Coaching Role #1: The Master

My last post summarized the seven coaching roles discussed by Doug Silsbee in his book The Mindful Coach.

Today, I’m looking more specifically at the role of the Master.

The Master is about being more so than doing. The remaining six voices live in doing.

The Master provides the ground on which we stand as coaches. It’s as the Master that the coach observes what is going on inside herself and with the client; it’s the Master (puppeteer) who chooses the appropriate Voice (puppet) for each moment in the coaching process. The Master is the element of being that expresses itself through the operational Voices that are doing.

Silsbee, Doug. The Mindful Coach: Seven Roles for Facilitating Leader Development (pp. 89-90). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Maintains self-awareness

The Master maintains self-awareness, bringing a rigorous self-observation and awareness to the coaching conversation, noticing attachments and distractions that arise, and letting go of what doesn’t serve the client.

Mindfulness is a constant moment-to-moment choice in the lesson. Some days will be harder than others, but continually returning to being present when we’re distracted (and not distracting ourselves further with mental punishment for being distracted) is the foundation of being able to give our students what they need.

Exercises in self-awareness and mindfulness can greatly improve our skill in the role of the Master. Meditation classes, mindfulness exercises, and working with trained professionals to increase self-awareness will all expand the ability to stay present with both ourselves and our students throughout a lesson.

We can foster mindfulness by removing distractions from our environment. This can include removing clutter, or adding features that increase alertness and calm. Getting to the space in time to prepare the space and ourselves for optimal awareness can be very helpful.

We can also foster mindfulness by giving our bodies the things they need to help us be both relaxed and energized. Getting enough rest, keeping snacks at the studio to stay nourished between lessons, staying hydrated, and keeping stress to a minimum outside of lessons benefit both us and our students.

But on days when our environment and our physical energy aren’t ideal, we can still make the choice to continue returning to mindfulness from one moment to the next.

Getting to know our own attachments and distractions is a practice, and will become easier over time.

For instance, I sometimes have an attachment to being seen as “insightful.” I have to suppress the desire to share or act on an insight, especially if it’s one that I’m excited about. I have to slow down and be sure that sharing it or acting on it is really what’s in the best interest of the client…not because of how I want them to see me. Just because I noticed something doesn’t mean it’s helpful to them right now, and that’s always what’s most important.

We cannot be present . . . when we are preoccupied with how we are being seen or experienced, or with determining the “right thing to do.” We can be present only when we are in touch with our feelings, thoughts, and intuitions in the moment. The gift of presence gives [coaches] access to an area of “creative indifference,” enabling them to work with clients without predetermining how things should be and what they should do.

Darya Funches, Three Gifts of the Organization Development Practitioner (Seattle: REAP Gallery Unlimited Corporation, 1989), p. 157.

Listens with Focus and Presence

The Master listens with focus and presence, extending presence to the client, listening deeply to what the client is expressing, and recognizing that the quality of their attention is as important as what they do or say.

Our students come to us partly because we know things they don’t know, and they want us to teach them. This fits under the Teacher Role, which we’ll get to later. But in our rush to share information, we often skip over and undervalue deep listening.

For clients, our engaged focus and presence as listeners—our interest, acceptance, and confidence—is evocative. It creates a context within which a client can find their own footing and move to a new awareness about the specific situation under discussion. It creates a sense of safety and possibility.

Silsbee, Doug. The Mindful Coach: Seven Roles for Facilitating Leader Development (p. 78). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

The more we listen to our clients, the more we can learn about what they actually need from us: how they learn, what’s working and what’s not, how receptive they can be that day, why something is more difficult for them than it was for us, whether trauma is being triggered, whether this is the right path for them, whether they really need us to step in and help or step up and do it themselves, and much more. Most of all, they learn to trust that we really are there for their development and not for our own ego. We can be reminded that their world is a whole lot bigger than their voice lesson.

Models Learning and Growth

The Master models learning and growth with a lifelong commitment to self-development and integrates their own life experience and self-awareness into coaching.

While this includes us modeling learning through practicing, performing, taking classes, and going to workshops and conferences, I think it also (maybe even more so) includes us experiencing what our students are going through: trying something we’re not very good at and digging in to our vulnerable and scary spaces.

Recognize that your entire life is an opportunity to practice mastery, and that as you learn and grow, you become familiar with the territory of growth. All this is background and context for the coaching you provide for others; it earns you the right to work with your clients.

Silsbee, Doug. The Mindful Coach: Seven Roles for Facilitating Leader Development (pp. 87-88). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Embraces Client with Compassion and Respect

The Master embraces the client with compassion and respect, based on positive regard and acceptance, in order to create a supportive coaching space.

Find ways to view your clients that encourage your own respect and acceptance of them. We cultivate compassion and respect when we seek to understand the behaviors and actions of our client in context and without judgment. If you are not able to find a way of viewing a client that allows you to respect him, you probably shouldn’t be working with that client.

Silsbee, Doug. The Mindful Coach: Seven Roles for Facilitating Leader Development (pp. 87-88). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

It was very powerful for me the first time I was told that I should always assume my students are doing their best at all times. I stopped using the word “laziness” to describe what seemed like a lacking work ethic, and instead starting considering the many other elements that might be the problem. I learned to slow down and more thoughtfully consider what might be blocking their progress, starting first with my method or approach.

I also learned to stop taking it personally when a student wasn’t using my approach in practice, especially when it seemed to work really well in the lesson.

Spaciousness . . . means complete detachment from any particular course of action or any results that the client achieves. The coach continues to care about the client, the client’s agenda, the client’s health and growth, but not the road the client takes to get there, the speed of travel, or the detours that might take place in the meantime—so long as the client continues to move toward the results the client wants. . . . The spaciousness of the relationship requires that the coach must not be attached to whether clients take suggestions, or, if they do, whether they do it “right” or “wrong.” Either way the client is right. It is a paradox that the coach often expects more of clients than they dare dream for themselves, and yet clients are unconditionally supported whatever they do. That is the breadth of the spaciousness in the relationship.

L. Whitworth, H. Kimsey-House, and P. Sandahl, Co-Active Coaching: New Skills for Coaching People Toward Success in Work and Life (Palo Alto, Calif.: Davies-Black, 1998), pp. 17–18.

This doesn’t mean we can’t tell a student when they’ve sung the wrong note. It means that we have to detach ourselves from the way the student might eventually get to the right note, especially if it’s not one of the ways we suggested, and to keep supporting them and their journey if they just don’t ever get that note.

We have to foster and protect our respect for each student, including their personal approach to their own growth, which sometimes looks like they’re completely failing at their musical development in the moment, but what we’ll never realize unless we really listen to them is that they’re simultaneously succeeding at growing in another area that will better support their musical development in the future.

Chooses the Voice

The Master chooses which of the operational Voices to use at a given time, making decisions mindfully on how to most usefully serve the client at any given moment.

The other six voices have been a great way for me to expand my toolbox with clients, and to challenge myself to step out of my comfort zone and challenge my attachments when I’m using my go-to’s a little too much.


So what parts of the Master feel familiar? Which ones feel foreign? Which ones feel easy? Which ones feel hard? Which ones do you sense resistance around? Why?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

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