Recently, I was in a position to decide between expensive remodel proposals from two different contractors. The two proposals were nearly the same in scope and price, and I felt they were equivalent in their quality. Subjectively, I felt each had unique strengths in their way of doing business, with the pros and cons of each team balancing each other out. When asked by the owner which one I would choose all other things being equal, I found I was stuck.

My first instinct was to turn to the owner of the company and get his view on it, hoping he would have a preference. But I had been hired into this leadership position by the owner specifically to have such decisions delegated to me, taking the load off of him. He was looking to me to develop the case for choosing one over the other.

Just days before the decision was due, while we were walking together, I had an opportunity to explain my dilemma. I could feel the tension inside my mind – I needed more input to break the stalemate, but I also needed to avoid trying to pass back the responsibility for this decision. When I reminded myself of the owner’s need (i.e. to have me make the decision instead of him), I quickly looked inside to discern my need in this conversation (i.e. to gather more input, and more perspective so that the better choice would be more clear).

What I realized I needed was for him to ask me challenging questions so my own thinking was stirred up and able to generate different perspectives, so that I could see more quality differences between the two options. I needed a bit of coaching attention. Those questions would challenge me to consider our organization’s values and interests in light of the characteristics of each contractor. By this, the better choice could be easier to recognize, and I could feel more confident in making it.

Photo by Mark McGregor on Unsplash

Upon reflection, I saw that we often do need the help of someone else when we’re facing challenging decisions., and that what kind of help we ask for can take our character and our relationships in different directions. We need to consider if we want the helping person to support our responsibility – our autonomy and competence – or if we want this person to take the responsibility from us. Are we making it clear what kind of help we are asking for? And, we need to consider if the person we are going to for help is inclined to support us or inclined to take over.

This is the difference between the mode of counseling/teaching and the mode of coaching – when the helper is in counseling/teaching mode they are the expert giving information or instruction to their client who has a need to be guided, to be shown what to do. When a helper is in coaching mode, they are asking questions to draw out the expertise in that client who needs to exercise their autonomy and competence in the situation.


Spence, G. B., & Deci, E. L. (2016). Self-determination theory within coaching contexts: Supporting motives and goals that promote optimal functioning and well-being. In S. David, D. Clutterbuck, & D. Megginson (Eds.), Beyond goals: Effective strategies for coaching and mentoring. Routledge.


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