Can You Handle the Truth?
There is an infamous scene in the movie “A Few Good Men” where Jack Nicholson’s character responds to constant questioning about the truth with a legendary outburst. “You can’t handle the truth!” he shouts to Tom Cruise’s character. This scene reminds me of coaching, but not in the way you might think.
As coaches, it is not our job to goad our clients into acknowledging their situation the way Tom Cruise’s character does in the courtroom. In fact, as coaches, we do not necessarily even know what the truth of a particular client’s situation may be. We come to the table with our knowledge of human behavior and leadership; we also bring an assumption that our client is naturally creative, resourceful, and whole.
We do our due diligence to learn about the client and the context they work in but we do not seek to be experts in their work arena. We are not coming in to “fix” them or tell them what to do. The client often comes to the table with feedback they have received along with their own perceptions of how things are going.
Working in collaboration with our client, it is our job as coaches to help the client gain clarity about what is working and what is not working, and what they are willing and able to do to get closer to their desired outcomes. We accomplish this through deep listening, inquiry, and behavioral practices that help the client to achieve goals for themselves and their way of working. That sounds like a pretty straightforward process, doesn’t it? It can be, but it isn’t always that simple.
I have lost count of the number of times a coaching client has said, “I’ve never talked with anyone else about how hard it is for me to lead before now. I’m harder on myself than anyone else is.” Or, “I can’t believe I just admitted out loud that I don’t feel competent as a leader. I wake up worried about it in the middle of the night.” These statements are just two of the ways that past clients have acknowledged the truth of their situation in a coaching session with me. I know I am not the only coach who experiences this on a fairly regular basis.
The feedback that clients bring into coaching can be very hard for them to process, particularly if the client has a blind spot or it is the first time they have ever been told that their leadership approach isn’t working on some level. This is where a trained coach helps to create a safe space for the client to discuss the hard truth of their situation. I frequently refer to this as sacred space because that is how it feels to me when a client invests their trust in me and in the coaching process. I feel honored and humbled when a client invites me into that space. It is important to treat that space – and the client – with dignity and respect. It may be the only judgment-free zone they have in their lives.
So, where is the similarity to the infamous movie scene I’ve mentioned?
The sacred coaching space I’ve described is very different from the witness stand. I think many leaders come into it at first with an inner voice like Tom Cruise’s character. This inner voice acts as both lawyer and judge, putting the leader “on trial” by pointing out gaps and holding them up as deficiencies.
This inner voice is looking for someone or something to blame. Self-examination is an important part of development and feedback is important to address. However, a solitary, self-reflective loop can be a destructive waste of energy if it just about finding fault, never allowing the leader to surface new insights or new ways of operating. Einstein was right when he said that we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
Here’s what I know to be true: your best opportunity to change something begins with your willingness to take an honest look at your situation, positive and constructive. You may work in an organization that makes it hard to open up and seem vulnerable. You may have grown up in a family that discouraged talking about emotions or shortcomings of any kind. These experiences and more may make you feel tentative at first. But with the support of a trained coach, you can handle the truth.