Another coaching session analysis

The Performance Coach – Demonstration of Coaching Using Metaphor

Coach: “So can you just tell me a little more about that.”

Client:So it’s a consideration about how I go about engaging with, building relationship with, and supporting the growth of the international sites, offices that we’re developing. My question is about how much to just let it grow on its own and how much support to give it, I think.”

One of the difficulties in any form of coaching or counseling is that information can come in thick and fast and so often vital pieces get missed. It has been said that the devil is in the details and it has been my experience that sometimes these details get missed until the words are written down such as here in this example. Only when we can slow it down does the devil reveal hirself (sic).

The client presents two distinctly different issues.

  1. The relationship with international sites. Metaphorically, these relationships are “built” (construction metaphor).
  2. Supporting international sites. Metaphorically, we have two taxonomies here. The role she assumes is one of “support” (all Level 2 trainees will immediately recognise the status position and situational-relational position given away here) and the perceived taxonomy of the international sites is that of “growth.” It is less unlikely that this growth is an anthropomorphication (i.e. “it’s my baby”) and is much more likely to be of the agricultural taxonomy. Although at this stage we know not if this is at the individual level (i.e. “A seed is planted, I support its growth”) or organisational (i.e. “Developing the organisation to spread out into new pastures in order to harvest bigger rewards.”)

The client next line blurs the distinction between these taxonomies. She says, “My question is about how much to just let it grow on its own and how much support to give it, I think.” These two taxonomies appear to be in conflict with each other, but of course they may not be. We don’t know just yet.

Now all this refers back to that little word snuck into her first line when she says, “it’s a consideration about how I go about engaging with…” Engaging. How she engages is the issue here. If I really go out on a limb here for the non-MoM readers, engagements tend to be happy occasions with the promise of something more permanent to come. However, not all marriages are made in heaven and sometimes end with, “what on earth was I thinking?” once the honeymoon period ends.

So precisely how one goes about engaging is quite important, less one wants to get into a committed relationship that either or both parties become unhappy with.

Additionally, with any anthropomorphication (“it has a life of its own”) the relationship we have with it may stifle it’s growth and natural development, or allow it to go wild and undisciplined. With agricultural taxonomy, the same can be true, but without the appropriate relationship then things may also turn out for the worst and everything can go to seed and the rot can set in.

Coach:So you have this sort of support and growth and this. I’m wondering in terms of this whole topic we’re talking about, is there an image for that? What’s that like in terms of what you’re trying to grow here?”

At least he chunked up in order to ask for the metaphor. But right there, with those first 11 words, something happens.

Is this a question about outcome (i.e. “what would this be like if you have what you need?”) or is this question about the quality of the support and growth. Are we talking about the problem or the outcome here? There’s a lack of definition.

Asking, “Is there an image for that?” is a risky question, and one we don’t use in MoM. In fact in MoM, we attempt to strip out as much VAK modalities predication as possible. It avoids the whole problem of, “I’m not a visual person”, plus also the person may well go straight into simile, which is something that we definitely don’t want.

Then something else happens. The coach asks, “What’s that like in terms of what you’re trying to grow here?”

It’s a really easy mistake to make, because of the information density of the previous communication. There’s an imposition in that the client has not said that she is trying to grow anything. It’s the international sites that are growing (in her model of course, this may not be how these sites view themselves), what she is wanting is a better way of engaging with them to better understand how much support to give this growth.

Client:Well I immediately, when I think about growing, I’m imagining the individual countries, and in fact the individual country managers as little saplings, so growing out of the ground. Almost, you know, when a child plants a bean and the bean grows out of one of those cobbled cups. And recognizing that it’s still at a very early stage and the sapling’s growing, how much to allow that to happen, give it light, how much to allow that to happen organically, emergently if you like, and how much to put a support around it, so continuing with the theme, how much to – yeah to build something around it that gives it support.”

Good, so we have got a good metaphor. She is growing trees. The relationship she has is that her managers are saplings and she is the gardener. Not much wrong with that.


In terms of definition, the manager who is a sapling is not the international site or the organisation. This is just an individual within the site. In MoM I’d be asking, “OK, so the manager is like a sapling, what is the international site like?”

Now, using the MoM methodology, what can we infer about how this client sees her managers:

  • They are putting down roots.
  • They aren’t going to go anywhere, just mature.
  • She goes to them, they don’t go to her. (This is really important. Ever had that manager who was never available to you unless they wanted to see you?)
  • In the early stages they are vulnerable to the elements the current climate.
  • They cannot get all they need from the environment they are in, she is the one who provides the missing elements.
  • Upset this client too much, and if sufficiently ill-dignified, will she cut you down to size? You might be for the chop, cut to pieces, burnt.
  • The managers might be expected to branch out at some point.
  • To the client, family values and stability are very important to her. I suspect she’d hate to see one of her managers uprooted.

