Stymied by the Diplomat Stage


This week, two different coaches presented me with a client case where, after some conversation, our hypothesis about each client was that they were at the Diplomat stage.  In each case, the coach was struggling to figure out what mattered to the client and what might work to help the client “unstick.” Hypothesizing the Diplomat stage actually helped both coaches see ways to work more appropriately with their clients, both of whom had key positions in their organizations. In stage theory, we wholly espouse meeting our clients where they are.

Let’s look at one of the situations. New client. Third session. The client said all the right things during coaching sessions, but didn’t follow through on commitments she had made to herself in front of the coach. The coach was surprised that the client didn’t follow through. During one recent session, the client was overwhelmed by emails and actually shut down because she couldn’t answer them.  She brought up to the coach how much pressure she was feeling. When the coach asked her about her internal process, the client could not respond. When the coach asked her what she wanted to do about the emails, she could not respond.  The client could not see the impact of her shutting down on anyone else, and she knew it was ‘wrong’ but she was paralyzed. Her colleagues showed increasing frustration with her lack of response. In that moment, the coach decided to be directive, and the client responded. Kudos to the coach! She figured it out and was able to adjust, and meet her client where her client needed to be met.

I imagine that every coach has been told during their training something like, ‘the client has the answers’ ‘trust the client’s wisdom’ ‘ask the right question and the client will pop open and find their wisdom’ ~ and I am sure that for many clients, this is true. However, one of the tenets of stage theory is that a person needs to be able to see what they are ‘subject to’ and place it in front of them as ‘object.’ Someone at the Diplomat stage has a very hard time doing that on their own. Their identity is not yet formed to the point where they can see themselves as object.  They rely largely on external factors for their sense of self. So this is a problem for coaches who are trying to help the such a client by only asking questions.  However much wisdom a person may have at the Diplomat stage, it often sounds like cliches ~ and  they have likely spent little time challenging what they have learned or what they think. And when the coach challenges the cliches, often the Diplomat won’t give it much thought. Their capacity for perspective taking is not yet there.

In the case above, the coach became directive, and worked with the client on the emails she had been avoiding.  She helped the client analyze the emails and determine the request that each email contained.  (Of course, not all the requests were clear!) She helped the client create appropriate responses, and talked through the hesitation the client felt at putting more of herself out there. While it was slow going, the client started to spark and began to feel like she could competently begin to deal with what others needed from her.  She was very afraid of being wrong, out of line, or disappointing someone. This will likely continue for a while.  A step at a time. The coach will need to revisit this and see what progress the client makes on her own.

While many of us don’t like to be wrong, out of line, or disappointing, when you have a client who is completely immobilized by the fear of any of these, you may be working with someone who has not yet completed the Diplomat stage of development. Understand that helping them to build a sense of self is the work that will strengthen them and may, in time, allow them to move to the Expert stage. And while we who work in stage theory believe that no one ‘has to’ move to a next stage, we also know that most of our organizations thrive with the work of Experts and Achievers, and so our Diplomat clients may always feel in over their heads, unless they occupy a position that is a good fit for Diplomat meaning-making.

This entry was posted in Adult Development on November 15, 2014.

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