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The self as an instrument. How to stand out as a Coach by bringing yourself More Into The Work

I hosted a lecture for Animas Centre for Coaching recently and the topic of using ourselves as an instrument of the coaching work caught many people’s attention.

[If you haven’t seen my "Coaching Modern Leaders in Unprecedented Times” lecture you can watch the recording here.]

Towards the end, one of the attendees (hi Cristina!) asked for book or practice recommendations around this topic. I had very little time to explore it then so I thought I’d delve into it deeper in this blog. I also want to offer some first steps for anyone interested in this type of work.

But first – what do I mean by “using ourselves as an instrument”?

Self-as-instrument work is where we bring ourselves more into the relationship with a client and offer our reactions, sensations, metaphors, and emotions in service of the work. 

Here is one definition that I find useful from an Organisational Development consultant, Dr Mee Yan Cheung-Judge: 

“To be ‘aware of’ and ‘use’ our own emotional, perceptual, and cognitive processes to create the impact that is needed in the system and bring our whole selves to the work we do.”

The part about creating impact is a key element for me here. Using our own processes is not about sharing for the sake of sharing, advising or “just doing my thing” – a phrase I sometimes hear coaches use to give themselves permission to stray away from the principles of good coaching. It's definitely not that!

Instead, this is about non-attached, intentional sharing to add an ingredient to the coaching container that can facilitate new thinking, an energetic shift or new awareness. 

What might this look like? 

Let’s consider the following coach-client scenario. 

The client started a new role and hired a coach to support them. Half an hour into a session, despite listening attentively, being present and skilfully helping the thinker to establish the focus for the work, the coach is finding it hard to grasp what the challenge is.

If the coach was to use themselves as an instrument and offer that sense of confusion and offer it to the client, they could say something like: 

“I am noticing that a sense of confusion is growing in me, and I am wondering what, if any, relevance this might have with how you are feeling?”

The idea here is that the coach’s confusion might not be about the coach’s lack of ability but rather something they pick from the client’s system. What the coach did well in this example was to offer it lightly, follow with a question and be ready to let it go if it didn’t resonate. 

It takes courage and vulnerability to work this way, especially if we are prone to self-doubt. It can also feel like we're putting the relationship at risk. 

But the reward can be high too. 

If what we offer resonates with the client, then we open an avenue to go a level deeper into the work. Having a compassionate, psychologically safe frame of a coaching relationship is essential for this to work too.

So how do we develop this skill?

What's beautiful and challenging about self-as-instrument work is that it can't be learnt from a book.

When we learn to coach we preoccupy ourselves with skills and frameworks but to use ourselves as an instrument well we need to go on a quest of self-knowledge first.

It pays off to devote time and energy to learn about who we are and the forces that shape how we show up with others, including our clients. 

All of us will have formed unique patterns of relating that come from our family, but also our culture, gender, race, and other. Understanding them and how they show up in different contexts takes self-reflection, as well as coaching, supervision and sometimes also therapy.

A belief I hold in my practice is that self-awareness is the foundation of masterful coaching. Without it, it can be incredibly difficult to separate what is ours from what might be coming from the client's system. 

If a feeling of fear suddenly washes over me in a session, how can I make sense of it and use it consciously without self-awareness? 

(1) Is it my own performance anxiety?

(2) Is it something about what the client said or how they said it that triggered a feeling I learnt earlier in life in response to a parent figure? 

(3) Or is it something that is being communicated unconsciously by the client, something I'm picking up through my mirror neurons? 

[Mirror neurons are the ones responsible for empathy, located primarily in the right hemisphere. Their role is to mirror the emotional responses of another person, giving us insight into how others feel.]

Only when we understand ourselves well we can make informed decisions about what is worth sharing (scenario 3) and what is our own "stuff" to be processed elsewhere (options 1 and 2 above).

It’s a constant practice, not a destination. Even the finest and most sensitive musical instruments can get out of tune sometimes.

Just like them, we need care and maintenance through reflective practice and supervision. 

If you'd like to strengthen your ability to work this way in your practice, here are 5 ideas that can help you start:

1. Give time and energy to your inner work.

Get to know your fears, emotional triggers, and blind spots. Explore this through the lens of individual client relationships and your practice as a whole. Which clients stretch your comfort zone or press your buttons? Looking into the shadow can help us understand where we have work to do.

This journey may look different for each of us and include various modalities. Supervision can be a good place to start. If you’d like to consider if it’s right for you, you may find it useful to read my article “Do Coaches Really Need Supervision? 7 Reasons Why Supervision Can Be Invaluable”. 

2. Create space for reflective practice.

A good practical first step to take is to organise our calendar to include time for reflection and integration after your client sessions so that it becomes a habit. Include some “self-as-instrument” work to heighten your self-awareness. Reflecting on your sensations, emotions and other “data” you picked up after the session will help you be aware of it in the moment over time.

If you’d like some help in getting started, you are welcome to download and use the reflection sheet I created for myself and the coaches I work with in supervision. 

You can find it here.

3. Find appropriate language.

Coaches sometimes shy away from offering more of themselves in a session out of fear that it won’t be received as it was intended. These interventions can feel exposing and like they might put the relationship at risk. 

And very often the make-or-break factor is about finding appropriate language for our observations. 

There is a great question in the reflection sheet I mentioned above about anything you would have liked to say to the client if you were guaranteed it landed well. 

It’s a great one to ask ourselves and from there, practice the right language, either by ourselves or with the help of a trusted peer, mentor or supervisor.

4. Include it in your contracting.

Something that I have learnt over the years is to be clear that I am working this way, especially with clients who are new to coaching or this coaching style. 

I want to be transparent and give them a heads-up that I might use myself as an instrument and might offer feelings, sensations, and thoughts when I feel they might be useful.

I aim to be clear that I'm offering not to indulge myself but to support the client's thinking. And I also invite them to unapologetically let me know when it doesn't resonate.

5. Do it in your style.

Self-as-instrument work can be part of many different coaching styles. Take time to understand how you want to weave it into your own way of working, with your unique language, and level of challenge.

There is a flavour of this work that will be suitable for spiritual coaches, executive coaches, career and any other type of coaches.

It might take some experimenting but it can beautifully build on the empathy and intuition that many coaches bring to their work.

In summary

I may be biased but to me, developing this skill feels absolutely crucial. This is why it made it to my subjective list of 5 qualities worth cultivating for the future. 

And the more we learn to pick emotional nuance in others and empathetically connect with others, the stronger this skill becomes.

I saw a demo of AI coaching some time ago and I left amazed at how great it was at paraphrasing and asking ICF-type questions. However, working with emotions posed a real challenge. 

And who knows - maybe one day someone will create artificial mirror neurons. Until then, I choose to embrace and tap into the full range of our imperfect human experience, however risky this strategy might feel at times.



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