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There’s no judgment in coaching! In coaching, the judgment of the coach is like a fallen rock blocking up the free flow of thought

Updated: Mar 20

When I first started my coach training, one of the lessons I had the most difficulty taking in was to coach without “judgment”.  As an HR consultant, it had been my job to create evaluation systems.  As a trainer, I have often been asked to evaluate the leadership potential of participants.  In other words, I have filled roles in which my sense of judgment is an element of the value I provide as a professional.

And while there is indeed some overlap between the modalities of consulting, training/ facilitation and coaching, there is a clear line which the executive coach should not cross—the line of being judgmental. 

I recently conducted a small group MY PURPOSE coaching session.  At the end of the session, I asked the participants for any comments about the session.  A paraphrase of one comment I received was, “The session was very helpful because it was easy to speak up and think creatively; I never felt like I was being judged.” 

In this post, I would like to explain how a coach is effective when judgment is not passed on to a coachee.

There's no judgment in coaching message

What is the line of judgment that shouldn’t be crossed in a coaching session?

Firstly, let’s clarify some definitions:

The definition of the word “judgment” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “the process of forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparing.”

Advice” is a “recommendation regarding a decision or course of conduct”. 

While “giving advice” and “making judgment” are not exactly the same, for the purpose of this discussion, I will use the words interchangeably to denote the act of explicitly stating an opinion on how someone else should live their life based on your own sense of right and wrong or past experience.

“That is what you should do.” 

“I think you ought to do….”

“That is a good idea.”  “That is not a good idea.”

These are statements that we have all made at some point in conversations with others.  But such expressions are rarely, if ever, welcome in a coaching conversation. 

Why shouldn’t a coach judge?

The presence of judgment alters the “partnering” relationship between coach and coachee. A coach is not “above” the coachee.  Both the coach and coachee are exploring ideas for the benefit of the coachee equally in a coaching relationship. Furthermore, coaches are coaches not because of their particular experience in a field, but because they have been trained in coaching methodologies. 

But doesn’t a coach support the learning of the coachee with ideas and insights?

There are two directions of learning—"learning from the outside” and “learning from in the inside”; learning from the outside comes from absorbing the knowledge and wisdom of others.  Learning from the inside comes from introspection and re-organizing one’s own emotions and thoughts towards more effective action.  A coach is effective in supporting learning from the inside primarily.  (A coach may suggest a coachee to read a book or an article; but this is a tangential and not an essential activity of a coach.). To judge is to offer a “learning from outside” perspective in a space that is primed for “learning from within.”

Does this mean that a coach can’t have an opinion or offer up any ideas of their own?

Not necessarily.  In fact, coaches are encouraged to use their intuition and sometimes blurt out what they are thinking in the moment.  Sometimes the coach’s ideas may be a shock to the coachee.  However, this is acceptable in the rubric of coaching given the caveat that the coach remain “unattached” to the idea.  The idea is offered up for the consideration of the coachee.  The idea may stick with the coachee or the coachee may respond by saying, “no, that’s not what I need.  What I think I need is…”  In this way, the idea of the coach is given in service to deepening and clarifying the ideas of the coachee.  If the coach were to come back with a rebuttal to justify their own perspective, the coach is no longer coaching; the coach is trying to give advice or pass judgment.

What if the coachee explicitly asks for advice or insight from the coach’s own experience?

In this case, there are two options.  Firstly, the coach can slightly deflect the conversation into a brainstorming opportunity to come up with ideas together with the coachee.  Or, the coach may offer an opinion or judgment once it is stated that the coach is taken off their coaching hat momentarily to do so.  Doing this though may introduce a blockage into the flow of the coaching conversation so it may be better to hold off until the end of the session.  By that point the coach’s own advice may no longer be necessary or relevant.

The best way to remain non-judgmental is to respond with child-like curiosity

The flow of the coaching session is best maintained when the coach responds with curiosity in service of the exploration of the topic at hand.  In regular conversations where one person may respond with incredulity, a grimace or some other reaction that brings judgment to the surface, a coach would respond with another inquisitive question.  “What makes you say that?”  “What’s in that way of thinking?”  Coaching is about deepening and unfolding the layers of the coachee’s thinking.  Judgment is like a fallen rock in the flow of thought.

Being non-judgmental is a cornerstone of good coaching. Compared to your everyday “so tell me what you think I should do?” conversation, a non-judgmental coaching session will "gift" the coachee with a more poignant understanding of themselves and confidence to take the next step. 

Does all of this mean that a coach is bound to a life without judgment where everything becomes relative?  Recently managers are being expected to be coach-like.  Does this mean that a coach-like manager should not judge/ evaluate their subordinates? 

Judgment in the Real World

While coaching emphasizes the importance of being non-judgmental, it's also important to understand the role of judgment in the real world, especially for managers who are expected to be coach-like in their approach.

In the context of coaching, being non-judgmental means refraining from imposing your own opinions or values on the coachee. It doesn't mean that judgment is irrelevant or should be completely avoided in all situations. In fact, judgment plays a crucial role in decision-making and evaluation in various aspects of life and work.

For managers, the ability to exercise judgment is essential. They are often required to evaluate employee performance, make decisions about promotions and career development, and assess the effectiveness of their team's work. However, the key is to balance judgment with empathy and understanding.

A coach-like manager can use their judgment to assess performance and provide feedback, but they should do so in a way that encourages growth and development rather than criticism. Instead of simply passing judgment, they can ask open-ended questions to help employees reflect on their performance and identify areas for improvement.

Furthermore, a coach-like manager can use their judgment to guide employees towards solutions without imposing their own ideas. By asking thought-provoking questions and encouraging employees to think critically, managers can help them develop their problem-solving skills and take ownership of their work.

In conclusion, while judgment is an important aspect of leadership and decision-making, it should be exercised with care, especially in coaching and mentoring relationships. A coach-like approach emphasizes empathy, curiosity, and collaboration, allowing individuals to explore their own ideas and solutions with guidance rather than judgment.

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