Name the Elephant in the Room

The old saying “elephant in the room” implies that there is an issue that is so big, or complex, or unmanageable, or unsolvable that it’s simply easier to pretend it doesn’t exist. In other words, ignore it, and it will go away!

When coaching leaders, the elephant that feels unsolvable might be…

  • A colleague who has the ear and favoritism of the boss, thus causing your client to feel powerless.
  • Or maybe it’s a budget constraint that feels untenable.
  • Or maybe it’s an old Achilles heel that the client thinks is impossible to overcome (e.g., a hot temper, an insecurity, micro-managing…you name it).

Why Do We Avoid the Elephant?

As coaches, we might avoid addressing the elephant because

  • We’re afraid of it ourselves, wondering if there really IS an answer to it?
  • We afraid of our client’s response to it—What if they feel offended… what if they get mad… what if, what if, what if?
  • We’re afraid our client isn’t ready or won’t be able to hear it.

What Happens if We Avoid the Elephant?

  • We appear tentative, timid, or just plain chicken!

  • We lose the client’s respect because they sense we’re not courageous enough to be direct.

  • The client doesn’t get the opportunity to rise to the occasion, to stretch, to grow, to experience a win.

How to Name the Elephant!

Here are two suggestions for naming and playing with the elephant in the room.

(Note: these ideas assume that other ICF coaching competencies are already in place, such as ICF #3 Establishing Trust & Intimacy, and ICF #5 Active Listening).

  • The Curious Observation: The technique of making an observation is a good starting point for elephants. For example, the coach might say, with warmth and humor: “So I guess the elephant in the room here is the impact of the boss’s favoritism toward ‘Joe,’ who seems to have advanced dexterity at pushing your buttons.”

  • The Curious Question: You could also ask the client their thoughts on the elephant. For example, “Feels like there’s an elephant in the room—something that appears too big to solve … how would you name it?”

Play with the Elephant!

Once the elephant is named, it can be reflected on. It’s important that the reflection be from a stance of curiosity, creativity, and optimism. There is always a solution. Always.

Remember that “what we focus on grows.” If our brains focus on curiosity, creativity, and optimism (as opposed to unsolvable, unmanageable, difficult), then we’re guaranteed to notice new ideas and strategies.

Name those elephants! They can carry us into new and adventurous territory!

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Are Your Coaching Questions Brain-Friendly or Brain-Frazzling?

Have you ever been asked a question you knew the answer to but froze?

That frozen reaction was likely caused because the question elicited the fight-flight-freeze response in you. Your brain heard the question, but your body interpreted it as some kind of threat.

Neuroscientists say that the subconscious can process over 40 million nerve impulses per second, whereas the conscious mind’s prefrontal cortex, only 40 nerve impulses per second.

Let’s say you’re coaching a leader who is trying to land the next promotion, and she gets a behavioral interviewing question during her formal interview—“Tell me about a time when you…dealt with conflict on your team.”

While her conscious brain is trying to think of the right story, her subconscious brain could be working overtime, remembering an embarrassing moment or the painful fall-out associated with the conflict.

Her inner critic can show up with its own story of “you should have handled that conflict better… you really blew that… if you tell the interviewer this story, you might look incompetent, and then you might not get this promotion, and then all your coworkers will know you didn’t make the cut, and then what about the raise you were hoping for… your son needs braces and you want to be able to enroll him in that summer program that will help prep him for his college entrance exams … gosh, do I have what it takes to manage this role … and and and…)

As coaches, when we recognize the body’s natural tendency to shift to fight-flight-freeze, we can adjust our questions to lessen this reaction.

Enter Curiosity vs. Quiz Questions.

We can’t prevent the people we speak with from going into the Red Zone of fight-flight. Some questions we ask will be uncomfortable—both for the client and for you. You may be hesitant to ask a question for fear of making the client scared or offended, or opening up a can of worms.

So when you’ve got a question to ask your client that might be perceived from a fight-flight state, here are two brain-friendly tips:

Bathe it in curious compassion

  • Remember your common humanity—the client is doing the best they can, just as you are.
  • Remove judgment or bias from your questions.
  • Wonder where/from whom the client first conditioned himself/herself to fear whatever it is that’s causing concern.
  • Appreciate the client—his/her essence, highest self, strengths, journey.

