Be Careful Who You Trust to Offer Feedback and Advice.

I consider myself a pretty tough chick. And people who know me well have used a variety of less flattering synonyms for ‘tough’ to describe me. I’m opinionated, and not everyone agrees with me all the time. That’s ok – once in a while, I’ll even change my mind based on pushback from others. I’m pretty comfortable with a good difference of opinion – it keeps life spicy. I enjoy participating in LinkedIn groups that offer spirited discussion among peers. And I rarely get offended by anything a virtual stranger has to say on LinkedIn.

But today, and not for the first time, a coach on one of the discussion groups I frequent crossed the line.

Coaching Requires a Relationship of Trust

Coaching is a profession that offers the practitioner access to do real damage. Yet there is no accreditation required to hang out your shingle or get your business license. And real coaching (at least according to the many accredited coaches I count among my friends) comes from the belief in the innate value of the individual and their power to find the answers within themselves.

When working with a coach, you may find yourself disclosing your deepest, most raw areas of shame and weakness. Doing so safely demands that the coach at all times protect your integrity, your core value as a person and never (ever) undermine you as a person.

As the experiences I’m about to share demonstrate, that isn’t as easy as it looks.

Private Communication is Just That, Private

Once, while interviewing potential sales coaches, I scheduled an introductory call with a well-respected trainer who came recommended by one of my vendors. We had an interesting first call which he’d followed up with an email; I responded to his questions openly and without any subterfuge. My intent at the time was to find a way to retain this man – he had come highly recommended by someone I respect.

Then… he published the full text of my response on his blog, without first asking my permission and accompanied by a few disparaging remarks about me (anonymously, I wasn’t named) and sent me a link. I was first furious, then grateful that I’d learned early enough that this wasn’t a person I could trust to be part of my closest advisory circle. Brutality has no place in my life.

As a coach, clients and prospective clients have an expectation that their privacy  will be respected and their dignity protected; not to have their problems exploited publicly on the coach’s blog. The end does not, in fact, justify the means. 

Social Media Is Not a Manners Free Zone

The second time I confronted this hard lesson was through social media. I had posted a request for insight to a professional group I am active in. I was looking for feedback from my peers about what I may have missed in an initial analysis of a client’s challenges. I’ve stepped in with my two cents many times for others; this time it was me asking for help.

Most people were fabulous – I’d carefully stripped any of my own conclusions from the original question to avoid skewing the discussion and tried to share only the details that wouldn’t undermine or identify my client, should he stumble across the group. One poster (a coach whose contribution is often thought provoking with a reputation for being acerbic) made a comment that motivated me to reply privately with some of the detail I had held back; and an acknowledgment that the relationship was challenging as a result, and I believed I could have responded better to some of what had transpired. My colleague responded to my (again private) message by publicly posting the following text to the discussion group; guaranteeing it would be seen by the dozen or so peers who had chimed in thus far.

You are the problem. Not the client… At this point, the best thing that you could do for him, you and the world in general is to introduce the client to Mickey, Mary. Javier or any number of members of this forum and walk away.

The full response was two paragraphs long. It was rude, abrasive and very personal. Worse – in it the poster openly acknowledged that it arose from a private conversation and that he would likely be called arrogant or some other A-word. I responded with a terse message that, in a nutshell, said thanks for the opinion. Respectfully I’ll ignore it. And made it clear that I did not appreciate the decision to respond publicly to a private conversation.

Most depressing of all, one forum member reached out to me privately to defend the rudeness of this post suggesting it had come from a place of caring and good intent. And that I may have taken it too personally. I am confident her private message came from a place of caring and good intent; and thanked her for it (privately, I might add). But a personal attack like this is nothing more than grown-ups behaving badly. And rudeness is rudeness.

There’s a Human Being on the Other Side of Your Screen

Without tone of voice and body language to convey sarcasm or humour, your words have loaded meaning. When a coach offers feedback electronically there is an extra burden on them, professionally, to protect the integrity of the client. As a parent, I’ve seen first hand the damage “tough love” can do. Constructive criticism is a basic management skill – reinforce the value of the person, share the “improvement” specifically and clearly, offer a recommendation/ path to improvement, recognize the individual’s value again. Repeat.

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

So what did I learn from these experiences?

  1. It’s important to be careful who you allow into your inner circle. Don’t assume others have your best interests at heart; often they won’t.
  2. Some people have a need to establish their own superiority over others and that rarely has anything to do with being of service. Don’t take those people seriously; their opinion is theirs alone and has no bearing on your success.
  3. Not everyone’s gonna dig you. Deal with it.
  4. There will always be people who do not recognize the strength of character that it takes to admit one’s failings. They are in too much pain of their own and will try to turn your weakness against you. Forgive them, they have enough to deal with. (Thanks Anne for that one!)
  5. The next time I see the paparazzi vilify a star, I’ll have more compassion for the star. Chances are there’s a lot more to the story than made the editor’s cut.

But most of all, I learned that people can be disrespectful, rude, disparaging and work very hard to undermine your credibility and that it doesn’t matter. Fear of negative backlash that might accompany starting this blog held me back for a long time. I’m still alive today; so in a roundabout way I owe these experiences a debt of gratitude. They made me realize how incredibly strong and resilient I really am.

Got a coaching horror story? A painful experience that you learned from? Join the conversation on our community forum.

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