Leadership Solutions from Read Solutions Group: The Power, or not, of Acknowledgment

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Power, or not, of Acknowledgment

Growth occurs with a person when she has ownership over the learning, changes in habits and thoughts, and the outcomes. Coaching literature is filled with recommendations on the importance of acknowledgment. I contend that some of the forms of acknowledgment do not serve the client, and at worst, are disempowering.

Making a change is a continuous cycle of understanding one’s current experience, creating images of the future, developing a plan for achieving those outcomes and acting upon the plan. Each action requires another cycle of understanding, adjustment to the image and plan, and further action. A coach helps in all areas of the cycle from helping the client build the connections between experiences, assisting them to clarify and deepen the images, offering alternatives when needed, supporting the plan and actions, and helping the client process and learn from the experiences.

Coach training suggests that we provide support to help “clear out doubt and even disbelief in oneself.” Absolutely; however, when the support is based on “I [the coach] know you can do this”, who has ownership of the actions, risks and outcomes? Alternatively, when we have our client reflect on the prior experiences they bring to the situation that support future success, we engage their understanding of probabilities. The client then owns the probability of success, the actions, risks and outcomes.

Coach training recommends that we use the language “I want to acknowledge you for ....”. From the first time, I heard this phrase I had, and continue to have, a visceral negative response. My reaction has two components. Firstly, I characterize the language as “coach speak”. A definition of acknowledgement is:

ac·knowl·edg·ment or ac·knowl·edge·ment n.

1. The act of admitting or owning to something.
2. Recognition of another's existence, validity, authority, or right.
3. An answer or response in return for something done.
4. An expression of thanks or a token of appreciation.
5. A formal declaration made to authoritative witnesses to ensure legal validity.


If any of these definitions are put into the sentence, “I want to acknowledge you for ...”, I find jibberish. More importantly, the emphasis is on what I, as the coach, see, recognize, admit or own.

The training materials state, “If you simply help your client see and appreciate their strengths you will empower them and even encourage them to do better.” To this, I strongly agree. When the client sees and appreciates their strengths, they own them.

The question then becomes how we help our clients see and appreciate their strengths. How do we help the client believe in the probability of success, and thereby reduce the self-doubt? How do we help them to learn from an experience regardless of the outcome? To do this, we need to ensure that the learning remains with the client, supported by the coach.

In the book, “The Art of Changing the Brain”, James E. Zull talks how about learners respond to teacher evaluation of their work, in particular with re-writing.

“They were fighting to keep control. I could not create enthusiasm for my suggestions, exactly because they were my suggestions. Their emotional connections are with their own ideas and their own judgments. When I made suggestions, they only knew they had lost control. ... In the final analysis, we still find that we defeat learning when we take it away from the learners, when we make it about us rather than about them.”

Our role as coaches is to help the client overcome self-doubt, to evaluate their progress and to turn that into a new learning. We have the ability and the charter to stand away from the emotions, risks and outcomes. In that role, we can and should challenge the client to see the probabilities, to capture the learning, and to celebrate the successes. We need to do this not from what we “acknowledge”, but rather through our questioning, so that the client can recognize, celebrate and therefore own their growth.


International Coach Academy, AC101: Acknowledgment (2002)

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2003. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Zull, James E., The Art of the Changing the Brain, pg 242 (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2002)

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