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Requests and Challenges

By Martha Lasley, Virginia Kellogg,
Richard Michaels & Sharon Brown

Coaching for Transformation
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The main difference between a request and a challenge is that clients generally say yes to our requests, but take a moment to catch their breath before responding to a challenge. In both cases, we listen deeply to what’s important to the client, and base our requests on helping them move toward a more desirable future. Free of demand, we ask clients to take action, but we’re open to hearing yes, no, or a counteroffer.

Both requests and challenges are for the benefit of the client, not for the benefit of the coach. In the wider world, we make requests that benefit ourselves all the time. Will you send me the name of the book you’re reading? Will you recommend an orthopedist? Will you give me feedback on my website?

But in coaching, we focus on requests and challenges that are exclusively for the benefit of the client. To start creating the relationship you want, will you call your daughter today? Will you give yourself a break and take the night off? Will you create an action plan to get the funding you need?

If we’re listening deeply, clients generally say yes to our requests, but they are often startled by our challenges, because we take them out of their comfort zone.

When we propose a challenge, a real one, the reaction we get is one of wide-eyed curiosity, with a slight undertone of panic when the full ramifications of that challenge sink in. For example, “You say you’ve been procrastinating for years, so I challenge you to finish writing your book in one month.” At first the client says, “No way,” to this bold challenge. But as the coach holds silence, the client’s jaw drops and she says, “Do you think that’s possible? That would be amazing!”

Ideally, the answer to a challenge is “no,” and that’s often how we know it’s a challenge and not an easy request. Not in the sense that the challenge defies all logic and realism, but in the sense that it defies our client’s perceived limitations. If the client can say “yes” without blinking, that’s the telltale sign of a request. In contrast, a challenge is often met with a “no” or a counteroff er.

Though a challenge is meant to push a client beyond their perceived limitations, it must be specific and explicit to have impact. “I challenge you to be a better ally,” has all the makings of an energizing challenge, but anybody can say yes to it. It’s incomplete. A challenge must include something doable!

“I challenge you to ask more people for support,” is not specific enough. How much is more? Specifically, what kind of support are you challenging the client to seek?

For a challenge to be explicit, we need to add an action, such as, “Ask ten people to help you with your HIV orphans project,” or “Find three partners to help you launch your project,” or “Ask fi ve potential donors to contribute to your initiative to ban female genital mutilation.” Once we get a reaction, even if it’s hesitation, we can add, “by the end of the week.” If the client is taken by surprise, don’t back off. Ramp it up!

If people say yes to our challenges right away, then we’re probably not challenging them—we’re making simple requests. If they gasp, sit up taller, or fall out of their chair, we’re probably zeroing in on their deepest desires.

A challenge is an expansion of making a clear, positive doable request, but there’s another element—the real power of a challenge is that the client feels deeply seen by the challenger. A challenge isn’t just about getting someone to take action on something important to them; it’s a fierce form of empathy that supports people in connecting with their life force. When people experience deep empathy they usually enter a blissful state. But how do we help people take that blissful state forward and really integrate it into their lives? One example, “So you want more self love? I challenge you to embrace your inner antagonist and meditate for 30 minutes a day for a week—to connect with what your antagonist really wants for you.”

The real essence of offering a challenge is about so much more. Th e first step of off ering a challenge is to identify the lost parts of soul that a person is ready to reclaim. That’s what makes a challenge so much fun! From the place of supporting clients to move toward being more of who they already are, we can take great delight in challenging old beliefs or assumptions, jolting them out of playing small or unleashing their passion. We can hold their highest dreams and what’s possible even if they might not yet see it for themselves.

A challenge is for the benefit of the receiver, not the giver. So it’s not about challenging your kids to pick up their socks, or your direct report to complete the project by Friday, because that’s about you and your agenda. To make the challenge about the client, we let them know we see their dreams and their full potential. We also express our belief in them. That’s how we take their breath away, because they start to see themselves anew.

A few more examples of challenges, which must be tied to the client’s agenda, not the coach’s agenda:

You want support, so I challenge you to ask three role models who share your values to mentor you—within the next month.

You’re tired of not having enough money at the end of the month, so I challenge you to reduce your expenses by 10% this month.

So you want to be a stronger activist? I challenge you to bring together 10 Israelis and 10 Palestinians to develop a change initiative.

If we tie the challenge to the now—the words just spoken—and also to the client’s vision and goals, we deepen the way we see our clients. For instance, “You just mentioned how much you want to adopt a special needs child. So I challenge you to commit an hour a day to make that happen. Right now, make the space on your calendar to give a high quality life to a child who needs you.”

Questions to Consider

What are three requests you’d like to make of yourself?

What are three outrageous challenges you’d like to explore?


Excerpt from the book Coaching for Transformation: Pathways to Ignite Personal & Social Change by Martha Lasley, Virginia Kellogg, Richard Michaels and Sharon Brown. As faculty at Leadership that Works, they certify coaches who offer personal, organization and community transformation. Check out the free Power of Coaching teleclass.

Coaching is life-changing, world-changing work. The coaching programs at Leadership that Works go beyond theories and models and work with clients on a deeper level. You learn how to coach the whole person: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Whole person Transformation.

Leadership that Works

Transforming the world.
One heart at a time.

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