The Practice of Coaching & Mentoring 1: Use of Challenge


How to use challenge effectively in coaching and mentoring has been a focus of attention in the OC coaching community recently.

One of our OC programme members shares her thinking about this testing topic . . .


I’m thinking a lot about how to use challenge effectively in coaching and mentoring. Are you equally fascinated by it? Does holding expert power as a coach give us the confidence, or right, to disagree or to provoke alternative thinking? I love the idea that ‘a soft question here, a mild observation there’ can jolt clients out of a cosy club where others tell them everything they’re doing is right.

At one of the OC Keeping in Touch days I used a challenge continuum to help us explore this testing subject further. I used examples outside of a coaching context – ‘so how would you challenge someone who is annoying you by constantly borrowing your stapler?!’ – as a starter.

Pause . . . for a moment to think what your answer would be (and yes, I know staplers are emotive!)

My continuum is about options, from low level (stapler) to serious (perhaps a discriminatory remark). What are your opportunities to also move along a similar sliding scale for challenge, picking the right approach to meet the individual needs of your client, in the moment?

Do you notice that the notion of our clients facing challenge seems to be a recurring theme of late? Something I’ve found that helps them with that is my PlatinumModel – created years ago when managing a small team of trainers.

This team were THE most fabulous team of 3: skilled, enthusiastic, adored. But, under pressure, a derailer surfaced: taking work home to better prepare for next day delivery. You may have managed, or worked in a similar team where modesty has prevented you (as it did them) from acknowledging what others knew . . . that you were already consistently working at a standard most would be proud to meet.

So, getting onto the winners’ podium is the goal, with all medals on there worth having; occasionally, extra effort wins you platinum, and that feels brilliant. But it’s not easy working at platinum all the time is it? The main challenge I had with my team was of finding a way to encourage them to feel good about accepting that ‘tomorrow, Team . . . GOLD will be OK!’

How might you have tackled this? Our solution happened over time as I challenged my lovely colleagues to sometimes relinquish their platinum medal, and when they did so to believe that they were still exceptional. We’ve remembered this many years later having gone separate ways in the same organisation.

I was amazed recently when one of my clients waxed lyrical about the language of the Platinum Model. Unhappy with someone previously telling them they had to work at silver, rather than gold, the idea of gold rather than platinum (at least sometimes) instantly resonated with them. Could you encourage your clients to go for gold sometimes, challenging them to do it differently?

“Candour . . . is absolute.  Success of a coaching relationship hinges on the absolute need for unbridled truth-telling.  No fudging, no hedging, no skirting the truth either from me to them, or them to me.  To do less is to service the client poorly.  To do less is dishonest.” John Brekke

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