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Coaches Have Obstacles Too

By Steve Kane Published on February 26th, 2021

The purpose of coaching is to help people get from where they are to where they want to be. It’s a process of inquiry that provides clear structure to thinking that, ideally, diminishes uncertainty by exposing obstacles and illuminating the path ahead. One could argue that overcoming obstacles is the point of coaching.

Coaching (for the coach) doesn’t always workout the way we want. It’s important to realize that coaches have obstacles as well. While the coachee, or learner,  is working to get from point A to point B, there can be situations in which the people are unable to be coached.

You Can’t Get There From Here

Being coached isn’t always easy, especially in the workplace. Minds are often preoccupied with conflicting demands. People can commonly be stressed, overburdened, or otherwise distracted, which limits the potential of being coached.

Receiving coaching is an imaginative and creative process. Think about what is needed to respond to “What is your next step?” or “What do you think will happen?”  How does a relaxed mind respond to these questions? How does an overburdened mind respond?

Part of coaching is keeping the session productive for learners by recognizing productive and counterproductive behaviors. Jon Miller wrote in his blog article “Three Things to Stop and Start Doing for Better Lean Coaching” that “Coaches should use their eyes to look for non-verbal communication cues. What does the learner’s body language say? How is their tone of voice?”

As coaches, we need to recognize when learners can’t get to where they want to go from where they are.

“I am Not Your Guru”

The documentary film “I am Not Your Guru,” featuring Tony Robbins, opens with Robbins conducting an intervention with a suicidal conference participant wearing casual clothes and bright red shoes. The conversation goes something like this:


Why do feel suicidal?


Because I really hate myself


Why do you hate yourself?


Uh. . .


Is it because of the shoes?




They’re red. I mean they’re really ____ red! [audience laughs]


No. . .

At this point, the conversation becomes productive and progress is made immediately.

Robbins recognized the participant was so deeply in his own head that he wasn’t responding to the coaching. Robbins brings the participants attention to his shoes to break his mental state and allows him the opportunity to get out of his head shift into productive state of mind.

While continuous improvement coaches aren’t dealing with the type of situations Robbins does, the concept still applies. We must recognize when people can be coached and when they can’t so that we can adjust accordingly to best serve those we coach.

Five Steps to Overcome Distraction

  1. Acknowledge the situation by telling the learner what you see and asking for the learner’s perspective.  This could be as simple as “You seem distracted. What’s on your mind?”
  2. Give the learner the opportunity to put their baggage down. Listen. When you feel like speaking, check yourself. Listen. It isn’t your role to fix every problem. Just listen.
  3. Help the learner shift into a productive mental state. Using humor like Robbins did can be risky. It can also be very effective, but be careful.
  4. Acknowledge the distraction. Paraphrasing the issue while observing the learner’s reactions confirms understanding. It also says “I hear you and I respect you.” Use your coaching skills to help the learner see the path ahead for dealing with the distraction. Something like “How are you going to handle this?” can help point the learner in the right direction. Having a plan of action puts the learner in perceived control of the situation and helps diminish the distraction.
  5. Bring the learner back to original issue. Casually saying “Okay, let’s get back to the first item. What’s your target condition?”

Remember that you’re a coach and not a therapist. Coaches don’t solve problems for people. We help people understand their goals and obstacles so that they can then solve their own problems.



  1. Alex B.

    March 31, 2021 - 2:32 pm

    I thought that this article was a very interesting quick read that included a lot of details that can really help coaches be even more efficient. Coaches have to deal with a lot of different levels and skill sets but still strive to work and develop that person by providing insight. I thought that the five steps to overcoming distractions was very helpful and coaches all over could benefit from using it. Sometimes it’s hard to understand what a person is going through when they can’t overcome something. But being able to listen and understand them may allow the coach to be able adjust to a better way of coaching for that particular person.

    • Steve Kane

      March 31, 2021 - 2:38 pm


      Thanks for the comment. I agree. It’s very difficult to know what people might be going through.


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