Now, here’s another important consideration. As stated before, the managers are [expected to be] static, and she goes to them, not the other way around. Not all managers are going to grow and thrive in the environment in which they find themselves and may wish to seek a better environment. Is this client able to recognise this or will she put in more resources in order to try and encourage them to grow in the existing environment?

Are these managers expected to be passive and responsive to her nurturing (ever seen a proactive tree?) or is proactivity encouraged?

Now, as mentioned, it is clear from the tree metaphor that family values and stability are very important to this client.

There is another metaphor taxonomy that is heavily hinted at in her communication. Container metaphors: “…and how much to put a support around it…” and “yeah to build something around it that gives it support…” Level 1 trainees should be able to work out the rest of this for themselves. (hint: her ‘bean in a cup’ follows this exact structure too, and will kineasthetically be the same map that she is following in ‘constructing’ this relationship).

Coach: “So just throwing that back, we have this sort of metaphor of saplings and bean sprouts and growing and something around how much support you give it.”

Not sure why he is throwing it back, or doing any throwing at all, but that is just my pedantry.

Also the use of “sort of”, I would hope a coach would be more specific when feeding back information the client has given. Specificity is an important aspect of demonstrating understanding.

If I want to be even more specific, there was only one bean sprout, not the plural.

In MoM we tend to draw the metaphor, show it to the client and describe it back to them in order to be sure we have got it precisely. This avoids inevitable clumsiness such as, “…and something around how much support you give it.”

Client: “Yeah.”

Coach: “How much you allow it to become organic. I heard you mention the word light in there as well.”


Actually, no. What she said was, “…how much to allow that to happen organically, emergently if you like…” I know it might sound like pedantry, but the meaning is completely different. It doesn’t become organic, it already is organic.

But he is kind of, sort of, using the right words and kind of, sort of, gets it, and the client is a nice lady and the coach is a nice man, and there is all that rapport and stuff and so she simply agrees because that is what nice people do.

Coach: “I wonder what’s sort of occurring to you as you say that.”

Say what?

Client: “So, yeah, as you say – interesting, so as you say light, my point there is how much resource to give it, really, or how much to allow it to grow in its own emergent way. So the light is an aspect of resource, I guess, giving it food, bio, whatever you give it. To get a sense of how much to allow it to happen on its own versus stimulate it. And actually there’s something in the organic pieces. As you said it to me, it made me think about allowing it to be a sort of pure process somehow, and a clean process.”

This worries me for several reasons. She really likes the image of a child growing a bean in a pot (“Almost, you know, when a child plants a bean and the bean grows out of one of those cobbled cups.“) It’s a delightful image and aspect of childhood, but it is one hell of an imposition onto the manager, and my worry is that the delightful feeling that the client gets from this image may impact upon what is really going on. What happens when the manager doesn’t behave like a beansprout? How will she feel?

Beans are cheap, come in packets where there are lots of them. We can simply discard the ones that don’t grow and focus our awareness on the ones that do grow, and take credit for those successes. These are the beans that seems almost magical to a child.

I wonder now if she is in fact the gardener hinted at previously.

It’s the power of a demigod. She could have said, “I choose whether you live or die, do I give you the light and food that you require, or do I withhold it?”

There’s a naive childlike wonder in all this, a purity, an innocence, a cleanness. The terror of so many bugs as their wings and legs are slowly plucked off.

Coach: “A pure process, a clean process. What do those words mean to you as you think of that growth and that…”

Client: “Natural.”

Coach: “Natural.”

Client: “Mm hmm.”

Coach: “So just in, sort of tying that little piece off, in terms of that idea of organic growth and stimulation and light, nurture, support. What do you reckon those beans perhaps need in terms of – if you bring that back into the real world?”

Wait, what? This is an unstructured boundary violation on the part of the coach. He’s evidently lost interest in this metaphor and he seemingly switches back to “the real world” at random.

Client: “Yeah, so I guess there are certain phases to it, actually as we’re talking about it, so I’ve always imagined it just needing one thing, or, sorry, one potential approach, but I think as we’re talking, there’s probably something around putting a supportive structure around the bean sprout. So a little closh or something. As it grows sufficiently strong, to then get legs of its own.”

