Coaching Through Conflict

Mastering the Art of Constructive Confrontation

by Cal LeMon

She is the people magnet on your staff. Her ability to motivate and inspire is without question. For the past 3 years this junior high pastor has built her ministry into a vibrant, creative, and spiritually healthy segment of your congregation’s appeal to a growing community. Everyone loves her. There is just one problem: This charismatic leader seems to have no interest or aptitude for being on time.

As lead pastor, you have personally addressed the need to provide timely information for calendar planning, a reasonable turnaround time for responding to interoffice e-mails, and returning telephone calls to both parishioners and colleagues.

You are out of ideas and solutions. You may want to try coaching.

Coaching is the process of coming alongside individuals in your congregation (staff member, elected church leader, Christian education teacher, etc.) in an effort to advance their professional growth and improve their self-awareness. And, after providing statements of affirmation and personal offers to help, you may also need to confront.

The difficult, but immensely rewarding work, of confrontational coaching is establishing a comfortable learning environment built on transparent trust. Thus, when desired outcomes such as improving professional growth, self-awareness, or goal setting are not taking place, you, the coach, can and will confront without the need to demean or destroy.

We saturate the language and agenda of this unique approach by maintaining a mutually affirming relationship. The coach is not there to fix the person being coached (PBC) through intimidation and threat; rather, the coach accomplishes the fixing through frequent and genuine expressions of positive words and actions that give the coach permission to confront.

Therefore, when a coach confronts, he never degrades or discredits the PBC. Instead, the coach confronts to affirm the PBC’s innate value and then supplies accountability to accomplish the PBC’s potential.

Charting the Confrontation Cycle

We live most of life in cycles: What comes around goes around. If you are an historic church leader, you know the past seems to show up again and again. This proven principle also works through a repeatable cycle for confronting in a coaching relationship.

First, inclusion of accountability must be part of the initial coaching agreement. Second, there are linguistic and emotional triggers when confrontation becomes the best intervention. Third, the coach will use specific interrogatory skills in the coaching conversation that signal the PBC requires accountability. Fourth, there are moments when the coach has to affirm with resistance. Finally, the confrontation cycle concludes and then begins all over again with the come-to-Jesus moment.

The Agreement to Confront

Sometimes the small things mean everything. If you are coaching the staff member described in the first paragraph, a follow-up e-mail or letter stating your mutual responsibilities in the coaching agreement will be essential.

The e-mail or letter may read, “Thank you for your willingness to meet with me each month for the next 6 months. We have mutually agreed we will review together the progress you are making on the personal discipline of time management. I look forward to holding both of us accountable for our mutual growth as we serve the body of Christ.”

The positive appeal of confrontation is its ability to renew. When you, the coach, place in writing the therapeutic rewards for confronting, the two of you can return to this document to renew your commitment to excellence.

No contract is required here, but there is a paper trail. Paper, in all aspects of your ministry (preaching the Word, the deed on church property, an annual financial audit, etc.) is a point of accountability.

Best intentions are not the foundation of growing a vibrant ministry. If we frame the coaching dynamic in just vaporous words, the PBC could view confrontation as an interpersonal power play. What neither party in a coaching relationship needs is confusion when confronting. The coach’s original letter or e-mail is a good place to revisit before continuing the PBC’s renewal.

The Tripwire for Caring Confrontation

If you are an experienced church leader, you already know you will either execute this next coaching skill set correctly or incorrectly.

The coin of the realm in leadership, whether you are a tattered veteran in the church or beaming novice ready to speak to the world, is your skill at reading what the person who receives your coaching may not be saying. Specifically, there are seven environmental circumstances that will demand an intervention of confrontation from you.

First, the conclusion to any coaching session needs to have a list of expected changes in attitude, behavior, or competence. How will you remember these commitments?

Here is why the coach needs to take process notes during or immediately after a coaching session. This individual shorthand will be the agenda for the next meeting when the session begins with, “Before we move ahead today, I am eager to hear what you have accomplished about your commitment to. …”

Second, was the PBC supposed to give feedback to the coach after completing a particular task? If the answer is yes, provide this response, “Since I did not hear from you about, … I am assuming you were. … Tell me; am I right or wrong about my assumption?”

This may sound uncomfortable, but the coach’s responsibility is to assertively ask what the PBC does not know. The coach’s comfort level is not the predominant concern here. Is the PBC growing? This is the only question. Without accountability, the answer will probably be no.

