Coaches don’t judge…

Most coaches happily claim to be entirely ‘non-judgemental’. Our Head of Coaching and Education Jane Porter MCC is happy to admit that she’s made the same claim on numerous occasions. However, the more she learns about coaching (and herself), the more she is led to question this claim, including her own version of it. So, is it possible for a human being to be truly non-judgemental, even when their ‘role’ as ‘coach’ demands that this should be so?


Fresh from a recent break, I find myself smiling wryly at this concept of ‘coaches being non-judgemental’. I spent a lot of time with family over this period, which I’m fortunate to say was largely a positive experience, but was I ever truly non-judgemental during this time? Not a chance! Whilst I was not in the role of ‘coach’, as a way of dealing with the family mayhem I would find quiet moments by becoming present with myself and observing myself in the dynamic. My challenge to myself during these moments was ‘ok let’s just see how non-judgemental you really are’. You can probably predict the result of my poolside experiment.

Picture the scene…a large family gathering, relations of all ages from zero to 80 something, it’s hot, it’s noisy, kids, food and dogs everywhere, and my brain was busying itself with all sorts of interesting thoughts… ‘What is C wearing? B is quiet today. F can’t keep those kids under control. K looks well… I could go on…and on…and on. Earlier in the piece I did say that it was largely a positive experience, so what was causing my brain to engage in judgement with almost every thought? The in-depth answer to that question is well beyond the scope of these few lines, but let’s have a look at what’s happening through an explicit and implicit lens.

On an explicit level I’ll happily tell you I’m non-judgemental and I had a great time with my family during this visit.  Not dissimilar to the coach who claims to be ‘non-judgemental’.

On an implicit level, a whole bunch of other stuff was happening. Siri Carpenter deals with this topic in an article in Scientific American (2008) entitled Buried Prejudice. Carpenter explains that

“…implicit biases grow out of normal and necessary features of human cognition, such as our tendency to categorise, to form cliques and to absorb social messages and cues…”

He also states that often such associations exist outside conscious understanding, hence the term unconscious bias. The good news is it’s quite normal, the bad news is we are doing it ALL the time. If you don’t buy into this idea, have a go at Harvard Education’s Implicit Bias Testing. It’s humbling.

So there it is; we are judging all the time. In fact we can’t switch it off. So, what does this mean for coaching?

As a professional coach I can claim I am non-judgemental, or say that I don’t take judgement into sessions with me, and claim I am something akin to superhuman, or I can embrace my well-practiced judging capability, and see it as an asset to my role as coach.

So let’s flip the statement. What would it be like for we coaches to claim our discerning inner judges and name this as a coaching strength?

  • Coaches would then be making effective judgements about which coaching approaches they bring to each session to best serve their counterpart.
  • When ethical dilemmas present in coaching discerning judgement would be used to decide whether and how the coaching will continue.
  • Coaches would judge what they think they heard and then make decisions on how this might be used to craft the next powerful question.
  • Coaches would judge what to share of what they notice about a counterpart.
  • Coaches would effectively judge how to manage the time in a session to ensure effective action and outcomes within the time available.
  • Coaches would have heightened awareness of their own biases and how they are showing up in the coaching session and relationship.
  • Coaches would make judgement calls on whether what they were experiencing would be useful for the counterpart to hear.
Given that this cursory list is only a few of many ideas, would it then be true to say that if a coach stops judging they will more than likely lose impact?

There is the point to be made here that all judgments are not made equal, depending on who and what the judgement is in service of. For example, if I am judging the coaching action that you just committed to as ‘useless’ it’s simply my opinion and is self-serving. If I judge that the action you just set yourself doesn’t seem to align with what you said you wanted, I can use this information to ask a question such as, ‘As you imagine yourself taking that action, how do you see this moving you towards your stated coaching objective?’

So where do you stand on this? Should coaches strive for total non-judgement and wear this as a badge of honour? Or is there something here that we need to claim and integrate into our practice?