Becoming a Coach: Stop Being the Expert

In earlier posts I have written about a central tenet of coaching which states the client is whole, capable and resourceful.

Once we accept the client’s inherent capability and that it exceeds our own in many cases, we are on the way to becoming truly useful.  Though there is usually a learning curve to navigate before we fully get there.

A Crisis of Identity

Firstly, there can be a crisis of identity for individuals who are used to the role of technical expert or even being an expert supporter of others (as a consultant, manager or therapist).  As coaches, it’s our role to support and challenge clients to be their own expert.  If we try to show our know-how of the content they are working with, that can go against them inhabiting their own authority.

I know this struggle from the inside out.  I’ve wrestled it cheek by jowl.  This struggle and I know each other so well, we’re on a first name basis.  It commands my attention regularly, to ensure I’ve learned its lessons thoroughly.

Why is it so hard to give up being the expert?

Many of our earliest discoveries about what is rewarded in life occurred in grade school.  I was the girl whose hand always shot up to answer the teacher’s questions.  I learned that knowledge and having the answer was the main currency of the classroom.  And boy was I good at it.  I worked hard at the game and usually got the answers right, and got a little dopamine rush of reward each time.  This formed my sense of identity.  I was a clever girl.  I scored highly.  My teachers were happy, my parents were happy, and I knew how to be an expert.

You can imagine my shock when coach training asked me to drop my capacity to know the answer, which I believed was my key asset.  The more I tried to know the answer, the more my trainers and mentors shook their heads.  I scowled at them for changing the rules of sucess on me.  They smiled back, but they didn’t let me off the hook.  Thankfully they insisted I take a deep breath, sooth my ego, and face up to this new way of being.

Do you have a dependency on expertise? 

Most of us only realise how closely we are wedded to being an expert when we need to relinquish it.  Next time you must let go of knowing, notice what comes up for you.  Here are some responses that often pop up in our coach training.

If I’m not bringing superior insight, wisdom or a refined capacity to interpret my clients’ situation, why am I here?

I’m not sure what to do if I don’t offer an insight or interpretation.

If the client can manage without us … what contribution am I making?

Stripped of the aura of expertise projected onto the technical expert, most emerging coaches feel disoriented.  They fear they may be lacking or redundant in their new role.  This is a vulnerable experience.

Unlearning Our Expertise

Once we appreciate that the client’s inherent capability can and should exceed our own, we enter a process of unlearning.  We need to stop being experts in the content or context of the session, and become experts in supporting the client’s own expertise.  For many of us, this isn’t easy.  Even committed client-centred practitioners find it surprising how often they rely on framing the client’s narrative, rather than supporting them to engage in the meaning making process themselves.

There can be a crisis of identity for new coaches used to being in an active supporting role.  If we are not bringing superior insight, wisdom or a refined capacity to interpret our clients’ situation and point the way through their dilemmas, what are we supposed to do?  If the client can manage without us, why are we even there?   Stripped of the aura of expertise projected onto the therapist, counsellor or technical expert, most emerging coaches feel disoriented.

Understanding the Costs

To overcome our reliance on expertise we need to understand both the pay offs and the costs of being seen as the expert.

The simple fact of the matter is that clients know more about their situations than we do.

Bringing us up to speed on all the information and understanding they’ve gleaned over months and sometimes years would take a lot of time.  If you need convincing, think about the hours and intensive research involved in large consultancy projects.  Getting the pertinent data on the table is a laborious business.

Our precious coaching time is much better spent expanding and deepening the client’s understanding.  Leaders need to progress their thinking, not explain it all to their coach every time they meet.

We Need to Learn to Trust Our Clients

Letting go of your desire to know all the facts is not only essential but highly doable.  It usually comes with practice and good supervision with a coach-mentor who supports you with humor and grace through the inevitable identity or practice crisis.  It is a process of accepting our client’s expertise as superior to our own in their situation.  We must trust their authority.

The Benefits

When emerging coaches learn to let go of being the expert, they free up bandwidth for tracking different sorts of information.  They are able to observe what is happening in the moment; the areas where their client’s thinking flows and where they meet roadblocks.  This is where the coach’s skills are needed.  When we support and challenge our clients to work their own way through those road blocks, we earn our coaching fees.

Our contribution and relevance lies in our ability to pay attention to the client’s development process or the systemic factors operating in the background, within their organisations and the society. We listen for the patterns that inform our clients decisions, rather than trying to make their decisions for them.


How have you managed the need to be an expert?

GCI 102 (Australia)
GCI Coach Training Intensive (Japan)
GCI 101 (Australia)
Harnessing Team Power and System Potential (China)