I’ve been reflecting on something really important lately, something that we, as coaches, mentors, and even just as human beings, need to be acutely aware of – the impact of shame. 

It’s a heavy word, isn’t it? But it’s so important that we understand it, especially in our interactions with others.

Firstly, let’s talk about what shame actually is. It’s that painful feeling that comes from believing we’re flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. It’s different from guilt. Guilt says, “I did something bad,” while shame says, “I am bad.” It’s a subtle but profound difference. I think it’s safe to say, we’ve all experienced the feeling of shame at some point.

Brené Brown, an absolute guru on the subject, describes shame as an intensely painful experience that can create feelings of fear, blame, and disconnection. She emphasizes how shame can erode the part of us that believes we can change and grow.

I’ve seen how shame can damage relationships, particularly in coaching. When we shame clients – even unintentionally – we can break down the trust and openness that are crucial for growth. For example, saying something like, “You always do this” or “You never get this right” can make a client feel inherently flawed, rather than capable of learning and improving.

Recently, during a session, I found myself saying to a client struggling with time management, “If you were really committed, you’d find the time.” At that moment, it seemed like an honest statement, aimed at spurring action. However, I soon realized the impact of my words. The client’s demeanor shifted, their usual openness replaced by a sense of withdrawal and defensiveness. It struck me then – my words, intended to motivate, had instead inflicted shame.

This experience was a profound lesson. It made me see how easily a comment can imply that someone’s struggles are a result of their personal failings rather than a hurdle to overcome. It’s a reminder that in coaching, the language we use can either open doors for growth or build walls of self-doubt in our clients.

That said, this doesn’t mean we shy away from honesty or tough love. But there’s a fine line between holding someone accountable and shaming them. It’s about focusing on actions and choices, not the individual’s core worth. Instead of “You’re not trying hard enough,” we might say, “Let’s explore what’s been getting in the way of your motivation.” This shifts the conversation from a judgment of character to an examination of behaviors and circumstances.

This approach is not only more compassionate but also more effective. When we address specific actions or decisions, it empowers the individual to make changes without feeling attacked or demoralized. It’s about guiding someone to see where they might be going off track and helping them find their way back with constructive feedback.

For instance, instead of expressing disappointment in a client’s lack of progress by saying, “You’re not making any effort,” a more helpful approach might be, “I’ve noticed some challenges in your recent progress. Can we discuss what might be causing these obstacles?” This opens up a dialogue, encouraging the client to reflect and engage in problem-solving, rather than feeling criticized and shutting down.

Ultimately, it’s about creating a safe space where mistakes or shortcomings aren’t seen as failures of character but as opportunities for growth. We’re all human, after all. We mess up, we learn, we grow. When we replace shame with understanding and empathy, we empower others to open up and truly embrace their journey of self-improvement.

In my own practice, I’ve learned to lean into compassionate honesty. It’s about being truthful and direct while also being empathetic and supportive. It’s a balance, but one that can foster incredible growth and trust.

So, as we navigate our roles as coaches, mentors, or just friends, let’s be mindful of how we communicate. Let’s choose our words carefully, understanding the impact they can have. Let’s create environments where honesty is blended with compassion, where people feel safe to be vulnerable, to make mistakes, and to grow without the weight of shame.

Remember, the goal is to lift each other up, not weigh each other down. Let’s strive to be agents of positive change, one empowering conversation at a time.


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