Third, are you and the person you are coaching using an article or book as a place for your minds to meet? If the PBC has committed to reading particular works, and it is obvious the PBC has not read the material, you may want to confront with, “I need to check again to make sure my assumption is true about the reading assignment you accepted in our last session. Were you able to complete that article?”

Fourth, in the last coaching session, the PBC enthusiastically agreed to formulate and write a vision statement for her ministry. Today you are meeting with her and eager to delve into the construction of this important document.

When you introduced the topic of the vision statement, you heard this reply, “For the past 3 weeks I have just not had time to work on this. To tell you the truth, I am swamped right now, and it will be some time before I can get this finished.”

That statement sounds like procrastination. Right? If so, confront with, “This sounds like an intimidating task. Let’s put aside the vision statement for today and explore how you normally respond when you may feel intimidated. Does that sound like a good use of our time?”

If the coach had said, “Hey, times are difficult for me, too. Don’t sweat the little things; we can pick this vision thing up sometime in the future,” what do you think will be the end result for your PBC? When there is no accountability, there normally is no growth. And, when there is no growth, the coaching relationship will come to a screeching, premature end.

Fifth, your PBC consistently expresses exaggerated enthusiasm for a variety of growth areas. As you look back over your process notes, you heard firm commitments to renew a prayer life, rehabilitate an injured relationship with a parishioner, devote 1 hour each day to enhance physical fitness, write a daily personal journal, and … the list goes on and on.

It is obvious this PBC cannot remain centered on a task until it is completed. Your confrontation may be, “Look with me at the enthusiastic commitments you have made to yourself, and me, over the last 6 months. Does this list of uncompleted tasks concern you? What are you learning about you and commitments?”

Sixth, spirituality for people in faith communities is always fertile ground for a coaching relationship. Assume for a moment your PBC consistently complains about the church and its adherents. As the coach you may hear, “The people in this church are just not committed to the demands of the gospel,” “The saints here cannot find unity about anything,” “Most of the people in this ministry are unwilling to count the cost of following Christ.”

The real problem, in your opinion as a coach, is this person is describing herself.

How will you confront? If you agree with all the foibles of the faithful, you give up your position of coach and join the friends of Job. You may want to coach by stating, “The gospel often is demanding news. What is the demand our Lord is making on you and me as we work with people who often reflect our own hesitation to totally follow Christ?”

Seventh, there are times when the PBC hints, implies, or screams burnout. The nonverbal messages that accompany spiritual or career burnout are sequentially unmistakable.

Burnout begins with a quiet, pervasive disillusionment, followed by lots of silence, then elides into unfocused anger, and usually concludes with emotional and spiritual exhaustion.

If you are the coach of someone who is catatonically marching to the beat of another drummer, it is time to confront with, “I sense our coaching relationship comes at a time when you are internally out of breath. Have I read you correctly?”

The Confrontation Question

As a coach you know you will test your verbal skills, not by what you initially say to the PBC, but what your follow-up statement will be. And, that statement needs to be a question. As a matter of fact, there are four questions you need to ask. This is how this skill works in a real coaching dialogue.

Using the final illustration in the last segment, the burnout scenario, here is what you can expect to hear next.

The PBC may say, “Well, it is interesting you mention internally out of breath. That is exactly what I have been feeling.”

Silence. What is your next confrontational question?

Try, “If you are out of breath, what have you been doing that has emotionally or spiritually exhausted you?”

Notice the first question always parrots what the coach just heard.

The PBC responds, “I’m not really sure, and I know I shouldn’t say this, but I no longer know why I am in a ministry that just keeps asking more from me.”

Second question should be “Asking more? Who or what is asking more?”

The intent of this question is to localize the source of this person’s pain. The coach does not make judgments about what he is hearing, he simply reflects with a question.

Assuming the PBC responds with something like, “Everyone expects me to be this spellbinding orator in meetings, chapel, and anywhere there is a microphone. I am tired of being on stage.”

The third question has become apparent, “You always are on stage? It sounds like this place of ministry will not allow you to be yourself. Am I correct about that assumption?”

Notice, the coach follows not just the words, but the meanings behind the word choices.

The person you are coaching goes on, “Well, how can I be myself when I know the people who hired me are disappointed. I am really good at solving problems and managing this ministry. If I could crawl into a hole and serve the Lord quietly, I would be fulfilled. I do not need the limelight.”

This staff member has just programmed the coach to internally ask, How can I lovingly confront this person so she can take responsibility for her tomorrow?

Looking at this scenario, the phrase, “serve the Lord quietly,” may be the key.

Therefore, the fourth effective question may be, “It is obvious you spent a lot of time thinking and praying about serving the Lord quietly. Where could you serve the Lord quietly?”

