This six-part series is directed at those individuals, practices and programs currently working with, or wishing to work with, parents of struggling teens and young adults. The series reviews the differences between coaching, consulting and therapy and identifies five specific skills that the experienced coach must bring to the relationship.
Skill #3: Revealing the Barriers to What Is
There is an old saying in the game of orienteering that you can't get to where you want to go until you first ascertain where you are. So it is with parents wanting to change their parenting methods and family dynamics. Both coach and client first need to have a clear-eyed view of present conditions within the family if relevant and effective actions are to be taken to remedy existing problems. Before she can own the solution, the client must own the problem.
By "owning" the problem, we don't necessarily mean that the client has to accept all the blame and all the responsibility. Instead, owning the problem means that one acknowledges the factual description of the status quo and is ready to affect the changes over which she has control. The first step in owning the problem is acceptance of "what is."
Acceptance, as we use it in parent coaching, is an active word as opposed to the passive sense in which many see it. Highly successful or strongly independent individuals will often resist the notion that they must bring more acceptance into their lives. These persons look upon acceptance as "laying down" or "giving in."
Instead, we define acceptance as the acknowledgement of the reality of any given situation. It is the opposite of that long river in Egypt. By accepting, one is saying this is what is, like it or not. Acceptance requires a great deal of objectivity and honesty, especially when one's own beliefs or actions are being examined. Acceptance of something or someone does not mean you have to like or agree with what you see, only that you are seeing what is truly there.
Acceptance can be a difficult first step for parents long used to denying or excusing their out-of-control child's behaviors. In workshops with hundreds of parents of children in residential programs, we asked, "How many recognized your child's behavior as out of your control long before you sent him or her to residential placement?" Most hands went up. For many parents, the level of pain has to exceed the level of denial before effective action can be taken.
Despite accepted wisdom that since Homer in the ninth century B.C. ("Young people are thoughtless as a rule") the "next generation" has been going to the dogs, it seems that never before have we been so willing to blame parents for the bad choices their children are making--this, in a society that continually offers more dangerous distractions to its least discerning members. Most parents will admit that a part (or all) of them believes the old saw that "good parents have good kids." Therefore, it should come as no surprise that most parents are slow to admit they have a dysfunctioning child in a dysfunctional household.
As mentioned at the outset, both coach and client must have a clear-eyed view of the current situation in the family before effective action plans can be undertaken. So let's look at some of the barriers to acceptance - for both client and coach.
Client barriers to "what is"
Negative self-judgments - We all have some negative thoughts about ourselves. For some parents the inner judgments, coupled with society's implanted beliefs about good parents and good children, add up to bitter self-recrimination. The result is often denial of one's ability to affect the outcome, or the blaming of outside forces for their family's difficulties.
Comparisons - Parents who compare themselves to "normal" families, or are compared by others to families who do not seem to have any similar problems, will often want to hide their situation from outsiders - and sometimes from themselves.
Family "secrets" - Dysfunctional families may often recognize their problems internally but, united in the belief that they cannot ask for or get help, will keep outsiders, including coaches, from knowing the truth about their situation.
Expectations - Dreams for our children, begun when we first held them in our arms, die hard. Indeed, many parents turn their dreams into expectations. When their child does not fulfill their dreams, they are disappointed, angry, yet still very reluctant to give up their expectations.
Culture - Some cultures are even more severe in their judgments against parents with struggling children than our own. The informed coach will recognize these cultural barriers to acceptance and disclosure and work sensitively with these parents.
Lack of knowledge - Though not as common as some of the other barriers to acceptance, a coach may occasionally come across a parent who is genuinely clueless to what their child is into and how they are contributing to that child's out-of-control behavior.
Fear of change - When we talked with those parents who admitted to delaying for months, even years, taking the actions their child needed, many admitted that the greatest barrier to their acceptance was a fear of change. All of us have a certain hard-wired resistance to change. We will put up with quite a bit of discomfort before we will leave "the devil we know."
The coach's barriers to "what is"
Over-identification - Losing one's understanding that every client and every family dynamic is different occurs when the coach starts to see herself in the client. This identifying with the client has the effect of halving the synergistic possibilities of the coaching relationship.
Judgments -Personal bias and stereotypes can influence our judgment of others. The acceptance process mentioned above must be part of the coach's work as well as the client's. Acceptance does not involve the coach judging what is, simply acknowledging it.
Perspective - Separating personal perspective from reality will be the work of both the client and the coach.
Investment in the outcome - One of the hardest things a new coach must learn is that his natural instinct to want the coaching relationship to be an unqualified success is actually a hindrance to his ability to be a supportive partner in the client's self-empowering change process. An over- investment in the outcome can blind a coach to alternative actions and solutions that do not fit into his own game plan.
Need to have the answer - Clients may have many questions. And there are appropriate times for the coach to supply answers. However, feeling a need to answer all of the client's questions can force the coach into evaluating situations only as they lend themselves to solutions.
So, how do we as coaches begin to scale these barriers: our own and the client's? First, by being aware of our own barriers to acceptance, we continually work on our openness to what may come, our genuine belief in the client's ability to see himself and his family as they are, and controlling our underlying need to be right and in control.
Building the coaching relationship on mutual trust is essential for both client and coach. Trust in each other will help both client and coach to begin to trust the process. Bridges built between coach and client, constructed on a foundation of mutual trust and safety, allow each participant to drop ingrained defenses and move together to remove the barriers to acceptance of what is.
For the coach, this period of trust and safety building requires that she act as both passenger and navigator. She must allow the process to unfold while gently nudging it forward. Sensitivity to timing is an intuitive skill which is acquired over time and work with a number of parents. Some parents will move forward sooner and faster than others. Resistance will be greater or lesser even within couples.
Incremental progress is what we look for in the early stages of the relationship. Sudden epiphanies and break-through changes will often occur for the client, but only after they have accepted the reality of the present situation. By gradually revealing previously undisclosed areas of her life, and having those disclosures accepted by a non-judgmental coach, the client becomes surer of herself and willing to attack new barriers to what is.
We discussed self-disclosure by the coach with Skill #2 - clean, clear concise communication. Self-disclosure can help build bridges to the client. However, before disclosing, the coach must check himself out by asking, "Why am I sharing this? Does what I am about to share serve the client's needs?" Sharing one's own barriers to acceptance as they have played out in one's life may be a catalyst for the client to open up.
Again, as we saw in Skill #2, powerful questioning is the most important skill, and greatest gift, that the experienced coach brings to the relationship. Combined with sensitivity, mutual trust, exquisite timing and a recognition of the human condition in every client - and oneself - the coach's powerful questions help the client open the doors to "what is".
About the Authors:
Bill and Penelope Valentine are the co-founders of Next Step for Success, a parent and family coaching service headquartered in Redmond, OR. 541-504-5224