Fears and Anxieties of a Coach (Part 1)

Due to its complexity, the article is divided into two parts.
Read Part 2

In a coaching relationship, roles must be defined from the beginning. Clarity is needed to ensure that present and future conversations stay focused. Yet there is sometimes a point where one of the two parties loses the drive.

Let’s see what happens when the person in the coaching role overrides the coaching persona.

Who we (think we) are

To begin with, do I mean with coaching persona? We can intend as such the function of “impartial observer” covered by the person in the role. We may say, it is the ensemble of desired qualities we want to embrace as a coach. Some of those qualities are skills, such as active listening and an empathic attitude, that allow us to connect with the coachee. Some are more “hard” skills – like the ability to question the right thing at the right time. Finally, we have other qualities, that help us in the coaching role. Among them, we have: detachment; emotional control; courage; mindfulness; situational awareness.

When we decide to become a coach, we often look up to a role model who, in our mind, incarnates many of these qualities. We start low, by learning the skills and shaping our way. We use frameworks to guide the conversation meaningfully. But we cannot become something or someone without clarity and purpose.

Supposed you are a coach or you want to become one, having clarity of your own goal is essential to not get side-tracked. We can consider coaching a form of transformative learning. According to Mezirow (2006):

“Transformative Learning is the expansion of consciousness through the transformation of world views and the specific capacities of the self”.

John Mezirow, Sociologist, founder of the Theory of Transformative Learning

In this perspective, both the coachee and the coach have much to gain. For the former, the conversation is a means to an end – a way to sprint towards a goal or to resolve a complicated problem. Ultimately, the coachee must come to terms with himself. The goal is only one dimension of the coaching conversation, the other being personal growth. For the coach, it is both a way to hone skills and to learn better about himself. Accounting a Socratic perspective, the dialogue between the philosopher and his interlocutor is a way to scrutiny exterior knowledge and to have more understanding of our inner selves.

Fear of crossing the line

All we know too well: coaching and psychotherapy are often considered side-to-side. As coaches, we may observe changes in attitude, resistance to answering, and fix mindset from the other side. Feelings, emotions, and firm beliefs come out of our interlocutor. We can feel overwhelmed, not knowing when our part ends, and another specialist must jump in. Yet, we still want to help somehow. But how?

Sometimes our clients don’t come back, though they said they will. We may start to think that we did something wrong. We don’t see much at the loss of income, rather we question ourselves. How good we really are?

It isn’t a mystery that sometimes all this can be frustrating. The coaching persona is who and how we want to be. But being a coach is both situational (while practicing) and a mindset. It is not only a set of values; yet we strive to abide by our values, especially at the beginning.

Fear of losing the purpose

Any conversation (including coaching sessions) is unpredictable. While inexperienced, it is all about the excitement and the need to succeed: we want to prove to ourselves we are good for that. At times, we look inward and question if we are good enough. Then, we might be experienced enough to quickly figure out patterns, but we will find ourselves working at a higher level of complexity. Will we iterate on the same question again?

The fears of a coach are extensive. But we need to understand that anxiety is part of life. We know that we don’t know, and that stimulates our limbic system. That’s only one aspect of it. At first, we may question our skills, looking at coaching as the object of our analysis. Am I good enough as a coach, skills and experience-wise? What do I need to learn? How to improve?

If the answers we find will not be satisfactory, negative emotions and frustrations will bring us to investigate our self – the way we are. Am I good enough – as a person, among many other coaches, to be a successful coach? Do I have it in me? Pay attention to this: now it became more personal as we do not doubt our development anymore, but the meaning of what we do. We question our impact on the fabric of existence.

There are ways to cope with it and live it well. It is normal to get anxious in front of a challenge. What is not normal is when frustration overcome pleasure. It is not something that only beginners face – it can come at any time.

Where does our uneasiness come from?

We can look at some of the root causes of these anxieties and strategize a way to overcome them.

Root Cause #1 – Inner ethical conflict (or epistemic dichotomy)

For some, coaching is an art. For others, it is science. Embracing either one of these two beliefs will shape our approach to the field. That includes our learning experience and our ethics as practitioners.

The problem is, by firmly holding to one of these two beliefs, we also decide a measure of our judgment in our experience as a coach. We build a frame of reference (Dirkx and Mezirow, 2006), a system of values based on a determined belief. Such a system is influenced by our culture, our education, and also our personality.

However, while we may hold the belief that coaching can be only art or science, the truth is in the middle. If we establish for ourselves to become a coach, we need to learn the right skills and hone them with practice, while keeping in mind what’s our mission.

This way, we establish our “epistemic dichotomy“: a contrast between two different views of the same thing, both relating to the way we validate and pursue the acquisition of knowledge.

They are two faces of the same coins, which Bechirova (2016) defines clearly.

  • The competent self, upon which we see coaching as a means to an end, prefers knowledge and skills mastery. The competent self looks at the effectiveness of coaching sessions and focuses on solutions. It is more dominant in people who operate coaching as a “science”.
  • The dialogic self sees coaching as having a purpose in itself, a tool that creates meaning. The dialogue as a process prevails over the techniques used. If not effective to find a solution, the conversation still brings clarity and enriches both participants. The dialogic self is dominant in those who think of coaching as an “art”.

The balance between the two forms of self in a coach is delicate. If we overlook one of them we will feel messed up.

