issue could then ensure a cleaner developmental partnership.

Furthermore, whenever a coach perceives that the quality of the coach-client relationship could affect their partnership or shared work in any way, they should inform or warn their clients as to whatever may be getting in the way of their professional solution-oriented rapport.

  • Admittedly for most, sharing with clients what could be perceived as coach shortcomings is not easy.  Many coaches and clients may feel this could be disqualifying for a professional. 

The point is that any authentic transparency volunteered by a coach, any shared coach vulnerability, will paradoxically often help consolidate both the coach-client partnership and the client’s capacity to also fully own their own issues.  In effect:

  • When coaches embody their personal vulnerabilities and share them with clients with simple words and with moderation, they are assuming their posture of modesty. 
  • They are respectfully modeling that when clients face difficult issues, feelings of inadequacy, fears, shortcomings, oversized ambitions, sadness, etc. they are also just being normal and human. 
  • When coaches recognize their own personal and professional human issues with simple honesty, they paradoxically help their clients empower themselves to solve or move beyond their own issues.
  • Paradoxically and in return, when succeeding clients ultimately develop their own capacity to build, achieve and grow, they model back to their coaches how they too can also succeed on similar terrains, with their resonating patterns. 

In keeping with Brené Brown’s “Power of Vulnerability”, the coaching relationship is built on a very particular type of rapport: 

  • On the one hand, prospects often initially enter the relationship with a relatively low position, although sometimes just very subtly admitting to their feelings of powerlessness.  They expect their coaches to assume a complementary position of knowledge, power and/or leadership.
  • On the other hand, coaches respectfully welcome their clients by also displaying their own simple, modestly positive position, by embodying an unassuming but trusting form of transparent vulnerability. 

This coach posture will help meet with their clients on a common ground.  It serves to initiate an honest, solid partnership that will allow both the coach and the client to constructively proceed and grow together.

Needless to say that this systemic coach strategy is exactly the one that could be implemented by an empowering leader.  These also can do wonders when with their troops, they accept to modestly or humbly, simply and trustingly embody their own feelings of inadequacy in order to let the personnel expand into the space they choose to not occupy as leaders.

To consult an article on systemic coaching presence

How to practice low positioning for leaders, coaches, managers, etc.

Admittedly in Western cultures, one is rarely taught how to subtly adopt a respectfully humble low position.  Occidentals notoriously teach the opposite: how to be assertive, show one is a leader, be central, know how compete to win, embody Darwin's survival of the fittest, to control, to attract attention, etc.  For beginning coaches, one of the greatest struggles is to really work with the basic assumption that they don't know and that their clients know.  Of course, the same top-dog frame of reference is true for managers, experts, and partners in many teams and personal relationships.

In this context, it could be very useful to add another complementary competency, one that is more respectful of others, one that leaves ample space for other to grow and develop on their own terms.  This is not only necessary in coaching, but in management, parenting, and all other relationships.  On a much larger scale, it is obvious that more respectful attitude could indeed pave the way for a truly sustainable future.

  • To achieve global change, however, one needs to practice on a local level, and to do so requires personal method. 

For instance, consider practicing the following types of low positioning introductory phrases at least twenty times daily, in every dialogue or conversation, at the beginning of almost every comment, question, proposal, presentation, etc 


  • This may not be the right time, but may I interrupt?
  • I'm not sure my option will be of any help, but can I share it?
  • I have an idea that may help, i'm not so sure;  Can I express it?
  • I have no idea where to go from here.  What is your perception?
  • Please tell me if this is not useful, but I think it is time to move on to the next step.
  • I have never met this kind of situation before.  I feel I can learn from you.
  • I'm not sure I can contribute, but I will do my best.
  • This is difficult for me too.  Can we learn together?
  • I have no idea about how to deal with your issue.  What are some options you have rejected?
  • Say "please" and "I'm sorry"  and speak more softly as often as possible.
  • Etc.

Of course, this type of low position introduction needs to be more than just words or shallow formulas.  These comments need to be connected to authentic feelings of personal uncertainty, if not vulnerability.  They need to be experiencing the fact that one really doesn't know anything about what others need to discover for themselves, or for that matter about what needs to emerge out of a true relational dialogue. 

  • Whenever a negative response is given, practice saying "I'm sorry" and backing off.  And make another attempt later.  The only objective here is indeed to practice low positioning on a linguistic and emotional level, not to be heard, place a comment, interrupt, or impose a point of view. 

For personal protection, start practicing in situations and relationships where stakes are not too high, where emotional involvement is not too intense.  Practice at home, with friends and neighbors, while shopping, etc.  The objective is to learn, again and again, repeatedly.  You will rapidly realize that there are many advantages in practicing this type of introductory
formulation everyday, everywhere, on a regular basis, with everyone. 

