Coaching is All About Context

By Toku

From the outside looking in, coaching is simple. A client shows up. You ask them what they want. They tell you. You ask some more questions, to help uncover what it is they want more deeply, clearly, and fully. You ask them what their current limitations are, what’s in the way of what they want – whether real or imagined. 

Then you work to move what’s in the way out of the way. Simple. 

But there’s one thing a lot of coaches leave out: Context. 

We all have contexts that we live and work within

Everything your client sees and doesn’t see – everything your client thinks they can have, and everything they don’t think they can have – exists inside a context. This context dictates the way they view themselves, the other people around them, the world, and every possibility that exists for them as a result of their interactions.  

If you’re not sure what I mean, think about what it’s like to go see a superhero movie. The movie offers a context that helps you understand the characters’ motivations, desires, and methods. 

For example: a little alien dude crash lands and the yellow sun gives him superpowers. A crazy scientist does an experiment with gamma radiation and morphs into a superhuman green dude. Some guy’s parents are killed by a guy dressed like a clown so he uses his fortune to fight crime. 

These are all contexts. 

Obviously, in our regular lives, we would freak out if we saw someone flying, or a giant green dude smashing walls, or a jet-powered black car driving crazily through our city. But inside the context of the movie, it’s acceptable, because we’ve been told what’s real, normal, and to be expected within the realm of this world we’re experiencing. 

Some people call this suspension of disbelief. But really, it’s just context. 

Now, apply this same idea to your life, or the life of someone you know. 

Some common contexts we see around us:

  • All republicans are cruel, hateful, selfish white men.
  • Social media is a waste of time and everyone on it is shallow.
  • Forks go in the dishwasher prongs up.

As a less-exaggerated example, maybe you know someone that struggles to date, and they feel like they’re always going to be alone. They see other couples as proof of their loneliness. They see attractive people around them and feel more depressed because they feel like they could never meet someone great. 

They are trapped inside a context that they’ve created for themselves. And it can be hard to find a way out. 

But it’s not always a bad thing – everyone has a context, all the time. Contexts are what tell us it’s ok to scream at a football match, but not at a fancy restaurant. Even your own personality traits and your career are made up of a context that you’ve either created, adopted, or experienced at some point in your life. 

When contexts become problems

Contexts are important, and useful, but there are some situations in which they can start to become problematic. 

For example, if a context is unseen, you can’t expect to ever shift it. You can’t see what’s going on, or understand why you see what you see. Like wearing tinted sunglasses for too long, you begin to think that the world is just a little more yellow than it really is. (Good luck picking out paint!)

When a context is undistinguished, unclear, or just misunderstood, you might react strangely in certain situations because you misunderstand what’s expected of you or how others might react to what you’re doing. 

Finally, if a context is not chosen freely, typically because it’s forced on us by external influences such as friends, families, or our jobs, then we tend to be half-hearted and unexpressed inside that context. The context is disempowering, and we tend to fall victim to it rather than being in the driver’s seat.

Your clients have a context, too.

So how does this relate to you and your clients? Well, your client has a context they are living in, whether they realize it or not. Some might be helpful, and others are less so, but either way, they have a context of some kind. 

Part of your job as a coach is to reveal this context to them and with them. A truly masterful coach keeps track of this. 

When I’m coaching, I often ask myself: what context are they in right now? 

If I notice that I feel trapped or stuck in my coaching, the first place I look is to see if I’m stuck inside the client’s context with them. 

It’s sort of like helping someone out of a maze. If you can see from the top where the curves are, where the dead ends are, and maybe even the way to the exit, then you can help them. But if you’re inside the maze with them, you’re both a little more stuck. 

That’s why context is so important. 

And the best thing is, you don’t need to do a lot to start adding this into your coaching. 

In your next coaching session, you can look for context by asking yourself:

  • How is the world as they see it? 
  • What assumptions are they making? 
  • What do they think is possible and impossible right now? 
  • What strategies have they developed to try to make the world work for them? 
  • What’s the cost of those strategies? 
  • If the world could be any way they wanted it to be, what would they change? 

I’ve heard some people say that context is everything. There’s a deep truth to that, because context shapes so much of how we see the world. If you truly want to help people be free, then shifting the context they are in makes all the difference in the world. 



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