Alison Whitmire's picture Submitted by Alison Whitmire August 28, 2018 - 1:34pm

You work so hard for your clients. You generously share yourself with them. You deeply and genuinely care for them. And you courageously and exhaustively work on developing yourself so you can be better for them.

That was an acknowledgement. It’s powerful stuff, right? It feels amazing. And it feels amazing because it feels true. Acknowledgement is a potent ally in coaching.

What is an Acknowledgement?

An acknowledgement is an affirming statement of who the client is being and/or what they are doing in that moment. It notices, mirrors and anchors the best in the client, reinforcing who and how the client wants to be. The acknowledgement feels true both to the giver and to the receiver. And it’s delivered as a statement of fact.

An acknowledgement isn’t the same as positive feedback. Positive feedback is an evaluation of one’s performance with an agenda to improve it. And while that has a place in the working world, acknowledgement is a better coaching tool because it takes the coach’s judgment out of it. The coach isn’t evaluating who or how the client is being. They are simply seeing the client being their best and saying what they see.

For a coach, an acknowledgement is a way of saying to the client “I see you. I see you being who you want to be. You are doing it now! Look at you!” (In the Zulu tribe, this is the way they greet each other – “Sawubona.” Translated, this means “we see you.” It’s a form of deep witnessing and presence.)

What Makes Acknowledgement Important?

Acknowledgement of the client is every bit as important (maybe more so) as asking powerful questions, active listening, or planning and goal setting. Acknowledgement is a foundational element of the coach/client relationship that builds the trust and intimacy needed to do the rest of the work.

In her book, The Power of Acknowledgement, Judith W. Umlas writes about the seven principles of acknowledgement. While you can read all seven here, they boil down to the potent effect that acknowledgement can have on both the person being acknowledged and the relationship between the giver and receiver.
When the relationship between coach and client is an intimate one, the coach’s acknowledgement can act like a kind of self-affirmation for the client, because it feels so real, present and true. Studies on self-affirmation have been shown to improve health, education and relationships. Also, in my experience, acknowledgement of who the client is being (separate from what they are doing), has led consistently to deeper relationships that have allowed for deeper work.

Clearly, acknowledgement is an essential aspect of developing the coach/client relationship and anchoring the essence of the client. So why don’t we coaches acknowledge more?

What’s Hard About Acknowledging?

I’ve been actively engaged in coach training (involved in one coaching program or another) for the last 5 years. I’ve had the opportunity to observe dozens of coaches at all levels – from MCC to no CC, ICF and non-ICF type coaches – and I’ve witnessed surprisingly little acknowledgment. Not that there aren’t ample opportunities. The opportunities for acknowledgement are abundant. It’s caused me to be curious about why we coaches don’t acknowledge more.

My hunches about why we don’t acknowledge our clients more include:

  • We don’t acknowledge ourselves enough.
    OK, here we go again, it’s back to us. Yes, it is. We can’t give to our clients what we don’t give to ourselves. (A lesson I just keep learning!)
  • ​​​​​​​We consider it unimportant or that they know already.
    This is actually just another way of saying we don’t consider it important for ourselves and we already know (clearly a theme here).
  • Our wants/action orientation.
    At Learning in Action, our deep experience with the EQ Profile has helped us understand how everyone has a preferred method of self-soothing. And we coaches can, if we are not fully conscious and aware of our internal experience, project our own self-soothing onto our clients. Those of us who self-soothe by acting, doing something, or fixing the problem can insert that bias into our coaching and miss the opportunity to simply observe, witness and be present with our clients. And we can coach right past the opportunity for acknowledgment.
  • Our thoughts orientation or being too much in our heads.
    Some of us self-soothe by thinking more and turning our focus inward as we coach, searching for that next, awesome, powerful question that will lead to a breakthrough for the client. When we are turned inward, focusing on our thoughts, looking for that next question, figuring the way forward, we can overlook the opportunity for acknowledgement of our client.
  • Can’t figure out what to say or how to say it.
    This was definitely me for a very long time and sometimes is even now. I can recognize the opportunity for acknowledgement and somehow just can’t figure out what to say to acknowledge the client in a way that feels natural and authentic. It has taken lots of practice and I’ve gotten better. That said, even now, when I feel like I’m stumbling over an acknowledgement of my client, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who notices. My client almost always beams afterward, even if it felt awkward to me.
Overcoming the Obstacles to Acknowledgement

We can all get better at acknowledging our clients if we want to. And it’s definitely worth the effort as it’s one thing that can change everything about the quality of our coaching.  

Here’s where to start:

  1. Acknowledge yourself
    Take time every day to acknowledge yourself. Who were you or what did you do for your clients, your friends, your family, that was of service to them? Acknowledge that. (I use the Five Minute Journal for acknowledging myself.)
  2. Learn your biases
    We have a responsibility to our clients to be aware of our biases. When we don’t (and sometimes even when we do), they can show up in our coaching in ways that don’t serve us or the client. We, of course, recommend the EQ Profile for helping us to understand our biases. There are many, many ways we can deepen our understanding of our own biases, including developing an understanding of biases that affect coaching in general.
  3. Develop your skill for acknowledgement
    Acknowledgement is a coaching skill, like any other, that gets better with time and practice.

In part 2 of this blog (stay tuned), I’ll be sharing a coaching tool for developing acknowledgement. And it’ll do double duty for you. It can help you to develop your own ability to acknowledge your client and you can use it as a tool for your clients who are not so good at acknowledging their co-workers or team.