Meanwhile, the client has only really just got started with her metaphor and so ignores the request to think about the real world and instead continues developing the metaphor…

…except she isn’t. She is adding in time predication, moving to an outcome. We are now into fantasy land, what we used to term, “imagination games” – She adds, “a little closh or something”. She might as well have conjured up a magician and some magic beans and some helpful dragons and made everything perfect, with flowers and trees and mermaids. The effect is the same, if not better and marginally more entertaining.

What this does is to create a kinaesthetic change, the client will feel better, feel different, or whatever. This improvement can then be mistaken for an actual therapeutic change, but in fact all that has happened is the creation of kinaesthetic denial. We might as well tell the client, “just stop thinking about it, or picture some pretty flowers instead.” We randomly change the troubling representation, but the “organisation of self” remains unchanged.

The nonsensical aspect of all this is revealed with those last few words, “ then get legs of their own.” The coherence of the metaphor is seriously breaking down and the different taxonomies are now in conflict with each other.

Coach: “Okay.”

Wait…WHAT? Oh, never mind.

Client:Roots of its own.”

Wait…WHAT? As opposed to what other kind of roots? But it is ok, hopefully the coach will notice this…

As least it isn’t “legs of their own” I suppose. But it might be, in which case a fantastic BV has been found which gives us access directly to the whole problem. So…

Coach: Yep.

Bugger. He misses it, he simply agrees with her.

Client: “And then to remove the closh so that it can start to grow, and then in fact it may still need some support to stop it wafting back in the wind or being dragged over by an animal. But then it’s a different sort of support, so it might be a stake in the ground at that point.”

Now the metaphor has completely broken down and is little more than free-association as she speculates into the future. At this point all that is going to happen is that the narrative that the client tells will continuously change and become more random and unstable. She will feel a lot different of course, but this is unlikely to relate to any specific useful behavioural change. Once she is back into the real world, the same real world will be roughly the same as it was before, and so will her behavioural strategies for dealing with it.

Coach: “Okay.”

I have no idea why he would say this, other than he’s gotten so confused himself he doesn’t know what else to say.

Client:So it’s telling me that it’s about understanding and having some conversation, maybe, around what that support needs to be in the short term.”

So basically, this whole thing can be reduced down to, “I need to ask my managers what they need from me.” Oh right, try talking to your managers.

Coach: “Okay.”

Client:And then recognizing that that would change over time.”

Coach: “Mm hmm. So is conversation the only part of support or are there other things that would create that bit of…”

Client:The conversation is to get clear on what support is required, so the conversation is just the starting point of that. So there is something about funding. There is something about human resource around it. There’s something about marketing, focus, and energy to put behind it. And I think we’re at the stage where to differing extents, the saplings are growing at different levels already, and they probably have very different needs. So the conversation is the starting point, and I need to have individual conversations in countries to get a sense of really what they need and when. And it may be that some of them need a closh and some of them need a stake, and it might differ, depending on the country and the stage they’re at, and where they’re taking the business.”

So, the client’s position to her managers is:

  1. You are a tree. I am your gardener.
  2. You either need a stake or you need a closh.

Which is all rather limited. But then the real issue arrives: “…and it might differ, depending on the country and the stage they’re at, and where they’re taking the business.”

This last line is about location, “where they are taking the business.” Can a tree do this without being uprooted? Can a tree do this without rejecting the closh or the stake that was provided to help it grow?

Coach: “Yeah.”

Client:Yeah, that was useful.”

Coach: “Okay. And just in terms of this for you, as the gardener, for a moment, what supports you? What allows you to be able to draw on resources that you can pass on?”

Client:Well, the business, really, and the fact that the business is forming from the UK, so we have the opportunity to draw in and provide out to a great extent, to the partners in the different countries at the same time as them generating their own resource. So it’s that delicate balance, really, because the independence is important to the business model. And also feeling part of the community and the brand, if you like, is also very important.”

Coach: “Okay. Just in terms, then, what’s that given you, that image?”

Client:It’s really useful to think about the fact that – I think I knew that they’re all at different stages already, stages of growth, and the recognition that they will need different levels of support. But, importantly, that that will change over time. I think that was my new insight, that the support we give them initially will need to change over time, and it’s about keeping in contact with the best way of doing that, really, and the best way from, not only what the business needs, but more importantly what the individuals need in the countries.”

Coach: “Okay, great. Thank you.”

Client:Thank you.”

Overall, so many opportunities have been lost in this exchange, something that I believe working with Metaphors of Movement would not have permitted to occur. In essence this entire exchange could have simply looked like this.

Client:So it’s a consideration about how I go about engaging with, building relationship with, and supporting the growth of the international sites, offices that we’re developing. My question is about how much to just let it grow on its own and how much support to give it, I think.”

Coach: Have you tried asking them?

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