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Backbone and Heart: The Dance of Coaching

As coach and author Mary Beth O’Neill describes in her book, Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart: A Systems Approach to Engaging Leaders with Their Challenges, a coaching engagement “is a continual dance of balancing backbone and heart,” requiring coaches to speak not only with kindness, but also truthfully and courageously.

A Balancing Act

Bringing both backbone (honesty and accountability) and heart (compassion) is not always comfortable.  Most people fall on one side of the polarity or the other. For some, the natural emphasis is on compassion, leading to soft-hearted communication that may leave the toughest and truest things unsaid, to the detriment of the other person.  For others, “telling it like it is” may seem more important than communicating with care for the other person. And they may leave a trail of hurt feelings in the wake of their conversations.

In coaching, navigating these polarities means practicing to find the most effective and authentic ways to demonstrate compassionate and courageous communication.  Sometimes coaches avoid the “backbone” side of coaching for fear of “triggering” a client to feel defensive or ashamed.  Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst on whose work the Myers-Briggs personality assessment is based, described these defenses as emanating from the shadow or unconscious part of the self. Clients themselves may be surprised at the strong reactions or shame responses that exploring certain areas in coaching may evoke. But seasoned coaches know that when a client is “stuck” or consistently not following through on a commitment that they felt was important, there is often something deeper and more important to explore together.  

A Collaborative Approach

Coaching is a collaboration in which coaches serve as both cheerleaders and accountability partners while holding the view of their clients as resilient and whole, not as damaged souls needing to be fixed. Good coaches will ask powerful and seemingly simple questions that help clients get to the heart of their issues and allow them to choose effective actions.

When a coach’s approach brings both backbone and heart, clients feel respected, engaged and trusted to find their own solutions.  This frees coaches from the desire to rescue their clients. And, when coached with compassion, leaders experience a model of communication that can help them learn to bring that same balance to other areas of their leadership and lives.

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