We can learn theories and frameworks, and even have a multidisciplinary approach, but before being coaches – we are people. That means that we too have prejudices and biases that have a role in our decision-making. Our coaching performance can be affected by all of this.

At the same time, even “art” needs foundational skills. We simply cannot go random because we think it is the best approach. We are professionals, and we can’t rely only on tacit knowledge. Without a structure, we risk being inconsistent and at times we will fool ourselves.

When the lack of balance compromises their clarity, coaches tend to overcompensate by overworking in the attempt to find satisfaction. Yet that satisfaction is ephemeral, or nowhere to be found. We have set too high expectations of ourselves. From this to getting side-tracked and losing purpose is a blink. Finally, we give up. All because we could not find a compromise within ourselves.

Root Cause #2 – Self-Deception

Another inner antinomy we have to deal with is the one between the person we want to be and that one we reject. There are behaviors we have normally that are undesired while practicing. We aim to create a safe environment and trust with our clients. To be focused and neutral towards everything will be shared in our time together. Yet, our mood and temper can affect the session. What happens when this becomes problematic in the long run?

We know that the coach has the same learning opportunity as the coachee during a conversation. For the coachee, it is necessary to come to terms with his real self. For the coach, it means working against the client’s self-deceiving ideas.

By self-deception we intend any kind of denial of reality: this is replaced with a “better” but false version of itself. It happens because when we desire something to be in a certain way at all costs; or because we are so repelled by the real events to ignore them at all. It can also be delusional, and when that happens, individuals begin to live dysfunctional lives and relationships. We self-deceive ourselves when we always blame others for our failures: never dealing with our lacks, and pretending we are all good. Also, when we idealize or hate somebody or something enough, to not see the things as really are. We don’t want to feel disappointment. We don’t want our system of values to be shaken.

A coach must work against the coachee’s self-deceptions, by being empathic enough to recognize them and push him to face them off. But the coach must also work against his own self-deception, which is triggered to avoid uncomfortable situations.

Ultimately, it is a battle between ethics and the deep beliefs of the person behind the coaching role. Also, it determines another thin boundary between coaching conversations and psychotherapy. The latter is something we aren’t prepared for: if we pretend we can handle it, not only do we brush off our ethics – we elect ourselves to an unfitting role… With all its risks.

How to handle our balance of ethics and beliefs?

Everything we discussed so far relies on the struggle between the outer and inner world. Most times we live ourselves in terms of the actions we do, and we care too much about what the other thinks about us. Isn’t true that too often, who we want to be does reflect only partially our true inner code? And that most of our inner code is, in truth, what is expected from us?

We may believe we have it all because we completed a course and acquired an official certification. This is a form of validation of our skills. We forego the true meaning of the learning experience of coaching, convincing ourselves of something that crumbles apart at the first unexpected, critical situation.

We shall start to welcome doubts. The activity of doubting is all human: we are self-conscious, and we have knowledge and opinions. We also change views of the world over time. We can ask ourselves if some of our knowledge isn’t just some assumption, and how we developed that. By doing so, we learn more about learning itself and the way we evolve. Repeating this process gives us greater self-awareness.

We should complement critical analysis. It is possible to do so with somebody else who can coach or mentor us, providing other perspectives or unleashing new meaning to how we see things. It is difficult to realize when our reflection becomes complacent and self-deceiving. Critical peers or a coaching cohort can help us with that.

We must be open to any learning. Many coaches focus too much on practice because they believe experience is the best way to mastery. This type of coaching is empirical and does not account for scientific evidence. We cannot forget that men make methods, not the opposite. It is possible to combine artistic craft with insights from case studies and theoretical findings.

End of Part 1 >>> Continue to Part 2


  • Bachkirova, Tatiana. “The Self of the Coach: Conceptualization, Issues, and Opportunities for Practitioner Development.” Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, vol. 68, no. 2, 2016, pp. 143–156., doi:10.1037/cpb0000055.
  • De Haan, Erik. “I Doubt Therefore I Coach: Critical Moments in Coaching Practice.” Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, vol. 60, no. 1, 2008, pp. 91–105., doi:10.1037/1065-9293.60.1.91.
  • Dirkx, John M., et al. “Musings and Reflections on the Meaning, Context, and Process of Transformative Learning.” Journal of Transformative Education, vol. 4, no. 2, 2006, pp. 123–139., doi:10.1177/1541344606287503.
  • Drake, David B. “What Do Coaches Need to Know? Using the Mastery Window to Assess and Develop Expertise.” Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, vol. 4, no. 2, 2011, pp. 138–155., doi:10.1080/17521882.2011.596486.
  • Westland, Sandra, and Pnina Shinebourne. “Self-Deception and the Therapist: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of the Experiences and Understandings of Therapists Working with Clients They Describe as Self-Deceptive.” Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, vol. 82, no. 4, 2009, pp. 385–401., doi:10.1348/147608309×450508.

*References apply to this and all other parts of the article.

Published by Andrea Paviglianiti

I practice coaching, I love reading, and I work as a data scientist. I also recharge my batteries with meditation, martial arts, and video games. I perform career and skills coaching – thus I define myself as a “cognitive” coach: I help people improve their learning experience to succeed where they want. My method is based on behavioral analysis, psychology of learning, philosophy of dialogue, and classic literature. I write about how to get better at learning, the best books I read, and my personal philosophy of coaching. And I will not lie to you – I can get verbose at times! I’d be happy if you stick around and read more of what I have to share!

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