You might not be the best judge

Some time ago, I had a coaching session with a prospective client.

We’d connected on several different occasions, but never in a coaching capacity, and I had a really good feeling about what she could accomplish if we put our heads together and embarked on a coaching program. While I don’t always have a strong sense of how a first-time session will unfold, this particular one seemed steeped in possibilities and potential. In my mind, this powerful conversation would cement our next steps together.

I was pumped for it.

Fast forward to our actual session—probably no more than 20 minutes in—when I started to feel highly self-conscious and aware of every (inarticulate) sentence that came out of my mouth. I found myself tripping over my words, stumbling somewhere between my ideas and my expression of those ideas, and utterly unable to lead the client powerfully. Or so I thought.

I’d reminded myself that the session wasn’t about me or my performance. Sessions never are, and usually I remember this without trouble.

But, for some reason, I’d gotten hooked by a passing thought of mine, one that whisper-snarled, You’re not making any sense, Helen, and once that happened, I fell victim to another and another of those self-critical thoughts.

It was all I could do to keep the session on track, to stay present and engaged with the client (instead of with my own nasty inner monologue).

By the end of our time together, I was sure I’d never hear from this person again. I was sure I’d blown it. I’d had this one opportunity to make something of our connection…and I was sure I’d failed.

Those thoughts were really loud, still, even after we hung up, though they settled down and passed once I got myself to the local Y and set to walking the treadmill with the latest This American Life playing in my ears.

At some point, my thoughts became a tiny bit more generous and less inclined toward self-blame. Maybe you’re just tired? It had been an intense coaching schedule the past few weeks, so there was a good chance I was simply off my game and in need of rest… Maybe we just weren’t a coach-client match? That happens, and it doesn’t mean anything about either person or the quality of the session.

After a few days, I forgot about the session entirely.

And then I got an email.

It was from the prospective client, who wanted to hire me for coaching.

This person was ready to begin a program, felt I was the person for the job, and wanted to know how to pay me so we could get started immediately.

I remember being absolutely dumbfounded. I knew right away that there was a lesson for me here.

“I guess this means I’m not the best judge,” I said to my husband that day. “I can’t accurately gauge how good a session is.”

I can gauge only my own experience of a session—how I showed up, what I might want to do differently the next time, how coachable the client seemed, etc.

But I can’t gauge the objective quality of a session, because that’s unknowable to me.

Truthfully, it’s even unknowable to the prospective client (that person can gauge only his or her experience of the session).

What does this mean for me?

It means I don’t have to be attached to outcomes when I coach. In fact, it’s far better if I’m not. I’m a more effective, connected, and present coach when I’m not offering myself feedback along the way.

What does this mean for you?

The quality of something you produce is never in question. Not truly. Who can say if something you create is objectively up to snuff or subpar? People will try to, sure. You will even try to, as a way of understanding yourself, improving your skills, trying to grow in your field, whatever.

But all any of us can actually judge is our own singular experience of something.

And someone else might have an entirely different experience of the very same something.

Like a movie playing in the theater, we’re all going to walk out after two hours of watching an identical story unfold, with a wide variety of opinions and perspectives and a feeling that we’re right—that what we saw was either excellent or terrible or something in-between. And we’ll have our reasons, and when we go to articulate them, all we’ll be describing is our highly personal experience of this shared event.

Can you apply this understanding of self-feedback to some current situation in your life? Share it with me below.