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How do you manage dependency in your coaching practice?

Sometime earlier this year there was a story that bought life coaching into the public gaze. An organisation called Lighthouse was being held to account by the BBC. Instead of fulfilling on their promise of ‘life coaching helping people to realise their dreams’ they found instead that the organisation was ‘taking over people’s lives, separating people from their loved ones, and harassing its critics’.

This Antony Gormley sculpture, Quantum Cloud XIV, says something about dependence. The amazing image of the figure in the middle is dependent on the location of each of the metal elements (Photograph: Jeremy Hinks at Roche Court)

As someone whose business is life coaching this story generates a strong emotional response. What the hell did they think they were doing??!! I’m not naïve, I know this goes on and I have a fair idea of the motivations behind it. Even so, the story really stirred my emotions.

After feeling for the plight experienced by Lighthouse’s victims my primary response was one of anger because, for any real coach, the notion of coaching creating a dependency between client and their coach is anathema. It is absolutely the reverse of the intention of coaching, which is to support people to reach their full potential by means that they are responsible and accountable for. It is all about ensuring that the client learns to build, and depend on, their own resources. Good coaching involves a partnership of relatively short duration. The benefits from it are long lasting, and are experienced, and built on well beyond the end of the coaching partnership. Key to this is that the realisation of those benefits is the responsibility of the client.

My anger was disproportionate for sure. It was good journalism. The story was about the exception rather than the rule. It came from a sense that coaching and dependency were being connected in way that misaligned with the values that lie beneath my commitment to coaching, and my identity as a coach.

After stewing for a little while, I was able to use the energy to contemplate how dependency might have a presence in any coaching partnership, however much the practice and process of coaching might be geared to avoiding it. After all, every conversation, every relationship is one in which dependency can have positive and negative connotations. On the one hand it might have a connection with trust, support and care, while on the other hand it might relate to control, manipulation and coercion. What distinguishes these two is the intention of the provider, and their potency (in both positive and negative connotations) is determined by the level of permission given by the recipient.

Perhaps I should be clear that the one contextual use of the word ‘dependency’ that was not in my mind in this thinking was that associated with addiction and substance abuse. The role of a coach in such situations is to do no harm, to signpost to those with expertise to provide support, and to know the boundaries of their capabilities.

What has proved useful for me in this whole experience is that I am more conscious of dependency in my coaching partnerships. To support by reflection and to keep the topic in my awareness, I framed a number of enquiries. While the language of these relate to coaching you can apply them in any relational situation.

  • What might be the signs that a client is developing an unhelpful dependency on your coaching?

  • How do you respond to these signs when you observe them?

  • How do you notice changes in your own relationship with dependency as the coach practitioner?

  • What is happening around you when you feel a greater sense of dependency?

  • What do you do to manage your levels of dependency, being open to the possibility that there are risks with too little, as well as too much?

I have also enjoyed encouraging this awareness with colleagues. Only last week I had a brilliant discussion about dependency with 10 or more members of the Know You More coach community. Something prompted in that discussion was the appreciation that coaching is a partnership in which the level of dependency will flex during the conversation. As trust is developed, dependency will have a presence, as it will at moments where the coachee might be experiencing the need for some support to their way of being. It will have less of a presence when they are thinking creatively, and none when it comes to the coachee deciding what to do next, and taking the necessary action.

You might think of it as coach and client navigating a continuum of behaviour which at one end has dependence and at the other self-sufficiency (it’s interesting that independence did not seem the right word for the other end of this continuum – what do you think?).

Knowing where we are on that continuum requires a level of awareness that is useful. For that I am grateful to the reporters of the Lighthouse story.

If the exploration implied in these enquiries interests you, or you are curious about how enquiry on something that is particularly topical for you might be helpful, please do get in touch with me.


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