Coaching Presence and the Power Differential Between Client and Coach

Coaching Presence and the Power Differential Between Client and Coach


It means we coaches have a lot of power… be careful with it.

I really do try not to ‘coach’ every second of my day, but sometimes it’s impossible not to notice the obvious red flags in coaching when they’re literally right in front of me. While at my favorite coffee shop the other day, I recognized a fellow coach working with a client… then I noticed something else going on. As if watching a silent movie, the coach’s actions spoke a million words. I was astonished!

The coach was sitting on a straight back chair, at least a foot higher than her client who sat in a much lower overstuffed sofa. This struck me as an obvious power differential to start with, but it got worse. The conversation seemed to ramp up in energy and at one point, the coach was leaning down towards the client, shaking her finger at him. I could only infer that she was trying to emphasize something important, but from the outside, it appeared to be a parental moment with a condescending note.

Self-awareness of non-verbal subtleties like what I saw, is a part of the ICF Core Competency – Coaching Presence. Our day-to-day work goes like this: we meet our clients, develop rapport and trust with them, discuss many different topics, and in many cases, we can get comfortable and forget that at least during the coaching conversation, we, as the coach have power over our clients.

In that precious coaching time, our clients give us the permission to manage and direct the conversation- so they can do what they need to do as clients – observe themselves, see their situation from a different point of view, consider alternative choices, and ponder actions that will advance them towards their desired goals. They are being tender and vulnerable with us, and they have a lot to do during that time. Our role, our duty is to safely hold the container so they can be free to work.

If we are not sensitive to how we manage ourselves in that conversation, our non-verbals can derail the process through intimidation, unconsciously creating an environment that asks them to please us, or just distracting them from the important work they are doing.

I had a hard time enjoying my coffee that morning, as I was left with a red flag in my vision and a pit in my stomach, wondering how that local coach’s client felt after their time together. It bothered me for days, so I jotted down these thoughts to share with you – and the Bottom line? Pay attention to everything. Be sensitive, respectful, compassionate, and remember what it is like to be a client.

-Micki McMillan, M.Ed., MCC