IOC Fellows's picture Submitted by IOC Fellows October 4, 2020 - 12:07pm

Trusting the process is key to learning. Participating in The Tricky Case Forum at the Institute of Coaching was a very valuable experience, deepening my awareness of my coaching presence and my blind spots in the company of experienced and compassionate  coaches, colleagues and friends.

Presenting my tricky case involved sharing a summary of the client engagement (maintaining client confidentiality) that was particularly challenging for me – I felt stuck in doubt about the effectiveness of my coaching. I persistently wondered if another coach  could have served the client better. The process of sharing was validating. My fellow coaches shared their views that indeed, this was a tricky case.


The engagement sounded routine: help a client improve communication skills so that  ongoing tension and drama could be reduced and relationships across the business could be strengthened. In fact, my work is rooted in executive relationship dynamics and supporting co-founders and family businesses to have the conversations that matter and can positively impact business results, so this is my sweet spot. This multi-partner firm admitted they were “successful in spite of themselves” – they worked hard amidst the underlying stress of wanting more from each other without knowing how to approach the subject or how to really listen to each other. The partners shared a desire for open and honest exchange but were stuck in old patterns of behavior.  


A tricky case is defined as a coach’s experience with a client engagement that leaves us feeling challenged. Our challenge is manifested by a simmering, underlying feeling that we could have done more or better to support our clients.  

So, what made this a tricky case for me? The engagement started off on a positive note, with the client clearly stating they knew something had to change in their business. My attendance at weekly partner meetings with the client helped them to address obvious communication issues, and it wasn’t long before the real issue started to reveal itself - despite a desire for better relationships, there was a profound lack of trust among the  partners, which was crippling collaboration and compromising their commitment to a shared  vision for the future of the firm. Each partner wanted something different from their work  experience, and each partner was rooted in a longstanding pattern of communication that just wasn’t working. My wish for the client was strong: I wanted them to enjoy the fruits of what they worked so hard for and sacrificed so much to create.

What was keeping me stuck were feelings of:

  • Frustration: How could I convey to the client the relevance of identifying their emotions and working with them more skillfully?
  • Doubt: Would any other coach or a more experienced coach be able to connect the dots in ways I just didn’t see?
  • Helplessness: What would it take for this client to remove their protective facades long enough to take action on issues they agreed were best for the  
  • business?

Knowing full well the dangers of attaching myself to a client’s outcome, I brought my doubts to the attention of my own coach (maintaining confidentiality) and introduced a coach colleague to the client to help facilitate a series of conversations.


The Tricky Case Forum – an opportunity to present a summary of the engagement and articulate your challenges -- is a rich environment for learning and sharing. We broke into small groups for a discussion of the case amongst ourselves and then brought forward in a full session many powerful questions and observations informed by each participant’s rich experience and expertise. I was asked to consider specific touch points in the client’s history as well as an over-riding emotion that I did not explore as fully as I could have.  

Upon hearing these new perspectives, my initial emotion was relief. And comfort. At the same time, it was invigorating to be challenged by my colleagues’ questions. The idea that  freed me from my doubt was a beautiful question: “what if the work here is just not done?”  -- a question that riveted me back to my conversations with my own coach, for he asked a  similar question. At the time, the question was easy to deflect as waves of doubt about my effectiveness and my identity as a coach were overtaking my head and my heart. Time and space are truly clarifying and helped me see the situation in a more balanced way. I  feel more confident about my work with this client and will take the lessons learned into my  future client engagements.

Many thanks to the facilitators of the Tricky Case Forum, Jan Rybeck and Jeff Hull, and to  every coach colleague who shared their perspective. Special thanks to my colleague Alison Carroll of The Hidden Narrative, LLC for walking with me through this experience and sharing her wisdom and counsel during this client engagement.