Self-Discovery in Coaching, Part 1: On Assessment and Wild Analysis

By 3 December 2018 May 19th, 2020 Behaviours, Change, Personal Development

Lately I have had a few new clients start at the same time, and so have been reflecting on my process in the early stage of working with a client.  Unrelatedly, I was also recently reading about Freud’s concept of “wild analysis” which is the act of revealing to a patient upon first hearing their difficulties, the doctor’s interpretation or speculation of the person’s unconscious material.

Freud cautioned against wild analysis:

“Any attempt to bowl the patient over at first consultation, by suddenly revealing to him the secrets interpreted by the doctor is reprehensible in terms of technique, and usually punished by deep hostility on the part of the patient and an end to any further chance of influencing him.”

Freud was, of course, referring to psychoanalysis, and often very troubled patients, but the caution to avoid wild analysis got me thinking about two things.

  • Does the use of assessment at the beginning of coaching thwart self-discovery?
  • What impact would “wild analysis” have in the initial chemistry meeting with a client?

In coaching, as in psychotherapy, the most effective learning the client makes is through self-discovery, rather than the coach informing the client of what may be driving the client’s behaviours.  Freud’s view was that in order for an analyst to reveal the client’s unconscious material to the client, the patient would need to be “in the neighbourhood” of the discovery himself, and that there would need to be a bond of trust between the two necessarily developed over time.

But how does this warning fit with the very common practice of assessment at the start of executive coaching?  I myself often use personality questionnaires and 360 feedback with clients at the beginning.

Does this practice thwart self-discovery?

I don’t believe so. Use of these tools are indeed effective short cuts to client and coach insight, but they typically only serve to give the pair a common language in discussing the client’s predilections, strengths and challenges.  Feedback discussions should ideally open the door for self-discovery, and be about creating some clarity with the client on how personality and behaviour interconnect.  In effect, they provide a map toward “the neighbourhood” of self-discovery.  If handled in an objective, sensitive, and exploratory fashion, psychometric and 360 feedback also establishes a strong bond between client and coach.  It sets the stage for a partnership where they define the goals of the coaching engagement and jointly embark on the client’s development path.  What happens after this initial assessment in coaching is the real territory of self-discovery.

Where wild analysis may genuinely be a pitfall is in the initial “chemistry” meeting with a client.  In an attempt to dazzle the client with brilliance, a novice coach may be inclined to reveal insight gained about the client through the initial conversation.  Potential clients may find this uncanny and insightful, and some may even choose to work with the coach under the belief that the coach will have further insight and it will be “good for them.”  (Keep a stiff upper lip, and all that.) But without that deeper bond of trust, interpretation in the chemistry meeting can feel rushed and painful.  As coaches, I believe we have a responsibility to our clients to be partners, and to use whatever theories we have to inform our curiosity and our questions so that the client may best benefit and self-discover.

Let’s look at a common example for why a coach is introduced to a potential client.  The HR contact calls with the complaint that while a manager in the organisation is technically brilliant, and well-liked by senior leadership, he is a poor team manager.  There is low morale in the team and staff retention is a problem.  The coach goes to the chemistry meeting and early in the conversation forms a view that the manager has a high attention to detail and a high need to control.

The coach knows that these traits, if overused, typically result in the manager taking over the work of direct reports which subsequently results in their lack of engagement and low morale.  The less the direct reports engage, the less they achieve, and the harder the manager works to make up for their lack of ownership.  If the manager is to survive in a bigger executive role, he must learn how not to delve into the details and how to resist taking control of so many things.

Now here is the difference between an effective coach and a “wild analysis” coach.  An effective coach uses her observations in her first encounter with the client to inform her questions and to explore the manager’s understanding of his situation.  Through their conversation, she is sampling the dynamic of how they may work together, and how responsive to coaching the manager may be, and through their conversation the manager begins to gain his first pieces of self-discovery.

A coach, however, that embarks on “wild analysis”  in this same scenario may try to dazzle the client by pointing out the client’s high attention to detail and high need to control, then trot out the impact these things have on engaging staff and what it might be like to work in the manager’s team.  If taken further, the wild analysis may include some conjectures about other things in the client’s life and indeed how these patterns developed in the first place earlier in life.  Ouch!

Executives are made of strong stuff, and it is completely believable that some may choose a “wild analysis” coach in the hope that more insight will be dispensed and the correct path laid out before the executive.  “I might not like it,” the executive reasons, “but it is what I need.”  Over time, however, the motivation to attend the coaching sessions and receive one’s challenging medicine will undoubtedly wane, and appointments may get cancelled at the last minute on a frequent basis.  Additionally, the coach, knowing that he should not be exclusively directive, will attempt to draw out the executive’s ideas for change, and in so doing comes across as now withholding that precious insight for which the client originally chose her.  The pattern of inform and receive was set in the chemistry meeting and thus the client is not positioned to self-discover, and the coaching will have little, if any, long-term impact.  Wild analysis in the chemistry session is just the tip of the iceberg of an unsuccessful coaching engagement.

In Part 2 of Self-Discovery in Coaching, I will look at the challenges to self-discovery posed by organisational life.

Victoria Hall, Executive Coach – Founder of Talent Futures