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Coaching to the Bonds that can Bind and Blind Us

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As a personal coach do we encourage our client to more deeply explore their image of the “intimate enemies” in their own life. As an executive coach, do we help our client trace out the beliefs they hold about their “enemies” within their organization as well as “enemies” outside their organization? What are the implications of potential distortions in the images and untested assumptions about the “other.” Do we justify inequitable or escalating counter-action against our “enemy” by relying on our protective, oxytocin-driven perceptions? Are we all muscle and no heart when serving as a “mother bear” (or “father bear”)? As a coach, can we help our client move beyond these distorted lens, while supporting them in their appropriate, protective response to a threatening “other”?

Relational Bonding

In our powerful bonding with another person or with a team in our organization, we can become too dependent on the admiration of this person or team. Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote many years ago (in Men and Women of the Corporation) about the addiction to praise that she commonly observed in the American workplace. She noted that secretaries, administrative assistants and other supporting staff often were rewarded not with salary increases or career advancement, but instead with a bouquet of flowers or lunch out on “secretary day.” We might (or might not) have overcome this form of sexism when treating female employees, but we might still be vulnerable to praise addiction that is fueled by oxytocin-based relational bonding.

As coaches, we can gently but firmly encourage our clients to explore their own addiction to admirable feedback that is often not very specific and praise (in place of reward). At what times and in what settings are the women (and men) we are coaching all hugs and heart, but no backbone (to paraphrase my colleague, Mary Beth O’Neill)? While we are encouraging our client to find their own backbone, we might want to examine our own addiction to the praise offered by our clients. Do we look for praise by always being “nice” and “supportive” in our work with clients? Are we cheerleaders, even when our client might need a dose of reality?

Operational Bonding

It is often very appealing to take on the work that should be done by our clients. We all know that this is inappropriate – yet allowing the “monkey to land on our shoulders” (taking on ownership of our client’s problem) is often very seductive. We even know now that taking on the monkey or at least providing heavy advice to our coaching client tends to be rewarded by a squirt of happy-juice (in our brain and body). We receive positive chemical rewards as the advice-giver – not the advice-receiver. And we get the same kind of squirt when we are doing “things” for other people. At times this operational bonding might become a substitute for relational bonding (a very common tendency among men who often express love through action rather than direct affection).

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