Asking Permission vs. Inflicting Help

March 24th, 2017 Published by Geoff Watts

Recently I attended a “first aid course” as part of my voluntary work coaching a youth sports team. One of the first things I was told was that you must identify yourself to the injured person and ask if it is OK for you to help them. This was immediately challenged by one of the attendees.

“But if they clearly have a broken arm, surely they need help?” the attendee suggested.




“Yes” was the reply “But they might not want your help. They might not trust you. It is still their body, their choice. In fact, if you inflict your help on somebody in this circumstance you can be legally liable.”

I was recently reminded of a phrase I was introduced to a while ago by one of the most insightful people I know – Esther Derby – that really resonated with me – “Inflicting help”.

I often advocate to coaches I work with that coaching is something that shouldn’t be done TO somebody…that, as a coach, you should only coach with permission.

There are many times when I have been sloppy and entered “coach mode” without ascertaining whether the person I am attempting to coach is (a) aware of what coaching is, (b) wants coaching, or (c) wants coaching from me.

I now firmly operate on the principle that coaching should only be done with permission.

I thought I would catch up with Esther and have a quick chat about this topic. Here is a rough transcript of our conversation.


“Why do you think it is important to have permission to coach?”


“Well, I think you’ve covered part of it in your story about your volunteer work.  The other person might not see their situation as a problem, might not want coaching, might not want coaching from you, or might not want coaching in a particular setting.  I’ve seen formally trained coaches offer—out of the blue— to coach someone in a public setting.

Another problematic aspect involves status. Offering help always involves status in some way. That is, assuming someone needs help puts the other person in a one-down position, and the person offering, one up.  If you’ve ever been rebuffed when making what was intended as a helpful gesture, that’s probably what was going on.  Your well-intentioned gesture was interpreted by the other person as something like, “you see me as weak, incapable.”

We have lots of social rituals to mitigate this, and re-equalize status in day-to-day helping situations.  We also have ways to reciprocate help, which keeps status in equilibrium.

I’m curious how you’ve seen this dynamic come up.”


“Yes. Authority or status can be real, or perceived; formal or informal but in any context can make things a little “fuzzy” shall we say. I think the most recent and most common place I saw this dynamic come up is in the context of someone whose job is an agile coach.

If you are attempting to coach someone from a position where you hold formal, informal or even perceived authority over that person, then any kind of unsolicited help can be viewed as feedback. Feedback is valuable of course but I believe the best feedback is direct and, again, asked for. I believe that offering unsolicited help goes against a number of values and principles of agile as well as coaching.

One of the principles of professional coaching is that the client drives the process; they decide what they want to focus on, what their goals are and what they want to do about it. They ‘pull’ coaching support when they want it. It is perhaps a little less clear when we are talking about an agile coach.

What do you think about the belief that “the client owns the agenda?” Does that change when we are talking about an agile coach?”


“Authority involves status, but even without a formal position of authority, assuming someone needs help can imply evaluation, and therefore, a status difference.  

As for agenda, that is an interesting question. When someone comes to you—as in the cases you described in your wonderful “Coach’s Casebook”, it is clear who owns the agenda. Your client does.  

In organizational settings, it’s often not so clear.  

A manager hires a coach to work with a development team. Whose agenda is it? At least initially, it is the manager’s agenda. A manager hires a coach to work with an employee. Whose agenda is it? Often it is the manager’s agenda, which may be at odds with the employee’s agenda. [As I recall, you described a case like this in your book.] 

When you come in with a preconceived notion of how people should work, whose agenda is it?  Sometimes the people agile coaches work with really do want to learn to work in an agile way.  But when they don’t, the muddiness in agendas gets in the way of both trust and improvement, in my experience.

It is not that it is inherently wrong for a manager to hire someone to help an individual or a team expand their repertoire. (Although the person hired to help needs to pretty quickly connect with the “client” agenda if they want to make a difference.)  What’s problematic is the muddiness, espousing one thing, doing another. That feels incongruent to me, and incongruence almost always gets in the way.

When an agile coach attempts to coach the hiring manager, the dynamic circles back to permission and status. The manager expects the coach to coach “those people over there.”  He is likely to view the coach as a hands-on expert, not a partner or someone who has the psychological contract to coach him.  

From what I know of coaching—and you certainly make it very clear in your book—the psychological contract needs to be clear and explicit.  In too many cases with Agile coaches, it is not.”


