Being vulnerable in coaching - what that might look like for the coach?
I really struggle at being vulnerable. Through conversations with friends and peer coaches in the last few months, I have come to realise how big this issue is and have reflected further about why that might be. Now I am intended to put Vulnerability at the centre of my coaching work with clients, for I am convinced of the value it can bring to a coaching relationship. However, I have been uncertain as to how to achieve that. This led me to reflect and research this topic further. In this article I share what vulnerability means to me, my vulnerability story, and some hypothesis around what being vulnerable in a coaching relationship (and from the coach perspective) might or might not look like.
Vulnerability: its meaning and my story
For me being vulnerable means something along the lines of being willing to be visible and honest (with ourselves and with others), opening up to someone by revealing sensitive or personal information. It requires courage: there’s great strength in being weak for a moment. I like this definition I have come across in an article from the magazine “Coaching at work”: “Vulnerability means lowering our guard and dropping the mask to allow our real selves to be visible” (Jan Brause, Behind the Mask, Coaching at Work Vol. 16 Issue 2, 2021).
My “Vulnerability story” is relatively straightforward: being vulnerable has never featured in my behavioural repertoire. In my youth during mealtimes or other family moments we did not have a habit or practice of discussing how we were feeling and what was going for us. Don’t get me wrong, I have only positive memories of my childhood (yes, I am that fortunate!) however we were simply not that kind of family that would easily initiate meaningful conversations around our feelings. My dad, being the eldest of four brothers and having to work from the age of 15 to support his parents financially, has always had to be strong. The hero can never show weakness, as the saying goes. Being one of my role models, its possible that unconsciously I have admired my dad’s strengths, and never thought too much about what it is that might be “missing” in the family environment.
Importantly, my struggles with disclosure should not be blamed on my upbringing, though it has undoubtedly had an important influence. Growing up I cannot really say I was that kind of “emotionally aware” person who is in tune with his emotions and happy to share them easily. When I screwed up – be it at an exam, falling from my scooter or doing something very silly as you do when you are a teenager – I would typically hold it for me, out of shame.
Fast-forwarding a couple of decades, as a coach I have developed the view that I need to be there for others and that I cannot really say that during the pandemic I’ve had moments – months in fact – of struggle. I can now clearly see how flawed that view was. “It’s ok not to be ok” may turn out to be one of the most defining statements of my life. So, how can I expect a coachee to be vulnerable if I am not willing to be vulnerable too?
Why Vulnerability matters and how might I weave it in my coaching relationships.
Being vulnerable in my coaching relationship matters greatly. For starters, it creates significance in the relationship. Think about all the meaningful relationships you have in your life… and what it is they have in common. Secondly, being vulnerable gives permission to the coachee to open up too. By allowing the coachee to discern all of me provides an invitation for them to do the same. Finally, disclosure is key for building trust in a coaching relationship, provided it is relevant to the topic, bite sized and in the service of the client.
If trust and vulnerability are strongly intertwined, a coaching relationship also requires honesty as in providing honest challenge to the coachee.
So.. As a coach, what might “being vulnerable” look like and feel like in a coaching relationship?
I do not know. But my curiosity leads me to a few hypotheses:
1. Disclosure emerges when we delve into what’s going on beyond work; for example, in the introductory phase of a session, when we are settling down and reconnecting, I might join the coachee in sharing what has been happening in my own life as a dad, husband, climate activist, etc. since the last session.
2. Being vulnerable involves an action, for example experimenting with a new approach, a new way of being or a new technique? Experimenting brings the risk of failing and looking incomplete.
3. Vulnerability transpires via an acknowledgment or acceptance; for example, being comfortable with not knowing how to move forward in a session and letting the coachee know. Or by declaring – if relevant and of service to the client - that coaching for me is something that comes from the heart and is not a textbook approach. Or, by conceding that for me the quality of the coaching relationship, not polished tools, or techniques, is what enables new awareness to emerge.
An ongoing, multicoloured exploration
I suppose the answer to the question “How might I be vulnerable in my coaching relationship?” is subjective and depends very much on what vulnerability means to each of us. I sense there is many ways in which a coach can be vulnerable with their coachee, and I recognise I am on a journey to discover what works for me. As I experiment different ways to be vulnerable in coaching, I will remind myself that imperfection is part of the shared human experience.
It is worth reiterating that being vulnerable is not something I have purposefully and deeply practiced in my coaching so far, so the above are more ideas that I might try out in the future. If they resonate with you, please do feel free to try them out too in your work coaching engagements. And if there is anything that worked for you in terms of being vulnerable with your own clients, I would love to hear your experience.