There is a coaching lexicon that seeps into the conversation of coaches, often unnoticed. We talk about holding space, use of self, presence; terms that feel rooted in meaning to us but, to the untrained ear, might cause a quizzical eyebrow to be lifted. (“Holding space? What are these people talking about?”)
‘Trust the process’ is one such phrase that will be more familiar to coaches than our clients. New coaches will hear this phrase regularly throughout their coaching training; a period when, at times, it can feel like ‘the process’ is a lifebuoy and the practice coaching sessions stormy seas! They’ll likely hear it from their trainers, coaches, supervisors, mentors, an encouraging battle cry akin to, ‘let go of the side of the pool and swim!’
The phrase may crop up less frequently as a coach settles into their coaching practice over time. However, there are key moments when it can be useful to reconnect to this phrase. For example, when a coach is integrating a new approach picked up from some training, or if they are going through a professional accreditation process. At these moments, they might find themselves back in the uncomfortable consciously incompetent square of the ‘four stages’ quadrant, and ‘the process’ may suddenly feel inelegant, clunky, or just plain wrong. For experienced coaches at this place in their career, it can be fruitful to reconnect once again to the powerful simplicity of the message, trust the process.
But what do we mean by that statement? And how can we anchor the learning? Here, a trusty mnemonic does the job of guiding us through some key factors at the heart of this expression:
Permission feels like the ground upon which process sits, because it is so foundational to the relationship. Every time we seek permission – to challenge, interrupt, share, reflect back – we are making explicit our intention to work from equality and in collaboration with our client. Seeking permission says, ‘I’m not assuming that you want to listen, and I value your consideration of the question I’m asking’. This is fundamental to trust building.
When we seek permission, the request has to be genuine; if our questions start to become procedural, pat, then we risk losing trust with our client. We have to mean it, each time, asking the question from a place of curiosity and wonder:
Seeking permission is a way to invite the client into the relationship as a true collaborator, so we need to be active and genuine in our permission-seeking to set ourselves off on the path of trusting the coaching process.
Relationship in coaching is key. However, given the fact it is so immeasurable and unquantifiable, it can sometimes feel less significant than asking the powerful question, summarising, reflecting, or any of the other more measurable aspects of the coach’s role. All of these skills we learn support the doing of coaching, but relationship is where we are in the being of coaching. If we can’t be present, with congruence and ease, then it will be harder for the client to be fully present too.
It’s from the solid basis of relationship that the client will decide if they trust us enough to do the work they really want to do – or go to the places they didn’t know they needed to go to. From relationship, clients will not only think with us but express emotions with us. From relationship, clients are supported to speak and integrate their greatest vulnerabilities.
So how do we get the being part right?
Relationship might not be quantifiable, and yet it fills the room. We know when we have a good connection with someone, even if there’s nothing tangible to point to. If we can coach from a place of congruence and wholeness the client will feel it and we can trust the coaching process to do its magic; if we slap on the mask of ‘The Coach’ and use that posh voice our mum uses when she answers the phone…chances are the client will rumble us in seconds and the process won’t support our coaching with the same ease!
We know that we’re trusting the coaching process when the space between us and the client is clear of clutter so the client has the opportunity to fill it with whatever they want or need. Our job as coach is to clear the space of any assumptions we may have about what needs to be done, in what order; to not go with the first thing the client says; to be willing to drop a train of thought and follow a trail of breadcrumbs that might not make any sense to us; to trust that if something is important to a client they’ll come back to it. Trusting the process means letting go of the idea that people think and process in straight lines, are systematic and logical; rather, we create opportunity for the client to think in tangents.
If we don’t trust the process – if we get nervous about not being able to see a clear path through – we may crowd in on a ‘solution’ too quickly and end up distracting the client with a line of questioning born of believing that issue x means solution y.
If we do trust the coaching process, we create opportunity for lateral and creative thinking, the client can join dots in unexpected ways, surprising both themselves and us with where their mind has taken them.
When we trust the process, we can enjoy that wonderful sense that we are collaborating with the client, in the moment. We trust that they’re bringing what’s most interesting for them, that they’re calibrating how much depth they want to bring. We trust that our listening is in service, our challenge appropriate, our contributions willing to be received.
We trust that if the client is seeking more guidance or structure from us, then we can lean into that request. And if the client is thinking independently, we can lean back and let them go where they need to go.
We know that collaboration isn’t a fixed point on a map, but it’s alive, with moving edges, an expression of the relationship that is co-created in the moment between client and coach. This makes it trickier – and why it is an exercise in trust. It’s not a skill that we do, it’s a sense that we discern and calibrate, moment by moment, session by session.
We experience ease when we trust the process. Ergo, if we are experiencing ill-ease in a session it is a likely indicator that we’re not trusting the coaching process. This usually means the arrival of a voice of self-doubt, judgement, criticism, fear; any of the voices that ego will deploy to take us out of presence and out of the process of coaching. This usually means a shift out of being the coach and into a hyper-analysis of our doing coaching in the moment:
Notice how slipping into thoughts about doing creates an internal state FULL of rush and urgency; the absence of ease as Nancy describes it. So getting back to ease means taking a breath, re-connecting to a sense of trusting ourselves and letting go of notions of right/wrong. Then, with ease, ease will be restored.
Rivers flow when there are river banks present to form the container; without the edges, the river floods and we see stagnant, still waters. So it is with coaching; structure enables flow. This is why we seek permission to share or interrupt, why we contract with clarity, why we re-contract as needed, why we establish key learning and action points at the end of the session…the structure supports the process, the process is the magic, the flow.
We can’t have one without the other. Too little structure? Sessions will feel baggy and lacking in focus. Too much structure? There’ll be no opportunity for the client to experience creative sparks and intuitive leaps. But when we find that Goldilocks, just right balance? Then we can relax and let the process support the magic.
Sufficiency is the recognition that when the client says they’re done, they’re done; even if a piece of work feels incomplete, even if they’ve not achieved their stated outcomes, even if they didn’t get what they thought they came for.
When they’re done, they’re done.
But how do we know that they’re not stalling? How do we know that we shouldn’t push them that little bit further to get them to where they wanted to go? How do we know they might not get a real breakthrough if we could just shoehorn in one more Powerful Question?
We don’t know.
So what we have to do is trust, that what the client is telling us is what they mean. That, for now, they’ve reached sufficiency. They’ve got to a good place. They need some time to consolidate, and live into what they’ve experienced with us.
We simply trust; the client, the process and that, for now, enough is enough.
Bringing it all together, P-R-O-C-E-S-S
Trust is defined as the, ‘confident expectation of something; hope.’
The etymology of process comes from, ‘a journey, continuation, development.’
So when we ‘trust the process’ we’re literally saying that we have a confident expectation of supporting the client’s journey, continuation, development. To put it another, less literal way, trusting the coaching process feels like being in flow, letting the water run downstream, getting out of our own way to let the beautiful magic of coaching happen. So whenever fear or doubt strikes, take a breath and trust the process!