  • The first objective is to learn how to formulate the phrases in order to really perceive the personal feelings that emerge along with the words.  Do not avoid these feelings.  See where they take you!
  • The second objective is to learn how to embrace a position of keen interest for whatever input others or the situation can provide, once you leave the space open for them.

When you perceive that as a result of your low position comments, others start to express something different, become more empowered, volunteer more energy or information, or take more responsibility, then you know you are progressing. 

To make the learning process stick or the long term, this regular conscious practice needs to be kept up for at least a month.  The new receptive behavior and corresponding attitude will then start to become an new engrained personal micro competency (Follow this link for an article on the subject)

Marketing and sales consequences for coaches

A clear understanding of this type of fully transparent and respectful coach-client partnership can have some obvious sales and marketing consequences. 

  • At the risk of creating competitive relationships with prospects, at no time can coaches market their coaching services by adopting a top-down posture and communication. 
This would indeed be counter-productive to future relationships with prospects that decide to become clients.  The latter will then expect their coaches to continue to be the ones that hold the position of power and responsibility.
  • At no time can the coach over-sell their competencies or tools, over-promise achievements, garantee client results, over-impress prospects or future clients. 
Such sales over-confidence could also either lead to a top-down complementary relationship or to a top-top symmetrical competition.  Both would be counter-productive to any ulterior coaching relationship. 

Consequently, any socially powerful, impressing or impressive type of initial coach position may undermine the future coaching relationship.  Indeed, coaching does expect clients to be in full control of their own ambitions, issues, processes and solutions.  For this to happen, they need to be accompanied by silent, respectful, minimalist and pertinent coaching partners that position themselves as peers.  To allow for clients to embody their powerful and active space in a coaching relationship, systemic coaches need to learn how veer away from occupying that position.  When coaches have truly learned how to accompany their clients in this non-assuming or modest way, that partnering behavior will also be visible in their other personal and professional environments.  

  • Example: Partnering coaches are always willing to support other coaches, humbly participate in peer groups, benevolently volunteer time to coaching associations, and deliver free speeches and workshops to develop awareness of and within the profession.
When non-partnering top-down coaches are active in those environments, it is mostly for their own self-serving financial or marketing interests.

This could lead to the conclusion that the best way to sell coaching and follow up with a positive partnering coach-client relationship is to under-promise and under-sell in a modest and respectful way.  At minimum, one should avoid standard push-selling strategies and barely initiate specific pull-selling relationships. 

True systemic coach should present themselves as normal friends, be available for chats, answer their own telephone calls, and simply participate in ongoing relationships.  This may in fact be the only marketting and sales strategy that truly attracts the appropriate kind of prospects and rapidly establishes the type of relationship that allows systemic coaching to over-deliver.

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_“Client: What should I do?”
_“Coach: I really don’t know. What do you think?”

It is said that coaches never provide clients with answers, options or solutions. Formally indeed, a coach is to accompany client process, not content. In this context, the client is to initiate a personal dialogue, share and think out loud in order to find and then implement his or her own emerging options and solutions. 

In order to let clients search for themselves, coaches are encouraged to assume a sort of low, unassuming and not knowing position that leaves ample space for clients to work for themselves. With the coach out of the way, clients can then search for and find options, imagine innovative solutions, make appropriate decisions and elaborate performing action plans.

In other words, coaches strategically use a not knowing posture in order to leave ample space for clients to deploy their power and responsibility in their work. Consequently coaches know to clearly demonstrate they don’t know in order to allow clients to take full ownership of their situations and issues and search for their own inner knowledge.

There may often be, however, a paradoxical hitch to this underdog coach strategy.

  • Knowing what one doesn’t know is called the Socratic paradox, and is considered an ultimate form of knowledge.

In this light, firmly stating that one is ignorant in a given context can be construed as a form of one-upmanship or power position. “I know that I don’t know” is indeed a rather strong affirmation of knowledge!

  • In effect, the apparently low coach position of ignorance is often presented as one of strategic knowledge of non knowledge.

It is fostered as a conscious relational posture that aims to allow clients - if not oblige them - to assume their own power within the shared knowledge void, within the space of ownership or responsibility clearly relinquished by the coach.
The underlying coaching power play

At the onset of coaching relationships or shorter coaching sequences, clients often attempt to pressure their coach into a more tangible expertise and responsibility position. Clients indeed test their coaches. When coaches say they don’t know, such challenging client attempts could be bluntly formulated as:

“What do you mean you don’t know? What am I paying for, if you cannot help me with my issue?”

On a logical level, such a client response could well rest on the perception that when coaches say they don’t know, they in fact have at least one idea of what could be done. They are just holding back or faking a posture of ignorance. They cannot not know anything at all!

Honestly, this is in fact often the case. Many coaches do think of options and then brush them away as too simple, too obvious, probably inappropriate for the client, etc. The truth is, they just do not share their otptions and cop out by saying they don't know. How infuriating for clients!

