Studies have shown that overly altruistic motivations for coaching and mentoring tend to lead to more directive, unconsciously manipulative behaviours in the coach/mentor. “I want to put something back” or “I’ve got a lot of experience to share” may be altruistic in intent, but the underlying drivers are much more closely related to less noble motivations, such as needing to be needed, or boosting one’s own self-confidence. By contrast, the enlightened self-interest of being motivated to learn from being a coach or mentor is more closely associated with behaviours and behaviours, such as mindfulness, humility and non-directiveness.

A metaphor I find useful (and was reminded of in a recent coach supervision session) is that of bearing gifts. People give gifts for all sorts of reasons. For example, charities sometimes send a small gift to potential donors, in the hopes of stimulating enough guilt that the recipient will feel obliged to respond with a much more substantial gift of money. People may give expensive presents they can’t afford, to make themselves look wealthier, or to buy favours. (Intriguingly, in German, the word gift means poison!) Authentic giving, however, is based solely on the needs, welfare or happiness of the receiver – and it is this kind of giving that characterises the effective coach or mentor.

Some aspects of this kind of giving include the following:

• It is considered and thoughtful – the giver takes time to assess what is the right gift for this person, and the right time to provide it
• It comes without strings (overt or covert) attached
• It is born of a great respect – both for the client and for oneself

So what is it that coaches and mentors can give? Three common gifts are:

• Empathy. The most valuable gift is often a part of ourselves. By acknowledging the client and their needs, we provide a kinship that tells them they are supported, understood, valued and worthy. In mentoring, particularly, the relationship may evolve into the greater connectedness of professional friendship.
• Knowledge. Contrary to what many of the simplistic approaches to coaching say, authentic coaches do – selectively, humbly, intuitively – share knowledge when it is in the client’s best interests to do so. Such sharing is never a starting point for a coaching or mentoring conversation, but it often happens that there are gaps in the client’s knowledge, which cannot be filled by questioning. An analogy is: If you saw a blind person descending a staircase, on which a child had left a toy car, would you ask them “Tell me about the kind of dangers you might expect to experience with stairs?”
• Tools. Tools are a special form of knowledge. They give the client the ability to work things out for themselves, without depending on the coach / mentor to guide them with appropriate questions. The give the client increased independence and greater opportunities to continue the learning conversation in their own mind, through quiet, structured reflection between sessions

In our own reflections as coaches and mentors, it can provoke useful insight to ask ourselves:
• What is the nature of my professional giving? (What are my motivations?)
• What is the impact of my giving, on my client and on myself?
• Rather than expect gratitude for my gifts, how can I show that I am grateful that they have been accepted and acknowledged?

And sometimes, when I remember, I like to ask myself: “What is the gift I want or need to give to myself?”

© David Clutterbuck, 2013

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