Consider “buffering” questions:

  • “This might be an uncomfortable question, so let’s get it out in a safe space to explore…”
  • “A question is coming up, and it’s being posed from the position of ‘on-your-side advocate’ …”
  • “Just between you, me and the fencepost, what’s the scariest question you could be asked right now?”
  • “This question is being addressed to your higher self—that part of you that easily sees the big-picture trajectory in all of this…”

Avoid Quiz Questions, and enjoy asking Curiosity Questions! Coach on!

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Which Brain Are You Listening With?

Our mood, our experiences, our levels of reasoning—all determine how we listen, and how well with listen.

We can playfully consider these brain modes that may be driving our listening:

  • The Buddy Brain – the Buddy Brain is concerned with making sure everyone is happy, that everyone is being nice to one another, and that everyone is getting along. Our allegiances and preferences for certain relationships can get in the way of listening. For example, hearing this statement from a client, “I got passed over for a promotion…again!” – the Buddy Brain may think to itself:

    “Oh, no! How dare they do that to you! … what a toxic environment you are working in … you oughta get out of there!” The Buddy Brain can get caught up with the details of he said-she said, and loses site of the bigger picture.

  • The Bias Brain – the Bias Brain listens in a judgmental or evaluative state of mind. It is listening with the filter of what it thinks is right and what it thinks is wrong—the right way to do things, or not. For example, hearing this statement from a client, “I got passed over for a promotion…again!” – the Bias Brain may think to itself:

    “Of course you got passed over. You didn’t develop the leadership competencies the boss is looking for. You should have done more networking.”

  • The Builder Brain – the Builder Brain listens to understand within the bigger context, with an eye that everything that is happening to the client is creating opportunities to learn, grow, evolve. From this Brain, the statement “I got passed over for a promotion…again!” – the Builder Brain may think:

    “I hear the emotion there … and the emphasis you placed on the word ‘again,’ as if you’ve tried everything you could think of and it still hasn’t worked.”

    After a statement like this, pause, listen for client’s response, respond, and then possibly offer this response, with compassion. “What are the leadership competencies the organization needs to see in its promotable people right now? … And what are the opportunities for demonstrating them?”

To operate from the Builder Brain, we need to curiously and compassionately see circumstances as opportunities and recognize our power to choose the powerful strengths/values/perspectives that will move us and our clients toward what they want to create.

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How Comfortable are You with Discomfort?—Four Insights to Build Coaching Presence

 Presence boosts two key competencies:

     1) strategic thinking and
     2) relationship engagement.

Lose your presence and you:

     1) lose your ability to think of options and solutions… and
     2) minimize your ability to create a sense of psychological safety for your client.

What triggers a loss of presence for you? Do you relate to any of these scenarios?

Fear of Offending
The person you coach may take offense at a seemingly innocuous comment you’ve made. This offense could be based on any number of variables—extra stress that you know nothing about, a prior history of trauma, a lack of sleep the night before, and more.

Our first reaction is often to apologize. As polite as an apology may be, within a coaching relationship, consider instead curiosity. For example, “It sounds like that comment triggered something—what came up for you when you heard it?”

Coaching Presence is the ability to 
deal with offended-ness with curiosity and compassion.

Fear of Reputation Loss
It’s human nature to want to be thought well of, to be accepted, to be held in high regard—especially when we’re getting paid to coach and be of value. When we fear others’ opinions, we begin to second-guess ourselves as coaches, and withhold saying what our internal wisdom is telling us. Although timing and tact are important, never withhold! Withholding is a cue to loss of presence.

Coaching Presence is the ability to 
value, love, and believe in yourself, even when others don’t.


Fear of Disagreement or Conflict
As a coach, it’s your responsibility to make observations about what you see happening in your client. For example, “[Client], when your boss says [x], it causes you to react and get defensive, with the impact being an escalation of tempers.” If your client disagrees with you, discounts the comment, or gets reactive, it can cause us to back-pedal or appease—both of which signal a loss of presence.


Coaching Presence is the ability to 
explore differing opinions without fear or embarrassment getting in the way.

Fear of Uncertainty or Lack of Answers
Many new coaches are uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity—and yet, these are part and parcel of coaching (and life). Nowhere in the job description for a coach will you find the words “omniscient” or “fortune-teller”! Avoiding uncertainty signals loss of presence.

Coaching Presence is the ability to
welcome uncertainty and ambiguity as doorways to creation.

Coaching Presence is the ability to be comfortable with the client’s, as well as our own, discomfort!

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