One of the first things any professional coach in training learns is that it’s important for a coach to be non-judgmental. It’s a mindset adopted from therapy and is aimed at ensuring that the patient (coachee) feels 100% safe to open up and be vulnerable.
So far, so good.
Where it becomes tricky though is when we talk about how to be non-judgmental.
Some coaching schools teach that you should suspend or completely put away your own judgments and just be 100% present with the coachee.
Sounds reasonable, except, it’s impossible and not even useful.
Let’s take an excerpt of a dialogue between coach Mary and coachee Marc:
Mary: “What would it mean for you to achieve this goal?”
Marc: “I would feel very proud.”
Mary: “What else?”
Marc: “I would feel I contribute to society.”
Mary: “What is the importance of contributing to society for you?”
If you look at Mary’s 2nd question: “What else?” Why did she ask this question? Why did she not continue with e.g. “What are the steps you need to take to achieve that?” or any other question for that matter?
Because she made a judgment! The judgment was something like: “There might be other important factors why Marc wants to achieve this goal and it could be useful later to have awareness about that.” Hence the question:
You see where this is going? Any question we ask, anything we share, any comments we make, whatever we do at any point in a coaching session is based on our judgment of the situation and of what would add most value at that point.
I could share numerous situations where my judgment led to important shifts in the thinking of my coachee. For example, in one recent case, one of my clients, Karl, the Regional CEO Asia of a mid-size tech company wanted to explore how he could grow the business of his organization faster.
I asked: “Who is in charge of Sales & Marketing in your organization?”
Karl: “It’s Tom, working here in the headquarter with me. We work very closely together.”
Charlie: “What does Tom think about growing faster?”
Karl: “He said that it’s only possible with significant additional investment, something we can’t afford right now.”
Charlie: “What would need to happen so that your organization could afford investing in faster growth?”
[longer pause – usually a good sign]
Karl: “While it’s not in the budget to invest more in Sales & Marketing, I have authority to move items within the budget if it doesn’t have any negative impact on cash-flow or profitability. It’s not going to be easy to cut down on other investments, but it might be possible. I’ll discuss it with the parties affected from such a change to see how we can best structure it.”
Same thing here: my judgment that maybe there is a way to invest more in Sales & Marketing led to a break-through realization for my coachee. I had no idea if it would be possible or not, so I was not ‘judgmental’. A judgmental response would have been something like: “Come-on, you can’t tell me that there is no way to invest more in Sales & Marketing. Don’t look for excuses. How can you do it?” Obviously not something a coach should say as it would make the coachee feel judged and they may be more careful what they will share with you going forward, which would hinder the coaching effectiveness.
As you can see, your judgment of any situation can turn out to be very useful in constructing pertinent and effective questions. Used properly, it doesn’t make you judgmental at all.
Being non-judgmental means to understand and respect that the other person is at a certain point in their views, ways of thinking, etc. which could be quite different from mine. My job as a coach is not to convince my coachee or get her/him to change, but to make sure they have fully thought it through. I take the stance that once I’ve done that, I’ve done my job even if the coachee ultimately chooses to do something I would not do.