Constructive Confrontation: The Key to Successful Coaching

Adapted from “THE MASTER COACH: Leading with Character, Building Connections, and Engaging in Extraordinary Conversations” by Gregg Thompson (SelectBooks, Inc., Copyright (c) 2017 by Gregg Thompson. All rights reserved).

 (Editor’s Note: In this article, the term, “Talent,” refers to the person being coached.)

At 25 years old, I was an engineering technologist in an aluminum smelting plant and I had just been made a team leader. Perfect! The world was unfolding exactly as it should. I had worked my tail off on some key projects to earn this promotion.

Martin was a senior engineer who had been in the department for more than 30 years. He was what we referred to back then as “potential realized.” Martin and I were not especially close, as it was obvious that he had little political power and that my time could be better spent cultivating more profitable relationships elsewhere. But I will never forget the moment Martin stepped in front of me as we were leaving a staff meeting and asked if I would mind staying behind for a bit.

As the room cleared, he invited me to sit down. He spoke clearly and directly: “I like you, young man, and think you will have a fine career in this company, but I really wish you could see yourself in these meetings. Whenever you speak to senior managers, you come across as a real apple-polisher.” (Actually, he used a more direct and colorful term.) Then he added the words that rocked me to the core: “People laugh at you behind your back.” It felt like a sledgehammer had just hit my stomach. I couldn’t speak. I remember mumbling an unintelligible “Thank you.” Coming from anyone else, I would have immediately engaged in a spirited debate about the realities and necessities of organizational politics; however, somehow I knew Martin wasn’t there to argue the topic or to criticize me. I knew instantly that, for some reason, he cared enough about me to tell me something others would not. He cared enough to confront me with reality.

In this brief encounter, Martin exemplified one of the hallmarks of the master coach: the willingness to engage in constructive confrontation. The word, “confrontation,” usually is defined as a conflict between people’s beliefs and opinions. I prefer to define it as a courageous encounter with the truth—whatever that truth might be. 

Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on performance, learning, and career development, and providing effective feedback is an essential competency for leaders at all organization levels. However, because providing feedback often involves differing perspectives, emotional spikes, and important career decisions, it is also one of the more difficult tasks for leaders. At its best, feedback is a potent tool stimulating honest self-reflection, insight, and personal improvement. At its worst, it creates an environment of discontent, conflict, and unhappiness.

Telling the truth is a perilous endeavor for both the receiver and the teller. Coach and Talent will be continually tempted to form a silent partnership committed to avoiding pathways that are uncomfortable, uncertain, embarrassing, or unknown.

How often do you tell others the truth, the real truth—what you are really thinking, feeling, and wanting and what you see in them? Give this a moment of serious consideration. How truthfully have you communicated your thoughts, both negative or positive, to your family members, friends, or coworkers?

Truth is a powerful tool. It is the fuel of high-performance coaching. It can free someone from disillusionment and allow him or her to set a new course. It often is the catalyst that propels the average performer to much higher levels. Truth can open new reservoirs of untapped potential. When the coach curbs the truth—positive or negative—coaching stalls.

What opportunities for growth is the Talent missing if you as a coach lack the courage to speak? Coaching is too important to dance around doling out vague hints about what is really on our minds.

Coaching is about removing the obstacles that lie in the way of each person achieving the greatness within him or her. Confrontation and courageous encounters with truth are parts of this process. Recently, a woman shared with me how her boss had remarked that a certain guest speaker would never be invited back again. Apparently the speaker had talked too long and ignored the time allocated to him. She said to her boss, “But he will never know the reason he isn’t invited here again. Maybe he will continue to make this mistake everywhere he goes. What if you were the only person who ever decided to tell him the truth?”

How often do we miss an opportunity to remove a hindrance to higher performance because of reluctance to confront?

Confrontation is difficult because it requires three fundamental considerations. To confront someone, we first must be able to recognize our own thoughts and feelings in a situation. We then need to trust that our feelings contain valid information worthy of sharing. And finally, we must assess whether sharing our real thoughts and perspectives is worth the risk.

Once we know what we have to say and that we have to say it, the next question that often arises is: How we can say it best? But this is not what we need to focus on. We don’t need to search for the “best” or “most appropriate” response and we don’t need to worry about getting it right—it’s our perspective, uncensored and uncut, that is needed. As much anxiety as there can be behind its telling and receiving, when confronted with the truth, people generally feel honored and special. Though we often deny the truth when just in our thoughts, it’s remarkably easy to recognize once it has been given voice. This doesn’t mean we always want to hear it, of course, but for the most part, we have respect for the fact that someone had the courage to voice it.

When I look at the people who have most positively impacted my life, I find that many of them had that unique blend of courage and love that enabled them to tell me things others would not—things I needed to hear. They confronted me because they cared about me. The master coach sees it as his or her calling in life to be the person who cares enough to confront others with such truth.

Adapted from “THE MASTER COACH: Leading with Character, Building Connections, and Engaging in Extraordinary Conversations” by Gregg Thompson (SelectBooks, Inc., Copyright (c) 2017 by Gregg Thompson). All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

Gregg Thompson is president of Bluepoint Leadership Development, a provider of coach training programs. He is also the author of “THE MASTER COACH: Leading with Character, Building Connections, and Engaging in Extraordinary Conversations.”