Case Study

12.1 Coaching a Coach

Leanne was puzzled by her experience in an organisation where she was working with both the board of directors and the senior management team. She felt different – in her bodily reactions – in the two situations; at ease with the managers but tense and disturbed with the directors.

I proposed an experiment – to lay out the components of role theory on the floor, one side to represent the directors and the other the managers, so that she could move around and monitor her physical, emotional and thinking responses in order to discover her perspective on reality.

She immediately said, standing in the ‘managers’ side, that she felt easy and relaxed. I asked if she had been a manager herself – yes, she had. As she moved into the ‘directors’ side I asked the same question – and, yes, she had also been a director, twice. Clearly recalling feelings from that time she related (using the past tense) that the first time had been good but she had left because her partner had moved to another location and she joined him there. Her second time as a director, after this move, was initially difficult but she managed to make good relationships and it became a pleasure to work with her fellow directors. This time she left when she had children.

I invited her to think about the implications of what she was telling. She realised that in both boards she had been the only female director. And both times she had left for ‘female’ reasons – following her partner and having kids.

She said she felt fine having articulated this. She had connected with her sense of disturbance and then thought it through. So, what to do? Then I made a mistake. I said, jokingly, that maybe she could buy a helicopter and arrive that way at her next meeting with the directors. I had intended to spark her curiosity about how she could be and do differently in the situation now she had explored the male/female insights and her feelings. But she said, quite seriously, ‘yes, I could do that’.

I had stopped thinking.

Reflecting on my own part in this ‘disorienting dilemma’ generated several areas to explore and check out.

One was my unchecked assumption (the TA term is contaminated thinking) that people who work as coaches are not wealthy – which means I was discounting at several levels. A major discount of the significance of what I was hearing and a failure to attentively observe and be in the here-and-now whatever transpired. This indicates a parallel process, maybe around feelings about hierarchy and/or naivety.

Another interesting area to discuss is the question of whether there is such a thing in coaching as an irretrievable mistake. We need to constantly ‘mind the gap’ (Eusden 2011), that is, we need to pay attention to those times when we break communication or our intervention or question causes disturbance or disruption in the relationship. Turning such incidents into data that both coach and supervisor can learn from can be a creative move forward

Discussion Questions

  • Mezirow suggests that real learning happens through a ‘disorienting dilemma’ that leads to a change in self-perception at the psychological level: a challenge to some aspect of one’s identity. How might the situation described, and other situations you can think of, promote learning for both parties?
  • Similarly, what was the gap that had to be minded and how could it be a resource to build on rather than an incident to reject?
  • What do you think generated parallel process in the work described and how does it illustrate role theory?


Eusden, S. (2011) ‘Minding the Gap: Ethical considerations for therapeutic engagement’, Transactional Analysis Journal, 41: 101–13.

Mezirow, J. and Associates (2000) Learning as Transformation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.