Coaching clients who are not heard – or who choose not to hear others – requires a connected separateness that also reveals the bigger picture

By Lindsay Wittenberg


I’m thinking about voices.

I’m aware of the voices of those who speak and aren’t heard, and the voices of those who daren’t speak in case there are negative consequences to being heard. I’m also thinking about those who choose not to hear voices.

There’s the client who’s effectively being bullied by a boss who repeatedly criticises him unjustifiably (in recounting this to me he talks of an “assassination of my capabilities”), to the point where he seriously doubts himself after always having been a high performer.

Daunted by the hierarchy and the boss’s power in the relationship between them, and feeling unable to initiate an honest and safe conversation with her, he’s fearful that he’ll be viewed broadly as a poor performer and that there’ll be negative career consequences to follow.

There’s the individual (who, in common with colleagues) feels used simply as a pawn in his boss’s relentless striving to climb the career ladder at any cost, and who doesn’t experience his interests, perspectives or wellbeing being acknowledged or taken account of. Not only does this boss reject attempts at dialogue and an honest exchange of views, but those rejections come with an undertone of threat.

And the client who dismisses people’s feelings as irrelevant and – in a drive to achieve results – focuses on the task and the doing, and freely acknowledges that he shuts people down when they offer other viewpoints, when they ask questions that challenge his view, or when they don’t move fast enough for him.

Coaching these people demands from me in the first instance a rigorous focus on connected separateness: an ability to bring compassion and connection but to stay separate (in this case, from my own indignation). I find that kind of perspective can help the client too, especially if they can see it represented in front of them in a map they create themselves. Paper clips, pens, glasses cases and mugs take on a new meaning as they’re used to represent voice, agency, integrity, compassion and resources.

Secondly, I’m aware there’s a bigger, systemic picture in these (and all!) cases: what’s actually going on? These are people trying to do their best, but coming from conflicting standpoints. Again, mapping the relationships that are important to them is useful, especially when we look at what’s been forgotten and what the bigger picture is.

The purpose of the coaching is also relevant: is it to enable behavioural change or, for example, to build the coaching client’s development so that they engage more fruitfully with complexity? Is it to find solutions or to discover fertile enquiry questions?

And coming back to voice, I’m increasingly aware of what message needs to be heard, and by whom. What are the options when the coaching client feels voiceless? What are the reverberations for their emotional health and therefore for their performance and effectiveness?

If there’s a parallel process in which the coaching client is mirroring – or used as a mirror for – the culture of their organisation, how can they step back and step in? How can they and I become more ‘separately connected’ so that I don’t jump into their hole with them, and they speak into a wider auditorium?


  • Lindsay Wittenberg is director of Lindsay Wittenberg Ltd. She is an executive coach who specialises in authentic leadership, career development and cross-cultural coaching