This series from Clare Norman looks at unhelpful mindsets in coaching and
examines more helpful ones.

Part 6: Mindsets we learned from managers that we need to discard to be a more masterful coach

As if we didn’t learn enough from work and organisational life, our managers will have had an influence on how we think, feel and act.

Each of our managers will have had distinct work ethics that they’ll have expected us to adhere to, certain ways of communicating and different expectations in general.

If we wanted to fit in and be ranked highly, we might have moulded ourselves to their ways of working. And if you’ve been a manager yourself, you’ll also have developed philosophies and principles that have shaped you to become the person you are today.

Through my field research, I’ve discovered 12 mindsets that we learned from and as managers that we need to discard as we step into coaching. I’ll cover three of them here.


Old Mindset: Feedback is painful
New Mindset: Objective feedback is useful
As a manager or team member, you may have felt that giving constructive feedback was a painful part of the job. So painful, in fact, that you avoided it. You might not have wanted to be critical, fearing that you might hurt the other person’s feelings.

That may be stopping you from giving feedback as a coach, and yet this is part of the role. Not performance feedback, of course, as that’s the role of their manager who is with them every day and responsible for holding them to account for progress and the way they go about that. This is a different kind of feedback, about how you experience them in relationship with you.

Why is this important? Because the way the thinker shows up in the relationship with you is likely to be representative of the way they show up in other relationships. Whereas others may never have had the courage to give them feedback, you are in a perfect position to offer it from a place of compassion. This may still feel difficult, but if you learn how to give objective, evidence-based feedback, it can be heard and received as useful.

What is objective feedback?

  • It’s neutral, without judgement. Not ‘I like the way you…’, or ‘I love the way you…’. Even though these are positive, they are still judgemental. Better to say: ‘I notice how you…’, ‘I saw you do X’, ‘I heard you say…’. These are all actual observations of behaviour.
  • It’s based on a benchmark of some kind. That might be a set of leadership competencies that the organisation has developed, the coaching goals or the stated values of the organisation or the individual.
  • It is succinct, without waffle or sales pitch, both of which water it down.
  • It is supportive and challenging. Sometimes positive, sometimes constructive – but don’t get caught in the ‘praise sandwich’, which again waters it down (Bressler et al., 2014). Keep them separate.
  • It comes from a place of wanting them to succeed, and not willing them to fail.
  • It is not minimised, for example: ‘This is just a small thing, but…’


Objective feedback may sound something like:

  • ‘One of your coaching goals is to X [eg, to be more succinct in your communications]. I notice how you do Y [eg, I notice that you have been talking for 15 minutes] here in this coaching space. Of course, this is a safe space where you can be yourself, and I wonder how that is representative of what we are working on?’
  • ‘When you say X/do Y, I experience you as Z. I wonder what feedback you have received from others about this?’
  • ‘When you say X/do Y, I notice myself doing/feeling Z. I wonder how that might be representative of the way you show up in other relationships and what the impact of that might be?’

This is being direct, not directive. Being useful in that directness. Being challenging within the context of the supportive relationship you have developed together.


Old Mindset: Why?
New Mindset: What and How?
Managers often find themselves asking why something happened, why someone chose the path they did, why something wasn’t finished. You may recognise yourself in that if you’ve ever been a manager, or you may recognise it from some of the managers with whom you worked.

The trouble with ‘why’ questions is that they put the other person on the defensive, rationalising themselves or their decisions. It can feel like blame is being ladled out, or that the manager thinks the decision was wrong. The other person ends up justifying, explaining, going back over old ground.

I hear some coaches asking ‘why’ without realising what it can do to the thinker. They don’t always notice the flicker of resistance to the question, or the distance it creates between the two of them.

Explore with them, don’t inadvertently accuse. Questions that start with ‘what’ and ‘how’ are much more likely to elicit new thinking, rather than self-protective thinking.

‘When’, ‘where’ and ‘with whom’ questions are more useful at this back end too, to pin down the thinker to their self-identified next steps. Using these questions earlier is more likely to elicit information for the coach, rather than new thinking or commitment for the thinker.

When you’re listening to recordings of your coaching, listen out for ‘why’ questions and see what subtle changes they cause. I suspect this will persuade you to stop yourself in your tracks next time, and ask a ‘what’ or a ‘how’ question instead.


Old Mindset: Lead them to the answers that are ‘good for them’
New Mindset: Only the thinker knows what is good for them
Some managers or mentors think they know what’s best for the people working with them. I had a mentor in my early career who kept talking about me becoming the first female CEO of the bank I worked for, and all the things I needed to do at that early stage in my career to make that a reality. He thought that would be good for me. I admire him for wanting such a thing for me, the bank and society. But it wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t good for me at all.
This mentor didn’t disguise his advice but some coaches disguise theirs within questions. The questions lead to answers that are seen to be ‘good for’ the thinker, according to the coach’s measures of success. But what about the thinker’s measures of success? What do they want from a career or for their life?

I recall a colleague telling me the story of a talent forum that discussed placing a high-flier into a new country to run the operations there. The forum presumed this would be ‘good for’ the person. But it couldn’t have been further from what the individual wanted for himself and his family. A move halfway across the world to a place where they didn’t speak the language, taking the children away from their schools and friends? No thank you! The talent forum had never asked – they had just assumed that this ‘amazing’ opportunity would appeal to anyone and everyone who was tapped on the shoulder.
You can’t presume that you know what is good for the people you work with in coaching. They know what will be good for them, or at least a step towards better – if you give them a chance to figure it out by asking unloaded questions.

There could be a hundred alternative ways forward if we sit with not knowing and allow the thinker to figure out their own advice and answers.

  • Next issue: Mindsets we learned from coach training that we need to discard to be a more masterful coach


  • This article is based on an extract from The Transformational Coach: Free Your Thinking and Break Through to Coaching Mastery, published by Right Book Press. You can order your copy here: https://amzn.to/3zulBch


    Sought out as a Master Mentor Coach by expert coaches and successful coach training companies, Clare Norman looks to continually sharpen individuals’ coaching edge and upskill mentor coaches so they deliver high-quality feedback to their coaches-in-training: www.clarenormancoachingassociates.com