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Controversial Coaching 101: Your Client Might Be Delusional

Few people are actually all that self-aware. Does that make your unaware clients delusional? It’s not as simple as that!

A pawn chess piece looking in the mirror and seeing a king piece

Your Client Might Be Delusional

Think about it. How many of your clients have focused on problems that just don’t seem to actually exist? How many try the same thing over and over again and confidently insist that it will work differently this time? How many say one thing about their values while their actions say another? It doesn’t have to be malicious. It’s just that humans in general can struggle to be self-aware.

Join CLCI Live as Jerome LeDuff Jr (MCLC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), Brooke Adair Walters (ACC), Jen Long (MCLC) and Daniel Olexa (PCC) start tackling controversial coaching topics: beginning with a discussion on self-awareness and what it means in the coaching setting

Are You Really Self-Aware?

Take a second and define what ‘self-aware’ means to you. Do you match its criteria?

There’s a pretty good chance that you do… if you were to ask yourself.

According to findings discussed by Harvard Business Review,

Even though most people believe they are self-aware, only 10%—15% of the people we studied actually fit the criteria.

In fact, researcher Tasha Eurich reports that 95% of people in this study believed themselves to be self-aware. If so many of us think we’re self-aware when so few of us actually are, then how trustworthy is our perception of anything? Before panicking, let’s just focus a little more on what self-awareness meant for these researchers.

Self-Awareness (and Lack Thereof)

Cartoon of a person holding their own face as a mask and looking through a magnifying glass towards their own mind.

Self-awareness might have many definitions. For HBR, the concept is divided into two viewpoints: internal vs. external self-awareness. Internal self-awareness “represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others” whereas external self-awareness regards how others view us using those same factors of values, passions, etc.

Eurich notes that “self-awareness isn’t one truth. It’s a delicate balance of two distinct, even competing, viewpoints.” Self-awareness means having a balance of both internal and external awareness, even when they might contradict: you might believe you don’t fit into your social environment, but others viewing you may have never doubted you belong there. Even if only 10-15% of people meet these criteria fully, most of us are continuously working on and improving our self-awareness.

The difficulty can come with those who are not only very unaware, but also very confident that they are actually entirely self-aware: and thus who view the world—and their own struggles to meet goals or be accepted for them—through a rigidly inaccurate lens.

Some of the trademark behaviors Eurich lists of the unaware include that they:

  • Might have difficulty accepting/hearing feedback.

  • Don't empathize well/struggle taking on the perspective of others.

  • Have a difficult time “‘Reading a room’ and tailoring their message to their audience”.

  • May hurt others without realizing it.

  • “Possess an inflated opinion” of themselves and what they contribute when others aren’t (in their view).

  • Tend to take credit for successes, while blaming others when something doesn’t succeed.

Unawareness shouldn't be seen as a character flaw though. Some of these traits can have deeper roots in the sphere of mental health and neurodivergence. And some with these traits might be well-meaning enough people who just are not given the support to foster awareness in the areas they struggle in.

The unaware can be coworkers, neighbors, family, friends, even you!—but what about when they’re our clients?

Coaching the Unaware

Life coaching often simplifies down to the idea that the client has the answers they’re looking for already. They just might not have the support to try to look, the confidence to believe in any idea that comes from themselves, and more. Coaches don’t tell them whatever answer they’re looking for. They’re a sounding board while the client comes to realizations, sets goals, and defines priorities. But what about clients that are low in self-awareness? If they have little of that internal understanding or experience listening to themselves, how will they find those answers inside them?

Unaware clients might come in many different varieties. One might continuously fall back on the age-old response of “I don’t know” because they are fighting self-awareness and wish to ignore the whispers of the answer that they do know. Another could be using that phrase because they genuinely don’t know. And yet another client might do the opposite. They know everything. They’ve got the answers. They’re persecuted for it. They try one plan again and again and watch it fail, but they will be doing that exact plan again because they know it will work. “I know this,” they might say with total confidence.

Maybe as a coach, it feels like you’re going nowhere in these sessions. Week after week, there’s no change.

The coaching space is one of awareness and having an unaware client isn’t automatically a signal to call it quits. Your space could be where that person begins to find self awareness.

One option might be to call attention to patterns. You might make observations out loud. For example: “I hear you saying x, but what I’ve observed over the past few sessions is y.” Gently making observations isn’t the same thing as taking on the role of a psychologist or giving them your ideas. But it is an effective way to pull a client’s attention to what discord there might be between their words and behaviors.

Another strategy is to use reflective questioning. Pose questions that invite clients to reflect on their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. For instance, "What do you feel when you say that?" or "How does this action align with your values or goals?"

Finally, here is a CLCI favorite for when a client is stuck and can't identify why they continue using negative thought patterns or behaviors. Ask "how does this serve you?". This question has helped many a CLCI coach bring self awareness to a client during a tough session because it can challenge some deeply held assumptions the client may have and encourage new modes of thinking.

Ultimately, it's not our jobs or our chief objective to break the delusions of our clients. But injecting some self awareness into the conversation and asking the client to self-reflect can kickstart a stalled session and create a lasting impression.


Thank you,

Jen Long (ACC), Jerome LeDuff (MCPC), Daniel Olexa (MCC) Anthony Lopez (MCPC), and Brooke Adair Walters (ACC)!

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1 Comment

Raquel Brandwayn
Raquel Brandwayn
Nov 01, 2023


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