More truthfully, coaches could admit thinking of obvious options that most probably don’t apply. But coaches seem to be trained to say they don’t know. They must not know. They have been taught that the coach position of ignorance is indeed at the very foundation of the coaching relationship. At the risk of taking too much responsibility, of thinking and searching for the client, they know their not knowing position must not be relinquished.

Consequently, some coaching relationships can be defined as power games where two partners compete for the lowest position:

  • The not-knowing client initiates a relationship with a coach to seek support, usually in order to achieve a goal or solve a difficult personal or professional issue. 
  • To nudge the client out of any form of helpless or passive position, the coach greets the client with a more professionally assumed and sometimes affirmed not-knowing posture.
And the professional coach is supposed to win!

Interestingly, in this paradoxical win-lose not knowing game, the client must lose to become empowered, or win. The power play is equivalent to what could be called the common corporate delegation game:

  • When employees ask their bosses for more specific direction, this can be perceived as a strategy to delegate responsibility upwards. This strategy aims to involve leaders in more and more over-detail, in more micro management, and the result is less and less downward delegation, less empowerment. 
  • When leaders assume and say that they don’t really know, and ask their employees to come forward with their best solutions, they are delegating downwards. This obviously contributes to creating more space for employee empowerment and ownership.

And professional leaders are also supposed to win the corporate not-knowing game. That is a rather difficult posture for big egos.

Negative game payoffs

As it is defined above, a low-position or underdog arm-wrestling strategy may often provoke dissatisfaction, impatience or anger for both coach and client.  Indeed, when some beginning coaches enact an underdog coaching strategy by clearly stating their ignorance of viable solutions, clients may intuit that it is just a technique, a relational power play. A closer look at linguistics may even reveal obvious push back polarities. Some of these may be explanatory or teaching strategies:

Client: "What do you think I could do?"
Coach: "It is not my role to provide answers. As a coach, my function is to provide the space for you to find your own options," etc…

Such a teaching strategy focused on underlining what a coaching context should be is obviously one of situational control. In effect the coach is defining the context and asking the client to adapt. Not very empowering. And when one is teaching, one is not a coach.
Other strategies can be perceived as non-committal push back comments or questions:

Client: "I don’t know what to do."
Coach: "I don’t know either / What if you knew? / Who do you think is responsible to find out? / What if you were your own coach? / Etc."

Linguistics may indeed quickly reveal fundamental attitude differences between negative relational games and more positive win-win partnerships. And clients catch on fast! In time, when such competitive relationships or power plays get installed, it becomes more obvious that the partners continue to play a low position game to arm wrestle with each other rather than to grow together.

Options for systemic coach-client partnerships

Consider that a fundamentally not knowing posture is in fact an essential systemic dimension of what it means to be a coach, a client, and why not a human being.

  • To question all we are doing, to know that we really don’t know or to assume our fundamental ignorance is the first most important step to strive towards real change.

Beyond all our superficial answers, embracing our ignorance is actually quite liberating. It doesn’t call for others to fill the void with obvious options and solutions. Embracing our true ignorance is a collective invitation to dig deeper into our more essential questions.
Consider that for a client and for a coach, a not knowing posture is not to be taken as a strategy, nor as a technique, nor as a relational game.

  • To acknowledge our ignorance is to be truly authentic, it is showing our most intimate way of being. In fact, not knowing is our real nakedness.

In this light, whenever both clients and coaches know they don’t know, the foundation for a true systemic partnership is set and both can embark in the magic of asking themselves their real questions.  Imagine, for example, the following dialogue:

Client: _What should I do?
Coach: _Congratulations! What an excellent question!
Client: _I mean what do you think I should do?
Coach: _That is also what I mean. For now, what seems most important is the question you are asking.
Client: _Well I don’t have an answer.
Coach: _Yes. I can feel that. You seem to be in a very important questioning place. I want to congratulate you for that!


Client: _What would you decide if you were in my shoes?
Coach: _Well… I would try to have the courage to do what you seem to be doing now. I would really search for the right decision.
Client: _But I don’t know!
Coach: Yes I see that! You are really searching for your right decision. That is the beauty of your work!

Obviously, clients do what clients do. It is not a coach’s place to train clients on how to be well-adapted clients. Nor is it a coach strategy or technique to enter into low position verbal jousts with their clients.

A systemic coach is to simply embrace everything the client says as an authentic part of the coaching work. Real client and coach not knowing merits respect if not awe. Indeed, client-and-coach not knowing is their first step to deeper questioning, to real innovation, to personal transformation, to what could become a lifelong a quest. Client and coach not knowing is also at the root of their shared motivation to find embark in a coaching process together. In essence, client-and-coach not knowing is a beautiful invitation for both to marvel at the power of powerful personal questions. Those real powerful questions that client ask themselves before they come to meet their coach.