Put this together. This PBC has taken a risk to reveal the pain of her present ministry position. She has also told you, the coach, this pain in untenable. There must be a change. It is your responsibility as the coach to reframe what you just heard and always ask that effective question.

Please note. At no time in this situation should the coach give direction. Coaching is leading from behind. The PBC has to get up every day and live out the decisions that have been made, not the ones made by the coach. The issue of ownership is paramount in this third segment.

When the Coach Pushes Back

Not every response from a coach should be a question. Sometimes it is time for a positive assertion.

A positive assertion is a three-stage progression of expressing emotion with the right language. In the first stage, the coach establishes the limits of leading from behind.

If you are presently serving as a coach, have you ever felt the emotional stop sign appearing in your coaching relationship? Let’s assume you, the executive pastor, have been coaching the minister of music who administratively reports to you. The two of you have had a positive, trusting relationship for 4 years. Lately, your PBC has pockmarked your coaching sessions with incendiary tales of perceived victimization by members of the congregation and the lead pastor.

You have provided unconditional positive regard (UPR) as a listener, reflected appropriately, and asked questions that should have circled back the PBC to accept responsibility.

None of your best coaching skills have worked. The PBC is insular and projecting to be the victim. You have to admit to yourself there has been no progress.

In today’s coaching session you heard, “He (the lead pastor) is not capable of change. I guess I need to work around him by going to the deacon board. They will see how insensitive he has been to me.” In this first stage it is time to push back.

Your intervention may sound like this, “What will you accomplish by triangulating this situation? If you involve the deacons, what does your experience tell you will be the response of the lead pastor?”

We call this reality testing. As the coach, you are making a declarative statement with a question.

The second stage of this pushing back paradigm is the screaming silence followed by the echo chamber. Staying with the minister of music scenario, if the PBC answered the above question with, “Well, I really do not care. I am so exhausted and angry about the victimization I have been feeling. If the lead pastor gets in my face, even in front of other people, so be it. Maybe this is what I should have done a long time ago.”

Your response with the screaming silence should be to maintain intermittent eye contact and say nothing. Allow the PBC to intellectually and emotionally absorb their prescribed solution. You will find this person will stammer, verbally repeat what was just said, and mire down in angst. Continue your silence.

When the silence has soaked up the dead end of this statement, use the echo chamber by repeating back, “Maybe this is what I should have done a long time ago?” Notice, the tone of the coach’s voice makes this a question.

The third stage of pushing back is owning your right to assert yourself as an effective listener.

If the PBC, in this working illustration of the minister of music, continues to endorse the triangulating solution, the coach has the right to say, “I do not agree,” followed by, “What will be the result of your decision to involve the deacon board?”

Notice the strong, assertive “I statement” followed by further reality testing.

The pushing back phase can be the coach’s best skill to effect change.

The First and Final Solution

Coaching can be just another organizational remedy that winds its way through a short lifespan only to end up on the growing heap of harmless, hazy helps for the holy. Or, the skills of a pastor-coach can provide a fertile field for leadership and organizational health to flourish.

For the past 20 years, I have served as a coach in senior leadership in corporate America. I have observed the organizational benefits of coaching as I have led from behind with leaders who have self-discovered the hard and often difficult choice. Inevitably, their organizations have grown and succeeded as a result of this inward journey.

But one option I normally cannot weave into my executive coaching is what I call the first and final solution. If you are reading this article, you may already possess this option.

All coaching begins and ends at the feet of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we know from our shared theology, this is the beginning and ending of who we are and who we have yet to be. So, the role of coach has already begun in a divine performance with a basin of water, a towel, and outstretched dirty feet. And, as it was for the apostle Peter, coaching always ends with an important confession.

Sometimes you, the Christian coach, must confess you have exhausted the limits of your intuition, reading, and experience. When coaching a person in an especially demanding set of circumstances, you may walk into your own professional black hole with no apparent solutions. When you hit this wall, you must, of necessity, openly admit the well inside you is bone dry, and you have no more intellectual, verbal, or emotional interventions.

Standing on Mars Hill in ancient Athens surrounded by erudite and haughty religious elite, the apostle Paul instantly discovered in his spirit and mind a new agenda for his preaching when he spied the altar to the “Unknown God”(Acts 17:16–34).

As people of the Spirit, we must admit our skill to coach another person in ministry is ultimately not in our own ability. We are always in need of being bailed out, by the Spirit, when our expertise fails us.

If you are in a coaching relationship with another believer, the first and final solution should be to discover from our Lord what neither of you have yet to find.