“For me what you have said there is crucial – making the relationship and expectations clear and explicit.

By clarifying and agreeing what your responsibilities are in that role and what the team can expect from you then you probably don’t need to ask permission to coach the team or an individual within the team every time a coaching opportunity arises. I call this obtaining “macro level permission”.

Personally, I find the most effective agile coaches invest time in establishing the goals of the team – do you want to be an agile team? What are your values, principles and behaviours that you are aiming for. If they match up with the agile manifesto or whatever version of agile the company officially follows then there is no conflict. The team still holds the agenda.

If they don’t match up to the agile values and principles then my view is holding them to that agenda is going to lead to a reduced ability to coach and quite possibly them gaming their behaviours when you are around. Coaching is most effective when those being coached know that you are supporting their movement towards a goal they personally and professionally find valuable and worthwhile. If you are trying to coach them towards your idea of “good” then coaching can very easily be seen as manipulative rather than enabling.

Do you have any other angles to this situation?”


“One of the crucial prerequisites for a helping relationship (coaching, consulting, advising) is what I call “entering the system”. Anyone who wants to effectively give help needs to understand the team’s challenges, history and aspirations.

When a coach can help a team with something the team cares about, it can open the possibility to coach and influence in other areas.  It helps to acknowledge that the team has information that the coach doesn’t have (and which is essential for improvement) and that the team is currently doing some (perhaps many) things well. Otherwise, it’s just another case of “who are you to tell us what to do?!”.”


“I like the fact you mentioned helping the team “with something the team cares about”. This is important for me. Do you want to be a team? If so, I will happily help you with that. Do you want to be an agile team? If so, I will happily help you with that.

I think there is a risk that if we “inflict help” or coach without permission we can damage relationships, closing off the opportunity to actually be helpful at some future point. Losing an opportunity to learn something about the situation from a different point of view.

But we’re not always coaching, right? There are other stances we can adopt?”


“Oh, goodness, yes!  As with many endeavors, if you only have one tool, your options for effective action are severely limited. You’ll be tempted to use that tool when it is inappropriate or even damaging–because it is the only tool you have. The same is true for people who are hired to assist a team or organization to work more effectively.  You need to have many options for action and interaction.  

I teach a model of nine Coaching/Consulting roles based on work by Jean McLendon (and some of her colleagues). Modeling, being a sounding board, working as a hands-on expert, offering advice, partnering, and, of course, coaching can all be very helpful in the right circumstance.”


“Is asking for permission always a formal thing? Do we actually need to ask “can I coach you on this?” every time?”


“It is except when it isn’t. I find it is generally helpful to extend an offer or ask permission, and it depends on the situation, relationship, and context.  

As you point out, in a formal coaching engagement, the permission is always clear, explicit, and bounded. If someone has engaged you for coaching about X, you don’t assume you have carte blanche to delve into Y. If you get to a point where you believe that the issue the person came with isn’t really the issue, you don’t just slurp into what you believe is the real issue. You have a conversation, and keep the agreement up-to-date and explicit.  

Particularly in helping situations where I’m working with people who are part of the system but didn’t hire me, I almost always ask permission…but not necessarily using those words.  Depending on the situation I may say:

  • Is it okay if I ask you some questions about X?
  • Is it okay if we go into more detail about Y?
  • Now that we’ve got some data, I’d like to look at patterns, is that ok with you?
  • Is this something we can explore together?

If I see a situation where I have information that might be helpful, I make an offer: “I have some information/experience/a perspective that might be useful. Would you like to hear about it?” Or “Can I show you something that might be useful in this situation?”  Notice I don’t offer help. I offer assistance, information, perspective, modeling.  

In some of these situations, I’m not actually coaching, but engaging in joint problem-solving or assisting someone(s) to see different perspectives and different options for action–expanding their frame.”


“Thanks for joining in with this discussion on a topic that we both have a strong interest in. Is there anything you would like to add?”


“Coaches often have great skills–listening, curiosity, withholding judgement, seeing options.  Those skills are applicable in all sorts of individual and organizational helping situations, not just formal coaching. Make use of those skills, and also consider other helping/consulting roles and how they might be the best fit, given the context.”



 I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic – tweet me at @geoffcwatts. Or, of course, tweet Esther at @estherderby.


March 24th, 2017 Published by

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