Four Modes of Coaching Magic Part IV: Respond Mode - React Approaches

Jul 11, 2022

When we intentionally choose to respond in a way that is possibility thinking-based and long-term focused, we start using one of the most effective teaching tools of our species: the power of leading by example. The way you choose to approach coaching is just as important as the solution you co-create with your people. A healthy approach will help you choose a response that will serve you for the long term. As a leader, it is not just your job to deliver a message; you are the message. How you respond affects how your employees will respond.

Last time, we talked about the best kind of responses you can have as a leader: those that are focused on possibility thinking and long term outcomes. Here are some deficit-thinking based and short-term focused React approaches that get unfavorable outcomes: (Again, not an exhaustive list. Feel free to add things to this list as you find additional approaches that don’t work for you.)

  • Avoidance: Doing nothing is an active, chosen response and based on how often it is chosen, it’s the most prevalent response for coaches who fall into the Buddy Approach quadrant. Be careful because avoidance can be disguised as a “wait-and-see” approach. Or a “we need to gather more information” phase. Never before in the history of my coaching had I witnessed the effects of this more than in the spring of 2020, as the threat to our global economy became very real for me and my clients. Suddenly, we were meeting in emergency “zombie apocalypse” mode. Some of the teams needed to lay off people and restructure their company seats and roles to stabilize the companies’ futures. As we reflected on who would be on the furlough or lay-off list, most managers admitted (or finally became aware) that they had been avoiding handling their people issues because they hadn’t been such a big deal before this moment. When I asked them the question, “Which of your current people will you absolutely need to rebuild?” and conversely, “Who would you not hire back?” we discovered that there had been a lot of previous avoidance and lack of response to issues. What I learned for myself, even though I knew it in theory, is that in times of peace, critical issues that need to be solved for the long-term vision to be achieved don’t look as critical to the short-term success. When we are in times of crisis, these issues come to the forefront in a very real way.
  • Anger: When we choose (or react with) anger, our brains are literally cut off from any study, preparation or logical plans on which we had previously relied. When I’m in active reflection mode with leaders who have reacted with anger, they report feeling disappointed in themselves. Because we are human, I’m sure you can see yourself in some of these examples: 
    • With my teenagers: “I’m so sick of you spending ALL of your money on fast food. It’s so irresponsible. You’re a smart person! Why would you do something so stupid? Now you’ll NEVER have enough money to buy a car.” As painful as this is to admit, I heard myself say these words a few years ago after my first teenager started working. 
    • With employees: “I can’t believe you have the nerve to ask for a raise. I’ve already done so much for you! It seems that all you care about is money!”
    • With vendors: “This is unacceptable. You promised that the product would be delivered by now. If this is how your company operates, you can rest assured that all of my colleagues will be hearing about how you never follow through on what you promised.”

After we react with anger, these are very common reflections. I hear them all the time.

  1. “I am disappointed in my reaction. It was uncalled for. I wish I could take it back.”
  2. “That was a stupid thing to say. I don’t even feel that way.”
  3. “After thinking about the words I chose, I realize they are inaccurate.”
  4. “I didn’t even recognize myself. It’s like I had an out-of-body experience, almost like watching myself explode.” 

Here’s why these statements are true, in a biological sense. When we are angry, our brains are flooded with cortisol. Cortisol throws us into protection mode. We prioritize protecting our physical selves and our egoic selves. If we have been wronged, disappointed in a situation or outcome, and we react with anger, we rarely reflect on the truth because some of the truth may reflect negatively on our own behavior. Furthermore, we use extreme language to solidify our position of being the victim in the situation. If I been truthful in my anger, for example, and instead of accusing my teenager of spending ALL of his money on fast food, had said the truth: that he spends 58% of his money on fast food, it would have weakened my second argument: “You’ll NEVER be able to save money for a new car.” That would put my ego at risk. So, my brain took over and enhanced my argument by using extreme language.

  • Disappointment: Reacting with disappointment happens when an initial expectation or agreement is broken. If you really had a clear agreement, it’s natural to feel disappointed and you can sit with that personally. Taking the approach of disappointment, though, demonstrates traits found in the Professor Approach quadrant of our table. The Professor is disappointed in the student rather than choosing to see the failure as a learning opportunity. When we choose to take the “I’m very disappointed in you and your behavior; I expected more from you” approach, it most often leads to a deficit-thinking and short-term focused reaction from the person we are coaching. This inevitably results in a downward spiral toward a less productive outcome.
  • Inflexibility: If you’ve attached yourself to a way of thinking that does not allow for creativity or other paths, your response will rarely be beneficial. Inflexible thinking is a quick way to unhappiness: you have a goal and you believe that there is only one path to get to that goal. Think outside your box.
  • Denial or arguing with reality: On her website,, Byron Katie says that there are only three kinds of business. 1. My Business 2. Other people's business and 3. God’s business. She states that God’s business is anything that is basic reality. When we deny reality, we are messing with God’s business. Being in denial of reality rarely leads to calm, clear and possibility-based thinking. I can only control my own business and my own state of mind.
  • Fear: A few years ago, I was talking with a man who was considering hiring me to be the business coach for his leadership team. We were having a pleasant conversation, then it quickly turned deep. He said, “Jill, I know full well how using you as our coach will work. Can you talk to me about when it may not work?” The question had never been posed to me quite so clearly. We explored past situations in which my coaching has not had a positive effect, we explored a few reasons why this happens, but after the call ended, my mind was still thinking about his question. I thought so deep and long about this question that I wrote a whole book on it called The Courage Advantage. What I discovered in my research for that book and after observing leadership teams in over 500 sessions, was that there were teams that embraced the coaching and systems and there were teams that fizzled out or just couldn’t make the system work within their organizations. All of the teams received the same coaching and had access to the same tools, but the big difference was that the teams who didn’t make it let fear guide their companies. If you choose the fear response, you might hear yourself starting your sentences with the phrase, “I’m afraid that . . ..” It’s something that I now listen for from leaders and then I challenge their fears. Some leaders have been choosing the fear response for so long that they don’t even notice it. (Fear of what others will think, fear of loss, fear of making a mistake, etc.)
  • Guilt: About a decade ago, I was in church when the teacher explained that there are three reasons that a person obeys. (In this context, the discussion was about obeying God, but I think it applies to more than that.) The first reason that people obey is out of fear. They fear the consequences if they don’t obey. The second is that they obey out of duty. They feel a responsibility to obey. And the third is that they obey out of love. They feel intrinsic reward and satisfaction because they really love God or the person asking for their obedience. When we choose the response of guilt, it's akin to obeying out of duty.

As a leader in the business, you’ll make mistakes, forget things, and many times, make wrong decisions. There are plenty of chances to feel guilty, but staying in that feeling and responding with that feeling won’t serve you for the long term. You’ll be much better served by taking responsibility and moving on.

  •  Blame and Shame: This is similar to guilt, but it involves trying to place that feeling of guilt on another person instead of on yourself. Choosing a response of blame and shame can entice the other person or people in the interaction to obey, or cooperate, out of fear and guilt. The higher order choice is love, joy, purpose, etc., but this blame and shame response works so well that it is sometimes reinforced by its powerful, immediate outcome. However, at its core, this response eats away at the confidence of everyone in the interaction or conversation.

Try choosing to respond in a way that is possibility thinking-based and long-term focused, and watch your team follow your example. In this next section, you’ll learn some ways to choose your response. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. 

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